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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

Listening Is the Key to Teaching English-Learners How to Speak

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 27, 2023 14 min read
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This post continues a series on how teachers can encourage English Language Learners to oral skills.

‘Celebrate Even the Smallest Steps’

Wendi Pillars, NBCT, has taught for nearly three decades, both overseas and stateside, in military and civilian contexts. She is the author of Visual Impact and Visual Notetaking for Educators. Find her on Twitter @wendi322:

Want to help students improve their oral communication skills? Start with listening.

When thinking of speaking skills, we forget how powerful our listening skills need to be, and that they precede speaking ability. Listening while someone is speaking is key. It models patterns, intonation, prosody, accents, word order, co-locations, and conversational animation. It’s also a vehicle for acquiring information, and preparing to continue a conversation, whether with more information or questioning. Pointing out all of these concepts explicitly to students, regardless of language proficiency, will heighten metacognition and awareness of how language works.

Training the ability to focus attention when and where you want it is pretty much a superpower in 2022. It’s extra tough for students who are immersed in distractions; even more so when your brain and cognitive capacities are tapped out after trying to sift through new information in another language all day. Listening for many may be a product of sheer willpower, dependent upon the amount of sleep, their state of hunger, or myriad issues that take up space in our minds throughout the day. We have to help them regain the focus needed to listen first.

When asking students to speak, to communicate with partners, to answer in front of the class, to continue a conversation, or to give a presentation, they will need to hear, process, and understand multistep directions. We need to get their ears attuned and sensitive to changes in speech that mark a change, an important point, or impending question. This includes refining our own speech, which becomes critical as we model what kind of academic and social language is practical and expected.

Here are a nine ways to get started with this in your classroom:

  • Chunk your content by finding or creating phrases and sentence or question frames to envelop crucial vocabulary students need to master.
  • Teach explicit word order and how to emphasize information in questions vs. statements.
  • Build confidence by crafting one good sentence rather than an entire paragraph. Think of one sentence, vocab word, or idea you want students to express each day. It sounds ridiculous to a content teacher, but the ridiculously small gains are what aggregate and compound into solid gains and trust.
  • Provide multiple angles that your multilingual learners (MLLs) can weigh in on or approach a topic.
  • Provide questions or topics in advance so that students can prepare something in writing and practice saying it to themselves before speaking in front of the class.
  • Provide choice boards so that students have multiple options to express their learning. Speaking choices can include a voice recording, Flipgrid/video option, sharing out loud with a partner or in a small group; asking questions to a classmate; answering different types of questions (open vs. closed-ended, opinion vs. fact-based, etc.); interviewing someone, singing, or even a poetry slam.
  • Provide different ways to verbalize knowledge. Maybe it’s a whole-class choral response or reading. Maybe there are small groups for not-so-daunting quieter public support. Maybe it’s an oral assessment with a word bank, images to focus on, and a clear rubric or checklist so they know what’s expected. Determine the intent—are they speaking for an assessment, an organic part of class, an authentic audience, social, or academic? Your mode of feedback should depend upon the purpose.
  • Teach them ways to advocate for themselves, how to ask for more information, to go to the office, to make a phone call, to say that something isn’t correct. Learning to ask questions causes a power shift, one that empowers them to take more responsibility.
  • The most important action you can take is to speak to your MLLs on a daily basis at a social level. Many MLLs admit to me that they don’t speak a word in their other classes ALL DAY LONG. No questions, no pair or small-group activities, no expectations to speak. Not even a hello. Heart Wrenching is an understatement.

What are YOU doing to help students speak more and with greater confidence? Make sure you’ve provided the pathways and space for your students to become more comfortable taking a few risks during their time with you. And always find a way to celebrate even the smallest steps.


‘Create the Right Environment’

Jana Echevarria, Ph.D., is professor emerita at California State University Long Beach, where she was selected as “outstanding professor.” She is the co-developer of the SIOP Model of instruction for English-learners and the co-author of Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model, among other publications:

Oral language is the foundation for literacy development and thus academic success. Generally, not enough attention is given in classrooms to helping multilingual learners advance their oral language skills in English. Students don’t “pick up” much more than social language in the classroom, and most can understand more English than they can produce. For these reasons, it’s important for teachers to specifically focus on providing lots of opportunities to develop speaking skills, especially practice using academic language.

However, many multilingual learners are reluctant to speak in class since they may not have the words to express their thoughts completely. They are aware that they aren’t completely fluent in the language their teacher and peers speak and understand. The following are four ways teachers can encourage students to improve speaking skills.

  • Create the right environment. Few people are willing to speak up or participate in group discussions when they feel anxious or if the setting is intimidating. Establishing a classroom environment where multilingual learners feel respected, welcome, and comfortable when speaking is the first step in building oral language skills. The affective dimension of language learning matters. Multilingual learners take a risk when they use their new language so it’s important for teachers to be accepting of all attempts to express themselves and correct errors gently and only as a means for avoiding confusion. Another way of creating a stress-free environment is to accept translanguaging as an effective communication strategy.

    Translanguaging is the process by which multilingual students use two or more languages strategically to accomplish a task. For example, at times, multilingual learners are able to express some ideas better in one language or the other and may mix the two languages in a discussion or when completing an assignment with a partner. Allowing students the freedom to use all their language resources encourages oral participation and signals to students that their home language is respected and accepted.

