September 25, 2013

Walls for Language Learners

Use of Space that Fosters Success
Guest blog post by Krista Carlson

For many of us teachers, it happens at the beginning of every school year. We walk into our classrooms for the first time after a summer away, feeling a bit overwhelmed by those four blank walls staring back at us. We have a variety of visions as to what we imagine our classroom looking like when the hustle and bustle of the year gets under way and all of those once empty walls have been long since covered time and again.

This being said, it is incredibly important throughout this process that we take a moment to step back and think about how those four walls (which seem to shrink each year) can be utilized to their utmost potential. The walls in our classroom should not simply be a place for enhancing the aesthetic feel of the room, but rather spaces strategically organized for students to use as resources throughout the year.

This idea of "walls for learning" is not new one, but a key one for teachers to remember. It is also an idea that is beyond essential in classrooms full of students who are language learners.

So let's start at the beginning... In all honesty, to start off the school year, your walls should be relatively bare. Yes, you should have a plan and quite possibly some titles on them sharing what will be going there, but everything else should be authentically created by and with your students as the year progresses. Here is a glimpse as to what this may then look like on the first day of school.

Still inviting right? But also, completely open for the world of possibilities the year will bring!

Now one may ask, what is it that I should be planning and beginning to pin on these classroom walls to start off on the right foot. Here are a few ideas that we consider to be "non-negotiables" in our Dual Language/Bilingual classrooms. Keep in mind many of these can and should be carried over to monolingual classrooms as well!

1. Content Walls

Walls in your room should be set aside for each of the content areas that are taught (math, science, reading, writing, etc.). These are places where vocabulary, anchor charts, etc. reflecting the content should be added as covered. Furthermore, pictures, photos, realia and any other examples of the concept should be placed right next to it on these walls as a another piece that students can utilize to connect meaning to text. Here is an example of a Science/Social studies content wall from a teacher in our district:
It is important to note that the items you place on the content wall should also be in the language of instruction for that particular subject area!

2. Word Study Walls

In all classrooms there should also be places dedicated to the study of words and their components. In Dual Language/Bilingual classrooms this space should be in tact for each language of instruction. However, these walls may look different depending on the grade level. In the lower primary grades, teachers may want to organize these walls alphabetically (more similar to the traditional word wall style). In the later primary/intermediate grades, teachers may want to look toward organizing these word walls more by concept covered (i.e. long vowel patterns, digraphs, contractions, etc.). Here is an example of an English wall organized by concept:

3. Cognate Wall

A Cognate Wall is a helpful space for any classroom with language learners. Cognates are words that sound similar and have a similar meaning in two different languages. For instance, "chocolate" while pronounced a bit differently, is spelled the same in both English and Spanish and means the same thing. Having a place where you can share words with these commonalities in your room will remind learners of a new language that they can utilize their knowledge of their primary language to assist them in understanding the second. It is always a good idea to try and separate your languages by using a different colored sentence strip, marker, etc. to highlight for students which is which on the wall.

4. Bridging Wall

Bridging Walls have a similar purpose to Cognate Walls, but take the idea of making connections between languages a bit further. After the completion of a unit of study in Dual Language/Bilingual classrooms the teacher may conduct a "bridge" lesson. This is a time in which the teacher works to connect the unit vocabulary, concepts, etc. from the language in which the unit was instructed to the other language. For instance, if I taught a unit in Mathematics on two-dimensional shapes in Spanish, at the conclusion of my unit, I may spend a day or more working with my students to introduce them to the vocabulary we have learned in English as well. No new content is being taught - just the vocabulary in the second language!

The "Bridge" is also a time is which a teacher could point out some explicit similarities and differences between the two languages found in your discussion of these content words. Thus, any anchor charts sharing these connections highlighted should be placed onto your Bridging Wall for students to reflect back on! Here is an example of one of these anchor charts that a teacher created with her students after a math unit in which she highlighted the vocabulary in both languages and then focused on suffixes and how they are similar in both English and Spanish.

It is important to note that Cognate and Bridging Walls are truly the only two places where the two languages are being used side-by-side. All other walls highlighted above should be done in the language of instruction for that particular subject area.

5. Other Walls

There are a variety of other wall spaces that you may also want to create and fill based on your students particular needs. In the past, I have had an "Accent Wall" highlighting words with accents and where they are placed in Spanish. I have also had an "Articles Wall" denoting the different uses of the "el" and "la" articles in the Spanish language. I have seen other teachers create an Antonym and Synonym Wall, a Homophone Wall, a Dialect Wall, you name it! The possibilities are truly endless, as long as the focus remains the same- that they are "walls for learning".

Your classroom walls should truly be places that you and your students visit daily as resources. They should be interactive and spaces in which your students feel comfortable using. The list I have shared above are merely suggestions as to how one may do this in his/her classroom- you must figure out what works for your students, you, and your district!

Now that you have your classroom up and running this school year, I encourage you to think deeply about how you have set up your space...and ask yourself...Does each space have a place in the successful development of my students learning this school year?
Krista Carlson is the author of The Second Grade Superkids blog where she works to highlight best practices, lesson ideas, and products for Dual Language and Bilingual teachers. She was a dual language elementary educator for the past five years, two years at the 1st grade level and three years at 2nd grade. She is currently the Dual Language/ELL Coach for her building.

Thanks to the folks at WiseDecor for helping me connect with Krista and making it possible to share her terrific ideas here. WiseDecor believes in the power of words for education and encouragement. They shared with me that they're glad to have played a role in bringing the valuable insights in this article to teachers who are key leaders in life's ongoing task of learning.

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