Addressing the Background Knowledge Deficit in the Language Arts Classroom

Authors: Lenicia Kinney Gordon and Janet Hester, Literacy Specialists

Let’s face it. The ones we worry about come to us with less than half of the experiences, words, and home-support for acquisition of these foundations of our other students. Furthermore, the “other” students are actually the minority for many of our districts, campuses, and classrooms.

So, what do we do? How can we make up for lost time to give our students the support they need to access a reservoir of schema in order to make connections to new information and think at deeper levels, read at higher levels, and write on grade level when they do not walk through our doors with a  reservoir of schema?

Through our reading of the literature, hearing the sentinel statements from experts in the field at conferences such as IRA, TCTELA, Region 13 Distinguished Speaker Series, and through our own direct work with teachers and districts, we think there are things we can do:

1)      Use rich mentor texts to engage students, motivate students, connect students, and to EXPLICITLY teach skills through them.

2)      Teach kids how to access their stories and EXPLICTLY show them that not only DO they have rich stories but that these stories are worth telling and should be told.


Mentor Texts

Mentor texts can be anything from excerpts to entire pieces of professionally published work (both from hardcopy sources and Internet-based sources) to student writing samples which can be found in your classroom, on the TEA website and at the Lead4ward website to name a few.

Mentor texts can be used to explicitly teach aspects of author’s craft, making inferences, literary elements, and features of the expository or narrative form, etc.  For these specific skills, it is best to choose short, high-interest, exemplar texts of the skill on which you are teaching. Students should be given multiple opportunities to read, re-read, discuss, and write about these mentor texts. Through multiple touches of these rich texts, the students begin to adopt them as part of their own reservoir of schema. We build background knowledge by building positive and consistent experiences around text. (Longer texts, where you want students to begin building stamina and practicing the skills taught through the short mentor texts, can be championed in the arena of independent reading.) For more information about how to use mentor texts, check out the books and works of Gretchen Bernabei, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels, Stephanie Harvey, and  Jeff Anderson.

For more information on a running a successful, standards-based, and a deliberate independent reading program consider the work of Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer, and of Lisa Donahue, Independent Reading Inside the Box.

Here is how two educators successfully grounded their reading and writing instruction in the use of mentor texts: “Using Mentor Texts to Coach Expository Writing in Small Groups”

BONUS HINT: Read Aloud to your students EVERY DAY….and yes, in high school, too!


Creating a student “bank” of true stories

One idea, which has been described by many leaders in the field – Joyce Armstrong Carroll, Peter Stillman, Tina Angelo of Houston-based Writers in the Schools (WITS), and many others – is called a Memory Blueprint.


Image courtesy of Katey Schultz


Ms. Angelo has said, “This writing activity based on our memories really embodies the basic philosophy of Writers in the Schools (WITS) . Valuing the child and his/her personal stories is central to the WITS approach to teaching creative writing. Each of the 80+ writers that go into classrooms to work with Houston-area students encourages them to write from their memories, thus giving them voice and ownership of their writing.  Also, we have a sister organization in Austin (Badgerdog) that works within the Austin Public Library system. The Program Director is Cecily Sailer who can be reached at”  This strategy not only contributes to brainstorming for creative writing but also provides a bank for specific details and examples in informational writing.


1)      Draw an approximate floor plan of a place where you have lived.

2)      Label each room according to what it was, what it was used for, or who primarily used it.

3)      On another sheet of paper, draw columns for each room and write appropriate headings.

4)      Quickly list objects, events, and memories as individual words or phrases as they occur to you.

5)      When you have listed as much as you can, circle the words or phrases that grab your attention.

6)      Draw lines between any items that seem to connect with each other.

7)      Choose a single item or a connected pair.  Freewrite about images, memories, or emotions—whatever is triggered by the word or connected pair.

8)      This drawing can be revisited and “harvested” again and again for seed essays to be used for both narrative and expository writing.


“It is the act of writing, reading, and remembering our own homes—the smells from the kitchen, the whispers from the bedroom, the sliver of light at the bottom of a closed door—that brings us together.  It is what brings us home.”  Sharon Sloan Fiffer (1995)


Students actually do, in fact, have schema….even if it is the simplest story of grandma walking you to school and the things you see, hear, and smell along the way, or a description of how it feels to be in your uncle’s garage, or your dad’s barber shop, or watch your mother make dinner…Students may not realize how rich their life experiences really are; we have to explicitly show them.

For more ideas about activities to inspire kids to realize the rich bank of memories and experiences they have, look to the work of Gretchen Bernabei, Kelly Gallagher, Jeff Anderson, and Lucy Calkins.

Naturally, we cannot provide students with all the experiences that their more fortunate counterparts already have in the bank, but there is still so much we can add to their understanding of the world through connecting them to great writing and helping them recognize their own stories. This is a way we can support them in becoming the readers and writers they have every right to be.


For more information about sources of texts and resources, please feel free to contact us!




Thank you to Katey Schultz for permission to use her Memory Blueprint image.  Katey’s blog can be found at


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