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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

English-Language Learners Opinion

If the Teacher Does All the Talking, Who’s Doing the Learning?

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 01, 2023 11 min read
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Today’s post brings an end to a series that might be called “Everything you wanted to know about supporting ELLs to speak English but were afraid to ask.”

‘Academic Talk’

Michele Kimball is a managing consultant at McREL International. Previously, she was a bilingual early-childhood educator and a national school support consultant:

My advice to teachers of English-learners is basically the same as what I tell all educators I work with: Students need to talk in class because the one doing the talking is the one doing the learning. Silence may have been golden back in the day, but it was never a teaching tool, it was just an expression of obedience.

When I say “talk,” I’m referring to academic talk. Sounding like a book involves rich vocabulary and habits of thought that need to be taught and learned, which is different from talk outside of the classroom. In other words, formal talk versus informal talk. Also, leading the conversation in the classroom makes students feel enormously proud of themselves. Alternating between direct instruction and small-group work, educators can gradually build each student’s knowledge base as well as ownership.

This can be scary for educators at first. Allowing students to do the verbal heavy lifting may look like chaos during a formal observation. That’s why a gradual release of responsibility, popularized by David Pearson and Margaret Gallagher in 1983, is so important. For learning to stick, educators have to move past the notion that they are the focal point of the classroom. By working gradual release into the process of vocabulary expansion and exploration, everybody has to grapple with the new knowledge, and nobody is left entirely on their own. For educators to be effective, we need to be PIE—purposeful, intentional, and explicit—in the classroom.

With the inundation of our lives by technology, all of us—and definitely students—are having fewer conversations. We also know that conversations (oral language development or the lack thereof) impact writing. As a result, all students, regardless of home language, need to be taught how to speak. Even highly literate adults are interacting these days largely via thumb-typed sentence fragments with lots of images. People are losing the ability to string enough ideas together to have a conversation. The needs of English-learners and English natives are merging. In essence, the process of acquiring academic English is basically the same for students of all language backgrounds, including native-English speakers.

Again, I would like to point out that speaking and writing are correlated. Writing in the classroom is normally thought of as quiet time, but ideas get explored in greater depth, with greater detail and more thoughtful vocabulary when students (and adults) have an opportunity to talk them over first. Guiding students toward using academic oral language with each other in the classroom is a key literacy tool.


Talk Routines

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 15 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for P-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on Twitter at @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

In order for students to develop their speaking skills, they need consistent and multiple opportunities daily to speak in English. How can routines during which all students are expected to take part in academic conversations be embedded in the daily classroom schedule?

Before starting a math lesson, students can take part in a number talk. Students solve a computation problem and then share their reasoning. Before starting a science lesson, students can analyze an image and then discuss the connection to the concept they are learning. At the end of any lesson, students can complete a 3-2-1 exit ticket and then share one or multiple parts with different students. A 3-2-1 exit ticket asks students to share three things they learned, two questions they still have, and one idea that resonated with them.

Going beyond think-pair-share and facilitating structured conversations can support students in developing speaking skills aligned to their grade level. One example of a structured conversation is QSSSA, which stands for question, signal, stem, share, and assess. The teacher shares and posts the question for students. The students use the given processing time to generate a response, and when they feel ready to share, they use the predetermined signal. A sentence stem or sentence frame is used by students. This ensures that students will speak in complete sentences and practice vocabulary that the teacher thinks is the most important. Once the signal has been given by all students, the student shares their response using the sentence frame. As students are sharing with each other, the teacher is listening and assessing students’ content understanding and speaking skills.

Technology tools such as Flipgrid allow students to record themselves speaking. Flipgrid can help lower students’ affective filter because students can record a video or just the audio. Students can review their recording and redo their recording until they are satisfied. Flipgrid is fun and engaging for students because it has backgrounds, stickers, filters, and other tools they can use during their recordings. Students also have the opportunity to view/listen to each other’s recordings and leave positive comments.



Lori Misaka is a teacher-librarian at Waipahu Intermediate School in Hawaii. She has been an English teacher working with multilingual students for eight years and served on the Hawaii state education department’s Multilingualism Policy Advisory Committee from 2020 to 2022:

Strategies to support ELLs in developing speaking skills begin with recognizing that they are not just “English-language learners” but are multilingual (ML) students who are proficient at translanguaging. Professor Ofelia García of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York explains that translanguaging is “the deployment of a speaker’s full linguistic repertoire without regard for watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named (and usually national and state) languages.” In other words, what our ML students do naturally—combine their first language(s) with English to communicate with family and peers—allows them to use all of their language skills in a free-flowing, steady stream of conversation. Promoting translanguaging in your classroom encourages unhindered communication, without judgment or privileging English-only output.

Ways to encourage your multilingual students to develop speaking skills include:

  • Using multilingual word walls or personal dictionaries
  • Adding phrases like “in any language” and “in English” to your learning objectives (Do you include a language objective with your content objective? If not, try adding in speaking skills as part of your daily objectives)
  • Encouraging students to use home languages when taking notes, labeling, filling in graphic organizers, etc.
  • Having students record short home-language videos for their families
  • Allowing for home-language discussions in partners or small groups
  • Learning greetings and key words in your students’ home languages
  • Finding and using resources in your students’ home languages
  • Using translation sites, apps, and bilingual dictionaries (content area glossaries)
  • Intentionally creating space for students to freely use their home languages
  • Including language info in getting-to-know-you activities

Speaking should not only happen in summative assessments or in formal settings. When students are encouraged to use all of their language skills daily in class discussion and activities, they will feel more confident in practicing their newly acquired language as well. My co-worker compared expecting students to speak only English with asking students to go through the school day with one arm tied behind their backs. Limiting communication in their home language limits learning and practicing English, as it inhibits thinking and speaking.

A great example of what ELLs can do when their home languages and cultures are incorporated into their learning is Waipahu Wayfinders, a summer program conducted in 2020 at Waipahu High School in Hawaii. Wayfinders was a unique opportunity for our multilingual students to learn how to transition to virtual learning during the pandemic while also creating tutorials for their classmates. I was part of a team of six teachers who led lessons in using Google Classroom, sending a professional email, and creating, sharing, and organizing files in Google Drive. We encouraged students to use their home languages with each other and to incorporate them into their assignments.

As a final project, students made multilingual websites and screencast tutorials in Chuukese, Ilokano, Marshallese, Tongan, Samona, Tagalog, and English to share what they learned with their peers. These websites and tutorials have been shared with schools across Hawaii and in the Philippines and Marshall Islands. The amount of language produced during the four-week program, in English and in students’ home languages, was a constant, fluent stream, as students had to learn the tech skills and then produce their own tutorials. These students became resources for classmates and their families and gained confidence in their communication skills.

Encourage translanguaging in your classrooms and see how much your monolingual students learn from their multilingual peers and hear the language output of your MLs increase exponentially.


Thanks to Michele, Cindy, and Lori for contributing their thoughts!

This is the final post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.

The question of the week is:

What are the best ways to help English-language-learners develop speaking skills?

In Part One, Laleh Ghotbi, Anastasia M. Martinez, Ivannia Soto, and Jody Nolf shared their recommendations.

Laleh, Anastasia, Ivannia, and Jody were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Wendi Pillars, Jana Echevarria, and Isabel Becerra contributed responses.

In Part Three, Irina McGrath, Ciera Walker, Chandra Shaw, and Keenan W. Lee offered lessons learned from their experiences.

In Part Four, Valentina Gonzalez and Julia López-Robertson wrote answers.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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