Classroom to Castle: 8 Building Blocks of a Student-friendly ESL Environment

Sunscreen: Check.

Lawn chair: Check.

Cold beverage…

Okay, okay, so maybe being in your ESL classroom will never be quite as pleasant as a day at the beach.

Regardless, most places can be made more comfortable with just a little bit of work!

Think about how much time you spend in your classroom. A lot.

What are some things you’ve added to the room to make it a functional and happy place for you? Maybe some family photos on your desk? Your favorite mug? A planner containing your schedule and other important information?

You probably have all of these items and more. These things help create ownership, comfort and convenience in the environment.

Now think about how much time your students spend in your classroom.

They might spend almost as much time there as you do.

In fact, the only place they might spend more time is their own home.

Shouldn’t they be just as comfortable and successful in the setting as you are?

They can be, with just a few considerations.

Classroom to Castle: 8 Building Blocks of a Student-friendly ESL Environment

1. Construct clear and positive norms and expectations

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you failed to make a plan? Just figuring it out as you go…

That can be nice on vacation but, as we’ve already established, teaching is no day at the beach. The “figure it out as you go” method can be confusing and pretty unproductive in the classroom. In order to really accomplish things, we must have clear and concise plans and expectations.

Time magazine published an article featuring successful people affirming the positive effects of planning, list-making and regimented schedules. Plainly put, we all do better when there is a plan in place, the plan makes sense and we are aware of how that plan is supposed to work.

All of this is most certainly true for our students, too. Early in my career I had a student who claimed to dislike routines or schedules of any kind, both at home and at school. Because of his preferences, his parents obliged him by creating loose to non-existent expectations.

The student began complaining of restless sleep plagued by nightmares. In his dreams he was charged with driving a car. However, he didn’t know how to drive, nor could he reach the pedals or see out of the windshield. Everything in the dream was out of control. This was merely a reflection of his waking hours.

No plans and no guidelines lead to internal chaos! Think about this in terms of our ESL students. There is a pretty good chance that there might already be some source of chaos in their lives, whether it be moving to a new community, missing friends and family or simply coping with communication issues.

One of the best things we can do is to provide them with consistent norms and expectations while they are with us.

However, expectations shouldn’t just be guidelines or routines. They should be about setting a positive feeling and tone in the classroom, too.

These are all examples of positive expectations:

  • “Respect one another.”
  • “Be willing to try new things.”
  • “Strive for the next level.”

Expectations aren’t really rules, so there is no need to be rigid! In fact, it can be productive for students to help generate classroom expectations with you. This creates a sense of ownership, resulting in a higher level of comfort and a willingness to adhere to the guidelines that are set, too. Once the norms have been firmly established, a palpable sense of calm and safety will ensue, aiding in student success.

2. Familiarize yourself with the culture of your students

So I’m not saying that you need to change the way you eat or dress. It’s just nice to let your students know that you are thinking about their culture.

This can be as simple as having books available in multiple languages, downloading some culturally relevant music or doing a little research.

I’ve always found it helpful to look up cultural faux pas of incoming students’ cultures. Did you know that a “thumbs up” sign is highly disrespectful in some Middle Eastern countries? That would be a good piece of information to know before welcoming your new Syrian student with a big Fonzie “Heyyy.”

It is also important that students see themselves reflected in the classroom. Make sure that your visuals include people who aren’t necessarily blonde-haired, blue-eyed and hanging on to an apple pie. It’s nice to have other cultural references as well: Maps, flags and art from students’ countries—anything that might help it feel a bit more like home.

3. Validate your students’ home language

It is critical to remember that, though we want our students to succeed in learning the English language, we never want them to lose sight of their own home language and culture.

I’ve had well-meaning families approach me with requests to interact with their child strictly in English. I’m not sure this sends a great message. We want students to be proud of their knowledge, proud of their heritage and proud of their language. I am always so impressed when I see students fluent in two or more languages. This will give them great advantages as they navigate through life.

We don’t want students to learn English at the price of forfeiting their own language.

It can be comforting for students if we learn a few key phrases in their home language. Even just a greeting allows them to know that their language is important and respected and they are, too.

4. Provide lots of time for interaction

Take a few minutes of every day to make a connection with each of your students. Talk with them about their family, about their culture, about video games…whatever it may be that helps them to feel comfortable in your classroom. It’s okay if they don’t get the language perfect. It’s fun to just try it out a little and chat.

Allow time for students to talk with one another, as well. Oftentimes, students feel less pressure while communicating with peers. This can be done casually throughout the day.

It is also important to incorporate student talk time and interactions during instructional periods. Too much teacher talk can be quite boring for students. Actually, listening to anyone talk for too long can be tedious no matter who you are! Though I’m sure you’ve never felt that way during a professional development session, right?

Cooperative learning games and activities are also an interesting and non-threatening method to practice language while learning new concepts.

There are a number of ways to get students talking, and these should occur all day, every day.

5. Create bilingual labels throughout the classroom

In deference to social politics, the last thing we want to do is “label” anyone or anything. However, when it comes to the ESL environment, labeling is one of the smartest things we can do.

