Creating the best spaces for language learning

May 16, 2023

By: Lilah Ambrosi

As we all know, schools in the U.S. are predominantly focused on English as the language of instruction and the language in which we measure academic success. In dual language immersion programs, however, we value and strive for bilingualism, if not multilingualism, and we use our classrooms to create an immersive environment in a language other than English.

Because English is the language of power and society in the U.S., we have to be intentional about the design of our dual language immersion classrooms. We have the honor and responsibility of fostering bilingualism in our students, and we must from time to time, evaluate our classroom environment. Every item on the wall, book on the shelf, and word on the paper represents an opportunity for us to build a rich Language Space where we raise the status of the minority language and help it come to life for our students. We must protect the time our students have in our classrooms and ensure that they are receiving language input, not just from us, but also from a variety of print materials.

Take a look around your classroom and ask yourself,

  • Do I have student-facing materials that are written in Spanish (or other minority language) that have a side-by-side English translation?
  • Do I have English on my walls or in my books?
  • When I identify something with English on or in it, can I determine WHY I have it in my classroom?
  • What might happen if I removed any student-facing resources with English (of course, not including anything used during English instructional time)?

Intentionally elevating the status of the minority language and making decisions about creating the most dynamic, print-rich, language space is necessary to do our jobs as dual language immersion teachers. It’s in our job titles. Dual language IMMERSION teachers are responsible for manufacturing an environment which would mimic traveling/living/studying abroad. We have to combat the natural English-takeover and be very intentional about what resources we use and post.

Some tangible ways to consider creating a rich language space include:

  • enfoque lingüístico: What is your enfoque lingüístico (language focus in the minority language) for the week? Is it posted where students can see and reference? Consider creating a poster or a place on a whiteboard to always have your weekly enfoque lingüístico. This not only reminds students but also it cues you to continually draw attention to the minority language in order to increase knowledge about the language.
  • classroom libraries: Dual language immersion students do not have the luxury of walking into their school libraries and finding thousands of books in the language of instruction, like students learning in traditional English classrooms. As a teacher, having a robust classroom library in the minority language provides an opportunity for your students to contextualize language and read books at their level in the language of instruction.
  • posters/bulletin boards: Vocabulary development in dual language immersion programs must take place continually in order for students to understand content. Using all available wall space to hang posters, bulletin boards, vocabulary words, high frequency words, etc…helps students build vocabulary and develop proficiency.

Additionally, consider the school outside of the classroom – the halls, the cafeteria, the office. Most, if not all, signs are probably in English. Consider adding Spanish, or other languages, to continue to raise the status of the minority language for ALL students, not just those in the dual language immersion program.

An intangible method of creating an engaging language space is to consider LIOPT (Language of Instruction ONLY Policy and Timeline). Consider not only the language of instruction, but also the language your students are using with you and with their peers. Ask yourself:

  • Do my students stay in and use only the language of instruction in the classroom?
  • Does English creep in even if I only use the minority language?
  • Are my students held accountable for using the minority language?
  • Do they understand the importance of doing so?
  • Is there a strict separation of languages?

All of these questions are important to ask yourself as you plan for your classroom and determine what kind of language space you desire to create. They are important because we make promises of bilingualism and biliteracy that are only realized when students have high levels of proficiency in BOTH languages. In order to develop high levels of the minority language, we have to work effectively and efficiently to maximize the students’ minority language exposure and development. Intentionality is a critical component for teaching in dual language immersion programs because we must use every moment and every space to develop the minority language. By reevaluating the tangible and intangible ways we create language spaces, we can find small and large ways every day to ensure our students have every opportunity possible to develop high levels of proficiency in the minority language.

If you would like more information about establishing LIOPT in your classroom, download these tools. Also, schedule a phone call with our team if you would like to learn about other resources and professional development opportunities we provide.