Use Environmental Print to Practice Literacy Skills

If you have struggling readers at home or at school, practicing with environmental print may be the solution to your literacy problem.  My English Language Learners often come to class with very little exposure to American vocabulary, and environmental print has helped them get a better grasp on letters and sounds.  

Once, I had a class of ELL first graders working in pairs with letter flashcards, and one student started sniffling and tearing up.  When I knelt down to help him along, he showed me the card; it was J for Jam, but he had never had jam before, didn't know what it was, and was afraid he would be in trouble for not knowing.  After a hug and a few tissues, I collected all the flashcards and we sat down with Google Images to find other words that started with J.  I started using environmental print the very next day, and am so glad I more tears!

Whether at home or at school, print is really all around us.  From food wrappers to license plates, children are exposed to words from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep.  Use that to your advantage! There are so many ways to use environmental print at home or at school to help early or struggling readers.  Here are just a few!

Here are some more ways to practice reading skills using environmental print
  • Play I-spy on the road with license plates or car models (I spy with my little eye, a car that starts with S!)
  • Pick a common sign (like Speed Limit) and count to see how many they can find along the way
  • Use the morning cereal box to find the first letter in the child's name

Here are some more ways to practice writing skills using environmental print

  • Cut out the logo from a cereal box and have children trace over it 
  • Keep a pen and paper in the car, and make tally marks each time you see a sign that starts with a certain letter.
  • Use magnetic letters on the fridge to form the words of household items
Here are some more ways to practice speaking skills using environmental print

  • Ask students to explain whether or not they like something, and why (like Legos) 
  • Have kids tell you if something belongs or doesn't belong (like McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Barbie) and why or why not.
  • Practice on a Saturday running errands by making a list of places you went.  ("First, we went to Lowe's, then to Petsmart, and last to Subway.")

Here are some more ways to practice listening skills using environmental print

  • Provide a list and ask students to tell you which was first or last. 
  • Spread out word cards and ask students to put in order using directions you give
  • Allow students to discuss likes/dislikes with a friend, then summarize the conversation
You can use environmental print to practice math skills by counting and comparing letters, and practice social studies skills by finding out if there is a McDonald's in every country.  How else can you use environmental print in your class?  For more information and research about environmental print, read this or this!

Strategies for English Language Learners

It's not easy to be an English Language Learner in the USA.  In fact, the odds are somewhat stacked against our ELL's.  We're asking them, from the minute they set foot in a school, to learn specific content-area vocabulary at their grade level, when in reality, they may not have the background education, knowledge, or experiences to be able to keep up with their classroom peers.  There may also be environmental factors that affect their ability to attend or focus at school. So how can we reach them?

1. Get off on the right foot.

2. Get to know your student.

  • Learn where he came from, how he got here, who he lives with, and any information you can about his culture and customs.  Use that information to make slight adjustments within your room to make the student feel more at home.
  • Find the student's proficiency level.  In NJ, we use WIDA, which provides us with  Can-Do descriptors.
  • You can think of "Can-Do's" like an IEP: it's a summary of what students can be expected to achieve.  Here's a teacher friendly version- just click the picture to download.

3. Assume nothing! 
  • Just because it happens in the USA doesn't mean it happens around the world. Many of my refugee students come from cultures where birthdays aren't celebrated.  That makes it difficult when you want them to read and answer questions about a book called "Susie's Surprise Party!" Not only does it make it difficult to understand the concept, but the students may feel ashamed of not knowing, and therefore become alienated.
  • Many students come to the US without the experiences that our students take for granted.  We can't assume that ELL's have been to the beach, rode a roller-coaster, gone camping, or trick-or-treat'ed with friends.  
  • If you know that this week's guided reader is about camping, take a quick needs assessment to see if your ELL's know about camping.  If they don't, there are things you can do to build the vocabulary they need: put together a short slideshow with common camping vocabulary for the benefit of all the students in the class, find a Youtube video, or let the kids explore Google Images. 

Another tip: have one student be the "expert" on a topic to build community and enhance speaking and listening skills.

4.  Teach vocabulary in context: 
  • This strategy will work for all the students in the class!
  • Here's the scenario: The students need to know their vocab words, so you send a list home on Monday with this week's 10 words, and there will be a quiz on Friday.  Whoa! Pump the brakes! If the objective is for the students to learn how to SPELL a word, sending a list home might be adequate.  But if the objective is for students to learn how to USE a word, sending a list home will result in a big fat nothing.    
  • Whether it's sight words, math vocabulary, or elements of the periodic table, ESL students need to be taught in a way that will allow them to take the word and process it, then produce it.  Marzano's Six Steps are a great framework to use.
  • Let students hear, use, and read lots of examples where the word is being used throughout the week or unit, and let them practice using the word correctly. 
    • Here are a few examples where the vocabulary words are used throughout the unit in many different forms. Click either picture to see them in my TPT store.

How do you reach the ELL's in your classroom? Share your stories of success (or difficulty!) in the comments.  

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