Building the language classroom

What does a language rich classroom look like? How do we support our English language learners, and our students with a poverty of language, in growing their proficiency?

If  “language is inextricably linked to learning to be with others in a socially complex world” (Genishi and Haas Dyson, 11) then it follows that we should organize the classroom space around interactions. Yes, individual work space is needed, but most of the day should be spent socially, in rich language environments.

Our children arrive at school with a variety of sociolinguistic experiences. Whatever that experience, children have learned the grammar, syntax, phonology, and semantics of their language and dialect. Often, that language is different from the standard language of schools. So, it becomes our job as teachers to appreciate the language proficiency of a student and to support their flexibility with language so that they can also use the standard language of academics. “This work includes monitoring one’s own evaluative judgments about individual interest and ability. Teachers need patience, trust, and skill to interact with children, especially those whose ways with words are different from their own “normal” ways.” (Genishi and Haas Dyson, 20-21)

In my classroom, Yeremi has a tenuous grip on the English language. He rarely produces complete sentences, with subject and predicate in agreement, modified by appropriate adjectives and adverbs. However, he expresses himself clearly with his peers, with his family, and with his teacher (me). When he focuses in on a class discussion, he is a delight to watch. His face contorts as he struggles to make sense of the reading or discussion; then his whole face opens up as he lands on just what he wants to say. And what he has to say is worth the wait. Yeremi makes great connections between books and between previous class discussion and the current lesson. “Remember the pig like buttered toast in the other book? So now, she won’t go in the car without Mr. Watson give her buttered toast.” Great observation. (NOTE: We are studying series books, specifically how an author builds on what we learn about a character from book to book. Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series has been a treat for us all in Room 102.)

Yeremi had the space to explore this idea about the text partly through my careful design of time and space in the classroom but mostly through happenstance because I’m not that good yet at designing my classroom for focused academic discussion. But, I’m learning.

Here’s what Yeremi has taught me I need to improve:

  • He, like most of my second language and language impoverished students, need a better organized place to look to for sentence starters. When I have had sentence frames neatly posted and have practiced them explicitly with the class, Yeremi will often use the board to help him write.
  • We need time to practice those sentence starters through daily partner talk. In the beginning of the year, I need to explicitly teach the thinking prompts “I predict . . .” “I disagree because . . .” “That makes me think of . . .” etc. One at a time, building on our store of prompts, until we not only understand what we are being asked to think about, but also have the language to express it. Yeremi would have benefitted from more practice working an idea out with a partner.
  • I need to help my students release their dependence on the posts, become independently fluent with the prompts enough to be flexible with them. If students are practiced enough, won’t they then internalize the critical thinking these prompts are meant to encourage and so be able to use their own words and phrases to best analyze the text or topic? Yeremi might need the support of the sentence frames longer than some others, but that’s OK. He reminds me that I need to organize resources so that they are useful to those who need them, in the way that they need them.

Yeremi and his classmates have taught me so much more than this, but in just re-reading this post I’ve started to feel panic welling up. Seriously, how do those bright and wonderful teachers do this every day? How do they maintain consistency? And in the middle of my panic and self-doubt, someone posted the perfect piece of wisdom on Facebook (of all places to find wisdom). “Don’t judge your beginning against someone else’s middle.” Right. Despite my advanced years, I am still a beginning teacher. And my teaching has been frequently interrupted, so I haven’t spent more than 2 years in the same position. I am still beginning.  So, rather than waste my time feeling remorseful about what I haven’t done well, I’m going to put that energy into improving. I still feel a bit of panic over the sheer amount there is to be done, but I am energized to get to work.

I want to continue this thread of assessing the language and literacy of my classroom. I will continue to read and reflect and connect and take some chances and hopefully become a better teacher for all of my students.


Resources: The post was inspired by my reading of the book Children, Language and Literacy: Diverse Learning in Diverse Times by Celia Genishi and Anne Haas Dyson (Teachers College Press, 2009).


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