Have you ever walked into a classroom and heard a teacher say, "I love how quiet you all are. Keep it up."? Quiet classrooms are dangerous for English language learners and most other students as well. Talk is key to learning. If the goal is to lift the level of language, how can we do that in a quiet classroom?
A lot of research has been done on the amount of talk that takes place in an average classroom. Research has found that ELLs spend less than 2% of their school day improving their academic language! Unfortunately, the one doing the most talking is usually the teacher. And as we know...the one talking is the one learning. When we talk, we process, we negotiate, we internalize. Teachers are doing a lot of the work and students are zoning out.
To shift this workload and learning, students need to do the talking. As teachers, we should give students engaging topics and esssential questions to discuss and turn it over to them. There are many ways to achieve a room full of students who are talking about the work. But I think as teachers, our biggest fear is that they won't talk about the work...they will get off topic or they won't talk at all. A secondary fear is that there is so much curriculum to cover that if we let them talk, it won't get covered. Here are 3 ways to ensure that your classroom talk is effective.
ONE. Be explicit in the talk structure and routine. Teach your students HOW to hold the talk conversation so that it is accountable. Students of all ages need to hear the teacher say that partners need to sit facing one another. They need to know that one person talks while the other(s) listen(s) and nod(s). They will need to see how the partners pass the conversation to one another. For example, when I'm finished talking, how do I let my partner know it's his/her turn? I might say, "What do you think?" In this day in age, kids are intrenched in technology, social media, and this lack of face to face communication leads us to the need for excplict instruction about conversation. Modeling what you expect is important. Model, model, model. Show your students what the conversation will look like and what it should not look like.
TWO. The question or topic you pick is key to the success of the conversation. If your district utilizes unit plans, they will include essential questions and enduring understandings. Those are excellent for selecting what you want your students to discuss. Just be sure that you have already exposed your students to the information. They can't talk about questions that they haven't studied yet. If your district does not use unit plans, you can look at the TEKS or state standards that your lesson is addressing. Take the standard and turn it into a question. Don't change the vocabulary in the question to make it "easier" for them to understand. Instead, teach them the vocabulary using visuals and synonyms if you need to. Once you have a question in mind, post it visually for your students. Otherwise, once you ask kids to discuss with their partner, you'll hear, "What are we supposed to talk about?" and then they will get off topic. Posting the question ensures that two modalities have been addressed: verbal/oral and visual. Those kids that need to hear it, heard it. Those kids that need to see it and read it, can!
THREE. Give them sentence stems or starters to propel their thoughts. ELLs are cognitively capable of answering questions and thinking deeply. They lack the English language. Sentence stems provide a scaffold and support for the structure of the sentence. Remember when you were first learning to ride a bike? Someone ran behind you holding the seat and keeping you balanced. Then when you were ready, they let go. That's what stems are like. Just like when learning to ride a bike, we all need a different amount of support. With beginner and intermediate ELLs, stems will be more basic. They also benefit from a word bank or visual/picture. Advanced and advanced high ELLs still need stems too. Their stems can be longer and push them to explain more.
If you are looking for more to read about talk, here are a few excellent resources:
Today I had the privilege of attending a great workshop in San Antonio called Making Words Real. It was presented by Joanne Billingsley, the author of the book, Making Words Real: Proven Strategies for Building Academic Vocabulary Fast. The session was very informative, interactive, and relevant for K-12 across content areas.
Joanne reminded us that words have a great deal of power for all students. They help us understand, be understood, and connect. Word knowledge leads to world knowledge. Key for us to remember as educators is that we all teach language. We teach the language of our content. Some of us teach math while others teach social studies or science. But we are all language teachers. We teach the language of our content because the situation demands it. There is a direct link between vocabulary knowledge and academic success. When our ELLs are missing vocabulary they lag behind academically creating a gap.
As teachers, we should be cognizant about how much talking we are doing and how much academic discourse we are allowing our students to practice. If we are doing all or most of the talking, then ELLs will continue to lack progress in speaking and consequently in writing and reading. There is a direct link between speaking, writing and reading as well. The more our kids practice the language, the stronger they will become as readers and writers. Exposure to academic is not enough. Students must have time for guided talk, purposeful conversations, and explicit instruction.
In her book, Joanne shares many examples of how to create a language rich environment that breads academic vocabulary. I will not go over each one, but I will say that most (if not all) of them include the employment of gestures, visuals, physical movement, and sentence stems.
Joanne reminds us that it is critical that students VERBALIZE to INTERNALIZE. Words become real when kids use them in speaking and writing not if they memorized them for a vocabulary test.