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5 Chapter 5: Connecting to Students’ Lives

Key Issues

  1. All students bring experiences and knowledge to school.
  2. Connections between students’ lives and the task demonstrate to students reasons for listening and participating in tasks.
  3. Connecting tasks and topics to students’ lives increases engagement.
  4. Connections can be made by teachers or students.

As you read the scenarios below, think about which students might be more engaged in the lesson.

Scenario 1
At Ben Franklin Elementary, sixth-grade teacher Anita Johnson is introducing a new math unit on fractions. She tells the students, “This week we’re going to finish pages 73–84 in our math books. The unit is about multiplying and dividing fractions. The test will be next Monday. I’ll show you the basics before we get started.”

  • A general groan arises from the class.
  • “Why do we have to know this?” one student asks aloud.
  • “Because it’s in the curriculum,” replies Ms. Johnson. “Now, let’s get to work.”

Scenario 2
In the other sixth-grade class at Ben Franklin Elementary, Kristin DeLuca is also introducing the unit on fractions. She tells the class, “I want to tell you a story before we start our new math unit. The other day I was making cookies. I thought I was measuring ½ cup of flour, but after I had dumped the flour in the bowl along with some other ingredients, I realized that I had accidentally used the ⅓ cup measure instead of the ½ cup measure. I didn’t have enough ingredients to start over, and I had to bring the cookies to a dinner I was attending that night. How do you think I fixed this problem?” As the students offer possible solutions, Ms. DeLuca has an opportunity to emphasize the importance of knowing about fractions in daily life. She proceeds to ask the students: “Has anyone in this class ever had an experience like this?” and “Why is it important to understand fractions?” Then she says, “Remember when we talked about how math is important in real life? Fractions have a lot of uses. Let me read you this short story about how knowing fractions saved someone’s life. But before I do that, let’s talk about a couple of important vocabulary words . . .”

In the chapter-opening scenarios, the approaches of the two teachers are completely different. This does not mean that students cannot or will not learn in both situations. However, Ms. DeLuca is giving her students more opportunities and reasons to access the content and language of fractions by connecting the content to her students’ lives and funds of knowledge. By also providing scaffolding in the form of vocabulary support, she helps more students to participate.


Before reading the chapter, think about how you might introduce an important concept so that all students have access to the ideas.
Chapter 3 focused on understanding students’ strengths, needs, backgrounds, and interests, and Chapter 4 introduced the topic of creating language objectives based on those needs. Although providing language objectives and teaching to those objectives based on students’ language needs are excellent steps for helping students access lesson content, these steps may not be enough for students from diverse backgrounds. This chapter focuses on making initial connections to student backgrounds to help students link to their previous learning and to their lives outside school.
Teachers can often introduce their lessons with connections to students who have lived in their area or been in their school for a while or who are familiar with mainstream culture and lifestyles. However, newcomers and students with different experiences might find it more difficult to connect to lessons, and teachers may need to think deeply to find a common connection to reach all students. The development of connections and finding ways to involve students in lessons through these connections are the focus of this chapter.


Educators in a variety of academic areas have written recently about the need to connect content and pedagogy to students’ lives. These connections are important, as Robertson (2019) notes:
Learning something new is like stacking building blocks. The more you have, the higher you can go. It is not always apparent what building blocks ELLs come with due to language barriers, and sometimes ELL students don’t connect their previous experience with the lesson currently being taught. That is where the teacher’s skill at drawing on background knowledge becomes so important (n.d.).
In other words, making connections can make learning meaningful for students (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2016). In turn, learners may be more motivated to learn the content and language that they need in order to work toward their life goals. In addition, research has long shown that teachers who connect new learning to students’ backgrounds increase student comprehension (Christen & Murphy, 1991; North Central Regional Education Laboratory, 1995; Taboada & Guthrie, 2006; Ziori & Dienes, 2008). Another important result of making connections is “far transfer,” or the ability of students to use their language learning in new, unfamiliar situations (for more information, see, Barnett & Ceci, 2002; Sala & Gobet, 2017). In other words, making connections can provide students with greater opportunities for achievement both inside and outside school.
It is important to note that, if teachers do not understand their students’ needs, interests, and backgrounds, they will not be able to make clear connections or help their students make these connections. The strategies for collecting information about students, outlined in Chapter 3, are the first step toward making connections with students. The next step is to use the information to make clear and effective connections among content, language, and the students’ lives.

