Today I am excited to begin a whole new series on the blog titled “Language in the Classroom.” This series is unique because I’ll be collaborating with Miss Decarbo from Sugar and Spice (one of the best teachers in the world that I have the privilege of working down the hall with) to bring you ideas from two sides. Exciting, right?! As a classroom teacher, she will be focusing on the big picture and the classroom as a whole. As a speech language pathologist, I will be gearing ideas toward your smaller groups and how to work them in with some of your intervention students.
We based this series off of the book, Comprehension from the Ground Up, by Sharon Taberski because, like so many of you, we understand the importance of language as the underpinning for all other skills. When our students have difficulty with language, they will most likely have difficulty in other areas as well. And none can ring more true than in the area of Classroom Culture, the first topic in our series.
Establishing a good classroom culture at the beginning of the year is key to all students, but especially students who have difficulty with language, specifically social language. According to ASHA, students with social language (or pragmatic) difficulties involve 3 major communication skills:
- Using language for different purposes, such as greetings, informing, demanding, promising or requesting.
- Changing language according to the needs of a listener or situation, such as giving background information to an unfamiliar listener or speaking differently in a classroom than on a playground
- Following rules for conversations and storytelling, such as taking turns in conversation, introducing and staying on topics of conversation, using verbal and nonverbal signals (eye contact/facial expressions) and how close to stand to someone when speaking.
We all know EXACTLY who these students are. Am I right? You can usually spot them a mile away on that very first day walking toward YOUR class. It’s easy to see how these students might get off to a bad start without establishing a good classroom culture. And we all know that once students get into a rut, it can be difficult to change their course of action.
Here are some ideas to get your class off to having a great culture all year long.
Students’ behaviors are often observed and then imitated. For our students struggling with language in particular, direct modeling and explaining is essential. It will likely go over their heads if it is not explicitly stated. Small groups are perfect for this and for providing some time for practicing after teaching these skills. Here are a few ways:
- Teach and model giving compliments. This involves teaching students how to say specific compliments (not just “you’re nice) and how to receive compliments (by thanking the person). Provide time for all students to practice giving them to each other.
- Model and teach conversation patterns. Use visuals such as a a crown or soft ball when talking. When a person is wearing the crown or holding the ball, show others how to be a good listener by teaching eye-contact and whole-body listening.
- Model and teach that asking questions is a vital part of learning. Think out-loud when exploring a new topic and ask questions your students would most likely have. Get excited and praise them when they begin to ask you and their peers questions about topics.
My Social Group Curriculum for Elementary Students contains a lot more of these types of lessons when teaching communication skills.
Students that struggle with language will also struggle with making friends if a strong classroom culture is not in place. Please don’t ignore the elephant in your classroom or in your small group. You are doing no one any favors when you ignore problems that everyone else knows are going on.
I once had a student with selective mutism. Let’s call him John. He went his entire kindergarten year and halfway through his first grade year without saying a single word. Not one. single. word. Classmates (not surprisingly) did not understand how to interact with this student and often made situations worse by immediately saying “John doesn’t talk” when the teacher would call on him. When these situations occur (or better yet, catch them before they occur), it’s time to have a heart to heart with your class. Sit down with your class at a time that the particular student is working with an intervention specialist or speech language pathologist so that he/she is not in the room. Read your class a book such as Chrysanthemum and talk frankly about ways the class can come together and can encourage _______. Give examples and share what is appropriate to say and what isn’t. Every time I’ve seen this happen, the classroom takes on a different culture the moment _____ walks back into the room. Suddenly, my little John (who hated coming to school) found enjoyment in his class and by the middle of his first grade year, started talking.
I can already see the panic setting into your eyes. No, I do not mean to let your kids go wild, making paper airplanes and spinning in your teacher chair. Give control over to your class or small group in a structured, purposeful way so that they SUCCEED. Some of the best learning occurs when kids teach other kids. Those same students who often get answers wrong are often the ones that LOVE to blurt out answers, am I right? Prep and pre-teach them before a small group lesson and then have them demonstrate to the rest of the class how to do the problem. The light shining in their eyes will be worth it, trust me.
When we take the time to prep for success, our classroom culture automatically becomes a place of love and empathy.
Thanks so much for reading! Make sure to stop by Miss DeCarbo’s to catch some more ideas on encouraging a great classroom culture. See you next month!