Setting up your classroom to foster a language learning environment for Multilingual Learners

One part of my job as a Multilingual Learner (ML) Coach that I love is visiting teachers and students in their classrooms. While it is always exciting to listen in on student conversations and watch as students turn ideas into written pieces, I am also always eager to see the personal touches teachers have brought to their classrooms to make them comfortable, enjoyable, and engaging. I am equally impressed by how teachers are able to turn every available inch of their classrooms, including (where allowed) walls, ceilings, windows, and doors, into learning spaces.

Questions to keep in mind when designing your classroom to include MLs

Classroom design tells students so much more than a teacher’s favorite color or a love for the beach. Looking carefully at how classroom spaces are set up, how and where instructional materials are stored, and what is posted on the walls can inform students about their teacher’s instructional priorities and expectations. There are many questions that come to mind when considering classroom design for all students, including:

  1. What type of message do you think students receive about instruction and expectations when they walk into a classroom with individual desks carefully aligned in straight rows

  2. How might a student seated in the front row feel versus a student seated in the back row?

  3. How differently might students feel if they saw small tables or desks clustered in groups of four or five?

It can be overwhelming to design your classroom space, especially if you have not met or gotten to know your students and are not aware of their strengths and needs. I know that you don’t always have control over the furniture available to you and that you must follow school or district guidelines for hanging or posting materials. And yet, I have seen teachers do amazing things with what is available to them!

While classroom environment is important for all students, for multilingual learners (MLs) to thrive in school, we know they need to be in classrooms that support and encourage regular opportunities to hear, see, and use language. They need multiple opportunities during the school day to interact with peers and teachers, both informally and for more structured academic purposes. The decisions you make around your classroom design can greatly enhance MLs’ opportunities for these valuable interactions. If you are working in a co-teaching situation, it is essential to collaborate with your co-teacher in designing the room set up to ensure sufficient space for both teachers to support ML learning.

Three key classroom areas to focus on for MLs

In this article, the second in our three-part series of beginning of the school year posts, we share a checklist to support you in setting up a physical classroom environment that will promote collaboration and language learning for MLs. If you are working in a co-teaching environment, you can use the checklist as a collaborative tool to discuss room set-up and priorities to support ML learning with your co-teachers. The checklist prioritizes three key areas: furniture arrangement, wall space, and instructional materials. Below you will find a brief explanation of each key area as well as some photo examples.


1. Furniture Arrangement

Desk arrangements and seating options are probably the first thing students will notice when they walk in a classroom and can make a big impression. While each student should have a space in the classroom to call their own, I recommend that student desks be clustered in groups of 3-5 to ensure ready access to peers for pair or small group work.  A seating arrangement like this helps all students understand that collaboration, group work, and conversation are valued in the classroom. This is especially critical for MLs who may initially be reluctant to speak in front of the whole class. When they begin to recognize that all voices are heard and valued as part of learning, they may feel more comfortable sharing their ideas regardless of their level of English proficiency.  The routine of sitting and working with the same group of peers every day can also provide support to ML students as they may be more comfortable interacting with a small group, rather than sharing their thoughts orally in front of the whole class. Have you ever listened in on the conversations among students while they are working in their table groups?  You might be surprised to learn that students ask each other for help on assignments, discuss books they are reading, and share ideas before writing. These informal conversations are a valuable support for MLs, and they are more likely to happen when students are seated with a group of peers they have learned to trust. Since students won’t always be working at their seats, you will also want to have a space large enough for full class meetings and discussions as well as tables designated for teacher-led small group instruction.

2. Wall Space

It is amazing how quickly wall space can fill up in a classroom!  While I encourage you to use your wall space to highlight student work and support learning, I also caution that outdated work and unnecessary charts can make a classroom feel cluttered and confusing for MLs. In addition, keep in mind that your walls do not need to be covered on the first day of school. Working with students to co-create anchor charts and other valuable instructional scaffolds that will be posted, especially if they include home languages and images that represent students’ cultures, will help students feel a sense of community and belonging in the classroom.  By adding and removing charts and word banks as you begin new units or skills, MLs will more easily be able to access the needed and targeted scaffolds. Since students master skills at varying rates and some MLs may need access to language supports that the whole class does not need, it is a good idea to develop a plan for storing charts, vocabulary words, and other instructional scaffolds in such a way that they remain accessible to students once you have moved on to a new content topic and removed them from the wall.

3. Instructional Materials 

english-learners-classroom-environmentThe instructional materials needed to support MLs can vary greatly depending on level of English language proficiency, home language literacy, grade level, and content area subject. However, for all MLs, materials used in the classroom should reflect their cultures and languages. To support ongoing oral language development and academic conversation skills, MLs will need access to talk moves, the sentence starters that can help students build on or extend a conversation. I have seen wonderful examples of individual student “conversation bookmarks” or “table tents” that are always available to students and can be added to throughout the year. Since all students’ strengths and needs vary, and we want to encourage students to make some decisions about how they learn best, all instructional materials should be labeled and accessible so they can be used when needed. To ensure that all your carefully curated materials are well treated, be sure to take the time to teach students your expectations for using and taking care of the materials.

Share your ML-friendly classroom with us

I hope that these suggestions for furniture arrangement, wall space, and instructional materials have provided some ideas for you to help your MLs reach their potential as you plan to return to the classroom. I am looking forward to starting my coaching projects for the upcoming school year and visiting and supporting classrooms that are intentionally designed to support language learning for MLs. I hope that you will use the checklist, share it, and discuss it with your colleagues. I would love to see your classrooms!  Please share photos on Twitter using #MyMLclassroom and tagging @SupportEduc.

About SupportEd
SupportEd, LLC is a woman-owned small business based in Fairfax, VA specializing in Multilingual Learners (MLs). Founded in 2011 by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, best-selling author and ML expert, SupportEd meticulously crafts customized solutions to fit each client’s strengths, needs, and provides teachers and administrators the practical tools necessary to champion MLs’ success within and beyond the classroom. All SupportEd team members have prior experience in the classroom which enables the SupportEd team to provide realistic, actionable solutions. Services include online and in-person immersive professional development workshops, easy-to-implement tools and resources, and an array of supporting services. Visit or call (202) 660-1444 to learn more.