Ankita was teaching English to Grade five children in a government school. The school is located in a rehabilitated colony, and the majority of the students are Muslim and from a poor background. Ankita’s classroom looked like an average class, with few charts hanging here and there. A couple of sceneries, a few moralistic sayings, one time table and a few random sketches were on display. The strength of the class was around 40. When we went to observe her class, she was explaining to the children how to write a paragraph on “Your Favourite Festival”. She wrote the title on the blackboard and asked the students about their favourite festival. She also asked them if they celebrated Diwali and whether they liked it. The students answered that it stood for lights, sweets, crackers and holidays. She asked the students to focus on the structure of the paragraph, and told them that they should begin writing by putting the title on the top (“My Favourite Festival”, in this case). After that, she quickly wrote some factual information about Diwali followed by the usual stock phrases, and lastly the message that we should not burn crackers.
Nisha, another teacher, also teaching the same grade and the same topic had a different approach. She started the class by talking to the children about festivals. Then she divided the class into groups and asked them to draw a scene from their favourite festival and write a few words associated with it. Each group took up a different festival. Once learners had finished this activity, she asked them to put up their work in a corner on the wall. This wall already had a lot of material prepared by the students including drawings of rainy season, charts on different sources of water and drawings of characters from stories in syllabus. At the end of the class, Nisha praised all the children.
The next day, she brought some pictures in the class and gave them to the learners to see. After this, she wrote on the blackboard all the key words the children had written on their drawings the previous day and discussed them. Learners picked their favourite key words and noted them in their notebooks. Each group was encouraged to make a presentation on how the festival was celebrated in their homes. The children were very enthusiastic and worked in groups to prepare for the presentation; the teacher went to each individual group to see how they were doing.
The following day, students were asked to make presentations and their written work was corrected in the class and also put up on the wall. Each group had a slightly different structure; one group began with details of the festival and the other began with preparations for celebration at home. There were a few spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, which Nisha explained to each group.
In both these classrooms the same topic was taught. However, in Ankita’s class, the learners were passively involved in copying and were expected to memorize the paragraph on Diwali, even though many of them did not even celebrate Diwali. On the other hand, in Nisha’s class, learners were actively involved in understanding the concept of festivals. They brainstormed, talked and wrote a paragraph using a lot of print that they had created in the classroom while Nisha tried to link their lives with the classroom.
Both these classrooms had learners who were first generation learners with no exposure to English at home. The environment around them lacked input in English language. By and large, English teaching in Indian classrooms tends to focus on the Phonics approach or Grammar translation method, especially in schools. Also, the present pedagogy stresses too much on drills, rote memorization and practice. We fail to understand the importance of language being treated as a part of culture itself, and that it has to be lived to be understood. A simple paragraph on the sharing of an experience such as a festival celebration that comes very naturally to us as human beings can become a dry and monotonous activity in a classroom such as Ankita’s.
So what was different about Nisha’s classroom that was aiding expression, both oral and written? This question has many answers; however, the most important factor working in Nisha’s classroom was the print rich environment she had created.
How Does a Print Rich Environment Help to Promote Writing in Young Learners?
A print rich environment gives children an opportunity to read and simultaneously write about things that matter. It provides relevant experience to children, connecting them with written language in a meaningful context. This helps learners develop an understanding not just about the written text, but also about its utility and importance. Any written material found in familiar objects such as wrappers, brochures, calendars, drawings, etc. can be used to enhance real life print experience in the classroom. Learners take a lot of interest in such print, which is connected to their life in some way. It also helps them to connect their daily classroom activities and content with something that they use in their daily lives. Through reading they develop their writing skills, and the more they write to express themselves in a language, English in this case, the better their understanding about its use and other skills that aid in comprehension.
What Do we Mean by Print Rich Environment in the Classroom?
If we refer back to Ankita’s class, her classroom had some drawings, sketches, moral lessons, decorative pieces and pictures of landscapes. Do we call such a classroom a print rich classroom? The answer is “no”. Such print is absolutely meaningless for children as it does not connect with their lives in any way. They are at best asked to create it, and apart from developing perhaps their motor skills, it does not encourage any understanding or engagement with learning.
According to the “Emergent Literacy Perspective”,[i] language skills, among children, especially reading and writing, emerge through constant engagement with a print rich environment. This perspective has a parallel in a rather evolved new perspective called “Whole Language Approach”, [ii] which stresses upon the need to create a print rich environment in the classroom.
So in order to create a meaningful print rich environment that aids in developing writing skills in young learners, we need to focus on the following:
- All print should provide a meaningful context to engage with
All print displayed in the classroom should offer a meaningful context to engage with, especially when we deal with English. In Nisha’s class, we saw that she encouraged her learners to write and draw about their favourite festival in groups. Learners were working in a group and were talking about their own experiences, so the subject matter automatically got linked to their experiences. They were helping each other draw and write, which further brought them together. Klien (1989) in her classroom research found that students constantly find opportunities of meaning-making through reading and writing tasks, in fact they expect print to be meaningful which eventually develops literacy.
- All print should be around the current classroom content
All print that the teacher creates or gets created from her learners should be around the content matter being dealt in the class else it becomes irrelevant. As long as it is linked to the content, learners and teachers will go back to it to comprehend and understand the concept. This going back and forth will provide them with an opportunity to engage with written language.
