Familiar People, Places, and Things

UDL 3.1

Familiar People, Places, and Things is an engagement strategy where a teacher incorporates content that is already known to the student (e.g., through previous teaching or from the student’s personal background knowledge) when presenting new or challenging tasks. A person, place, or thing is only considered familiar when a teacher is certain a student will recognize it from a previous lesson, the classroom/community setting, or the student’s own life. A teacher designs tasks and materials for students or with them, incorporating relatable references (e.g., specific people/characters, actual/fictional places, recognizable items) to help students interact with instructional content. This strategy uniquely taps into a student’s background knowledge in order to focus attention on the skill being taught without added confusion related to content information.

Implementation Tips

Incorporating People, Places, and Things
Switch names of characters, settings, and content in short reading passages or word problems to include familiar names, locations, and objects (e.g., use student names, student’s favorite store, high-interest hobbies). Only replace names with student names when the context of the story/word problem is positive.
Conducting an Inventory
Have students complete an inventory like [[ | this sample ]] to collect information about the people, places, and things that are most familiar. For younger students or students with barriers related to expression, talk to parents or take time to observe them in social/unstructured settings to identify student interests.
Introducing Familiar People, Places, and Things
Cue students prior to starting an activity to lookout for familiar characters, references to places, and objects they recognize (e.g., “While reading this passage, see if you recognize any of the names.” / “Are any of the items in this math problem familiar? Where have we noticed them before?”). For younger students, turn this activity into a treasure hunt or game.
Supporting Visual Learners
Enhance classroom materials to include visuals and multimedia, tactile references that include familiar people, places, and things. When possible, use actual photographs or student generated drawings to reference when applying a familiar item, person/character, or location for the student to recognize.
Continuing to Assess Familiarity
Ask students questions to assess which people, places, and things are familiar to them daily. Show students images, such as pictures of characters from stories or photographs of staff members from school and ask, “Do you know this person/character?” Note what and who students are familiar with to include when introducing new tasks.
Student-Generated Familiar Stories and Word Problems
Allow students to participate in generating relatable content during classroom activities or tasks by having students help create materials. Ask students to provide names of familiar characters in word problems or writing exercises and display exemplar work in the classroom that reflects student-generated references.
Building a Routine
Embed familiar references for students as often as possible to support student learning and build confidence while learning new skills. Individual student inventories should be updated at several points throughout the school year (e.g., Fall, Winter, Spring) as student interests and familiarity may shift overtime.


Solving Math Word Problems
After direct instruction on right triangles and the Pythagorean Theorem, a teacher instructs students to solve a word problem. In advance, the teacher pre-selects a word problem and incorporates familiar details to support student thinking. The teacher projects an image of the principal looking up at the school flagpole. The word problem is read aloud with the main character replaced by the school principal who is trying to determine the height of the pole. The teacher states,”Our principal wants to replace our flagpole, but needs to know how tall the current pole is. Work with a partner using what you’ve just learned about right triangles to solve this.” Students work together, then present solutions (e.g., “We can help our principal by using the shadow as the base of a right triangle!”).
Generating Writing Topics
During a narrative writing unit, a teacher uses Familiar People, Places, and Things to help students choose precise adjectives to describe settings. The teacher asks the class to generate a list of familiar places (e.g., “What are some places we can describe well enough, so our readers can make clear pictures in their minds?”). First, the teacher writes down a few familiar places to students (e.g., the local library, park, or playground), and then continues to write ideas that students share. After, students vote on a location to use for a modeled writing example. The teacher models how to use specific words to create a descriptive paragraph about the selected location on chart paper. Students read the example together and discuss which words help to create imagery in their minds.
Behavior Modification Tool
A teacher notices a student having difficulty sustaining motivation throughout the day. Through brief conversations, the student reveals a love for bike riding. The teacher implements the Familiar People, Places, and Things strategy to create picture schedule using a map of the student's neighborhood (e.g., [[| a simulated biking trail map]]). The map indicates pre-set stopping points to symbolize each of the day’s activities (e.g., Central Park = Math, East Village = English). As the student completes each activity with minimal redirection, their token moves across map to a predetermined "finish line" (e.g., the location of the student's school on the map). The student chooses a small reward when reaching the finish line (e.g., 5 minutes of computer time or drawing).

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