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Instructional Walls: The Visual Indicator of In-Person Teaching (Part 1)

Language learners are visual learners.  When we emigrated to the United States, I was seven years old, and didn’t speak one word of English.  I was an English learner.  Conversations and class discussions were background noise for many months.  On the rare occasions where the teacher pointed to something, pulled an object to examine, or drew on the board, she had my attention.  I wasn’t hanging on to every word she said.  I was hanging on to every visual she showed.  

Fast forward 20 years. I’m teaching kindergarten dual language.  I’ve never been a classroom teacher before - only a teacher of ESOL.  During one of our very first co-planning meetings, my colleagues talked about charts.  They showed me these gorgeous charts they had made.  A little panic rose in me because I am far from considering myself an artist.  Even copying a chart or a simple drawing takes lots of time and concentration.  Add that to being a perfectionist, and it’s a recipe for total loss of self-confidence.  How am I supposed to create all of these charts?  Well, there’s one thing you need to know about me: I am very competitive.  I won’t be left behind.  So, I made my first charts.  Reading charts on how to sound out words.  Math charts on how to line up objects, and count up as you point to them.  I spent literally hours each week creating these visuals in my language of instruction.  

Then, one day, my school administration announced that students need to know what strategies they’re working on.  I’m a skeptic by nature: How will they know which strategies they’re using?  My colleague answered: They’ll use the charts to remind themselves of a strategy they can use.  By that time, I knew I needed to trust my colleagues.  They’re talented and experienced teachers.  The following week, I taught my students that readers set goals for themselves by working on specific strategies, and I pulled down a few reading charts to show students what we’d been working on so far.  Soon after, administrators started walking through, and when asked, my students answered their questions, pointing at the charts as they explained their new goal in reading, writing and math. 

Since that day, I’ve become a firm believer that Instructional Walls help our students acquire learning, hone in on skills, check for understanding, and even set goals.   Instructional walls are classroom walls that are constantly evolving to show the content and skills being covered in class.  There are so many ways to build instructional walls.  I’d like to present the visual supports that I have found most helpful as I walk through classes.  


Start by Building a Classroom Community

Your very first charts will be about building a classroom community.  At the beginning of the year, instructional walls will be fairly bare except for routine charts and seating charts.   Routine charts are best hung in the places where they are most used.  For example, a line up chart will be by the door whereas a turn and talk chart will be closer to the wall.  Charts are written in large print so students can see them from afar.  They include visuals and simple wording.  The first six weeks of school will often see other charts such as how to pack up, and labels for the homework bin.  As teachers begin to introduce students on how to check out books, they can present ways to make book choices. 


Some very useful visuals specific to dual language settings are bilingual pairs or conversational pairs.  In other settings, these are often called turn and talk buddies.  Some teachers like to give these fun names such as Pan con tomate, Chips and Salsa or Tartine et Nutella.  In a team teaching model with two different classes, teachers will want to create two different sets of bilingual pairs.  I recommend that teachers pair students based on their language proficiency: native/highly proficient students with intermediate/mid proficiency and least proficient students with intermediate/mid proficiency students. 



Hang Content and Skills Charts

When learning really gets underway, usually around weeks 4 to 6, then new charts start to appear.  Content charts introduce new concepts such as place value in math, or regions of the United States, or the life cycle of a butterfly.  Content charts are great visuals to have when we are frontloading knowledge.  For example, if I know I’m going to be teaching students how to add and subtract in the hundreds, so a few days before, I present a place value chart with ones, tens and hundreds and maybe even standard and expanded form.  As the unit gets under way, it’s perfectly fine for me to take the content charts down.  

Skills charts use the knowledge presented in content charts to teach students how to use the knowledge they acquired.  One type of skills chart I encourage my teachers to create is the Math Dialogue Chart.  I began creating math dialogue charts to remember the steps I needed to do.  When you’ve changed grades, and you’re learning all of the standards from scratch, you often end up writing things down to remember how to apply a skill.  To alleviate my overloaded mind, I would write the steps out, and illustrate each one.  Then, during the lesson, you’d catch me referring to the chart so I could remember the steps.  It turned out that I wasn’t the only one referring to these charts.  Unexpectedly, I had equipped my students with the language, the moves and the think alouds to be able to have math discussions.  For the first time ever, I could ask: What did you do?  And my students could reply in complete sentences instead of math equations!

This week, I presented charts to build classroom community, content and skills.  Stay tuned to read about how to teach into charts, and collaborate across languages to support your students. Subscribe to future posts from Just Good Teaching here.  

Your partner in all things dual language,

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