Community Building in Language Classes

by Dr. Alexandra Rowe, University of South Carolina

Why is building community important in language classes?

Current second language acquisition (SLA) theory and practice tells us language teachers that we can facilitate SLA in our classrooms if we create a comfortable language-learning environment in which the learners will take risks, that is, communicate without fear of making mistakes, for only by making mistakes can learners actually increase their language proficiency.  Of course, it is our responsibility to provide correction of the learners’ mistakes, but we must do this in a respectful manner that acknowledges learners’ efforts and encourages them to continue communicating.  Among adult learners, this can be a tricky business, and effective error correction involves allowing the adult learner to maintain his or her self-esteem.  Often this requires us to make corrections teacher-to-learner, privately, or we can embed corrections in our responses to the learner.

If a community is successfully created in the language classroom, language-learning facilitation becomes the province of the entire community of learners, not just the teacher.  Therefore, the SLA of the whole group of learners is enhanced, and the SLA of the group supports the SLA of the individual learner.

It is the responsibility of the teacher to employ pedagogical strategies that will foster the creation of a community of learners.  Sometimes such a community will just never form, regardless of how hard the teacher tries, but, in most cases, the teacher can use certain strategies that will successfully create a community of learners.

How can a teacher create a community of learners in a language classroom?

Presented below are some effective strategies for community building in a language classroom:
(1) Spend time the first day of class having students share information about themselves that focus on their presence in the class.  If the students are intermediate language learners or above, have them write first, individually, and then share their comments verbally.  This reduces the discomfort of having to speak in the target language without having had time to think about what one wants to say.  (In this class, we will be doing this in pairs by means of “pairs-introductions.”  It can also be accomplished in the whole group.  In a distance class, it is important to establish a “buddy system” so as to have in-class support for class participation because, often, students drop out of a distance class due to lack of face-to-face camaraderie.)
(2) Have students write a “name tent” on a rectangular hard piece of paper that is placed before them.  At the end of each class session, collect these name tents and distribute them at the beginning of each subsequent class for the first 4-5 sessions.  Have students do the distribution.
(3) After the second class, don’t let students leave the class until they can name the members of the class or at least a few members of the class.
(4) On the first day of class, collect contact information on the students, perhaps email addresses, and distribute these email addresses to all members of the class in the following week.
(5) If you have your students do a writing assignment early in the course, excerpt one exemplary part of every student’s assignment, identify the writer, create a single document, and share this with the entire class within a week or two of having received the assignment.  This goes a long way toward supporting community in the class.

What is the main point of this English language teaching concept?

Building a community in a language class is top priority for the teacher in order for the teacher to support students’ gaining communicative competence.