Responsive Classroom and ELLs

By Sarah Forbes

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About the author: Sarah Forbes is the K-1 ELL Teacher at John F. Kennedy Elementary in Winooski, Vermont, an Adjunct Instructor in the Saint Michael’s College intensive summer TESOL Certificate program, and a Vermont Representative of the NNETESOL board.

After a four day training for responsive classroom, thanks to our school’s supportive administrators, I feel confident that the philosophies embedded in this approach are significant for all students, including ELLs, and the corresponding activities have great adaptive value for practicing language and content. Responsive Classroom aims to answer the question of how we can teach the whole child, and recognizes that a learner’s basic needs, including belonging, significance and fun, need to be met in order for academic learning to be at its best. It also argues that academic choice, which considers the various learning styles and developmental stages of students in a classroom, results in greater student engagement and “buy-in.”

It is exciting that our current administration is supporting this shift towards a more complete Responsive Classroom, as community, interaction, student choice and fun have always been central to my own teaching philosophy. When I worked with high school and college age EFL students in Japan, I had a lot of freedom in the content I taught and how I taught it. I tried to infuse all of my lessons with interactive and energetic activities, creative practice with meaningful content, and student choice. Even reluctant students, those who struggled to see why they were required to learn English, couldn’t help but be drawn in by the enticing, student-centered quality of collaborative projects, games, and story creation.

I have been able to adopt similar methods in my small pull-out groups in my current position, yet I’ve struggled to figure out how to shift my thinking when in math push-in situations and with math content. While implementation of math best practices and Habits of Mind we have managed to create math classes that are highly interactive, we still have a curriculum schedule that keeps us focused on Common Core State Standards and packs in a lot of content that we must also evaluate students on. This structure hasn’t allowed for much student choice, and certainly in myself instills a sense of panic at all of the language and content to be covered. Tipping the scales towards quality versus quantity, or finding a balance of energizing activities over focused practice, is a struggle. However, after this training, I feel much more confident that we will have a consistent vision as a school staff, and we can build on what we have already been doing that has been successful and make it more effective by incorporating some of the core tenants of Responsive Classroom.

Responsive Classroom grew out of the 1981 establishment of the Northeast Foundation for Children (NEFC), started by 6 public school teachers in Greenfield, MA. The school sought to teach the whole child and looked carefully at the skills students needed to be successful at learning interactively and independently. They began presenting their approach to public schools in 1990, and continue to spread their popular educational methods to schools around the world through trainings such as the one I attended. They have also published many noteworthy books including Yardsticks by Chip Wood, outlining characteristics of children throughout their young development, and The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton, as well as several other titles that define strategies and activities used in a Responsive Classroom.

There are four key domains of responsive classroom: engaging academics, positive community, effective management, and developmental awareness. Throughout our four day training, we were asked to reflect on how each of the activities we did and topics we discussed related to these four domains. To me, the most essential of them all is positive community. Positive community starts with the routine of morning meeting. Morning meeting establishes a clear and consistent routine that brings students together, acknowledging their social and emotional needs, and sets the tone for all other learning. Here students first greet one another (in often creative and fun ways), have an opportunity to share personal information about themselves in some respectful format, do an energizer, interactive activity or game, and then transition into their academic day by reading a shared morning message written by the teacher. Interactive modeling, which consists of the teacher acting out expected behavior and students verbally noticing specific aspects of that behavior, explicitly and visually defines for students how they are supposed to participate. In this way, we don’t assume that students come to us with all the prerequisite skills to be polite, safe, engaged, responsible and kind human beings, but that this learning also occurs in the secure environment of the school and classroom. For beginning ELLs, the silent noticing of interactive modeling means that they are not tasked with interpreting a teacher’s verbal instructions in addition to nonverbal cues. They have time to process what’s happening, brainstorm associated vocabulary, and listen for it when peers begin to share their observations.  

Morning meeting gives students a chance to rehearse and practice social skills, such as respectful body language and asking questions, that carry over into their academic work. One type of sharing activity we tried was one where a few volunteers were simply invited to share about a memorable summer event, or something they were looking forward to in the new school year. The rest of the group were paired up to think about questions they might ask the person sharing about their memory or hope. This gives students who might not know what sort of questions to ask, including ELLs, a chance to learn some ways of asking questions, get some ideas to spark their own questions, and practice before sharing with the whole class; it is a whole group conversational version of “think-pair-share.”