  • Select interesting topics. If we want students to talk, we need to give them something interesting and relevant to talk about. Teachers can use students’ backgrounds and lived experiences to make connections to nearly any topic. A lot of language can surface in discussions that tap into what students know.

    For example, when reading about a character in a book or a historical figure, ask: How would you react in that situation? Or What would your family say if you did that? Why? Pictures also can be used effectively to elicit language. For example, show an interesting picture, preferably related to a topic being studied, and ask, What do you think is going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you think that? What else do you see? This process is a less-demanding version of citing text evidence, an important academic skill, and elicits language by having students explain their idea and defend it using the picture.

  • Form groups intentionally. Opportunities to practice and develop speaking skills need to be planned, intentional, and purposeful. Research confirms what most educators know: Teachers do more than 80 percent of the talking in class. Speaking with a partner or small group encourages participation and provides each student with more practice speaking English, expressing themselves, and experimenting with the language.

    Sometimes during a lesson, teachers realize they have been doing a lot of talking and so suddenly ask the students to turn-and-talk. This haphazard approach is not effective. Whether students turn-and-talk with a partner or participate in a more extended discussion with a small group, interactions should have an academic purpose such as making predictions, summarizing information, discussing an experience they’ve had related to the topic, and so forth. The group interaction should be structured, have an intentional purpose, and be given a reasonable time allotment.

  • Use technology. There are a number of voice- and video-recording programs available that give students a chance to practice speaking English privately to build oral proficiency. A recording allows students to listen to themselves and identify areas for improvement. Teachers should maintain a digital portfolio so that students can periodically listen to past recordings and hear how their speaking improved over time. Teachers have reported that some students barely recognize their own voice on recordings from the beginning of the year to the end, which is gratifying evidence of progress and a real confidence builder.

‘They’ve Got to Be Engaged’

Isabel Becerra is the sheltered-instruction facilitator for the multilingual programs department in the Garland Independent school district in Texas. She was born in Bolivia and has been an educator since 1992. She is a passionate advocate for emergent bilingual learners:

Speaking in a new language can be a very scary experience. Emergent bilingual learners (EBs) are often too shy and feel embarrassed that they will make mistakes or are worried about being misunderstood. This can result in EBs going through the “silent period’’ (when they do not speak but are learning a large amount of language). Even EBs that have a high language level can become intimidated during class discussions.

It is no secret that speaking is the lowest of the four language domains around the nation. As the sheltered-instruction facilitator for my district, I and my team are helping educators to redesign instruction by focusing more on the speaking domain. Lessons should embed a variety of activities that will lead emergent bilingual students to speak fearlessly and academically. Oral language is one of the most important skills our students can master—both for social and academic success. Emergent bilingual students use this skill throughout the day to process and deliver instructions, make requests, ask questions, receive new information, and interact with peers.

Something teachers can do from the very beginning is to promote a safe learning environment where emergent bilingual students will feel comfortable with their peers and the teacher. This type of environment will lower their affective filter and will allow them to begin taking risks and slowly opening to speaking and actively engaging in the learning process. If a student trusts their teacher and feels safe in their classroom, they are more willing to take these risks.

One way to create this type of environment is by planning for multiple opportunities to engage students in speaking during class activities. The sheltered-instruction approach teaches us the importance of developing a sense of accountability in emergent bilingual students by using Step 1, Teach students what to say when they don’t know what to say (Instead of I Don’t Know). The purpose of this step is for students not to opt out of a conversation. Instead of saying “I don’t know,” students can use a variety of other options such as:

“Can I ask a friend for help?

“May I have some time to think?”

“Where could I find more information about that?

When a student chooses another given option, ask the whole class to do the same thing and then come back to the student who initially asked you for the extra support. This will give students ownership for their learning, and it will allow them to build confidence in knowing that when they are asked to speak, they will have scaffolds to help them. This will make the emergent bilingual students in your classrooms feel included and important.

Another great way to help emergent bilingual students with their speaking skills is to implement a system to call on students. We want to make sure we get away from asking questions such as:

“Who can tell me?”

“Who knows?”

“Who wants to answer this?”

Can someone show me?

These questions will only lead you to having the same eager student raise his/her hand and will exclude all other students from actively participating in the learning. The sheltered-instruction Step 3, Randomize and Rotate when calling on students is an easy step that will help you call every student in your classroom to participate in a discussion or a response. This step can support you in creating an environment where all students will be called to speak multiple times a day. You can use Popsicle sticks, numbered heads together, wheel of names, and turn and talk with partners. The more they practice speaking, the more fluent they will become in developing their language and content proficiency.

If you really want your emergent bilinguals to speak, they’ve got to be engaged. That means less teacher-led, whole-class instruction and more small groups and partnerships. You can also plan for Structured Conversations; these are great for students to practice language with their peers in a more personal, lower-risk setting. Emergent bilingual students need the opportunity to hear language in authentic and varied contexts all day and every day. Speaking opportunities will increase students’ interests and engagement.


Thanks to Wendi, Jana, and Isabel for contributing their thoughts!

This is the second post in a multipart series. You can see Part One 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.

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.

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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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