What helps to put new information into a meaningful context and help students remember and understand it? Numerous studies have shown that our brains learn better by connecting the new to the known. Teachers are often advised to frontload a great deal of information about the topic to students before they actually study the text, listen to the recording or learn new vocabulary. What’s all is about activating schema!

What does “activating schema” mean?

Activating schema (background knowledge, prior knowledge) revolves around the activities which help connect the previous knowledge and experience to the new one to make the learners ready for the upcoming material. Schema activation is one of the most important stages of any lesson. In the EFL classroom, activating schema is essential not only for the instruction of four main skills (reading, listening, writing, speaking) but also for vocabulary and grammar work. Students rely on their prior knowledge and world experience when trying to do the task whether it means to comprehend a text or do vocabulary exercise. Imagine a small child, who lives in a one-season country, has to label the seasons. Will he/she be able to identify them if he/she has never seen snow or yellow trees in autumn? No, as he/she has no background knowledge about that. Learners make use of their schema when they can relate what they already know about a topic to the facts and ideas appearing in the lesson. The richer the schema is for a given topic the better a student will understand the topic.

Effective ways of activating schema irrespective of the skill or language material taught.

1. Brainstorming

Brainstorming is the best way to make students think over the topic and try to come up with everything they know about it. Say the topic of the lesson/the text/the recording and ask students to create a mindmap with any associations they have.

2. Visuals

Visuals are another thing to be used while preparing students for the upcoming lesson. The teacher may stick them on the board or on the walls and ask students to work in pairs/small groups and guess the topic. These pictures can be used while talking about family types (extended family, nuclear family, single-parent family, same-sex parents).

family 1 Skyteach

3. Sound Effects

Audio stimuli are great while activating schema. They create a sort of mysterious environment where students need to rely on their background audio experience to guess the material/topic. If students are going to listen to a dialogue in a restaurant the teacher can turn on sound effect where they hear the voice of a waiter, some music, etc. Then students brainstorm and come up with very creative ideas on the possible topic. This site offers a wide range of sound effects.

4. What are they saying?

Display a photo, draw bubbles on it and ask the students to write what the person/people are saying. This will interest them a lot and will activate their schemata greatly. For example, this photo can be used while discussing the topic of sports.

photo 1527685613637 5182b3eb1400 Skyteach

5. Realia

Bring in some 4-5 objects which represent your interests and hobbies (the topic). Students discuss how these objects are connected with you and will eventually come to the topic. Some examples of realia representing hobbies are a crossword, a keyboard (blogging), a bit of wool (knitting), etc.

6. What happens next

The teacher shows a video and stops it at the relevant point for students to guess what will happen next. This video can be used while discussing modal verbs of probability. You can pause the video after each 7-10 seconds to discuss what might happen (the player might, the ball may, a fan will) or you can give them 3 options and they choose. These type of activities can be also used while dealing with functional language (I guess, I believe, well, I think, etc)

7. Discussion Questions

This is one of the best ways of activating schema. Stick a number of discussion statements on the walls and ask the learners to move around the room and discuss those questions in pairs. After they discuss all of them, they try to find the topic. Suppose they are discussing the topic of ethical dilemmas. The discussion questions can be:
What do you think about gossiping at workplace?
Should companies think more about their profit or customers?

8. Whiteboard race

Divide students into two teams, and divide the board into two halves. The first person in each team has a pen. When the teacher says the topic, they run to the board, write a word related to the topic, pass the pen to the next person then join the back of their line. The next person then writes another word and passes the pen on. This activity lasts as a 2 minute race. At the end the teacher calculates the points and announces the winner.

9. Categorizing

The teacher writes a set of familiar words related to the topic. The students work in groups and categorize the words into 2-3 groups. If the topic is Stress, the teacher may come up with the following word list- listen to music, move a new house, give a presentation, replace a colleague, meditate, shopping, call in English, talk to a foreigner, organize a conference, take a bath, give advice to a friend
Students may categorize these words into the following sets:
Stressful situations:
move to a new house
give a presentation
replace a colleague
call in English
organize a conference

Things which relieve stress:
listen to music
take a bath

Unrelated words:
talk to a foreigner
give advice to a friend

In many cases, students come up with very creative solutions and think of very interesting categories. This activity is great both in terms of a groupwork and activating prior knowledge.

10. Like/dislike

Students are given pieces of papers and are asked to draw a table with two categories Like/dislike. Suppose the target vocabulary topic is food and drinks. The teacher tells a name of food or drink and the student writes it in the relevant category for him (either something he likes or dislikes). Later he compares his answers with the partner to look for some similarities or differences.

Successful activation of schema is the good starting point of each lesson. All the mentioned activities will guarantee great classroom spirit and prepare students well for the upcoming material.

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