Discipline, not punishment, is established through a logical progression of connecting rules to students’ hopes and dreams. Firm limits are set on behavior, with clear consequences, and generous use of a time-out or take-a-break space as a preventative tool to allow students time to collect themselves and regain self-control when they inevitably begin to lose it. However, the hope is that through a strong sense of community, academic choice and voice, careful and intentional use of teaching language for positive reinforcement and reminding, that students ultimately misbehave less and don’t need time-out as often. One thing that really stood out as powerful and equalizing to me is the practicing of time-out, or take-a-break, by every student in the class. If all students see that they have the capacity to lose control, even if for a minute, but are trusted to regain control via a short break, then no one student is singled out as the “naughty” one. Even though there will ultimately be some children who use the space more often, setting it up as an equitable opportunity for calming down further reinforces a sense of community in the classroom, one where making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process. This behavior management system is empathetic to students’ developmental stages as well, accepting that social norms and self-control need to be learned in the same way academics do. Other strategies, such as quiet time and energizers respond to students’ need for calm or physical activity at different times throughout the day, preventing blow outs or misbehaviors based on overstimulation or exhaustion.

Effective management involves careful planning, collaboration, and an awareness of developmental stages and how they affect student readiness and behaviors. Engaging academics require effective management, since it is through an understanding of students’ developmental strengths and needs that a teacher is able to provide academic choices that help students feel successful and also challenge them towards growth. Academic choices motivate learners through giving them autonomy and a sense of control. Having the capacity to interact with peers while working through practice, problems, or projects is also powerful in making academics exciting, social and meaningful. Reflection ties this all together.

When I think of our co-taught math classes, I see enormous potential in academic choice. We encourage students to solve math problems in multiple ways, and share their thinking with peers, making visual and concrete their abstract processes. After students have had the ability to try out different ways of solving a problem or used different tools and games for practicing concepts, giving them the choice to revisit what helped them understand or what might challenge them to push their thinking further honors their individual wants and needs. Our trainer felt it important to emphasize that academic choice is not synonymous with academic centers. While centers could become choices, centers in themselves are generally teacher assigned and all students visit all centers at some point in time. The beauty of true academic choice is that students in control of their own learning are usually much more engaged in what they are doing, and that frees up the teacher to move around and help those who need it the most.

Much of this might seem familiar to anyone who has experienced good teaching and learning, or reflected on the power of community building activities, teamwork, creative play, student choice, or kindness in a classroom. What is nice about the Responsive Classroom is how it brings it all together in a concise way, with great graphic organizers, lesson planning guides, and bullet point lists that help a teacher feel equipped to put it into practice in whatever context they teach in. Teachers like me, who don’t have their own classroom or one group of students throughout the day, may not be able to implement a full morning meeting, but can utilize the plethora of greetings, energizers and interactive activities in their own lessons and routines. More importantly, having a shared knowledge of what works throughout the school that we are all striving towards provides a framework that carries over into all parts of a student’s day. The use of a take-a-break space, for example, can be adopted in any classroom once the students have come to understand its meaning.

I have always loved using greetings with my students at the beginning of class. With my kindergarten groups, I have even used the same greeting every class all year long, eye contact, a hand-shake, and a greeting song “Hello …, it’s nice to see you!” passed around a circle. The children come to love it so much that they do it without me, and students who might otherwise not talk to one another are suddenly familiar and ready to learn together. In first grade, I begin to mix it up by adding some new greetings. Last year, we got one of the Responsive Classroom books, 80 Morning Meeting Ideas: K-2, and I’ve used this many times to pull out new greeting ideas. My students enjoy these and that they do them in their classrooms as well so they can teach me when I’m not sure about how one works. I start to let them choose which greeting we will do once they’re familiar with several of them. While it only takes a couple of minutes out of my pull-out time to complete this greeting, it has huge pay-off in quickly establishing a sense of community that carries through each day. It also provides students an opportunity to practice the social language expected of them in the classroom in a safe, small group setting. They can revisit ideas presented in their mainstream classrooms, ask questions about meaning where they might not have felt comfortable doing so with a larger group, or discuss something they enjoyed from morning meeting. This aids in reflection and helps students gain confidence in their interactive language. I’ve also had student take turns teaching how they might greet someone in their home language, and we all practice these greetings around the room. The students are empowered as they teach each other, and we celebrate the diversity of our school.

