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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.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Cooperative Learning Can Promote ELLs’ Academic Oral Language

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 29, 2019 24 min read
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(This is Part Five in a five-part series. You can see Part One here; Part Two here; Part Three here and Part Four here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you promote speaking with English-language learners?

Part One‘s contributors were Valentina Gonzalez, Sarah Said, Mary Ann Zehr, Dr. Jeff Zwiers, and Maneka Deanna Brooks. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Valentina, Sarah, and Mary Ann on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Joyce Nutta, Carine Strebel, Jenny Vo, Dr. Catherine Beck, Dr. Heidi Pace, and Pamela Broussard shared their responses.

Part Three‘s answers came from Sandra C. Figueroa, Cecilia Pattee, Barbara Gottschalk, Michael D. Toth, Becky Corr, and Susan Michalski.

Part Four‘s commentaries were written by Luis Javier Pentón Herrera, Jennifer Orr, Dr. Lindsey Moses, Nancy Callan, Kelly Wickham Hurst, Areli Schermerhorn, and Mary Amanda (Mandy) Stewart.

Sonia Soltero, Kevin Jepson, Susan Gaer, Michele L. Haiken, Sarah Thomas, and Gloria Pereyra-Robertson offer suggestions in this series’ final post. I also include comments from readers.

Response From Sonia Soltero

Sonia Soltero has been involved in dual and bilingual education for over 30 years as a dual-language teacher, professional developer, university professor, and researcher. She currently is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Leadership, Language, and Curriculum at DePaul University:

The reality is that when teachers are doing most of the talking, students cannot develop strong oral-language skills since they will have few opportunities to talk to each other. Even teachers who provide many opportunities for students to dialogue with them are restricted by the ratio of one teacher to 25-plus students. With that ratio in mind, think about how often each student has an opportunity to speak with the teacher. On the other hand, collaborative talk (or accountable talk), cooperative-learning, and other learner-centered approaches provide expanded opportunities for students to engage in authentic oral discussions about academic content with each other.

Cooperative learning allows ELs to practice language at their own level of English proficiency in meaningful and authentic ways while providing them access to both comprehensible input and output. Through cooperative learning, ELs work collaboratively in small groups, engage in many meaningful experiences with language and content, and receive more individualized support from teachers, who act as facilitators (Soltero, 2016). ELs, who are at different levels of academic- and second-language proficiencies, can also help each other through cooperative learning by helping each other process information and connect to what they already know. Strategies used in cooperative learning, like Jigsaw, Think-Pair-Share, Three-Step Interview, and Number-Heads-Together, are especially useful in promoting academic oral language. These types of strategies provide the structure students need but also authentic ways for them to use academic oral language through focused discussions about academic content.

For example, in Numbered-Heads-Together, small groups of students solve a problem or answer a question together. First, each student in the group picks a number from one through four (if there are four students in the group). The teacher then gives all the groups time to research and discuss possible solutions/answers about a topic/question. All members of the group make sure that everyone understands and can provide the answer/solution to the other groups. After students have solved the problem or answered the question together, the teacher calls a number from one to four at random and asks all the students with that number to report back to the class. For example, the teacher calls on all the students who have the number two to share the group’s solution/answer with the rest of the class.The students who report the correct answer or solution then win points for their team.

In this cooperative-learning strategy, all students in the group are responsible for knowing the answer to the problem since the members of the group do not know what number the teacher will call. Numbered-Heads-Together provides ELs a support structure for understanding a concept or text through discussions with their peers. An important note, if the classroom has some or many ELs who have a beginner-English-proficiency level, is that teachers should make sure that the groups themselves learn and apply differentiation techniques. For example, once each group finds the solution to the problem or answer to the questions, then students come up with a number of ways of reporting back that takes into account students proficiency levels. These can include an oral response, a graphic organizer, or a labeled diagram, or have the students be ready to answer in their native language. This way, even if a student at the beginner-English level is called, they can still respond.

