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Instructional Walls: The Visual Indicator of In-Person Teaching (Part 2)

My fourth grade teacher stands out in my mind as the person who anchored learning on walls.  In fourth grade, I landed in Ms. Elias’ class, and I can still see her neat handwriting on the board.  Regularly, we’d come back from recess to find that Ms. Elias had posted new content around the classroom.  I remember trying to decipher and understand these words and pictures.  I have a vivid memory of thinking that English was so confusing: How could the four letters “R-E-A-D” sound two different ways??  Other times, I was surprised at how other English words were intimately connected with my home language.  

Why did these charts, words, texts on the walls make such an impact on me?  I think it’s because they were directly related to what we were doing.  I had sat through the lessons, and later, as I glanced around the classroom, I connected the words and visuals to the learning.  Ms. Elias was a master teacher at building instructional walls

Today, I’d like to present five ways in which instructional walls are regularly renewed.  Instructional walls reflect what is currently being learned in the classroom.  They are also tools that the teacher and students should be constantly referring to throughout the unit.  Here are five moves teachers can make to turn these visuals into a living, learning billboard.

Create Your Charts Ahead of Time

The best charts are not created on the fly.  They’re made ahead of time.  It helps you plan so many factors that make a chart successful for language learners.  I like to start with scrap paper and lots of felt pens of many different colors before I make a final chart, sentence strips or a diagram.  
  • Should I word it in first person “I” form (Hago, Sumo, Escribo, Descompongo), in the infinitive form (Hacer, Sumar, Escribir, Descomponer), or in the third person/imperative form?  
  • What do I want to showcase with a color coding system to show change or a next step? 
  • What photo or illustration do I want to add to aid comprehension?  

Teach Into a Chart

With my chart made ahead of time, I now spend time presenting it to students.  This is the part where I teach into the chart.  Teaching into a chart is about a 5-minute process.  First, I hang it for students to see, usually next to my teaching area.  I read the chart, and point to it.  While I am reading the chart, I am not actually putting into practice the skill or content on the chart.  I literally just read it.  Once I’m done reading the entire chart, I begin applying the skill or knowledge.  Each time I apply a new step or a piece of information, I refer to the chart.  This extra time spent teaching into the chart is what draws students attention to the language, makes them aware of possible missteps, and demonstrates the usefulness of the chart.  It also anchors the chart in their minds.  

From Decoration to Participation

I have found that students refer much less to commercial banners, charts and posters that are on the walls.  Students don’t raise their gaze to look at these items.  Often, these purchased items take on a decorative purpose, and it’s such a shame when they do not become a learning tool.  It’s even worse when these same visuals stay there all year long.  

I’ve tried understanding why commercial visuals don’t connect in the same way as teacher-made.  They’re often super cute, more elaborate, and quite honestly more attractive than anything I could possibly put on paper.  So why aren’t they as engaging?  I’ve come to realize that students don’t remember what is up there as much as the time at which this visual scaffold was presented in class.  This was made evident to me when I visited an expert teacher’s classroom at Bethesda Elementary in Gwinnett County, GA.  

I walked in right as the Word Work lesson had begun.  The teacher had explicitly taught two sounds.  Now, she was having the students sort visuals that started with those same two sounds.  The visuals were beautiful pieces of clipart that she had spent money and time on printing in color and then laminating.  She distributed different clipart pictures to the students, and had them sort the words based on their initial consonant sounds.  As each student stepped up to her easel, she stuck a piece of tape on the plastified clipart.  Students were asked to give the name and initial sound of the picture they were holding.  Then, she asked them to paste the picture in the correct column.  

Because students participated, and this chart was then hung close to their meeting area, students pointed to it and looked at it when thinking of words that started with those two sounds.  The teacher could have easily taped the clipart to the chart on her own, but by involving students, she drew their attention to the object. She also gave them ownership.    

Mirroring Charts Across Languages

In dual language settings, we refer to classrooms as “mirror images” when two teachers have two separate classrooms in two different languages that share similar layouts such as tables, seating charts, meeting areas, but also wall spaces.  For example, the Chinese teacher’s math charts are in the same area as the English teacher’s math charts to build the habit of referring to charts. 


Another way to mirror charts is to split the responsibility between the teacher of reference for a particular subject area and the teacher that is reinforcing this subject area.  For example, in many school districts I work with, Spanish teachers are the teacher of reference for math.  This means that they are introducing math concepts and skills four to five times a week for 45 minutes, whereas their English counterparts reinforce this learning only two to three times a week for 15-20 minutes with word problems.  


Notice how the Math Dialogue Chart above is very detailed and focuses on one strategy only.  The Spanish teacher would have created similar math dialogue charts for each of the multiplication strategies they taught students.  Once all of these strategies have been presented, the English teacher can create the Math Strategies Chart, which shows all of the strategies on one chart.  See how the Math Strategies Chart on multiplication shows the strategy being used, but it doesn’t walk the students through the individual steps required for each strategy.  Math Strategies Charts are summaries of what was taught. Instead of breaking down the process, it shows what the application of the strategy looks like when all steps have been followed.

Retire Charts

Charts do not need to stay up all year.  In fact, instructional walls should exhibit what is current.  Make it a big deal that you’re taking a chart down.  A tip I’d like to share is to take a picture of your chart, copy and paste it four times on letter size paper, print enough copies for each student to get a small version of the chart, and have them glue it in their notebooks.  These notebooks can in turn become these references for students when it comes time to study.  Notebooks with your charts show how much students have learned, and taking charts down shows how we have so much more to learn that we need to make room for new knowledge.

Parents usually don’t know these new strategies we teach today in the classroom.  To be fair, I had no idea what partial quotients were until I had to teach them.  I also learned the day before how to build an array by thinking about the size of the group and the number of groups.  When you take a picture for your students, think of sending a copy to your parents.  Sending pictures of your charts can keep parents in the loop, and empower them to reinforce the knowledge taught.   

Another reason to place emphasis on this retirement process is how it holds students accountable for their learning. I took my charts down right before a test.  I warned my students days ahead of time, but they knew they better pay close attention to these charts because they weren’t going to be there during the test.  I loved how my students would stare at empty walls during a test, squinting as they remembered the steps involved or the knowledge they had acquired.  They would raise their heads and look straight at where those charts used to be.  That’s a sign that you have successfully built instructional walls!

I hope that these last two Just Good Teaching posts have given you ideas on how to tweak or add to your walls!  If you’re looking for more ideas, subscribe here to get more tips on supporting your language learners. 

Yours in all things dual language,

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