Understanding Connections

There are three main types of connections that are important for students. As Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2016) note in their Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), two of these are (1) explicitly linking to students’ background experiences and (2) explicitly linking past learning and new concepts. The first is what can be called a personal connection, or a clear connection to students’ lives outside school. These connections answer the “So what?” or “Why is this important?” types of questions for students. The second is an academic or content connection, which is a connection to previous school learning—often an earlier lesson—so that transitions are clear and learning builds on previously addressed academic language and experiences. These two connections, personal and academic, fall under the category of activating prior knowledge (Ferlazzo & Sypnieski, 2018). In addition to these two connections is (3) a pedagogical or instructional connection, which includes strategies and choices that the teacher makes to address student needs, interests, and background directly. Making a pedagogical connection includes pre-teaching vocabulary, providing students with choices of ways to express themselves, and many other strategies. Pedagogical connections will be discussed in Chapter 6. Personal and academic connections, summarized in Figure 5.1, will be described in more detail in this chapter.

Type Explanation
Personal Links students’ lives and lesson ideas.
Academic/content Links students’ past learning and new concepts.

Figure 5.1 Summary of connection types.

Making personal connections

Where the curriculum is less restricted and teachers and students can choose topics and questions to explore together, it is easier to make connections to students’ lives. Where the curriculum is more prescribed and materials preselected, there are many ways to make connections, but it might be harder to think about how to make them applicable to all students. For example, some students may have never celebrated Thanksgiving or may not have, in their home culture, a similar feast. Others may have no idea about American wars or have never seen snow. How can personal connections to these topics be made?


Look at the worksheet in Figure 5.2. Before reading further, try to fill in the blanks with a personal connection that all students might be able to make for the lesson topic that is printed in the first column.
To help students make a personal connection to the lesson content, the teacher can start by thinking about what the main topic or idea of the lesson is. The next step is to think of ways, based on knowledge of students’ backgrounds, that students might have experience with this main topic. If there is no real link, the next step is to go from the very specific content of a lesson to a more general exploration of the experiences included within the topic, and then choose the one that most of your students have likely had some experience with. For example, for a lesson that includes the content objective “SWBAT explain the purpose of Thanksgiving,” the teacher might think:

Lesson Topic Personal Connection
Battle of Bull Run
The Parthenon
Geometric proofs
Simple addition
Washington, D.C./capital

Figure 5.2 Creating personal connections

  • Specific focus: Thanksgiving. Other countries don’t celebrate this U.S. holiday, so my ELLs may not know about it.
  • More general idea: Feasts. Many other countries and cultures do have holidays, some of which include feasts. It’s not certain that all of my students have had a feast.
  • Most common idea: Celebrations. All countries and cultures have some kind of celebration. This would be a good place to start to make connections with students’ lives.

In another instance, the teacher might go through this thought process for the objective “SWBAT acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to perform scientific inquiry”:

  • Specific focus: The Western idea of inquiry. This notion is based in culture and is not necessarily the way inquiry is conducted in other parts of the world. My students probably need some background information to understand the purpose.
  • More general idea: Detectives. Not every place has detectives, and even most native English-speaking students have probably not thought carefully about the process of detective work. In fact, what they have seen on television dramas about police work might have given them inaccurate notions about what really occurs during an inquiry process. This might be a useful way to think about or develop a future task.
  • Most common idea: Asking questions. All languages have questions, even though they are asked of different people and take different forms. Therefore, all students can connect to this idea. This is also a great opportunity to introduce this grammar point!

In a final example, a lesson may have these two objectives: (1) SWBAT use past tense verbs in discussion; (2) SWBAT describe central events from the history of their state that shape its current form. In seeking a connection to all students, including those who are not from the state, the teacher may think:

  • Specific focus: History of the state. Not all students are from the state and those that are may not have a connection to its history.
  • More general idea: History of their community. Some students probably know something about community events, but they may not know much about its history if they were not here when that topic was studied.
  • Most common idea: Personal histories. All students have pasts that they have talked and written about in class. This is a good way to connect the content objective to students’ lives and to give them a meaningful reason to use past tense (the language objective).

After a connection has been made to the students using this general idea that they already understand, the teacher can involve the students in discussing their personal connections and then narrow the topic back down to the specific focus of the lesson. When students are familiar with the process, they should be encouraged to find their own connections between their lives and the material to be studied. Students can participate in quick-writes, pair discussions, brainstorming exercises, and a variety of other tasks to help them see how the material relates to their lives. Teachers can ensure that students make the connection and can show them that their background knowledge is valued.


