Strategy 3.7: Build Conceptual Frameworks for New Knowledge. Teachers employ various methods to ensure that students see how ideas or concepts relate to one another or how they fit into the larger picture. Seeing the relationship among concepts helps students grasp the major concepts and ideas more quickly and efficiently and develop well-structured mental pictures related to the content they are studying.
For many students, especially those working in their second language, the content presented from lesson to lesson, unit to unit, or class to class often seems unconnected, unrelated, or even irrelevant. Students can sometimes repeat facts from U.S. history, earth science, or 7th grade language arts, but only rarely can they chart major historical trends and show how they are related, or explain how the study of the Earth’s surface connects to the study of the moon and the solar system, or compare and contrast two characters in a novel.
Schemas are interpretive frames that allow us to make sense of information by relating it to previous experiences (Schank & Abelson, 1977). Providing students with graphic organizers such as a story map (Figure 3.5) that explicitly displays the different chunks of information to be studied helps alleviate the anxiety students naturally feel when they encounter new material in their second language.
Using a plot map (or story map; Figure 3.5) repeatedly while studying various short stories or novels provides a schema for the study of literature. All fiction is built by using characters, setting, and dialogue in a series of events or conflicts leading to some sort of resolution. The use of various graphic organizers showing the key ideas in a lesson or unit depicts what the teacher is teaching and what the students are responsible for learning. Graphic organizers can assist teachers in clarifying their teaching goals, especially in sheltered content classrooms, where depth rather than breadth of content provides the most linguistically rich experiences. Teachers can ask themselves, “What do I really want my students to learn here, and how can I display it to them graphically in a way that makes sense?” (See also Echevarría & Graves, 1998, pp. 313–333; and Short, 1991, for a discussion of graphic organizers with ELLs.)
Before launching a semester’s work on the biosphere, the science teacher displays a large concept map showing the connections among ideas and concepts to be studied, placed in a hierarchical fashion. She gives each student a map and shows an identical map on the overhead projector. Listed are ideas such as matter, living things, nonliving things, heat, energy, water, animals, and plants.
The teacher briefly explains what will be studied, in what order, how the ideas are related, and the importance of each. She pauses after each idea to give students time to draw something that will help them remember the concept. Later, she uses the same concept map to test the students, leaving parts blank. She refers to the map frequently throughout the semester. At the end, she asks students to construct their own concept maps that show their understanding of the biosphere.
The social studies class is about to study several civilizations from various perspectives. The students and the teacher construct a concept map of what they want to discover about each civilization or culture, and what they believe all cultures and peoples have in common. Their list of “big ideas” includes language, clothing, family structure, food, and religion. Through questioning and discussion with the teacher, the students decide to add “important values and beliefs” and “government” to the list. The list serves as a frame for the study of each civilization. Throughout the unit, the teacher uses various graphic organizers, such as Venn diagrams, to show how cultures are the same or different.
In a math classroom, after studying various geometric shapes, the teacher asks cooperative groups to create a concept map showing the connections among a parallelogram, a quadrilateral, a rectangle, a rhombus, a square, a trapezoid, and a triangle. The teacher instructs the students to “put the biggest or most general mathematical idea at the top” and to “make sure you draw, not just write the name of, the shapes so you are sure that you put them where they belong.” Animated discussions ensue as students clarify the connections, clear up misconceptions, and struggle to reach consensus on the map’s structure.