Promoting and Supporting Academic Conversations and Meaningful Peer Interactions in classrooms with English Language Learners
Written by Alexandra Pepin
Sometimes it is hard to put in words what it like is to be a teacher in our world today. As I enter my fifth year in a Title 1 school in Charlotte, NC, I also finish my last semester in my Teaching English as a Second Language graduate program. This year, I have 37 total students; 14 of them are English language learners. With this reality, teachers need awareness and support to educate our continually growing English Language Learner population. According to the US Department of Education’s National Center of Educational Statistics (2017), the ELL population has reached 4.8 million in 2015, accounting for nearly 9.5% of the entire population in public schools. Ensuring ELLs equitable access to educational opportunities has become a top priority in schools (Shen & Byfield, 2018).
As teachers, we strive to meet the needs of all learners, while also preparing them for real life, so communication and collaboration are essential. The Common Core State Standards emphasize these skills through rigorous speaking and listening standards. Students need the oral language skills required to comprehend information and then communicate or present their ideas collaboratively. Research on scaffolding academic conversations asserts that oral language is the foundation for communication and collaboration skills, as well as aiding in academic achievement (Spies & Xu, 2018). Supporting our ELLs with these skills is a necessary priority.
Challenges Affecting ELLs
There are many challenges ELLs face in our school setting. While native English speaker’s main priority is learning academic content, our ELLs must learn content as well as become proficient in English. Unlike the native English speakers, Gottlieb & Ernst-Slavit (2014) say that ELLs find difficulty understanding idiomatic expressions, unfamiliar grammatical structures, and multiple meaning words. In the midst of these challenges, ELLs can become hesitant to communicate with teachers and peers; some avoid participating completely. Fabre Merchán, Torres-Jara, Andrade-Dominguez, Ortiz-Zurita, & Alvarez-Muñoz’s (2017) research maintains that ELLs struggle with effectively communicating, because they fear mispronouncing a word. With the complicated nature of building language proficiency, ELLs must do so in a welcoming, and judgement and anxiety free environment. I try to remedy this by attempting to speak the language of my students. As they see me struggle, I see them become more comfortable and willing to communicate and interact with myself and peers. Along with this, I try to ease struggles by anticipating misconceptions and confusions and supporting with pre-teaching vocabulary or concepts, making connections, and providing visuals and other scaffolds.
Best Practices to Support ELLs Academic Conversations
Zwiers & Crawford (2010) maintain that an academic conversation is a sustained and intentional back and-forth exchange about academic topics that create a context to co-construct understanding of the topic, deepen content knowledge, and develop communication skills aligned to academic content. They help students with academic vocabulary acquisition, as they are exposed to and use this vocabulary repeatedly, to the point where it is memorized. These experiences also provide collaborative critical thinking opportunities, build content connections, foster of inner dialog and self-talk (Zwiers & Crawford, 2010). I have found this skill to be difficult for all students, as they are not used to having these conversations in their daily lives, so it is necessary to provide explicit teaching of communication strategies before they can engage in true academic discourse.
One of the best strategies they found was to blend language and content learning and benefit second language acquisition is through academic conversations. Before any supporting or scaffolding begins to aid ELLs with conversations, teachers should start knowing their students proficiency with English language development. Spies & Xu (2018) stress that teachers need to be aware of how English as a second language develops and how the students’ English proficiency level influences their language output. By knowing proficiency levels, teachers can align instructional scaffolds, and even strategically partner students based on their levels. (Spies & Xu, 2018).
