Classroom Environments that Support English Learners

Readers, for those of you that aren’t familiar with me, my name is Valentina Gonzalez. I serve as a professional development specialist for teachers of English learners in a district outside of Houston, Texas. Through my work as an ESL co-teacher, professional development specialist, and consultant, I have had the privilege of visiting hundreds of classrooms, and I’m always looking for language supports. Are classrooms supporting all students? What are the characteristics of the most supportive classrooms? I have been learning from Seidlitz Education through their wonderful books and their face-to-face trainings for nearly a decade, and recently I joined their team as consultant. You will see my work on this blog pretty regularly, and what an honor it is to write for Seidlitz Education, as I’ve admired their work for many years!


What we, educators, can learn from our local grocery stores

Why is it that the grocery store is organized by categories? Does it help you that everything is within reach? Do you like that the items are current and not expired? What can we, as teachers, learn about the environment of the grocery store that will help us create accessible classrooms, language rich classrooms?

Items are located in categories.

Let’s begin here, with categories. What if each time you went to the store, milk was in a different location? Not only would you spend too much time at the store, but it would become frustrating.

There are specific sections for each type of food. If you need milk, you go to the dairy section. If you need cucumbers, you go to the produce section. This system makes it easy to find the items you’re looking for. Doesn’t this help us as shoppers?! So easy! Imagine if the groceries you needed didn’t have specific places in the store.

Our students benefit greatly from classroom spaces that are categorized much like grocery stores. When content areas are clearly labeled, students can easily locate information when they need it most. Walk into your own classroom, and view it from a child’s eye. Now take it one step further, and view it from the perspective of a child who is also learning English. Can you easily identify the content areas that are taught in the classroom? Are there specific areas in the classroom designated for each topic?

Demonstration centers or sample stations are available.

My favorite grocery store has a cooking demonstration center fixed close to the entrance and near the meat and bakery sections. There they have a chef who models how to cook simple recipes. The chef displays all the ingredients and even has them nearby in case I want to try a dish myself. The chef answers questions, gives out samples, and shares the recipes with shoppers. It’s brilliant! Shoppers are instantly inspired to go home and cook their own versions of the recipes.

In our classrooms, modeling is the demonstration station or sample station. This is the “I DO” part of the Gradual Release of Responsibility. Kids need to see the “ingredients” and how we put them together to read, write, speak, and even listen using domain-specific language. This step is critical if we want to inspire students to achieve on their own! If we want our students to speak or write like mathematicians, scientists, historians, etc., then we must model these experiences and provide students with opportunities to talk using academic language in low-stress environments.

Expired items are thrown out!

You would frown upon finding spoiled or old food on the grocery store shelves.  The grocery store knows that shoppers only need the most current, fresh foods, so nothing old or expired is left out for shoppers to see.

Language rich environments are filled with just the right amount of current learning. Not too much and not too little. Balance is key, because we want to be careful not to overwhelm our learners, so anything that is not current learning can be removed and placed aside. Looking at the walls of the classroom, it is easy to see what is most important in each content area. Students know what’s fresh. Old learning is archived. It is set aside in a new location that is still accessible to students, but it is no longer on the forefront.

Items are within reach.

Let’s just say that I’m not on the taller side of the height spectrum. But even so, I am able to navigate through the grocery and easily see the items that are available. Without too much assistance, I can even reach what I need. Occasionally, I have to ask for help, but for the most part, everything that I need is at my level.

In the classroom, our students are the customers. Learning must be within their reach, from the language we use to the charts we place on the walls. It needs to be easily accessible to them with little physical or cognitive assistance. Anchor charts, word walls, and sentence frames that are physically at their eye level will be more aptly used. As 38 Great Academic Language Builders reminds us, “The goal is for all students to be able to read any posted words from their seats.” We have to consider how explicit and comprehensible the supports need to be for students. Adding visuals to anchor charts and word walls can increase comprehensibility.

Lists support success.  

Have you ever gone to the grocery store without a list? I have. I still do sometimes. And nearly every time I do, it’s a fail. I go from aisle to aisle grabbing random items and throwing them in my cart. “Yeah, I need this. Sure, I need that.” But when I get home, I have a bags of groceries and nothing to make a solid recipe with. Fail! When I have a list, I know what to get, and I can formulate an action plan for how I’m going to navigate through the store to get everything efficiently. Before I leave the store, I look over my list. Did I get everything? Is there anything I still need?

The grocery list is like content and language objectives in our classrooms. English learners especially need to know what the targets are and how we will achieve them. During a typical lesson, so much happens. If we don’t set goals, we run the risk that our students will grab at everything and leave with nothing solid at the end of the lesson. Revisiting the objectives during and at the end of the lesson helps students to be metacognitive about their learning journey. They are able to self assess. Did they reach the goal? We often see “I can” statements in classrooms or content objectives, but language objectiveswhich are just as importantare a little less frequent. According to 7 Steps to a Language-Rich, Interactive Classroom, “Language objectives communicate the specific ways that students will listen, speak, read, or write.”

The physical setup of a grocery store supports us shoppers so that we can be successful independently, with little to no assistance. Sure, if we need more help, we can ask for it, because there are more knowledgeable people there to help. Our classrooms can be modeled after the same theory, including these key characteristics that support English learners:

  • Clear categories for learning
  • Effective modelling to set students up for success,
  • Only current learning up on the walls,
  • Learning supports that are accessible to all students
  • Content and language objectives

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