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How to Make Learning Meaningful for ESL Students

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English as a Second Language, or ESL, students come to school with a wealth of background knowledge and experiences. Just because they might not be able to communicate them in the mainstream language, does not mean they are devoid of valuable prior knowledge. As ESL teachers, it is our responsibility to find a way to tap into our English Language Leaners’ (ELLs) background knowledge and experiences. Doing so affords teachers the opportunity to make learning meaningful for their English Language Learners.

Case Study: Tapping into an ELL’s prior knowledge

Consider the following case study as an example of tapping into an English Language Learner’s prior knowledge:

Amaris is a 5th grade ESL student. Her and her family recently moved to the United States from Vietnam. She has very little knowledge of the English language or the American culture, but her desire to learn is apparent from the moment she walks into class.
The teacher has no knowledge of the Vietnamese language, and limited understanding of their culture. But, this does not deter her from trying to connect with Amaris.

Over morning recess, the teacher sits with her new student. With a variety of picture books in front of them, the teacher waits for Amaris to choose one. Once Amaris picks one out, the teacher takes note that it is about animals, which tells the teacher that Amaris is familiar with and interested in animals.

Using this preliminary information, the teacher can then incorporate more books on animals, particularly animals native to Vietnam, Amaris’ homeland.

Using ESL students’ prior knowledge to make learning meaningful

It isn’t enough to simply tap into an ELL’s prior knowledge or interests; teachers must use this information to drive their instruction. Incorporating an English Language Learner’s previous experiences, whether in their prior schooling or home lives, gives these students something to relate to. According to Goldenberg (2014), “teachers should use materials with some degree of familiarity to students” (p. 41). When students can personally relate to new information, the learning will be more meaningful.


Goldenberg, C. (2014). Unlocking the research on English learners. The Education Digest, 79(6), 36-46. Retrieved from



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