Think, Pair, Share and Turn and Talk
In her research on student partnerships, Alanis (2013) discusses two best practices for supporting student’s academic conversations. Think, Pair, Share, is a strategy that engages children in a short amount of time by first providing a few minutes for children to think about what they want to say and then encouraging them to share their thoughts with their partner (Alanis, 2013). Similarly, in Turn and Talks, teachers give students a question and then time to think about their answer before they finally partner discuss. This allows teachers to observe multiple student responses rather than calling on individual students. In both discourse opportunities, students are given wait time to organize their thoughts. This is vital for English language learners because, “during the early stages of second language acquisition, children silently translate the question to their home language, think of the answer, and then translate it back to the language of the teacher” (Alanis, 2013, p.44). Both strategies reduce anxiety as they eliminate speaking alone. In my classroom, I also allow my ELLs to speak in their native language to another native speaking partner to alleviate the stress of communicating correctly in English. I believe this is a good strategy to promote conversations in the beginning for new English speakers.
Accountable talk provides a framework for teachers to use as they strive to equip students with the skills necessary to carry on academic conversations (Michaels, O’ Connor, & Resnick, 2008). Accountable Talk includes, “talk moves,” that scaffold communication in different ways such as, revoicing, restating, adding on, and wait time (Ferris, 2014). One of the most effective talk moves is revoicing, or, “repeating back all or part of what a student has contributed to a discussion with one additional step: teachers verifying whether they have interpreted the student’s utterance correctly” (Ferris, 2014, p. 354). Revoicing allows students time to reflect on their language, and gives teachers time, if needed, to clarify understanding. Teachers can also restate the student’s language and model correct language, content, and vocabulary usage for students to reinforce key ideas (Ferris, 2014). In my classroom, I use this strategy not only to aid in the understanding and clarification of ideas of the particular student talking, but also to reinforce engagement and understanding with the other students. With this support, even if answers are incorrect, teachers can provide positive reinforcement of language structures and skills needed for academic conversations, and students learn that their contributions are valued and supported.
Scaffolding Instruction for ELLs
One of the best practices for teaching ELLs, no matter what the skill, is activating prior knowledge. Teachers can help students make connections to their cultural experiences or to their shared experiences. Researchers assert that students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds bring a wealth of cultural experiences that help them make critical connections (Spies & Xu, 2018). Similarly, shared classroom learning experiences help students make connections between existing and new knowledge, and being familiar with the topic allows them to more easily access the language and engage in conversation (Spies & Xu, 2018, p.23). I find that students understand a new topic better if they can relate it to their lives or something already learned.
Along with activating prior knowledge and connecting learning to their experiences both inside and outside of the classroom, teachers can also scaffold through explicit modeling and providing time for role-playing and guided practice before beginning to work in pairs (Alanis, 2013). I always provide ample time for this type of practice to ensure expectations and understanding, adjusting when necessary before partner practice. In my classroom, we have established routines and procedures for this using modeling, sentence starters, and more. One of the ways I facilitate this learning sequence in my classroom is when teaching weekly vocabulary words. Each week we study ten academic, high-frequency words. We learn these words together through direct instruction, and then students get ample time to practice their meanings, have conversations about these words, and create sentences with them. Since we have been doing this, I see a difference in the vocabulary usage of not only my ELLs, but with all students.
Being a teacher today is about so much more than test-scores and content knowledge. We need to help students learn how to articulate thoughts, listen effectively to decipher meaning, knowledge, values, attitudes and intentions, and communicate effectively within diverse communities (Partnership for 21st Century Learning, 2016). These life skills are difficult even for native English speakers and need explicit instruction and practice. Teachers need to attempt to take added stress out of ELLs learning environments by provide opportunities and support for students to adapt to language and help them participate in peer interactions and conversations at their own pace. Children, both ELLs and native English speakers, need to engage in academic conversations to have the experience and knowledge to challenge each other’s ideas and develop their own perspectives of the content and the world around them. It is through these experiences that we are truly preparing our students to become lifelong learners and productive members of our society!
Alanis, I. (2013). Where's your partner? Pairing bilingual learners in preschool and primary grade dual language classrooms. Young Children, 68(1), 42-46.
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National Center for Education Statistics. 2017. Fast facts. English language learners. Accessed July 15, 2017. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=96
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