Providing opportunities for ELs to engage in meaningful language “output” is critical for their continuous development of academic oral language. The use of collaborative conversations is another way to increase interactions between students and also between students and the teacher talking to each other to make meaning, solve problems, and think critically together. The difference between instructional conversations and traditional instruction is in teachers’ assumption that students have something valuable to say beyond answering questions the teachers already knows. Collaborative talk offers authentic opportunities for problem-solving, making sense of new information, and linking new ideas and concepts to what students already know. Through talking, students can try out new ways of thinking, reshape their ideas in midsentence, respond instantly to others’ comments, and collaborate in constructing meaning. ELs can build language through collaborative talk because not only are their backgrounds validated ,but they also can tap and expand on their prior experiences (Sotlero, 2011). This approach is especially effective for ELs because they become active learners engaging in real communication and therefore more likely to take ownership of their language learning in the context of their own experiences. While ELs may have opportunities outside the classroom to develop social oral language, the only place where they can build their academic oral language is in the context of classroom interactions.


Soltero, S. W. (2011). Schoolwide approaches to educating ELLs: Creating linguistically and culturally responsive K-12 schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Soltero, S. W. (2016). Dual language education: Program design and implementation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Response From Kevin Jepson

Based in California, Kevin Jepson is a professional-development specialist and ELL curriculum specialist for EL Education. He was born in Korea and lived and worked abroad for 15 years in five countries. In the United States, Kevin has worked with kindergarten through adult language learners and teachers for the past 16 years, teaching, designing curricula and assessments, and coaching:

The first conversation below is between a grade 5 teacher and students discussing the choices authors make when writing sentences. Notice who’s doing most of the talking:

Teacher: Even so. Why do we think the author chose to write “Even so”? What does “Even so” signal to you? Think about your own writing. When have you used “Even so”? (pause) Ready? Camila?

Camila: Despite?

Teacher: Despite. Great. That’s another one. What do you we YOU? WE???? call those kind of words? Mariana?

Mariana: Coordinating conjunction?

Teacher: It’s not a coordinating conjunction. It’s a ...

Martin: Transition word?

Teacher: A transition word. Nice job. So, “Even so” acts as a transition word. Because why is it transitioning? Does anybody remember in the text we read what was going on before the author wrote “Even so”? What happened in that story? Remember, this was in the introduction. And right before this they were talking about how they were getting a lot of pressure. “Even so,” so see how powerful that word is? It’s changing that even though they want something, we want something different. It’s showing a contrast. (exchange continues)

This second conversation is a grade 4 teacher and students discussing the same topic, yet it’s a very different type of exchange. Notice, in this exchange, how the teacher uses “Conversation Cues” (bold, below) to support students in having the conversation:

Teacher: What if I replace “but “with “and”? And is also a conjunction. How would and change the meaning? I’ll give you some time to think. Emma, you want to give it a shot?

Emma: It is adding on to the, like, the idea, of the first (part of the) sentence?

Teacher: Can anyone repeat or rephrase what Emma just said?

Santiago: It would have the same idea as the first two chunks (of the sentence).

Teacher: Right, and would have the same idea as the first two chunks. Two connecting, same ideas. So how does “but “change that for me? Jazmin?

Jazmin: But would change it.

Teacher: Can you say more about that, Jazmin?

Jazmin: It would change it because “but” would say there are many things happening, but this is the one.

Teacher: Right, so does anyone want to add something else to that?

Daniel: But is saying this is the main thing happening.

Teacher: Right, now it’s going to the main factor, or a contrast. but is something that is going to tell us a contrast. (exchange continues)

Photo by Kevin Jepson

The Conversation Cues the second teacher uses are inspired by the Talk Science Project research by Sarah Michaels at Clark University and Cathy O’Connor at Boston University. Rebecca Blum Martinez, a bilingual/ESL professor at the University of New Mexico, helped us at EL Education apply the Talk Science structure throughout our new K-5 Language Arts Curriculum. In our curriculum, we call the structure “Conversation Cues,” and we use them to create the comprehensive foundation for rich, collaborative discussions between ELLs and their classmates.

Simply put, Conversation Cues are questions teachers can ask students to promote productive—and equitable—conversation, based on four successive goals:

Goal 1: Encourage all students to talk and be understood

  • I’ll give you time to think and discuss with a partner.
  • Can you say more about that?

