• Destiny Yarbro

4 Vital Elements When Designing a Positive Language Learning Environment

If I designed a positive language classroom environment, what elements would I prioritize?

With my love of both teaching and learning languages, this week's course readings for University of the People gave me ideas that I could add to my language learning classroom. I have seen, too often, that language teachers place undue emphasis on grammar, conjugations, predetermined vocabulary lists, and other easy-to-test principles. I want to prioritize other elements of language learning in my classroom. When I picture a positive language learning environment, the following characteristics are key in the design:

Hands-on-learning. Language learning is often considered more of a cerebral than a kinesthetic endeavor. However, I think that teaching sign languages has helped me break away from this stereotype and embrace hands-on-learning in the language classroom. Perhaps “time to tinker” as Wolk (2008) put it in our readings may look like:

  • The teacher takes their students to a restaurant on campus. Each student orders in sign language with a fellow student interpreting. They compare notes afterwards to identify which phrases or vocabulary they wish they would have known for next time.

  • The teacher divides up the classroom into duos asking each group to find a favorite scene from a TV show. The students work together to interpret each line into sign language. The following class period, each duo plays the favorite scene on the projector and then act out the scene in sign language.

  • Rather than give everyone the same generic vocabulary list, the teacher presents a scenario such as “a Deaf person walks into your place of work” or “a Deaf family joins your church” and have the students write out a list of 20 vocabulary words they would use in that scenario. The lists would vary as a student who works as a vet assistant will have different vocab needs than a student who works at a movie theatre and a student who is Muslim will have a different vocab list than a student who is Amish.

As Tulley (2005) said about the Tinkering School, “all activities are hands-on, supervised, and at least partly improvisational. Grand schemes, wild ideas, crazy notions, and intuitive leaps of imagination are, of course, encouraged and fertilized.” In the case of language learning, time to tinker allows for time to use a language rather than simply learn about grammatical concepts or doing a worksheet on conjugations.

Freedom to try and fail. I think most teachers agree that a physically safe classroom is important for learning. However, what about an intellectually or mentally safe environment for trying out a new language and failing? For example, when is error correction given in a language learning classroom? Should a teacher correct a student immediately upon noting an error (regardless of whether this disturbs a student’s thought processes or makes them more self-conscious of mistakes in the future) or allow the student to function the best they can for a time before giving them constructive feedback (Pawlak, 2013)? Should fluency be measured by grammatical perfection or the ability to communicate in any given scenario with conversation’s inherent ebbs-and-flows and unscripted flaws?

In language learning, behaviorist ideals continue to linger. There is undue focus on “minimizing mistakes” at all costs with teachers giving prompts, hints, and other cues to help students “make the correct responses” (Borich & Tombari, n.d). Fixing errors is the goal and students leave school hesitant to use the language for fear of making mistakes (mistakes that are, in my opinion, fundamental in the learning process). Instead, should we not give students the freedom to “bring their own ideas and creations to life” (Wolk, 2008), to “see the humor in their mistakes,” “celebrate their successes”, “feel a sense of belonging” and “tackle challenges, take risks, and ask questions” (Young, 2014)? I largely teach students new to a language so I feel like a student’s ability to use the language as best they can to communicate and communicate with others should take precedence over grammatical perfection. And this lies hand-in-hand with the next characteristic: authentic assessments.

Authentic assessment. Similar to other languages, many sign language teachers focus on easy-to-test concepts like grammar, conjugations, and generic vocabulary. This testing of the “product” of language learning rather than the process (Au, 2007), results in “nontested subjects … increasingly excluded from curricular content” (p. 260). After all, how does a traditional examination measure a student’s ability to function in unscripted conversations or communicate and connect with someone in the language community? What do more “authentic measures of assessment” look like? (Armstrong, 2018, p.129). What if a teacher gave students choices in how they can show what they have learned? For example, a teacher could offer the following options:

  • Record yourself in a conversation with a Deaf friend.

