Overly Cluttered Classrooms and EL Learning

Many teachers believe that the physical environment of the classroom can serve as an additional teacher. Look around your classroom. Is it filled with store-bought signs, anchor charts, and posters? Do you have mobiles hanging from the ceiling, tables covered with realia, and walls hidden by student work from September when you studied how leaves change color?

Research shows that an overly cluttered classroom can be more of a distraction than an aid to learning. Children, particularly those in the early grades and those with special learning needs (this includes English learners; ELs), are easily distracted by a cluttered classroom. My friend and early child education expert Karen Nemeth wrote a guest blog for  TESOL about this topic in April 2017. I’d like to add some more details about the research. Although all of this research was completed using the general school population, it certainly applies to ELs.

Carnegie Mellon Research

A Carnegie Mellon University study  (Fisher, Godwin, & Seltman, 2014) found that children in heavily decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.  For the study, 24 kindergarten students were placed in laboratory classrooms for six introductory science lessons on topics they were unfamiliar with. Three lessons were taught in a heavily decorated classroom, and three lessons were given in a sparsely decorated classroom. The results showed that the kindergartners learned more when the room was not heavily decorated. Their accuracy was 55% in the sparsely decorated room and 42% in the heavily decorated classroom.

Seven Key Influences on Student Learning

Another research finding (Barrett, Davies, Zhang, & Barrett, 2015), from Manchester, England, identified seven key influences on students’ academic progress. These are the following:

  1. Light
  2. Temperature
  3. Air quality
  4. Ownership
  5. Flexibility
  6. Complexity
  7. Color

This study is well worth looking at to see how all of these factors contribute to the academic progress and health of you and of your students. Following are some of their findings.

The Physical Surrounding in a Classroom Is an Important Factor in Student Progress

The Manchester study looked at physical factors in the classroom, such as natural light, heat, and noise level. The results of the study showed that rooms with large windows and lots of natural light had a beneficial influence on student scores. Noisy rooms with poor acoustics had a negative effect.

Complexity and Color in the Classroom

Color encompasses all the color used in the room and complexity is a measure of how these elements combine to create a visually coherent environment. Maintaining focused attention in a classroom may be particularly challenging for young children because the clutter in the environment may tax children’s still-developing  ability to stay on task. Color research shows that room color has an effect on students’ emotions, causing mood swings that can have an impact on performance. Both complexity and color affected student learning.

Giving Students Ownership of the Classroom

The study showed that children responded to their own work. They are much more likely to look at work that they contributed to the classroom than to commercially made signs and information. We are giving our students voice when we allow them to contribute to the decorations in their classroom.  Teachers need to find out what is important to  their students and let the classroom reflect their interests and culture.

Study Findings

The researchers in the Manchester study found that students benefited most when the walls had some decorations. “The displays on the walls should be designed to provide a lively sense to the classroom, but without becoming chaotic in feel. As a rule of thumb 20–50% of the available wall space should be kept clear” (Barrett, Davies, Zhang, & Barrett, 2015, p. 35).


I think it is important for teachers to take a good look around their rooms.  Let’s eliminate all wall hangings and realia that we have finished studying. Use lively colors but avoid the overly decorated classroom that can affect the learning of young students.

I’m not saying that our classrooms should be stripped bare of all interest and color; we need to find something in-between. Classroom walls should reflect students’ lives and school values. “The classroom should be a home away from home for your ELs where they feel safe, valued, competent and that they belong” (Zacarian, Alvarex-Ortiz, & Haynes, 2017).

References and Further Reading

Barrett, P. S., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., & Barrett, L. (2015). Clever classrooms: Summary report of the HEAD project. Salford, United Kingdom: University of Salford.

Fisher, A., Godwin, K., & Seltman, H.(2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children – When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological Science, 25, 1362–1370.

Zacarian, D., Alvarez-Ortiz,L., & Haynes, J. (2017). Teaching to strengths: Supporting students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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