Building a Fund of General Knowledge

Ever feel like you're just stuck behind a door and can't quite get out? That you're watching the world go by behind some kind of barrier, and just can't quite figure it out?

Imagine what our students with language-learning disabilities feel like!!

It must be a very confusing world when you don't really understand what is being said - when current events are discussed but you don't really "get" what it is all about - when your friends discuss the newest movie or the hottest new music group, but you have no idea or reference as to what those really are.

One way we can help our students to connect with the world around them is to teach them how to build a fund of general knowledge. Even students with the most severe language-learning differences can access and learn information about the world around them, given appropriate modifications and supports.

Many of our students have difficulty with initiation. Often, teams are satisfied with teaching initiation to make requests, (I want...), express states of being (I feel...), make choices, say when the bathroom is needed. Really?? Think about all the hundreds of things typically developing learners express using initiation every day - and then think about whether you can be satisfied with I want, I feel, and I need the bathroom??

In order to initiate, you must have something to talk about. What do "we" talk about in our everyday conversations? Presidential elections? (What's a President?) Black Lives Matter (What's the Civil Rights Movement? What has happened that's got everybody so stirred up?) Vacations? (Where is Florida and why do so many people want to go there?) The movie you saw last night? Without a fund of general knowledge those conversations are not possible. People who lack knowledge cannot engage.

However - people WITH knowledge, even with limited speaking ability, CAN engage. People who know how to access information, identify the salient details, ask for help if they don't understand something - people who have words to talk about what they have learned - THOSE are the people who are better able to engage with the world around them!

In our work with students we regularly teach and practice Black History - Anasazi Indians - basic science - world history - the life cycle of plants - the water cycle - poetry - classic literature - US history...the list goes on. To students with severe physical, cognitive and communication impairments. How??

1. Break it down. Use modified books or write the information yourself. Whether it's a paragraph or a chapter book, use simple direct language with the most salient facts and review, review, review.

A note about text: Think about how much information you access through text every day - whether it's the newspaper, Facebook, e-mail, a good book, signs on the wall. For readers, access through text is simple. For non-readers, an adapted method must be available. Teach your students about e-readers, Kindles, text-to-speech software and all the other technology that makes text accessible. And - perish the thought! - how to ask another human being to read it for them :)

2. Teach vocabulary first. Before you read the book/paragraph/news article or whatever. Teach using multiple visual examples of the concept. Give a simple definition, not the dictionary one. Practice, practice, practice.

3. Provide video models. A picture IS worth a thousand words.

4. Teach your student how to identify words they do not know - or how to say they don't understand. Measure comprehension in simple question-response or fill-in-the-blank tasks so you are sure they are "getting it".

5. Be willing to move as slowly or as quickly as necessary for your student to fully comprehend and be able to demonstrate that comprehension. Don't give up - don't change the program - it IS working, it just takes THAT LONG!

6. Provide opportunities for your student to demonstrate their acquired knowledge to others - in game formats, or in conversation; in presentations, or even by being a teacher for a day!

Let's be careful not to limit understanding by limiting the information we make available. We really do not know what is going on in someone else's head, or what they would be able to comprehend and use if we just presented the information. It is our responsibility to modify, adapt, enhance, present, review, is NOT our responsibility to decide what another person can learn and limit our sharing of knowledge to that very narrow view.

When you strike up a conversation today - think about all the background knowledge that went into your ability to do so. Then think about a student's ability to carry on the same conversation. THAT is why to build a fund of general knowledge!!

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