Goal 2: Listen carefully to one another and seek to understand

  • Who can repeat what your classmate just said?

Goal 3: Deepen thinking

  • Why do you think that?
  • How does this discussion add to your understanding?

Goal 4: Think with others to expand the conversation

  • Who can explain how your classmate came up with that response?
  • Do you agree or disagree?

Photo by Kevin Jepson

Across the school year, Conversation Cues are introduced one goal at a time. In this context, they slowly build the capacity for all students to speak, thus helping to level the playing field and establish equity. The sense of equity can come as ELLs find a comfortable entry point into a conversation, regardless of proficiency level or personality, and whether they start by sketching their thoughts or are ready to elaborate on another student’s idea.

For example, in the conversation around “but” above, the teacher said, “I’ll give you some time to think.” This Goal 1 Cue provides ELLs who need more language-processing time a chance to formulate their message. “Can anyone repeat or rephrase what Emma just said?” encourages all students to listen closely. Furthermore, that Goal 2 Cue gives beginning ELLs a chance to voice language they have already heard so that they can play with phonology and begin attaching language to content. Inviting students to “add on” in Goal 4 promotes higher-level language and cognitive skills.

It’s amazing to see classroom roles begin to shift when teachers use Conversation Cues. Teachers become “facilitator” of the conversation, rather than “driver.” They can enjoy getting to know students and their ideas. Each ELL is invited to be a participant in the conversation: expressing their thinking (e.g., “ ‘But’ would change it.”); deepening their ideas (e.g., “ ‘but’ would say there are many things happening, but this is the one.”); and refining thinking as a group (e.g., “ ‘But ‘is saying this is the main thing happening.”).

One grade 3 teacher reports that Conversation Cues have changed her practice and have even shifted the power dynamic in her classroom: “They’ve made me a better teacher because I’ve learned to ask my students better questions. I’ve learned to actually listen to their answers and build off of their answers rather than driving a lesson myself.”

At the same time, the teacher is building the foundation for ELLs to have independent, small-group conversations, where they can use their own Conversation Cues.

For students, moving from thinking to expressing thinking to refining thinking supports important processes in language and content acquisition, including grappling and critical thinking. As a result, ELLs may feel more comfortable contributing to the conversation knowing that their thinking is respected and knowing that they will be given the chance to refine their ideas with their classmates.

For teachers, Conversation Cues provide an opportunity to listen carefully to student thinking and to ask students to provide rationale or evidence for their thinking. Teachers then have the data they need to consider how to adjust instruction in response.

In the first exchange around Even so above, the more typical Initiate-Response-Evaluate (IRE) pattern emerges: The teacher asks students a compelling series of questions, selects one student to respond, and evaluates the student’s answer: “Great!” or “Not quite.” The consequence can be that ELLs feel hesitant to respond for fear of being consistently “wrong.” And it’s more difficult for teachers to assess student understanding if they are focused on identifying a correct response.

I am not suggesting that we completely abandon IRE, which can show benefits to certain students in certain contexts. Rather, I am suggesting we dramatically decrease the focus on IRE to reap the benefits we can gain from increasing the support and time we give students to engage in rich conversation. This is not only a call to action but continues to be my own professional aspiration.

Ample opportunity for productive and equitable conversation is an important part of the process of acquiring literacy skills for any student. For English-language learners, these conversations are critical to overall language acquisition. A teacher can begin by setting aside at least 3-5 minutes in each lesson to use Conversation Cues and allow ELLs enough time to think and talk with one another and their classmates. Ideally, this time expands until students spend more time talking than the teacher, thus enjoying the opportunity to experiment with using language to express complex concepts. Conversation Cues can take a good deal of time, but they are worth the investment.

Response From Susan Gaer

Susan Gaer is a retired professor of ESL, Santa Ana College in Santa Ana, Calif. Currently, she is the president-elect of CATESOL (California Association of Teachers to Speakers of Other Languages):

Top Three Techniques for promoting speaking in the ELL classroom

I have been teaching ELLs for more than 30 years. Although I have mostly worked with an adult student population both here and abroad, I believe that some of my techniques will be applicable to all ages of student populations. Here are my top three techniques.