- In the classroom, print should be created with a positive attitude by both teachers and learners
It is very important for the teacher to display learners’ work in the classroom, even if it has some mistakes. When children produce something at a young age and are snubbed for making mistakes, they begin to hate the classroom. They become afraid of its imposing atmosphere, then they become self-conscious and withdraw, and gradually they become indifferent to what happens inside the classroom as they donot feel connected to it in any way. This problem becomes more complex with the second language. Pointing out minor mistakes discourages young learners and they fail to develop substantial understanding of the content or written language. The right kind of attitude towards learners’ work, its appreciation and acceptance allows the learner to have a new kind of relationship in the classroom. This relationship is not that of a passive consumer but that of ownership. Once they establish this relationship, they themselves take theresponsibility of corrections and ensure that the work they produce is accepted. They also become more careful and open up to constructive feedback.
- Print should be used in classroom for teaching-learning
The print created in the classroom should be used to explain, understand, build new content, connect with previous knowledge and engage children in meaningful writing or creative tasks. When print is used in the classroom in such a way, then it becomes easy for learners to write with a sense of meaning and feel attached to the process.
- Print should be accessible to the learners
It is of prime importance that all print in the classroom is created for learners; therefore it ought to be positioned in a way that they can easily reach it as per their learning requirement. The charts, drawings, pictures, story books and all other material (“authentic”[iii] or otherwise construed) ought to be at the eyelevel of the children. Positioning it too high on the walls is meaningless. If learners cannot reach the material, how are they going to read it? The story books should be kept in a place where they can be easily accessed, or hung on strings which are suitably placed. This ensures that learners will be able to read and write using the available print as a “cue”.
Once we know what a print-rich environment is; we need to also know how to create one. There are several ways of creating it. Here are a few suggestions to ensure a healthy print rich environment in the classroom.
- Use different sources of written text in the classroom with a special focus on “authentic material” such as wrappers, post cards, menu cards, metro time tables or maps, brochures related to health or flyers of an event that the school is hosting.
- Write and put up information related to school such as attendance charts, mid-day meal records, etc. in English in the classroom and encourage learners to fill them every day. This helps them to establish a connection with the written language and understand how it is used, Leu and Kinzer (1995) discuss the “Morning Message” being an important medium of engaging students with print.
- Take learners’ responses, name and draw with markers the resources in the classroom, write classroom instructions in English and place them suitably. This promotes children’s understanding of print as a medium to construct meaning (Gerde et al 2016).
- Create a reading corner in the classroom and since we want to focus on English, stock it with lots of stories, poems, picture books and multimedia books for young learners.
- Use the classroom wall to display learners’ work, ground rules, duty charts, daily activities, as well content that will engage learners to read and write in English. The wall can also be used to put up posters of upcoming activities in the classroom such as a movie screening or a forthcoming story-telling session. All such activities help learners engage with language in a meaningful way. As K. points out, “Walls are an excellent means of storing pictures that children have made as well as pictures that the teacher acquired. Both kinds of pictures can be used for eliciting talk and writing activities”. (Kumar, 2000, p. 70)
- The bulletin board must be used very judiciously. It can be used to display a list of new books in the reading corner, the best of learners’ work, other class or school related information, posters of stories or poems, poster of a film you may be using in your multimedia classroom and key points about it, etc.
Language acquisition is directly proportional to the environment a child is immersed in. If we provide learners with appropriate activities to engage with language in a meaningful way we may observe that learning will be organic and we as teachers will just be playing the role of a facilitator. It is important then that the teachers in the Indian classrooms where English is still an “alien language” create an environment in the classroom which aids in learning language. A print rich environment created on the suggestions mentioned above can provide a framework to school teachers to engage with language in a novel way. A print rich environment in the classroom not only engages the learners in the classroom and promotes writing and reading, but as they co-create the environment with their teacher, it also allows them to bring themselves to the classroom and become a part of it.
Gerde, H. K., Goetsch, M.E. & Bingham, G.E. (2016). Using print in the environment to promote early writing. The reading teacher, 70 (3), 283-293.
Klein, A. M. (1989). Meaningful reading and writing in a first-grade classroom. The elementary school journal , 90, 185-192.
Kumar, K. (2000). The child's language and teacher. Delhi: National Book Trust.
Leu, D. J. & Kinzer, C.K. (1995). Connecting reading and writing. In D.J. Leu. & C.K. Kinzer Effective reading instruction (pp. 174-209). New Jersey: Merrill.
[i] Emergent Literacy Perspective is being developed as a constructivist and cognitivist approach to understand literacy development among children. This perspective is an upcoming area of research. According to this approach, literacy skills are acquired by children continually since birth through constant engagement with the written and oral language.
[ii] The concept of whole language emerged from the works of K. Goodman, F. Smith and J. V. Hoffman to name a few. This approach stresses on the importance of providing learners with a complete language experience. This means that language input provided to learners ought to be real, meaningful and contextual. The approach underlines that learners are at the centre of the learning process and constantly need opportunities to use language which aids in self-learning and self-discipline.
[iii] Authentic materials are printed materials that are related to the real lives of the people using them. Examples include phone bills, wrappers, invitation cards, text created by students, etc. The concept of authentic materials emerged from Whole Language Approach. It has been found that use of authentic material in the classroom is very effective in learning English as a second language.
Deepti Chawla is an English Teacher and Education consultant. Her areas of research include readers’ response theory and its implications for ELT, reading processes, emergent literacy, whole language approach and gender, with special focus on implications for textbooks and mass media.