Early Childhood Classroom Environments with Big Impact for ELs

Regular readers of my blog have already been introduced to Karen Nemeth, author, consultant, and a nationally recognized expert on early childhood education. Although her blog is written about the physical environment for English learners in early childhood classrooms, it is applicable to ELs all the way through elementary school.

Here is Karen’s blog:

We often say that the environment can be like an additional teacher in the classroom. Displays and visible materials can contribute to learning for English Learners (ELs), or they can detract from learning in unintended ways. Some research has shown that young learners are particularly vulnerable to an overly cluttered classroom environment. Lots of words and images could be even more confusing to English learners. The best approach is a balanced visual environment where the things children see are relevant and meaningful to their learning.

The Visible Environment
The first thing for teachers to do is edit their displays. Look for items on the walls or shelves that are really not needed and not used. Remove these to have more open, uncluttered space and to make room for items that contribute directly to learning for ELs and for all students. Materials produced by the children that show their individuality, creativity, and interests make great displays that help them see the classroom as their own.

In a linguistically diverse classroom, every item should be planned intentionally to support communication and meaning. Here’s a simple rule: If you have posters you love, create lessons around them, or if you have lessons you love, create posters around them. Posters made by families with family photos and pictures of the child’s home, community, and activities will represent the authentic culture experienced by the young child. Broader cultural contexts can be added as the children get older.

Classroom Labels
Most early childhood classrooms have labels all over the place that no one ever talks about. Educators call this “environmental print,” but does it really build literacy if no one discusses the words? A label on a table that says table doesn’t help children find a table or understand its uses – even if the label is in three languages! Try adding words that you could show and discuss with children at the table. Words like eat, drink, pour, delicious, more, less, hot, cold could be on cards slipped into clear plastic pockets or hung nearby from rings. Change the words regularly to add new vocabulary and conversational words. If you are working on counting skills, for example, add the number words in different languages so you and the children can extend learning during snack or activity times at the table.

The use of real items is often recommended to provide relatable supports for ELs in early education, but the items should be chosen with a purpose in mind. Just bringing leaves and pine cones is not enough to support learning if nothing the children are learning at the time relates to leaves or pine cones. Keep real items stored away and bring out just the items that support that day’s learning.

Put the classroom environment to work! Post the schedule of the day with photos to help ELs know what is happening during the school day and when they will go home. A teacher-made picture communication board can help new ELs show teachers and peers what they need, want, or feel so post them in several areas of the classroom.

Allow the items on display in your classroom to support understanding for ELs by choosing wisely and being willing to let go. Too much input becomes confusing for young children at a time when they really need to focus on new content as well as a new language. Streamlining the visible environment helps children focus on displays that really do connect with what they are learning. Changing and revising displays will often draw the children’s attention and allow you to support new vocabulary and content as soon as it’s needed.

For more on research about the effects of classroom clutter, see Heavily Decorated Classrooms Disrupt Attention and Learning in Young Children (Association for Psychological Sciences News May 27, 2014).

For a classroom environment checklist, see Basics of Supporting Dual Language Learners: An Introduction for Educators of Children from Birth through Age 8 (2012, Karen Nemeth, NAEYC).

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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