  1. Engage learners with meaningful material. Instead of coming in with a laundry list of grammar structures and vocabulary to teach, find out what the students are interested in. It is possible to get information from your ELLs even at the lowest language level. Find out what their hobbies are, or if you are working with an adult population, what their jobs are. Use that information to inform your instruction and more highly engage your students. I really like using Newslea (http://newslea.com

    ) for student engagement as it has topics that are current and can easily be differentiated for level. It is also free to use, which is a bonus in my book. You can pay for it if you want to receive data on student use and allow students to annotate; you will need to contact them for a price quote. Once you have engaged your students, they will volunteer to speak.

  2. Teach language in context. Oftentimes, ELLs are scared to speak and are overwhelmed with the language. Their reticence to speak is based on a fear of what they will sound like. I have found that teaching grammar, vocabulary, and complicated structures in context helps students to express themselves. As you engage them (see my number 1 tip), ask questions and clarify vocabulary and structures as they answer.

  3. Use sentence frames. Jeff Zwiers (http://jeffzwiers.org/) has a whole host of tools on his website to develop academic-thinking and -speaking skills. He also has published many books on the topic of academic- and oral-speaking skills, all which include the use of sentence frames. At a very basic level, use a series of frames to teach students how to talk with you and other students. A good list of sentence frames can be found here.

Throughout the years I have taught students from beginning-literacy to advanced-academic ESL. All of my students have told me that these techniques help them to become better speakers. If you have specific questions, feel free to email me at susangaer@gmail.com

Response From Michele L. Haiken

Michele L. Haiken is a middle school English teacher and adjunct professor of literacy in Westchester, N.Y. She is the author of Personalized Reading: Digital Strategies and Tools To Support All Learners (ISTE, 2018). Find out more about her classroom strategies at her blog http://theteachingfactor.com and connect with her on Twitter @teachingfactor:

Speaking is one of the core literacy skills, but ELL students might be shy or overwhelmed to participate in a large class discussion because of their language skills. Initiating small-groups discussions and one-on-one discussions is a way for students to share thinking, questions, connections, and synthesis of a text, while at the same time building language and speaking skills. Doing so also addresses Common Core State Standards, which require students to initiate and participate in a range of collaborative discussions (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9- 10.1). Technology tools can help ELL students meet the demands of the curriculum and build understanding so they can meet learning objectives. As authors Heather Parris, Lisa Estrada, and Andrea Honigsfeld (2017) explained in ELL Frontiers: Using Technology to Enhance Instruction for English Learners, “The use of digital media provides a low-anxiety environment with a focus on the traditional four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing), plus the skill of viewing, which must be included in today’s classroom. ELs need ample production opportunities to develop language skills.”

To help ELL students develop academic language, consider having students respond orally using a video discussion platform, such as Flipgrid, Recap, or Seesaw. These tools remove the stress of performance in front of the class and give students the opportunity to present knowledge and ideas orally while at the same time build verbal communication. With these video discussion platforms, you pose a question for which students can record responses. You set the amount of time that students have to respond to a question; for example, students have one minute to answer a question or 90 seconds. Students can listen to each other’s reflections to learn from them and respond to one another. Flipgrid also offers stickers, similar to those on Snapchat, for students to digitally accessorize their look on camera. For students who don’t like to show their face on camera, you could keep a collection of masks or selfie props on hand for students to use when sharing.

On Seesaw, students can add written reflections and draw their responses. Students have more options for how they might share and reflect by adding a drawing to explain their thinking or their steps for solving a math problem. Students can view each other’s written responses and add peer feedback with the app. Providing discussion starters or sentence frames can help students scaffold their response and plan out what they will say before posting a response on a video discussion platform.

Response From Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas, Ph.D., is a regional technology coordinator in Prince George’s County public schools. She is also a Google Certified Innovator, Google Education Trainer, and the founder of the EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest. She is also a national adviser for the Future Ready Instructional Coaches Strand and an affiliate professor at Loyola University in Maryland:

Last year, I finished my dissertation and had the pleasure of observing an ESOL teacher who had her students create videos at the beginning and end of each unit. Furthermore, the students would display their work in a class viewing party, and she told them that if they did a phenomenal job, she would show their videos to future classes. I loved this because students were actively engaged in their learning and were motivated to revise and revise until they had the best quality product.