Choose a partner and review your choices for personal connections in Figure 5.2. Can you think of anyone who might not be able to make the personal connection you chose? Would children in poverty, ELLs, and students of different ages be able to relate? When you are finished reviewing, look at the possible answers in Figure 5.6 at the end of this chapter.

Making academic connections

Most teachers can make connections to students’ previous learning, noting how the present lesson relates to past or other content or language learning. The issue is whether they do or not. Making this connection can be as simple as asking students, “Who remembers what we studied last week? Tell me something about it . . .. This week, we’re going to build on those ideas in order to . . ..” Although seemingly a simple idea, making this link can help students see the flow of their learning and associate past personal connections with content.
Which connections the teacher chooses depends on the content, language, and students, but those connections should provide a strong motivation for students to learn and use the language and content of the lesson and the background to access both. Students should also be encouraged to make connections themselves through the same kind of process. Being able to think critically and make connections is an important skill in itself, in addition to the benefits it provides for learning specific material.

Building Background Knowledge

It is important to make academic and personal connections to the lesson objectives, but teachers cannot make connections to background that does not exist. If students do not have any background in the language, concepts, theme, or content that comprises the lesson, teachers can use a number of techniques during their lesson or unit introduction to help students build the background that they need to access the content and language (see, for example, ELLevation, 2019; Logan & Kieffer, 2017). Direct instruction is one strategy that can be effective in building background knowledge; other possible techniques include:

  1. Pre-teach and reinforce vocabulary. Vocabulary should be pre-taught (or at least reviewed) if it is essential to understanding the next component of the lesson. Simply giving a list of words with the definitions and having students use them in a sentence does not teach them vocabulary. There is not room here to mention all the ways that teachers can help their students learn vocabulary, but one important idea is that the vocabulary should be used many times in many contexts (before, during, and after the task) to help students comprehend and use it.
  2. Field trips or hands-on experiences. If students have never really looked at the leaves on the trees around them, or if they come from somewhere where there are not many trees, teachers can take students on an exploration walk outside at the beginning of the lesson on leaves. Likewise, if students studying angles need background knowledge, they can visit homes under construction to look at angles (this can be linked to a personal connection by having them look for angles in their own residences). For a lesson that includes a language objective for students to use appropriate vocabulary in public speaking, students can watch videos of famous speeches and note important elements. Video field trips can also be used for having experiences students cannot or should not have in person, for example, an erupting volcano, the growth of a plant from seed to full fruition, an experiment for which the school does not possess the appropriate equipment. Teachers can use discussion or response logs to make sure that students are making connections.[1]
  3. Visitors. For a lesson on community helpers, for example, students who aren’t familiar with the responsibilities of people in specific occupations can benefit from a visit from workers in those areas. Students can ask questions and explore aspects of the occupation with these guest speakers. For a unit on China, visits from Chinese community members can help dispel incorrect assumptions and build new knowledge.[2]
  4. Visuals. Pictures, videos, and other realia can help students get a clear idea of a concept or language item. Graphical organizers such as concept maps, webs, and flowcharts help students organize new information and make links between it and other ideas.[3]

Figure 5.3 summarizes these techniques.

Technique Purpose
Pre-teach and reinforce vocabulary Provide students with ways to understand and talk about important concepts.
Field trips and hands-on experiences Provide students with real-time experience with the lesson topic.
Visitors Provide background through questioning, discussion, and display.
Visuals Provide examples of the concept or language and ways to explore links among ideas.

Figure 5.3 Summary of background-building techniques.
Developing connections is the first step in helping students access the content and language outlined by the lesson objectives. The next step is to help students make these connections by integrating them into the lesson introduction. This is the subject of the next section.


In Chapter 3, you read about understanding students’ needs, interests, and backgrounds. What information might you need to collect to make effective personal and academic connections for students to the topics in Figure 5.2? How can you collect this information?

Integrating Connections

In general, once lesson objectives are set, the next step in planning instruction is to create a lesson introduction or “anticipatory set.” The purpose of the anticipatory set is, in large part, to make connections. According to Lewis (2019), it should:

  • Provide continuity from previous lessons, if applicable.
  • Allude to familiar concepts and vocabulary as a reminder and refresher.
  • Tell the students briefly what the lesson will be about, being sure to point out and discuss the language and content objectives for the lesson.
  • Gauge the students’ level of collective background knowledge of the subject to help inform your instruction.
  • Activate the students’ existing knowledge base.
  • Whet students’ appetite for the subject at hand.
  • Briefly expose the students to the lesson objectives and how you will lead the students to the end result (p. 1).

