Since I shared a little snapshot into a language workshop I modelled with some of our student teachers recently, I've been inundated with questions about what it's about and how to organise it.
As an infant teacher, I taught in a wonderful but very busy and demanding classroom context in terms of the complexity of needs and large class sizes.
A lot of learners.
A lot of diverse needs.
A lot of children learning English as an additional language.
A lot of children for whom English was their primary language yet still were beginning school with extremely limited vocabulary and narrative discourse skills.
A lot to juggle!
As a result, attention to purposeful and meaningful development of oral language was crucial and the remainder of my instruction, in literacy and across the curriculum, depended on it. Continuous nurture of receptive and expressive language was imperative.
What is a language workshop?
The language workshop was a model I conjured not long after the introduction of the first version of the Primary Language Curriculum (2015) and endeavored to implement, initially twice a week, and scaling back to once per week once phonics came into the equation. It was a way of quite simply, 'doing many things at once', integrating play and playful approaches with the goal of language use and language development to the forefront. The idea was that the children we working together through a variety of interactive, collaborative and playful activities whilst giving me a chance to work with a number of small groups on rotation across an hour. Ultimately, it was taking a little bit of influence from what I had observed in 'power hour', Writers' Workshop and literacy station type scenarios, infused with what we had been learning to prioritise since the introduction of the Aistear Curriculum Framework for Early Childhood Education (2009). There were still elements of the children having agency and autonomy in particular activities but specific learning outcomes and goals for each planned station. It was a teacher-organised, playful hour of valuable language work; infused with elements of playful literacy in terms of reinforcing emergent reading and writing skills in context. The language and literacy skills which children were expected to reinforce and contextulaise or practise at each station, had been explicitly taught already. It was all about facilitating 'practical application to make the learning stick' (Blevins, 2016).
With large classes, I always had at least five or six activity stations going at once. The children worked in groups and rotated every 12-15 minutes. I used six slides on the IWB to illustrate the sequence for the children (see images below). Before starting, we always revised our very clear rules and expectations. I explained where I would be working and each station was explained for the children. As mentioned, explicit skills required for each station had been previously taught. Each station was to be left tidy and organised for the next group. This generally worked well, bar a few scraps or paper cuttings beneath a creative space.
One method, many outcomes!
Take for example the stations above, as with most of my instruction, the learning stemmed from a literature springboard, for example, if we had been reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The children were familiar with the text, the vocabulary of the text and background knowledge pertaining to caterpillars and their lifecycles. The stations were connected to this. Here's an overview of what they would have resembled under the VHC theme.
'Nosy Noticers' (Fiorentini, 2019)
This was basically a visually perception and observation space. I provided the children with a selection of 'seek and find' visuals, 'spot the difference' visuals, interesting images of real caterpillars, cocoons and butterflies and a selection of visually rich informational texts about gardens, caterpillars, butterflies - and so on! The incentive at this station was the use of magnifying glasses. The children used their skills as nosy noticers to look, zoom, notice, compare and chat about what they were seeing. They were encouraged to use the language of visuals which we would usually use when exploring images together (centre, background, foreground etc.).
The Conversation Station was a regular in my classroom and one I used consistently during a workshop model. For me, it was a way of utisling collaborative small world play as a stimulus for narrative discourse and playful dialogue. So, again, following the VHC theme, we had a selection of invitations into small world play - stick puppets, insects, foods, flowers, grass, hessian, finger puppets and a selection of vocabulary cards (with images) and a few books connected to the theme. The children directed the dialogue, the materials were the invitation.
The Story Pot
(Rhyme source: Story Pot rhyme is just one of my own!)
This deserves a whole post of its own. However, in short, the story pot is an incredible way to build oral narrative skills, and a superb lead into the narrative writing genre in stages 1 and 2 of primary school. If you have another adult to hand in the room, it can be helpful to have them at this group. However, I found when my class were familiar with the story pot, they were more than capable of navigating this station alone. A leader is nominated and off they go. Initially, a shared narrative is created by adding an item of choice to the group story pot. Following this, the children created their own selection of ingredients to the story pot and then created an individual narrative to share with their friends. It's a flexible model and the original idea stems from an incredible Early Childhood Educator in North Dublin. You can find a useful video on it here on the Aistear-Síolta support materials. Like any good method, it's about adapting and tweaking to suit your context and for me, it was about making it something to inspire but also challenge my little storytellers.
Here the children engaged in a creative task. It integrated creative play with a range of art materials (some call it Junk Art) with following a procedure to create an end product - in this case a caterpillar stick puppet. There would be no set expectation on what their caterpillar was supposed to look like, just a simple procedure sequence to follow.
Lots of literacy skill work happening here. In this workshop example, this was the station I would be found at. There's probably a better name I could put on this station but it is a version of the Language Experience Approach. In current times, the original model of the LEA draws some criticism, however if used in an intentional way of using a shared experience (in this case their knowledge of the story The Very Hungry Caterpillar) to create a shared written piece to highlight and reinforce syntax and high frequency words, it can be a really useful, interactive model. This will be a busy station, with some really nice opportunities to explicitly work on language, reading, letter and word formation, spelling and sentence syntax.
I always had a sentence stem ready to go e.g. ____________ liked the ____________.
We began by exploring the high frequency words on the chart, and practised reading and spelling them using the 'read it, spell & clap it, write it, read it' routine.
We revised the parts of the story or items of the story we enjoyed. We used a speaking object to pass around the circle and take turns sharing.
I recorded the children's contributions on the chart.
We read the sentences multiple times to practise fluency.
The children chose their favourite sentence and wrote it down and drew a corresponding picture. Encouraging the children to have a go and use their encoding skills was important here. Sometimes I might remove the sentence stem and just leave their chosen words.
Little explanation need here, but another nice, interactive and playful area. Lots of language games to choose from and ideally the children will play as a whole group or at a minimum, in pairs. You can go whole hog into the theme, or just make use of the lovely language games that you have to hand. Headbandz and any of the Orchard Tree Games were always the firm favourites in my room - and still are with my student teachers interestingly!
The stations you choose may vary. Other options I sometimes included or swapped out the Language Games for were:
Construction play (usually collaborative challenges)
Category cards (which doesn't belong?)
Entertaining images (gallery walk approach)
If you found this post and ideas useful, be sure to share and circulate.
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Clara Fiorentini, 2024.