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Helping English-Learners Meet the Common Core's Speaking and Listening Standards

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As most educators know, the Common Core State Standards provide little guidance for how teachers can assist their English-language learner students to meet them. To fill the gap, here's a short summary of the speaking and listening standards, along with a few ways that we attempt to meet them in our classrooms.

The common-core standards for speaking and listening pay equal weight to listening or interactive conversation and to straightforward public speaking. There is an emphasis on listening and being able to evaluate the reasoning and evidence of other people’s points of view, while at the same time being able to articulate one's own position keeping that criteria in mind. The standards want students to acquire the needed skills to make a good presentation, utilize technology appropriately to support their message, and develop good judgment about when it is appropriate and when it might not be necessary to use formal English.

The last standard is a particularly challenging one for English-language learners because it states that students need to “adapt” their speech in presentations for a variety of situations and, in particular, says that students need to “[demonstrate] command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.” ELLs can certainly develop an understanding of when it’s appropriate to use informal and more formal styles of talking and much of the vocabulary for both. However, the idea of demonstrating “command” of formal English is going to be a tough hill to climb for many, if not most.

In that light, it's important to note what common core states about ELLs: “Teachers should recognize that it is possible to achieve the standards for reading and literature, writing and research, language development, and speaking and listening without manifesting native-like control of conventions and vocabulary.”

Under Discussion

So, how do we address these standards with our English-learners?

Discussions, both in small-group and whole-class varieties, are a key way to provide opportunities for ELLs to develop their speaking and active listening skills. Here are a few specific classroom-discussion strategies we regularly use.

Read, Write, Think Pair-Share. This classroom staple is one of our favorite instructional strategies for all students, including ELLs. The teacher poses a question, or gives students an assignment related to a reading text, and then tells students they have a few minutes to think or write about it. Students can be given a few sentence-question starters or, even better, the class can be asked which sentence-question starters they think would be most appropriate to use for that discussion topic.

In our experience, no matter how often we have used this process earlier, it always helps to take a moment to review “ground rules” first. In fact, preparing a couple of students to role-play a discussion now and then in front of the class can also be a great way to model appropriate behavior. Students then break into pairs or groups of three to discuss the topic.

The discussion time can vary between 1 to 10 minutes, depending on the learning task, and students should feel comfortable modifying their answers based on what others say in their group, including feedback on their original thinking or writing.

Group Project Round-Robin. There are many opportunities to have student groups prepare easel-size posters highlighting key points from a text that is read in class. One of our favorite poster outlines uses a “3/2/1” guideline for these kinds of written reports. Other times we’ve had students individually identify the three most important points in the text, choose a quotation they liked, draw a visual representation of what they read, and explain how they could apply something they learned from it to another aspect of their lives. Next, they meet in small groups to share their individual work and decide which answers are best to put on their group poster.

Instead of having groups present in front to the entire class, another option is presenting in a “round-robin” or “speed-dating” style (groups facing each other, and then when one group is done one of the lines moves to the next group while the other line remains where they are). They should follow a process for their discussion that would utilize question-sentence starters and teacher prompts like, “For the first minute read the other group’s poster silently” or “Now, ask the other group clarifying questions,” and so on. Students then switch to discuss with another group at least another three or four times.

After “speed-dating,” students meet in their groups for a few minutes to discuss their favorite poster and other conclusions, such as which disagreement they found most interesting. Then each group can give a very short report of their discussion.

This activity has always proven to be an excellent high-energy speaking-and-listening activity that certainly meets the common-core standards.

Next week, in part two in this series, we'll share additional class discussion strategies.

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