No Prep, Little Prep, and More Prep Ways to Get Your Students Ready to Learn

No Prep, Little Prep, and More Prep Ways to Get Your Students Ready to Learn

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 7,641 views

Have you ever tried to jump right into a sequel long after reading the first book or seeing the first movie?

It takes some time to get your bearings, doesn’t it? To really get the most out of book two, I find it helpful to read book one again to refamiliarize myself with what has happened. ESL students learning something new in class have a similar predicament. They may be okay jumping right into a new topic or material, but it will take some time to get adjusted and get their bearings. A simple “review” activity before moving on to new material can make a huge difference in how well they absorb the new information you are presenting. In teaching terms, you may know this process as activating the schemata, helping students remember what they already know about a topic or making connections with personal experiences before introducing to new material. That’s because learners retain new material through connections with what they already know. Simply helping them remember what they already know will get them ready to quickly and easily make connections to the new information you present.

Getting your students ready to learn is therefore extremely important, and it’s an essential part of your job as an ESL teacher. You can do many things to help your students remember what they already know before moving on to a new collection of information. Here are some of the ways you can do it.

Use These No Prep Ways to Activate Schemata

  1. 1

    Ask Questions

    The easiest way to help students remember experiences with a certain topic is to ask them questions about it. Say you are doing a unit on sports. Ask students questions like these: What sports do you like to play? What sports do you like to watch? How many sports can you name? What can you tell me about rules of certain sports? Did you ever do something great while playing a sport? How did you feel? What did you do? Just asking simple questions like these will get students thinking and remembering and will lay the foundation for the new information you give them.

  2. 2

    Have Small Group Discussions

    Dividing your class into groups and telling them to talk about the topic at hand may be enough to get the conversation moving. The thoughts and memories some students share will bring up memories for other students, which they should share in turn. That’s why it’s also a good, no prep strategy for getting students ready to learn. If your students need more prompting than just the general topic, give them a few questions to get the discussion started.

  3. 3


    Making a simple list related to your topic is an easy and quick way to remind your students what they already know. You might want to brainstorm a list of vocabulary, experiences, or something else related to what you will be teaching your students. It doesn’t take any preparation on your part, but your students will still reap the benefits.

Consider Little Prep Ways to Activate Schemata

  1. 1

    Bring in a Collection of Pictures

    If you teach the same subjects year after year, it will be worth your time to start a collection of pictures related to each unit. Collecting pictures from magazines, your personal experiences, and online resources will give you something to share with your students before you introduce new material. Show one or more pictures to your students and ask them what they see, how the pictures make them feel, and what the pictures make them remember.

  2. 2

    Have Students Bring in Their Own Pictures

    Either after showing your pictures or instead of it, invite students to bring in their own pictures related to an upcoming unit (just make sure to plan ahead so you have the pictures when you are ready to introduce the new material). Ask students to share some information about the picture, where they were, how it felt, and what they remember. Give everyone a chance to share either in front of the class or in small groups, and your students will be ready to absorb new information related to the topic.

  3. 3

    Do a k/w/l Chart

    K/W/L charts are a great way to help students get ready to learn. You can have students do them individually on a piece of paper or do one as an entire class on the board. If you have never done a K/W/L chart before, it’s very easy. Divide your board into three columns. In the first column, write what you already know about a topic. If you are doing the chart as a class, you can include everyone’s information in the same column. In the second column, make a list of what you want to know about the same topic. Likely, this column will be filled with questions from your students. (Bonus point: it’s a good time to talk about how to properly structure questions.) The final column contains what you learned after getting the information, so save that one until you share the new information with your students. You can also use this third column to assess how much they understood and remembered from what you taught if you have students complete it individually.

  4. 4

    Fill in a Graphic Organizer

    Either as a class or in smaller discussion groups, filling in a graphic organizer can be all your students need to remember what they already know. These organizers might be as simple as a few titled columns or as complex as a flow chart. It’s up to you to decide what will work best for your class and how much time you have for preparation. You can find templates for graphic organizers online or in many print teacher resources.

Try More Prep Ways to Activate Schemata

  1. 1

    Make a Sensory or Small World Box on the Topic

    If you teach younger children, making a sensory box or small world bin is a great and interesting way to help students remember what they already know. In a medium sized box, collect several objects related to the unit you plan to teach. If you are going to teach a unit on sports, for example, your box might include a ball, a ticket stub for a sporting event, a whistle, pictures of players or their cards, a list of rules on how to play, etc. Introduce the items to your class and ask them to share what the objects make them think about or feel. If you are creating a small world bin, your goals are slightly different. Small world bins usually have a base material along with items that students can use in pretend play. If you are teaching a unit on sports, you might have shredded green paper for your base (to simulate a grassy field), small figures especially those dressed in sporting uniforms, small sports balls and props to create a playing field such as nets or goal posts. Encourage your students to play with the small world bins before you introduce your topic.

  2. 2

    Do a Themed Show and Tell

    The day before you plan to introduce your topic, give students a show and tell assignment. Ask each person to bring in something related to the topic you will be teaching on. On the day of, have students share what they brought and tell the class about it. As they do, they will be remembering experiential details and at the same time getting ready to retain new information with ease. And don’t think show and tell is just for kids. Even adults will benefit from speaking in front of their peers and sharing something about themselves in this simple activity.

Getting students ready to learn doesn’t have to be complicated, but if you have the time to prepare your options are even more numerous. Even a simple discussion can be enough to get students ready to learn new material you present in class. If you take the time to get students ready and the time to prepare those activities, you will find that your teaching is more effective and your students are more successful. And doesn’t that make it all worth it?

What do you do to get students ready to learn?

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