ELL Students' Background Knowledge as an Academic Fund

Use Authentic Personal Experiences for Background Knowledge

What are funds of knowledge and how do I use them in the secondary classroom?.

Background knowledge is what students have learned formally in the classroom as well as informally through their personal life experiences.  This background knowledge is the foundation for all learning. For students at any grade level, background knowledge is critical for reading comprehension and in content learning. What students already know about a topic can make learning new information easier. 

No Single Kind of ELL Student

Many English Language Learners (ELL) have diverse cultural and educational backgrounds with a wide range of background knowledge related to any particular topic. At the secondary level, there may be students with a high level of academic schooling in their native language. There also may be students who have experience interrupted formal schooling, or there may be students with little or no academic schooling. Just as there is no one kind of student, there is no one kind of ELL student, so educators must determine how to adjust materials and instruction for each ELL student. 

In making these determinations, educators must consider that many ELL students may lack or have gaps in background knowledge on a particular topic. At the secondary level, this may be historical context, scientific principles, or mathematical concepts. These students will find the increasing level of sophistication of learning at the secondary level extremely difficult or challenging.

Tapping Into "Funds of Knowledge"

Researcher Erick Herrmann who runs the Educating English Learners website explained in a brief 
"Background Knowledge: Why is it important for ELL programs?" 

"Linking to students' personal life experiences is beneficial for a number of reasons. It can help students find meaning in content learning, and linking to an experience can provide clarity and promote retention of the learning. Relating content to students' personal lives and experiences also serves the purpose of validating students' lives, culture and experiences."

This focus on students' personal lives has led to another term, a student's "funds of knowledge." This term coined by researchers Luis Moll, Cathy Amanti, Deborah Neff, and Norma Gonzalez in their book secondary educators  Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms (2001). They explain that funds of knowledge “refer to the historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being." 

The use of the word fund connects to the idea of background knowledge as a foundation for learning. The word fund was developed from the French fond or "a bottom, floor, ground" to mean "a bottom, foundation, groundwork,"

Radically Different Approach

This fund of knowledge approach is radically different than viewing the ELL student as having a deficit or measuring the lack of  English reading, writing, and speaking language skills. The phrase fund of knowledge, in contrast, suggests that students have knowledge assets and that these assets have been gained through authentic personal experiences. These authentic experiences can be a powerful form of learning when compared to learning through telling by as is traditionally experienced in a class. These funds of knowledge, developed in authentic experiences, are assets that can be exploited by educators for learning in the classroom. 

Finding Meaning in Activities

According to information on funds of knowledge on the US Department of Education Cultural and Linguistic Responsive page,

  • Families have abundant knowledge that programs can learn and use in their family engagement efforts.
  • Students bring with them funds of knowledge from their homes and communities that can be used for concept and skill development. 
  • Classroom practices sometimes underestimate and constrain what children are able to display intellectually.
  • Teachers should focus on helping students find meaning in activities, rather than learn rules and facts 

Linking Instruction to Students' Lives

Using a fund of knowledge approach suggests that instruction can be linked to students' lives in order to change the perceptions of ELL learners. Educators should consider how students view their households as part of their strengths and resources, and how they best learn. First-hand experiences with families allow students to demonstrate competence and knowledge that can be used in the classroom.

Gathering Funds of Knowledge Information

Teachers ​can gather information about their students' funds of knowledge through general categories:

  • Home Language: (ex) Arabic; Spanish; Navajo; Italian
  • Family Values and Traditions: (ex) holiday celebrations; religious beliefs; work ethic
  • Caregiving: (ex)  swaddling baby; giving baby pacifier; feeding others
  • Friends and Family: (ex) visiting grandparents/aunts/uncles; barbecues; sports outings
  • Family Outings: (ex) shopping; beach; library; picnic
  • Household Chores: (ex) sweeping; doing dishes; laundry
  • Family Occupations: (ex) office; construction; medical; public service
  • Scientific: (ex) recycling; exercising; gardening

Other categories could also include Favorite TV Shows or Educational Activities such as going to museums or state parks. At the secondary level, a Student's Work Experiences may also be a source of important information.

Using Oral Language Stories

Depending on the skill level of the ELL student in the secondary classroom, educators can use oral language stories as the basis for writing and also value dual language work and translation of dual language texts (reading, writing, listening, speaking).  They can look to make connections from the curriculum to students’ stories and their lived experiences. They can incorporate storytelling and dialogue based on students’ related connections to the concepts.

Home Life and Family Artifacts

Instructional activities at the secondary level that can use the funds of knowledge approach include:

  • Participating in regular conversations with students about what they do at home, their responsibilities, and their contributions to the family;
  • Offering opportunities to have the student bring in family artifacts to connect to learning in the classroom;
  • Having students interview family members as part of a specific study in biography or a general writing assignment;
  • Sharing research on countries of origin. 

Fast-Growing Population

Secondary educators should consider that the English Language Learners (ELL) student population is one of the fastest growing populations in many school districts, regardless of grade level. According to the US Department of Education statistics page,  ELL students were 9.2% of the US general education population in 2012. This marks a .1% increase which is roughly an additional 5 million students over the previous year. 

Repositories of Knowledge

Education researcher Michael Genzuk suggests secondary educators that use this funds of knowledge approach can see the households of students as rich repositories of accumulated cultural knowledge that can be capitalized on for learning.

In fact, the metaphorical use of the word fund as a kind of knowledge currency could include other financial terms that are often used in educational: growth, value, and interest. All these cross-disciplinary terms suggest that secondary educators should look at the wealth of information gained when they tap into an ELL student's funds of knowledge.

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Bennett, Colette. "ELL Students' Background Knowledge as an Academic Fund." ThoughtCo, Apr. 18, 2021, thoughtco.com/ell-students-funds-of-knowledge-4011987. Bennett, Colette. (2021, April 18). ELL Students' Background Knowledge as an Academic Fund. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ell-students-funds-of-knowledge-4011987 Bennett, Colette. "ELL Students' Background Knowledge as an Academic Fund." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ell-students-funds-of-knowledge-4011987 (accessed March 22, 2023).