4 Ways to Create Language-Rich Environments (Over Zoom)

A lack of language is one of the main hurdles the students we are targeting with culturally responsive have to face. Be it a lack of the English language (academic or social) as an English Learner, or a lack of vocabulary as a student living in generational poverty often experiences, this lack of language, and the difficulty of aquiring new language, especially as an older student, makes creating a language-rich environment one of the pillars of culturally responsive teaching.

But what does this look like?

In a pre-COVID world, this looks like Word Walls with the content and academic vocabulary on it. This means anchor charts and check lists for processes. This includes posting directions and expectations for students to refer back to. This may look like sentence frames for having academic dialogue, or word banks for specific assignments. This could look like visuals to support new vocabulary, and even word parts of new vocabulary. For classrooms that have students who are new at building language, this may even be labels on common items around the room.

This also looks like an environment that is set up for cooperative learning, where students feel confident to talk to each other about the content because they are provided supports and scaffolds (like sentence frames, wait time, and visual support around the room) to have those conversations. There is a climate in the classroom that makes student talk the norm.

So what does this look like now? Now that students have to keep their distance, and so many students are still learning through a computer?

First of all, it’s important to understand the purpose of a language-rich environment. It’s really 2-fold.

  1. Having a language rich environment exposes students to visual vocabulary, which is a key component to language acquisition.
  2. Having a language rich environment provides vocabulary support to students as they use language to process new content. This is also important because it is a huge step in moving students to being independent learners when they can find the support they need and use the language without having to rely on anyone else.

With the purpose in mind, even if you’re in a virtual learning environment, you can ask yourself, “How can I provide visual vocabulary and vocabulary support as I require my students to use and build their vocabulary?”

Here are a few ways to think through this as a virtual teacher:

  1. Interactive notebooks – in interactive notebooks, students are interacting with the teacher and the content through writing and processing. Typically, there is a teacher side and a student side. In the teacher side, you are providing notes, creating anchor charts, writing down checklists, or giving any other information that will assist students in the learning the content. Then, on the student side, students are processing through the information, using the vocabulary as they process. Here are some processing ideas:
    1. Creating a quiz.
    2. Quick write using vocabulary.
    3. Making relevant connections or creating a concept definition map.
    4. Creating a K-W-L Chart.
    5. Explaining a process or plot in a flow map or in their own words.

2. Physical Word Wall – Word walls do not have to be pretty! As you can see in our YouTube videos, I have a dry erase board with vocabulary words written on it sitting up in the background for several of the vocabulary games we go through in the videos. The words just need to be visual. You don’t even have to have visuals with them.

3. Use the White Board Feature (or a physical white board), and create an anchor chart with the students. Have the students put them in their journal, and then hold it up to the computer to show you that they have it. You can also increase the effectiveness of this by using that student side of the journal to have them write or draw a reflection piece using the anchor chart.

4. Use Break Out Rooms virtually – don’t be afraid of these! I know you can’t control what your students say in them. I know you can’t be in all of them. But that’s ok!! Set up the expectations, drop in the rooms regularly, model, provide sentence frames for them to use in their dialogue, make sure they have the supports in their journal (notes, anchor charts, checklists for processes), and let them talk!! Let them even talk socially! They need that! Give them 3 minutes to share something good that’s happening, or a their favorite character in a story you are reading, or what their favorite pet would be! They are building a relationship with each other, engaging with each other, and building social language!

For more ideas, be sure to check out our YouTube Channel, Jenn Kleiber! And for more information about Pressing Onward, head to www.pressing-onward.org!

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