Language and learning
Creating a communication rich classroom
In the first of three articles about language as the key to learning, Orla Redmond examines ways of creating language-rich primary classrooms, which encourage the kind of talk that will stimulate thinking.
Listening and routines
In one of the most watched TED Talks of 2018, Lera Boroditsky explained that language is so powerful it shapes the way we think. It’s hard to disagree and I have no doubt that the starting point for language development is listening comprehension. From the outset, I focus on embedding daily classroom routines and their associated vocabulary by exploring concepts such as time and prepositions (On Monday, before break, put your bag underneath…, stand behind… etc.). Using visual prompts to support this is helpful, being particularly mindful of ways to scaffold instruction for EAL learners, while at the same time setting high expectations and using sophisticated vocabulary for children to emulate. To ensure understanding, repeat instructions and key messages in multiple ways and ask children to explain them in their own words. As children’s listening and processing skills develop, provide increasingly complex multi-step directions for them to follow.
Consider the classroom environment
To create a classroom environment that nurtures and supports communication, think about the layout. It is important children can see and hear you when you are talking to them. Find ways to minimise distractions: for example, you may need to stand near children who are prone to losing focus. Consider whether the layout must be altered to facilitate pair or group work and how quickly and easily such changes can be made.
When conducting pair and group work, ensure the children are familiar with their conversation partners so that they are comfortable speaking in front of them. A word-rich environment, with labelled classroom items, word walls, and displays of posters and anchor charts, further supports language development.
Contexts for communication
Whilst classrooms are already language-rich environments, it is possible to enhance this by incorporating other contexts for communication. Planning a memorable experience to be looked forward to (“I can’t wait to…”) and back upon (“The highlight was…”) is one such method. However, two easier ways to introduce new contexts is through provision of diverse reading material and facilitating lots of opportunities for play.
Books expose children to a world of language outside their own and provide opportunities to consider how language evolves and changes over time and according to context. Enjoying shared read-alouds, where metacognitive strategies can be modelled and explored, reveals a complexity of ideas, vocabulary, and language structures. Drawing children’s attention to descriptions used in books and encouraging them to use descriptive language themselves when telling stories deepens their experience. Pre-teach specific vocabulary as necessary to ensure reading material is meaningful.
In play, encourage children to use language when pretending and join in to model new vocabulary if the context is an unfamiliar one. Using role-play and social scenarios enables children to explore how tone of voice can influence meaning and lead to misunderstandings.
By discussing feelings, responses, and possible outcomes with children, we enable them to develop their language for social thinking and empower them to prevent or resolve conflicts. Role-play is also useful if children are using whiny voices as it allows us to explore with them how they sound and consider appropriate ways to gain attention.
Questioning to develop language skills
Encourage children to talk by asking questions and using non-verbal cues to prompt them to continue. When asking children questions:
- Avoid interrupting;
- Ask open-ended questions that allow children to express their thoughts and views;
- Allow plenty of time for children to answer questions;
- Clarify pupil responses, paraphrasing if necessary, to establish meaning;
- If mistakes are made, repeat the sentence, modelling the correct syntax.
Create a classroom environment where children are encouraged to ask questions. One way to support this is through inquiry-based teaching. Introduce a problem and ask for the children’s help to solve it e.g. I spotted a lot of litter in our playground. Children will need to question why the problem has arisen and how they might tackle it.
Promoting conversation and discussion skills
In inquiry scenarios, pupils need to know how to make their point articulately and how to respectfully register their assent or dissent towards the views of others. Teach explicit language for doing so and discuss what good speaking and listening skills look like. Ask the pupils to consider how such skills may differ in 1:1 conversation versus group scenarios. To promote confidence in speaking aloud, encourage pupils to be ‘teachers’ and have them explain things to one another. Combine this with regular opportunities for speaking aloud in front of an audience. Begin by having a child present to a small supportive group, gradually building up audience size as a child’s confidence grows.
The importance of home-school links and cultural awareness
As education is a partnership between home and school, it is important to share what is happening in the classroom so parents can talk about it at home and support their child’s learning and language development. Be mindful of the cultural norms of the society in which you teach when choosing lesson content and setting expectations. For example, advice is often given to promote eye contact between speakers, but this is not a universal norm. Ultimately, good communication is founded on good relationships. Get to know the pupils in your care and find opportunities to engage them on topics of interest to them. Who knows what new ways of thinking such conversations may prompt?
Orla Redmond is an experienced educator who has worked in teaching, managerial, and advisory capacities in both independent and government schools, in Ireland, the UK, and other regions worldwide. Her specialist interests include supporting disadvantaged pupils and pupils with SEN.
Worth listening to:
Lera Boroditsky’s 2018 TED talk about language and thinking
Feature Image: Waldemar Brandt – Unsplash
Other images: nicolehoneywill – Unsplash & laterjay, Credutien – Pixabay