Experimenting with the linguistic experience: the language lab

Within the first few years at my school (and that was a few years ag), I was required to earn the Dalton teachers certification.  The course itself took two years, and was given in modules covering the various aspects of Dalton education, including multiple intelligences, freedom within bounds, co-operative learning, and responsibility.


I took a lot away from those courses, and while developing my own research questions and portfolio, stumbled upon the concept of “learning lab”.  According to the dalton plan, each dalton school has three parts: a house (a classroom), an assignment, and a laboratory, where children can experiment as part of their learning process.  I decided that I would build a laboratory where children could experiment with language, with various assignments as a basis for their work.

It took some experimentation, but after a year or two, I ended up with a fairly satisfactory design which I use to this day.  The language lab – or “English Corner”, as the children call it – consists of three main stations:  language practice with the teacher, independent small-group work, and paired work on the computer.


Language practice with the teacher

working with children

I work with a small group on a language-intensive activity 

This station usually consists of a simple game or activity in which I work with a small group of children.  During the course of the activity, each child has the opportunity to develop his language skills intensively, practicing the words and grammar structures we’ve been learning in the whole-group lessons.  Because this activity is so teacher-intense, the other activities are designed for independent and paired work.

Examples of work I might do with the children at this station are varied, depending on the age level of the children and what skills I think they need to learn.  At the start of the year, for instance, I will spend a few sessions teaching the children games that they may play independently later in the year.  I might also use this time to build a paper-mache story-scape on my table, play with hand puppets, or do simple assessments.


Independent practice with classmates

small group work

Children play a game in a small group. I listen for application of the vocabulary we learned while they work independently 

This portion of the lab features activities that are related to the topic being taught in the whole-group lessons.  For instance, if we are learning vocabulary for the house, there will be a dollhouse, replete with dolls and furniture.  During the instruction, I remind children of the words we have been practicing, and that I expect to hear these words being used as they play together.  I also remind them of the co-operative learning skills I expect to observe (albeit from a distance).  In the course of their play, I listen for the expected vocabulary and give compliments when they use the vocabulary.

When children use Dutch (L1) instead of English in this activity, I don’t worry about it.  The objective of this activity is that children use the target vocabulary, thus reinforcing the concepts taught, no matter what the language.


Co-operative work on computers

computer work

Children work in pairs on the computers

Here, the children work in pairs on computer games.  The games are varied, and the children may choose which (educational) English game they will play – Teddy’s Train and Tilly’s Word Fun are favorite among the very young, while the older children will often work on Oscar’s Word Bank, online reading assignments, or other internet-based assignments.

The computers are equipped with splitters, so that two headsets can be used per computer.  There is a very good reason for this: at a Dalton school, children need to learn to work together.  By pairing them off on the computer, children need to use basic sharing skills such as taking turns with the mouse and in choosing the activity.  They also help each other out, teaching their computer buddy how to navigate a new game or assignment.  A side effect of this method is that as there are only a few computers in the lab, more children get to use them at the same time.


Other activities:


Child reading an English book.

It’s important to have other activities that children can do entirely on their own, such as reading, or listening to a recorded book or song.



Keeping track:

Of course, it’s important to insure the children have a well-rounded experience in the language lab.  If, for instance, the same children are always working on the independent activity, they will never work with me on the more language-intensive activity, something that allows for greater development of their skills.   I’ve experimented with several ways of recording the children’s choices, so that they could choose something else during the next session.  Here you see my first attempt at helping children keep track of their choices:


attempt #1: after each lesson I had to remove the nametags and record the choices on paper before the next group arrived.

I was unhappy with the double-bookkeeping this required, and the children had no overview of their own past activities.  I wanted a choice board that gave the children insight into their choices:  what had they chosen in the past and what their future possibilities were.  I found magnetic boards for sale at a local shop, and with some sticky-back plastic, magnetic tape, and laminated name and number cards, put together this design:


attempt #2: This magnet board allowed the chldren to see what they’d already chosen, and what the remaining possibities were.

However, even this model had its drawbacks: I had no place to record how children had done with the given tasks, and as each class had its own board, I had to maintain a number of these boards in a rather small space.  Occasionally, the boards fell down and all of the magnets fell off, so that the information was lost.  I needed a better solution.

In the end, I settled for a paper version of the magnetic board.  This paper version is simply a checklist with the children’s names in large letters, and pictograms representing the various activities.  The children can see this checklist as they make their choices, and I mark their choices on the sheet.  This compacts the space requirement and allows me a place to make notes of children’s language behaviors.   This is the model I work with today, and I’m quite happy with it.


Organization of the language lab:

I work with groups of 12 to 18 children per session.  We start all together, and I briefly explain what activities are available for the children to choose from.  The children take turns choosing their activities, and realize that “full is full”.  If I only have four spaces for the ever-popular computer station, and four children have chosen that activity, I list the activities again, reminding the children that the computers are now full.  Once the children’s choices have been made, the children go to their stations and get to work.  At the end of the language lab session (usually about 20 to 25 minutes later), I sing the tidy-up song, the children put everything back in order, and line up to go back to class.

While I work with half of the class in the language lab, the classroom teacher works intensively with the other half, giving small-group instruction.  Then we switch groups – the group that was in the language lab then receives small-group instruction, while the other group works in the language lab.  This manner of working requires the teacher to keep a close eye on the clock while teaching, but in general has worked out quite satisfactorily for all involved.


I wonder how other teachers solve the issue of getting children to practice their language skills outside of the regular lessons offered?  Please let me know what you do about this.


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