Providing bilingual or multilingual labels for items and areas in the classroom allows students the opportunity to use language in both a spoken and written format. Using language in both ways contributes to the understanding of the words they see and hear. Students will then begin to make connections between the words and the labels found in the environment around them. With repeated exposure, they will find themselves using the words from the labels in other situations and environments, even without the visual support.

When labeling your classroom, keep the following in mind:

  • Begin by labeling only a few items or areas. Too much, too soon is an invitation for students to tune out. It’s also helpful if they assist in the actual process of labeling, once more creating ownership and “buy in.” One convenient way to get started could be to buy a sticker set from Vocabulary Stickers in either English or your students’ mother tongue, then add translations to the stickers with your students a few at a time. These stickers are colorful and durable and they’re designed to cover common, everyday items.
  • Label common items first, like “window” or “door.” This helps students understand some of the basic vocabulary they might hear being used by teachers and other students. As proficiency progresses, labels can become more specific, like “kickball bin.”
  • Be certain that your labels reflect all languages spoken in your classroom, including English.
  • Use the labels in an interactive way. If you just stick them up and never revisit them, they become like wallpaper that nobody really notices or cares about. So, for example, take a few minutes each day to “read the room.”

In addition to labels, you can create a comfortable atmosphere in your classroom with bilingual and multilingual posters. Language Lizard has a lot of these in a variety of languages, along with bilingual children’s books and other products your students might appreciate having around.

6. Make use of a visual schedule

We’ve already discussed the importance of having a consistent schedule, but how do we convey that schedule to our students?

Almost any ESL quandary can be solved with visuals. True story.

A visual schedule helps the student easily keep track of the day. If a student knows what is coming and what is already completed, they will feel more comfortable and productive throughout the day, similar to how we may feel when checking things off of a “to do” list. I don’t know about you, but I LOVE that feeling!

When creating your visual schedule, the most vital piece is obviously the pictures. It can be very effective to use actual photographs from your classroom and school. Take a real photo of one of your students using the drinking fountain outside your classroom to represent the time in your day where you take a break for drinks.

If you are unable to grab quality shots of your own, you can always use Google Images as an alternative. It is always better to use realistic photos rather than clip art. This way, there is less room for interpretation or confusion.

If you are just using one schedule for the whole class, pictures should be large enough to be seen from all vantage points. A smaller, personalized version of a visual schedule can also be created to suit the needs of specific students. And don’t forget to include labels on your pictures (see #5)!

Once you have your pictures ready (lamination is your friend) it is time to set them up. It is most helpful to arrange your pictures in a manner in which they can be manipulated easily. Velcro or clips allow students to take down or move periods of the day once they have been completed. This can either be done as a class or individually.

Visual schedules are also great for developing language. At the start of the day, you can plan your time. As you complete each task, discuss what you’ve finished and what you’ve yet to do. This is also a fantastic way to review what you’ve done at the end of the day.

7. Incorporate realia into the environment

We’re heading back to the beach. We’re learning about seashells. They are small, or big. They are smooth, or actually kind of bumpy sometimes. Oh, oh—this is crazy! You can hear the ocean in them! Get it? Not really?

One of the best ways to convey an idea or message is through the use of realia. The seashell “lesson” would be much more effective and exciting with an assortment of small, large, smooth and bumpy actual seashells.

Realia can be used in multiple ways throughout the classroom. It can obviously be used to teach vocabulary, but it can also easily be incorporated into other lessons as well.

If you are learning about the life cycle of a pumpkin in science, bring in pumpkin seeds, a pumpkin blossom and different types of pumpkins.

These same materials can be carried over into math by adding, subtracting or multiplying seeds.

Realia can even be used to teach grammatical structure. For example, the difference between “have” and “has”:

I have one seed.

He has one seed.

The possibilities with realia are limitless. All you need is a little imagination.

8. Design a “safe” area in the room

We’ve spent this entire post discussing how to make your classroom a healthy and beneficial environment for your ESL students. But we have to consider that no matter how much we prepare, students might still feel frustrated, anxious or insecure. This is just human nature.

A major block in language acquisition can occur if the student is experiencing feelings of anxiousness or insecurity. What do you do if you are feeling this way in a certain situation? Probably remove yourself from that situation until you feel a little more comfortable. If you can’t remove yourself, your feelings might intensify until you just shut down.

But given a break, you can relax for a minute and return feeling a bit refreshed and ready to face whatever may lay ahead.

Wouldn’t we want the same for our students? Create an area in the classroom devoted to allowing your students to recharge.

What this is:

  • A place where students can take a break for a limited period of time.
  • A place where students don’t have to talk or listen for a few minutes.
  • A place that has comfort items: Books in home languages, music, artwork, soft seating or pillows.

What this isn’t:

  • A place where the whole day is spent.
  • A place to go to get out of a task or assignment.
  • A place to go for socialization.

Make the area cozy enough and you might enjoy it, too. I used to spend my lunch hour in mine.

So it may not exactly be umbrella drinks and cabanas, but experimenting with your ESL classroom can be kind of fun.

If you implement a few of these ESL-friendly ideas, your students will find your classroom to be an all-around sunnier place!

Jackie Hostetler has worked in the field of education for 14 years, earning her ESOL Masters in 2010. Her passions include early childhood and language acquisition in our youngest learners. She is the director of an early learning center and the mother of two of her own little learners.

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