Take Your EL Classroom Outside! How to Use Gardening to Facilitate Conversation

Using Gardening to Facilitate Conversation

There are several strands that feed into successful language acquisition for an English Learner (EL), as students must master skills such as vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and syntax. Blended learning with language-learning software allows students to learn these skills at their own pace with targeted instruction as needed. Another important component of learning language is practice in context—that is, in conversation.

In an example of this, a pilot program with adult learners at Hall Fletcher Elementary School in North Carolina paired computer-based skills practice with a program that used gardening as a tool for facilitating conversations between non-native English-speakers and volunteers proficient in English. This program can be adapted for K–12 education using the core principles behind the concept, as well as lessons learned in the pilot. Below are four key components of a gardening program to support English Learners.


1. An authentic, hands-on activity

Having a common goal and sharing responsibilities creates an opportunity for purposeful conversation. While conversation for the sole sake of practicing a language can sometimes be awkward, conversation around a shared task arises from an authentic need to communicate and thus can flow more naturally. One EL instructional model (Fillmore, 1991) identified high interest from learners as a key component of a successful program.

Gardening provides an engaging, meaningful activity with authentic opportunities for interaction and conversation. When gardening, students can see tangible evidence of their work, and they need to communicate to accomplish these concrete tasks. Gardening is also well-suited to conversation because there is often time to talk while work is being done. Activities such as planting, mulching, weeding, and harvesting allow participants to work closely together on shared tasks that are more physical than cerebral, thereby leaving room for conversation to develop. Other garden projects, such as building a cob oven or constructing benches, require cooperation that also necessitates communication.


2. Small groups

Studies have shown that ELs participate less in classroom discussion than their native-speaking peers (Penfield, 1987; Wilhelm, Contreras, & Mohr, 2004). Sometimes non-native English-speakers remain silent because they don’t feel confident in their ability to speak English or they are embarrassed or nervous to contribute. In small groups, the stakes are lower than in a whole classroom setting, which can lead to higher risk-taking by ELs. Thus, working in small groups can encourage students to speak out.

What do small groups look like in a garden setting? These groups can be formed within a larger participating population; groups of two to three students paired with a proficient English-speaker work best. Each group may be given different tasks within the garden, such as hauling mulch or weeding, or could be encouraged to work with other groups in a specific area. In many cases, multiple groups may be working on the same task—such as weeding—in proximity to each other. Explicitly creating smaller groups ensures that there is a trained, proficient English-speaker focusing specifically on several students.


3. Trained, proficient speakers

If conversation around a shared purpose is a cornerstone of any gardening program that supports ELs, having trained, proficient English-speakers working alongside students is what elevates the experience from simple interaction to a learning opportunity. Indeed, Fillmore’s EL instructional model identifies interaction with proficient speakers as a key component of language-learning programs.

While volunteers cannot be expected to have the training of a professional educator, the pilot program found that explicit training for volunteer English-speakers led to more successful conversations and better learning opportunities. Proficient speakers who support and interact with ELs should be trained in a few key areas:

  • Encouraging conversation

    Knowing how to encourage conversation is probably the most important skill a volunteer English-speaker can have when working with students in a garden setting. As communicating across a language barrier can sometimes be intimidating and difficult for both ELs and English-speakers, training should focus on ways to encourage conversation, such as asking questions, sharing stories, and intentionally bringing everyone into the discussion. Although asking questions is an excellent way to draw out reluctant speakers, question type and context are important. Volunteers should avoid “grilling” ELs with superficial questions and instead allow genuine inquiries to develop from shared activity. Questions should also pave the way for more than one-word responses or be strung together to elicit more detail, which is where sharing personal stories is helpful. If a volunteer shares a simple story about their own life, they can then ask questions that make a space for students to share as well. For example:

(while planting tomatoes)

I don’t like tomatoes that much. Do you?

I guess I do like them cooked in tomato sauce, though. My grandmother makes the most delicious tomato sauce. I love it when she cooks it for us. What do you like to eat with tomatoes in it?

I’ve never had that; what is it?

That sounds really good. Who usually cooks that for you?

Can you cook it? How do you make it? I can’t cook my grandmother’s tomato sauce yet, but I want to learn. My mom tries to make it sometimes, but hers really isn’t that good.

