Questions & Authors: Setting up an ELL classroom – Part I

In Part I of our Questions & Authors installment focusing on classroom spaces for ELL students, Mary Cappellini, author of Balancing Reading and Language Learning, talks about the use of environmental print to help second language learners. Mary believes that the words, labels, and images students see around the classroom help them make connections, see patterns, and encourage them to navigate the classroom on their own. She encourages teachers to look at their classroom spaces with new eyes and ask some important questions to determine whether what’s on the walls reflects the learning that takes place within the walls.

“English Language Learners need to see the new language that they are learning up on the walls of their classrooms. This helps them make the connection between listening, speaking, reading and writing. What they hear and what they (or others) say can be written down, and then read and then copied or used in their own writing. By having a room environment rich with print, ELLs are better able to validate their predictions of how to use certain words in which contexts by checking it with the print they see on the walls. This doesn’t mean just word walls, but rather graphic organizers with words used in complete sentences or language patterns, and charts of their learning.

Every time a teacher does a shared reading lesson or a strategy lesson in read aloud time, she should use a chart paper to record the information. ELLs need to see reminders on charts of which strategies to use while reading, and how to use them, but also how to ‘say’ it and spell that strategy correctly. They need to see their predictions of what they ‘know’ on KWL charts before, during and after readings. They need to see graphs of content learning, with adjectives, nouns, verbs and other parts of speech used to ‘tell’ about what they are learning, whether about the ocean, space or the artic circle. They can then use that new language in different contexts or within the same theme they are learning or as they come across the same words again in their independent reading. They start to make connections between the language that they are hearing and starting to say orally, as they are reading and writing.

Most people are visual learners, and while learning a second or often a third language, it is important to visually see that language in use, especially if the new language is spelled so differently than their own. Many children may be fluent in their own language, and if their alphabet is close to English, they can often figure out how to say certain words that they see on the walls or the pages of their books. And yet still others that are not fluent in their own language or who have alphabets that are totally different than ours, need as much help visually seeing the letters, the words, and the language patterns used by native speakers in order to start to learn this new difficult language of English. By slowing down and writing down the essential elements in a lesson, the teacher is not only able to help highlight important information, but she can also help ELLs who are struggling to make sense of the main ideas being spoken.

Using the morning message and the Daily News [a daily oral language strategy that builds language skills and community by asking students to share their ‘news’ with the class] is a wonderful way to record language and teach how sentences are constructed in a natural way. Teachers compose their own morning message, which they can then use to teach a letter/sound relationship, a punctuation point or a verb or adjective placement. The Daily News can be used to do the same thing, but in a more powerful way, since the teacher uses the language of the children to write and compose correct sentences, encouraging all levels of English speakers to participate at their own levels. The Daily News and the morning message are written on chart paper in a ‘big book’ format for each month, and they are left in the classroom to illustrate and to reread.

Of course for kindergarten classrooms, letter knowledge is critical and by placing pictures (either drawings or photographs) of common words that start with certain letters, they can make connections to the sounds of the letters they hear with actually images of real words that start with them — like a picture of a ‘dog’ and a ‘dad’ for the letter ‘d’. Photographs of real people in the class or the school that also start with that letter in their name is another powerful tool to help them make connections to those letters. They learn to read names of people no matter how long, like Esperanza, before they learn how to read even the shortest high frequency words, because the names have meaning to them and they can make connections to a real tangible being.

Teaching of word families and highlighting onsets and rhymes, one at a time, can really help ELLs see patterns in words and add to their reading vocabulary. 25 basic rhymes make up 500 of the most used primary words in reading, so it is critical to be able to teach the children, in a natural way, how to read them and how to see patterns in a word. If they can read cat, they can read sat.

Labeling the classroom and organizing your book collection or library is also very helpful for ELLs. Signs with directions, labeling corners of the room and especially labeling thematic collections of books can only help ELLs on track while they try to navigate the room independently. Book boxes by favorite authors or common themes (Revolutionary War, Immigration, Global Warming) can also help ELLs find the books that they want to read in a faster and more orderly manner.

There are so many ways we can organize our classrooms, but if we try to ‘look’ at it with new eyes, as if we are coming into the room for the first time, what could we learn from just reading our walls? Could we see what we were studying? Could we navigate the huge book collection? Could we find the information that we were looking for? Hopefully we can ‘rewrite’ our classrooms so that all children, especially ELLs, can learn more from reading them.”

Do you have a question about creating an ELL student-friendly classroom, or do you have ideas to share with other readers? Post your comments and Mary might stop by as well to answer questions.

4 comments October 23rd, 2008

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