Facilitating student academic language use in the classroom
By Erick Herrmann

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INDUSTRY PULSE

Is your classroom a print-rich environment?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No
Look around a teacher's desk; what do you see? Often we find pictures of family and friends, evidence of favorite sport teams or hobbies. We display and make public what is important to us. In the classroom, we hold high regard for literacy and the academic language of our subject areas. It is important, therefore, that we display the language of our content areas for students to access while reading, writing, speaking and listening about the content we are teaching.

A print-rich environment is one in which the walls in the classroom are "dripping" with language. Everywhere we look, we see the language and images related to the topics being studied. Upon entry into the classroom, it is obvious to students, other teachers, administrators and parents what is being studied as the evidence is everywhere. Teacher-made and teacher-student co-created charts are visibly displayed, word-walls and images are posted around the room, and a classroom library with books and other text resources are prominently displayed.


Walls "dripping" with language.


Student work proudly displayed on classroom walls.

TECHNIQUES AND EXAMPLES
  1. Word walls
    Many teachers are familiar with having a word wall in the classroom. Word walls are an effective technique to highlight vocabulary, including content specific words, functional words and phrases, and general academic terms. However, word walls quickly become wallpaper if students are not referring to them throughout the day. Teachers get creative about making word walls interactive: some teachers have students add pictures or sketches to serve as a reminder of the meaning. Other teachers challenge the students and tally the number of times words from the word wall are used accurately in speech.


    A first grade word wall.


    A high school classroom word wall.


    A bilingual math word wall (English and Spanish).


  2. Signal-word posters
    Signal words and phrases indicate the purpose and function of the text such as comparison, expressing cause and effect, proposition and support, sequencing, transitioning, summarizing, or other language functions. Posters may also indicate alternatives to commonly used words that students use. Students should be explicitly taught how to increase their level of language usage in speech and writing. For example, few students will incorporate the word “whereas” in their speech or writing without the explicit expectation from their teacher. Signal word posters can also help students during text analysis to determine author’s purpose.

  3. Posted sentence frames
    Sentence frames help students incorporate more sophisticated sentence structures into their speech and writing. Sentence frames can be coupled with the signal words as an additional scaffold for students. Encourage students to speak or write in complete sentences using the sentence frames, while they incorporate the content specific vocabulary.

  4. Graphic organizers
    Make large copies of graphic organizers that are used in a textbook series to fill out whole group. For example, a transparency on making inferences can be made into a chart, filled in whole group, and then referred back to whenever students are practicing the skill. Other graphic organizers include timelines, maps, bubble maps, story maps, or the water cycle or rock cycle. The charts should include and highlight high levels of academic language.
COMMON CHALLENGES
  1. Length of time for display
    Materials should be displayed as you are teaching (built with the students) and as the topics arise. When you are finished with the topic, and new posters/materials are developed, staple the new materials over the old, thereby having a record that can be referred to again and again as needed. Charts, graphs, posters, and word cards can also be raffled off to students at the end of the unit.

  2. Challenges of room size, configuration and wall space
    Often there are challenges to posting materials in the room. Be creative! Some ideas for challenging classroom environments include – hanging materials from the ceiling using hooks/paper clips, stringing a wire across the ceiling/wall, using the blinds to raise charts on windows, cutting charts that are posted on cabinets, or using dry-erase markers on windows. Easels or garment racks can be used as a mobile display device for charts.

  3. Size of print
    Print should be highly visible from anywhere in the room so that at any given time students can access the words and text, images, etc.
The key to maximizing student use of interaction through a print-rich classroom begins with explicit instruction in academic language, including the vocabulary of the content area and process and function words. Throughout our instruction, we must also model the incorporation of academic language in our own speech and interactions with students. We must also make clear to students the expectation that they incorporate the vocabulary and academic language around them into their speech and writing.

Make sure that the materials have been presented in a comprehensible manner to students, and review academic language with students often. Whenever possible, point out to students the way the current topic or content relates to the topics and words on the walls.

Erick Herrmann is an educational consultant specialized in teaching English learners, and he runs Educating English Learners. Erick has worked with thousands of teachers across the nation to help them improve their instructional practice and increase academic achievement for all students.