  • Interpret your favorite slam poem into sign language.

  • Give a presentation on each of the VGC classifiers.

  • Perform a dance that incorporates signs into the dance moves.

  • Draw representations of non-manual markers.

  • Compose an ABC story about your favorite experience in nature.

  • Interpret your favorite song into sign.

  • Learn how to pray or recite your personal mantras in sign.

Community connection. Unfortunately, I have seen how many language teachers emphasize repetition, grammar, or conjugation in their courses at the exclusion of communication and connection. Concepts are presented in abstract or decontextualized ways (Herrington, Reeves, & Oliver, 2010). Too often we separate a language from its cultural heritage and wonder why language courses are ineffective or sterile. We focus on “linguistic knowledge as a goal in itself, leaving it up to the learner” to make the language functional and useful (Van Gorp and Bogaert, 2006). Our students are too often only exposed to other beginner students in the classroom rather than language models.

In this week’s forum discussion, I mentioned my Arabic teacher who “focused our entire course on writing Arabic script, completely ignoring her students’ pre-existing and meaningful motivators for learning.” In the years since my Arabic course experience, I have pondered on what my professor could have done instead. She could have encouraged us to email pen pals in the Arabic-speaking community or make phone calls with Arabic-speaking relatives. In my American Sign Language courses, I invite members of the Deaf community to share Deaf poetry, perform ABC stories, or describe their experiences growing up with or without language in their home. I want to ensure that my students know how inseparably connected language is with community.

This portfolio assignment helped me further explore these four characteristics of a positive classroom environment. Identifying qualities of an ideal classroom helps me prioritize what is most vital in my classroom when the competing priorities of stakeholders often complicate teaching.


Au, W. (2007). High-Stakes Testing and Curricular Control: A Qualitative Metasynthesis. Educational Researcher, 36(5), 258-267. http://jwilson.coe.uga.edu/EMAT7050/articles/Au.pdf

Borich, G. D. & Tombari, M. L. (n-d). “Behaviorism in the Classroom.” Lumen Educational Psychology. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/edpsy/chapter/behaviorism-in-the-classroom/

Glatthorn, A. A., Boschee, F., Whitehead, B. M. and Boschee, B. F. (2019). Curriculum Leadership: Strategies for Development and Implementation. (5th ed.) https://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/44333_12.pdf

Herrington, J., Reeves, T.C., & Oliver, R. (2010). A guide to authentic e-learning. https://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/1903/

Pawlak, M. (2013, August 13). Error Correction in the Foreign Language Classroom. Springer Science and Business Media.

Stake, R. (1967). The Countenance of Education Evaluation. Teachers College Record, 68(7).

Van Gorp, K., & Bogaert, N. (2006). Developing language tasks for primary and secondary education. In K. Van den Branden (Ed.), Task-based language education from theory to practice (pp. 76-105). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wolk, S. (2008). Joy in school. The Positive Classroom, 66 (1), 8-15. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept08/vol66/num01/Joy-in-School.aspx

Woods, J. D. (1988). Curriculum Evaluation Models: Practical Applications for Teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 13(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.1988v13n2.1

Yildirim, Özgür. (2008). Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory and dynamic assessment in language learning. Anadolu University Journal of Social Sciences, 8(1), 301-307. https://web.b.ebscohost.com/abstract?direct=true&profile=ehost&scope=site&authtype=crawler&jrnl=13030876&AN=36364857&h=zkM8wLluSFBTIlDYOQDbbRo22VYF3zd9MvZwY3NiA68nqEmVxM4GiixtSwp99Jw0xS61HqBQDxG%2fyZ8SA3LHsA%3d%3d&crl=c&resultNs

Young, J. (2014). The importance of a positive classroom. Encouragement in the Classroom: How Do I Help Students Stay Positive and Focused. http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/sf114049/chapters/The-Importance-of-a-Positive-Classroom.aspx

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