To build background for students, teachers can think about their answers to the following questions, based on information that they have collected about their students:

  1. What about this topic might interest the most students? (personal connection)
  2. What have they already learned that relates to this topic? (academic connection)
  3. What additional information do they need before the lesson starts? (building background knowledge)

Figure 5.4 provides examples of how connections can be integrated into the anticipatory set of a variety of teacher-created lessons. (In the lessons in this figure, the teachers refer to standards, goals, and objectives collectively as learning targets.) Teachers can encourage students to make connections in a variety of ways, from asking guiding questions to letting students brainstorm, to having students listen to a story and point out the main ideas. The anticipatory set is the starting point for the rest of the lesson and can help or hinder its success.

Content Area/Topic/Grade Level Anticipatory Set (Lesson Introduction)
Science:conservation (Grade 2) Hold up common examples of paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum/tin products and ask students questions like “Does your family buy or use any of these products?,” “Where do these come from?,” “What are they made from?.” Write what students know about these products on the Know portion of a KWL chart. Display the learning targets and read them to students. Introduce the new science vocabulary and ask students to listen for it in a short reading. With partners, students discuss what they think the words mean and then share their ideas with the class.
Math/geometry:polygons and non-polygons (Grades 3-4) Point out the student-friendly learning targets written on the board. Invite students to take out the “Polygon Treasure Hunt” worksheets that they completed at home. Briefly discuss the previous lesson’s discoveries about polygons. Have students, in pairs, share their polygon treasure hunt discoveries from home. As needed, ask questions about their process and outcomes. Link to the current lesson by reading with students a story about the pyramids.
Communications:media literacy (Grade 7) Ask students, “Does anyone know what advertising is?,” “How and where have you experienced advertising?,” “How did it make you feel?.” Link to the previous lesson by noting, “Remember when we talked about conveying a theme and knowing your audience? Today we are going to talk about how media can influence your thinking and decisions.” Pre-teach new vocabulary by defining new words with students and adding them to a word wall.
Language arts:inferences (Grade 3) Begin the lesson by talking about guessing. Ask students some issues or topics that they guess about and ask them to make guesses about certain common ideas. Connect to “educated guesses” and what makes a guess good or bad. Explain the link between guesses and inferences. As the discussion progresses, students write definitions for guess, inference, and prediction in their vocabulary journals.

Figure 5.4 Examples of anticipatory sets that make connections.


Evaluate the ideas in Figure 5.4. Try to point out the personal and academic connections and any background building. Is anything missing from these anticipatory sets? Can you think of any ways to introduce the concepts that might work better for your current or future students?

Guidelines for Making Connections

Making connections is a good start for helping students access the social and academic language and content of lessons, but equally important is what students do with the connections that are made. The guidelines below explain further.
Guideline 1: Be deliberate
Teachers can carefully plan to make academic and personal connections and help students build any background necessary for each lesson. Equally important is to check that students have actually made the connection and that it has served its purpose of piquing students’ interest and preparing students to engage in the lesson’s language and content. To find out, teachers can ask, review, observe, and reiterate as necessary.
Guideline 2: Help students transfer connections back to their lives
Connections should be obvious and ongoing throughout the unit. Techniques mentioned in this text, such as having students keep a journal in which they link their learning to their lives, can be effective tools for avoiding students repeatedly asking, “Why are we doing this?”
Guideline 3: Consider culture
Connections may need to be made in different ways and for different reasons depending on the cultures of your students. For example, if students do not understand how leaving the classroom for a field trip is part of the classroom learning process, background may have to be built for this connection strategy. Similarly, if students are asked to brainstorm to make connections but are not familiar with the procedure for brainstorming, explicit instruction in brainstorming might be warranted. If the teacher sees that some students cannot or will not participate, this means rethinking how and which connections are made.
Figure 5.5 summarizes these basic guidelines. Additional guidelines are presented throughout this book.

Guideline Examples
Be deliberate. Check that students have made connections and that students are interested and prepared to engage in the lesson. If they are not, use additional connections and background building as necessary.
Help student transfer connections back to their lives. Use techniques that encourage students to see the links throughout the lesson and/or unit.
Consider culture. Use explicit instruction as needed to help students understand the process and content of the connections.

Figure 5.5 Summary of guidelines for making connections between students’ backgrounds and lesson content.