  • Allowing wait time

    In a classroom setting, teachers need to give ELs enough time to think through a question and gather their thoughts to answer (Nystrand, Gamoran, Kachure, & Prendergast, 1997). Similarly, it is important that the volunteer English-speakers allow plenty of time for students to respond in conversation. Although people have a tendency to fill in spaces in a conversation, the goal for the EL gardening program should be to elicit conversation from the students. Therefore, English-speaking volunteers need to resist the urge to rush into the silence that ELs may need to prepare their response. Making volunteers aware of this tendency and practicing wait time will allow them to become more comfortable with giving students the time they need before speaking. Working in a garden can also help make this silence less uncomfortable, as work is being done during the pause.

  • Modeling and correcting

    Another key strategy that volunteers must practice involves responding to mistakes made by ELs. Since the goal is for students to become more proficient in English, correcting mistakes must play a role. That said, too much correction can make the student feel overwhelmed or more nervous about participating in conversation. In fact, research has shown that interrupting conversation to introduce grammar rules does not lead to greater English proficiency (Krashen, 2003). With this in mind, a balance must be struck between responding to mistakes and letting conversation flow. One way to address this is through modeling. Volunteers can model correct speech without interrupting the flow of conversation by rephrasing a student’s error as part of the conversation. For example:

Student: I no went to school yesterday.

Volunteer: You didn’t go to school yesterday? Were you sick?

This kind of modeling is effective because it corrects the student’s error while still advancing the conversation. Modeling in this way can be used for grammatical and syntax errors, as well as errors of pronunciation. Explicit correction with an explanation of the “rule” does have its place, however. Once trust has developed between participants, an explicit correction to an error that the student commonly makes can be appropriate.

  • Knowledge of common errors

    Because each language has its own sentence structure, there are some common errors that occur when non-native speakers begin learning English. Making volunteers aware of these common errors in the language of the students they will be working with can help them in a few ways. First, this knowledge will help them better understand students, which may ease conversation. Being introduced to errors in advance will also allow volunteers to take notice of errors when they occur in conversation. They can practice some simple conversational ways to address errors ahead of time so they are ready when these arise.

  • Recruiting volunteers

    Where do volunteer English-speakers come from? For the pilot gardening program at Hall Fletcher Elementary, educators worked with a nearby college to solicit and train volunteers. For younger ELs, volunteers could be college students, local high school students, parents, or other community members. In addition to using volunteers, it is beneficial for English-speaking peers to participate as well, and peers themselves could serve as volunteers for older learners. Volunteers do not need to be knowledgeable about gardening—in fact, learning together can help ELs feel more at ease. Again, any volunteer should be explicitly trained before participating.

4. A sense of community

Making mistakes is an important part of the process of learning any new language. Since many ELs may not feel completely comfortable communicating in English, building a sense of community in which these students can feel safe to make mistakes is important. The final component in Fillmore’s model of an EL program is creating an environment in which the relationship between proficient English-speakers and English Learners is supported.

Having a shared goal and shared tasks are both important in developing community, and those are inherent in an EL program centered on gardening. Another important component to building a sense of community is time to form relationships. In gardening, participants can work and talk at the same time, so space for developing relationships is already there. Lastly, shared celebration can be an excellent community-builder, and gardening offers natural opportunities for harvest celebrations, shared meals made with food grown in the garden, or snacks at or around a garden project (such as a newly constructed cob oven or bench).

Ultimately, facilitators can intentionally build community among English-speaking volunteers and students based on the creation and maintenance of a low-risk environment where mistakes are accepted as a matter of course. The only consequence for a mistake in an EL gardening program should be that the student has a chance to improve.

In a similar vein, appreciation circles are another tool for developing community and providing additional opportunity for students to speak and support each other. This activity offers a chance for any participant to call out something they appreciate in another participant, such as acknowledging someone who is quick at weeding, someone who shared a funny story, or someone whose English showed improvement. Having both volunteers and students share in this way not only offers a compelling reason for ELs to share in English, but also helps put volunteers and students on a more equal level.


Adapting and implementing

While gardening was the initial focus of the pilot program at Hall Fletcher Elementary, there is much room for flexibility to adapt to the needs and resources of each school. For example, in the pilot program, educators branched out to first aid as a topic over the winter. Just as the key components outlined above can be applied to any authentic, hands-on activity, implementation can likewise be adapted for different grade levels and school settings—for instance, the program could be integrated into the school day or as an after-school program as needed. Regardless of how it is adapted, the program requires a hands-on component where ELs and the native speakers trained to work with them are accomplishing a task together while building a community in which it is safe to make mistakes.



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