The use of energizers, quick movement breaks and games throughout the day or a class, also means that students bring more focus and calm to academic tasks. I use these frequently, but usually I try to make my activities include the actual language and content I’m introducing or practicing. This multimodal approach to instruction encourages internalization of new language. This was one of my most exciting take-aways from the training, that so many of the interactive activities or energizers could be used to deliver differentiated content. They are flexible enough to allow for various entry points and language that respects my ELLs at not only their developmental stage, but also their language proficiency level.

For example, one of the morning meeting activities we did was a gesture game called “What are you doing?”. It starts with students standing in a circle. One person gestures a familiar activity, such as playing basketball, and the student to the left of them asks the question, “What are you doing?” The response must indicate to that student what gesture they are to perform, not the gesture they are actually doing. A response could be, “I’m reading a book.” The question-asker then starts acting out reading a book, and this pattern continues around the circle until it is back to the start. To scaffold this and ensure that the activities to be gestured are appropriate, the teacher could first brainstorm actions in a category. This is where I saw immediate application for my young learners. Activities could be a limited set of verbs we are working on, such as activities at school, sports, or stages of a butterfly life cycle. This simple activity requires little preparation and yet has a high fun and engagement factor. Even when we weren’t gesturing or asking a question, we were all paying close attention to the others in the group, seeing how they might interpret and act out different actions.

Many of the Responsive Classroom activities make academic practice more concrete, which benefits ELLs tremendously. In one addition game students, in groups of 2 – 3, randomly try to produce a certain number with their fingers without talking and just putting out whatever number of fingers they want. The number could be “7” and two students show fingers on one hand, if they manage to get just 7, which requires quick counting and addition, they “win.” A customizable cube dice or beach ball with picture or words on it could be a tool for review within a greeting. On a cube displaying different color words, students might have to greet each other and then throw the dice to another classmate in the group, the classmate who catches responds with a greeting indicated by where their index finger lands on the dice, “hello to everyone wearing [red]”. To keep learning active, gestures can be used when you are reading a story or a morning message to represent words. Students may even determine what action or gesture would clearly illustrate a vocabulary item and then all act that out as they are reading a morning message. I’ve decide to try out this idea in my own weekly message to students on the first week of pull-out. Because I will also be teaching our singing greeting to my beginning kindergarteners, the message will include the greeting and reinforce the language in it:

Hello friends, (wave when we say hello)

Hello friends,

Hello friends,

It’s nice to see you, (thumbs up when we say nice and make binoculars with our fingers when we say see)

This week we will all say hello to our new friends and

Say (hands talking) what we see in our school.

A final important piece of Responsive Classroom is the first six weeks of school. They have a text which gives teachers a better picture of what this looks like, but essentially it is a dedication to using the first six weeks of school to build community, establish expectations for safe behavior and social interaction, and explore the tools and routines of academic learning in the classroom. There is no formal testing or evaluation during this time, and extensive use of interactive modeling sets students up for success in all parts of their school day. Skills modeled during this time include routines and procedures, such as walking in the halls, lining up, or sitting in a circle, social and emotional skills, like using eye contact when we greet someone, expressing our feelings, or taking deep breaths to calm down, and academic skills that establish norms for the academic learning that comes later, like choosing a “just right” book or using unifix cubes in math. Ultimately, it sets the tone for learning for the whole year.

It is hard to imagine a Responsive Classroom, as described here, that doesn’t welcome and respect the cultural and linguistic diversity of the learners within. While I look forward to seeing more Responsive Classroom publications in the future that specifically address the inclusion of ELLs and effective strategies for addressing their language development needs, I think this approach is immediately applicable to the multilingual classroom and establishes routines and practices that benefit all learners. This training was a great way for me to start a new school year, and I’m excited to try out the new activities and ideas I gained by participating. If any of the things I described here tickled your curiosity, I recommend reading more on the Responsive Classroom website and asking your school to consider a training for your staff or to purchase some of the great resources available.  



  • Responsive Classroom Resource Book, Center for Responsive Schools, Inc., 2015.
  • Responsive Classroom Course for Elementary Educators, 4 day training, August 2016.


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