After reading Chapter 5, what, if anything, would you have the teachers in the chapter-opening scenarios change in their instruction?


There is no doubt that making personal and academic connections from instruction to students’ backgrounds and interests (and vice versa) is central to their ability to access the language and content of a lesson. It also encourages students to take a personal interest in and be engaged with the content and language. However, this is only the beginning of planning effective lessons for diverse classrooms; making instructional connections in lesson tasks is also essential, as we will describe in Chapter 6.


For Reflection

  1. Personal connections. Think of ways in which your background connects with the content in one of the areas you teach or will teach. How might the connections you make differ from the connections that might be made by students from another country, from a poor area of town, or from a different age group?
  2. Think back. Reflect on a lesson or class that you found inspiring, exciting, or engaging. What connections did the teacher make for you, or did you make for yourself, that piqued your interest and encouraged you to engage?

For Action

    1. Reviewing strategies. Choose an activity for activating prior knowledge from a website like ¡Colorín Colorado! or another resource that you have access to. Integrate this strategy into a lesson. Focus on activating both content and language knowledge.
    2. Adapt a lesson. Find a lesson that you have created or have downloaded from the World Wide Web. Check the lesson for language and content objectives and effective personal and academic connections, then improve the lesson by adding and/or editing as needed.[4]
Lesson Topic Personal Connection
Maps Globes
Locations of places we know
Battle of Bull Run U.S. Civil War
Civil wars
The Parthenon Greece
Religious architecture
Important buildings
Penguins Happy Feet
Artic animals
Sacagawea Indians
Geometric proofs Theorems
Deductive reasoning
Winning an argument with logic
Thanksgiving Holidays
Simple addition Math
Playing games (scoring, counting spaces, etc.)
Washington, D.C./capital The United States capital
State capitals
Important places

Figure 5.6 Possible connections, from specific to common, for Figure 5.2


Barnett, S., & Ceci, S. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 612–637.
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2016). Making content comprehensible for English learners (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.
ELLevation (2019). Help English language learners build background knowledge in the classroom. Available at https://ellevationeducation.com/blog/help-english-language-learners-build-background-knowledge-classroom.
Ferlazzo, L., & Sypnieski, K. (2018, March 19). Activating prior knowledge with English language learners. Edutopia. Available at https://www.edutopia.org/article/activating-prior-knowledge-english-language-learners.
Lewis, B. (2019). Writing a lesson plan: Anticipatory sets. Available at k6educators.about.com/od/lessonplanheadquarters/g/anticipatoryset.htm
Logan, J., & Kieffer, M. (2017). Academic vocabulary instruction: Building knowledge about the world and how words work. In D. Lapp & D. Fished (eds.) Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (4th ed.; Ch. 7). Philadelphia, PA: Routledge.
North Central Regional Education Laboratory. (1995). Critical issue: Building on prior knowledge and meaningful student context/cultures. Available at http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/students/learning/lr100.htm
Perez,B. (2004). Sociocultural contexts of language and literacy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Robertson, K. (2019). Five things teachers can do to improve learning for ELLs in the new year. Reading Rockets. Available at https://www.readingrockets.org/article/five-things-teachers-can-do-improve-learning-ells-new-year.
Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). Far transfer: Does it exist? Available https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b96f/984b4b970eab6acf372fdd38341e17c18921.pdf.
Taboada, A., & Guthrie, J. (2006). Contributions of student questioning and prior knowledge to construction of knowledge from reading information text. Journal of Literacy Research, 38(1), 1–35.
Ziori, E., & Dienes, Z. (2008). How does prior knowledge affect implicit and explicit concept learning? The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(4), 601-624,

  1. If there is something students need to see, there is probably a video about it on the Web. Great resources include YouTube, Teacher Tube, and About.com’s “Free Educational Videos on the Web.”
  2. Search the Web for free organizers or go directly to these websites for free organizers: teachervision.com, about.com, education-world.com, teach-nology.com.
  3. Technology can also help build student background knowledge. For example, see Linda Joseph’s lesson plan at http://www.infotoday.com/MMSchools/may02/cybe0502.htm and read how she helped her students build background knowledge using a variety of technologies.
  4. There are many websites that provide lesson plans on the web. Try these: The Lessons Plan Page, The Educator’s Reference Desk, Scholastic, Discovery Education.


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Chapter 5: Connecting to Students' Lives by Gisela Ernst-Slavit and Joy Egbert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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