Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education


Date of this Version

Summer 2012


The Kansas Teacher Education Advocate, vol. 20, no. 1 (Summer 2012), pp. 33-36.


Copyright (c) 2012 Stephanie Wessels.


The following exchange occurred in a third-grade classroom:

"I thought grit was a food. It doesn't make sense," Saida commented.

"Yes, there are grits that people eat. Grits are ground corn, however, in this story the word is grit. Do you remember when it was really windy outside and dust and dirt got on you? That was grit," Mrs. Henning explained. "That was gross. It got in my hair and teeth," replied Saida. In this exchange, the grade-level teacher made a meaningful connection between a recent experience and the new vocabulary word. This connection allowed the teacher to clarifY the student's existing understanding of the vocabulary word grit which was affecting her comprehension of the story. For vocabulary instruction to be effective, students must relate new words to their existing background knowledge (Author, 2008). The purpose of this article is to explain the importance of teachers' activating and building students' background knowledge as a way of enhancing their culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students' vocabulary development.

A student's background knowledge is ever changing by academic experiences, social customs, facts, or emotions that are encountered and learned (Marzano, 2004). Background knowledge plays a significant role in a student's understanding of the new vocabulary being introduced as well as their retention of the word's meaning for later use. Background knowledge is what students use to develop, expand, and refine vocabulary word meanings (Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999). By activating students' background knowledge, information is brought to the surface where it is ready to be applied, used to stimulate questions, and build interest in the targeted vocabulary throughout the lesson. Educators are able to use this knowledge to guide learning and to help clarify students' misconceptions about specific vocabulary terms.