Using SIOP to Build Students' Background

Building Background with SIOP

“To get to the unfamiliar go through the familiar”


Beginning any learning experience where the students are (versus where they aren't) just makes so much sense.  There is a huge difference in how a classroom feels when a lesson begins with what the students know compared to the lesson that begins with what the teacher knows. 

SIOP or Sheltered Observation Protocol consists of 8 components and 30 features.
Comfortably nestled between Lesson Preparation and Comprehensible Input is Building Background, the second component of SIOP.   

This component, Building Background, is all about starting where the students are.  The goal of Building Background is to connect the students to the content and to the language of the lesson from the beginning.  Notice the 3 features that fall under the SIOP Component, Building Background:
  1. Explicitly link concepts to students’ backgrounds and experiences.
  2. Explicitly link past learning and new concepts.
  3. Emphasize key vocabulary for students.


The first feature that falls under this component of SIOP asks the teacher to explicitly begin a lesson by linking the concepts of the lesson to the students and their lives.  Taking time at the beginning of a lesson to do this supports the learner in a variety of different ways:
  • Building Background mollifies anxiety. 
  • It also helps students draw connections between their lives and school content.
  • It gives the teacher a great chance to assess where the students are in relation to the lesson.
  • Building Background engages students as their curiosity builds. 
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Using SIOP to Build Students' Background


It’s interesting to note that the next feature (Explicitly link past learning and new concepts) begins with the same two words:  explicitly link.  This is a reminder to the teacher to consciously create this link during the delivery of the lesson. 

If we don’t consciously consider how our lesson connects with the students, we risk skipping this vital step or leaving it up to the students to do by themselves.  

While there may be times that we think it's not necessary (test preparation, for example), most of the time we want build some sort of bridge between yesterday and today.  Deciding one or two activities to link the learner with the learning is an effective way to set everyone up for success.  

Here are 5 easy ways to make this happen:
  1. Class Web.  Creating a web on the board with ideas the entire class has is a safe way to take the pulse (globally) of the student body.  Students write anything they know about the topic on a post-it note and stick it on the board.  As class, the teacher can review the web, add any information, and then dive into the lesson.
  2. Predicting. Anytime students predict, they ante up.  Their interest spikes as they begin to focus on whether or not their prediction was right.  With vocabulary, pictures, or
  3. Word Splash.  A word splash is a set of key vocabulary words and phrases from the lesson.  In addition to reviewing the vocabulary, students can use these terms to
  4. Carousel.  A carousel is an activity where students move from statiuon to station completing some kind of task.  As a way to build background, students form groups and carousel around the room.  At each station there is is flip sized piece of chart paper and markers.  Each paper has a different question (what is something you know about ‘x’?).  Students discuss the question, write down an answer and move to another station repeating the task.
  5. Turn and Talk.  Students can turn to a partner and discuss a question or set of questions related to the topic.  They may do this orally, or they may even jot down a few of their partner’s responses to share with the class later on.
In addition to being important to the students, it's equally important to the teacher.  As we are building their backgrounds, we are taking their pulse.  During those few minutes of exploring a topic globally we get the chance to see what they know, what they may not know, etc.  It's the best way to see if the learning objective that we created is spot on or needs to be modified in some way.  Building background isn't only about building the students' background, it's also about building the teacher's.

The best way to build a teacher's background on SIOP is to invite TESOL Trainers to your school.

The final feature under SIOP’s Building Background category is emphasize key vocabulary for students.  This reminds us as teachers a number of critical points.

First, our second language learners need to know which terms and words require greater attention.  Giving students a finite list of words allows them the opportunity to prioritize their focus.

Secondly, consciously attending to vocabulary is a reminder of how critical vocabulary is to learning and to the SIOP process.  In fact, scanning the 30 features of SIOP, language explicitly appears 7 times.  These are 7 hints of how important it is to conscious consider what language will be taught and how.

When emphasizing vocabulary, there are four components that every teacher must introduce:
TESOL Trainers and John Kongsvik provide K-12 professional development
Working with vocabulary means using vocabulary

  1. Form:  How the word looks and how it may change as it changes from one part of speech to another.
  2. Usage:  How the word is used in context, when it can be used & when it can't, etc.
  3. Meaning:  What the word means, if the meaning changes, etc.
  4. Pronunciation:  How the word is pronounced, how its pronunciation may change or vary, etc.


Teachers tend to focus on form and meaning (think spelling tests and dictionaries) while shying away from real usage and pronunciation.   The results of this approach tend to be that while students may have passive knowledge of the words, they are reluctant or unable to use these words in speaking.

Students have a greater chance of acquiring new words if these four aspects of vocabulary are reviewed.   (BTW, TESOL Trainers gives the most amazing professional development series on vocabulary).

Building Background is critical to setting everyone up for success.  

If teachers don't spend a couple of minutes building background, the lesson often begins quite slow, the students appear rather disengaged, and the teacher winds up doing most of the work.  Moreover, because the teacher didn't get a chance to quickly see where the students were at, the lesson comes across as either too easy or too hard.  

The components of SIOP and their related features are powerful tools teachers can use to improve both teaching and learning.  Here is a simple summary of SIOP.

TESOL Trainers is your scaffold to success!

If you want more information about how TESOL Trainers can provide your teachers with professional development in SIOP, contact John Kongsvik.  We tailor make our professional development to meet your needs.

You can also visit us to see the other kinds of professional development that we offer educational institutions of all kinds.  TESOL Trainers can scaffold your teachers into success.

If you would like to learn why we are so popular with educators, just watch this video.  These teachers spent an academic year going through TESOL Trainers, iCOACH™, the most empowering peer coaching program.



John Kongsvik,  Director.



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