Response From Gloria Pereyra-Robertson

Gloria Pereyra-Robertson is the daughter of Mexican immigrants and is the third Hispanic bilingual teacher in 64 years to be named the Oregon teacher of the year. She is also a National Education Association Teaching Excellence recipient. Her teaching style and teacher-leadership roles are a reflection of her experience as an ELL student, who has overcome language barriers and racial and discriminating situations throughout her life. Gloria has worked in Title I schools for the last 22 years as a kindergarten teacher who helps find innovative solutions to break down language and racial barriers for all students and their families:

Looking Through the Eyes of an ELL Student

The other day, at our school’s assembly, one of my former ELL students received the Student of the Month award. Her teacher, an ELL student herself, talked about how proud she was of her, because she understood, just like I understood, how hard it is for many ELL students to learn new academic concepts,and follow directions in a language they don’t speak.

Unfortunately, there are people today in our public schools who do not stop for one moment to think about how ELL students like this child are having to adapt to a new culture, environment, climate, food, fashion, and relationships, while still having to learn how to read, write, comprehend, and communicate in a different language. This is why what this teacher shared at this assembly was very important because by reflecting and comparing her personal struggles as an ELL student for others to hear and see, she demonstrated that ELL students are very capable of success in our schools.

Shining the light on ELL students who are capable of overcoming their language obstacles provides the opportunity to start changing mindsets from pity to empathy for all ELL students. Once we can change mindsets, we can begin promoting speaking with English-language learners. I say this because every year I have new “English Only” volunteers who, at first, feel like they can’t help in my class because I have many ELL students who do not speak English yet.

So, how do I begin the process of changing the stereotypical mindset that plagues our ELL students in our classrooms? First, I ask any “English only” volunteer in my classroom to view the following links, in order to see how using a simple free app such as Google Translate on their cellphones can help them become a successful volunteer who can speak and work with ELL students.

Google Translate: Alberto’s Story -YouTube

Google Translate: From Syria to Canada

I know people may criticize me for using this app as a tool to help “English Only” people communicate with ELL students because it is not yet a 100 percent perfect translation.

But let me ask these two questions: Is it better to have no communication and not take down stereotypical barriers that ELL students face? Or is it better that a person is wiling to try to speak and communicate with the help of a tool that can help begin to build relationships with an ELL student, even if the translation is not perfect yet?

Well, let me tell you, that I have personally witnessed a very depressed ELL student who did not communicate with anyone at her school or have any friends for 90 percent of the school year because she had no means to communicate with anyone in her own language. I was asked to teach her teacher how to use Google Translate through the phone app, so she could communicate with her student. A day later, I was sent pictures of her communicating for the first time with her classmates using an iPad that the principal provided for her the next day. Providing the tools and opportunities for ELL and EO students to communicate begins to take down the language-barrier walls that exist in many of our classrooms today. Being able to use a tool to communicate can change the lives of ELL students, and it can impact the relationships between ELL and English Only students on a level that can only be imagined.

So, I would like to leave you with this inspirational summary of Girl Hailed for Using Google Translate to Befriend New Student by McKinley Corbley (Nov 7, 2016). It’s a short story that demonstrates how being able to speak with an ELL student empowers random empathy and kindness. The story talks about a student who saw how sad a new Spanish-only-speaking student looked in her class and how her feeling of empathy kicked in to help this situation. This student decided to take out her cellphone and used Google Translate to write the student a note in Spanish, inviting him to sit and eat lunch with her. Because this student used a tool that was literally at her fingertips, it empowered her to communicate with this ELL student. Having the ability to speak with an ELL student quicker and sooner begins the process of forming new relationships. It’s not easy being an ELL student in our schools today ... but can we empower all students to have the opportunity to speak with each other and build relationships that can impact our society in the future? ¡Si, se puede!

Follow me on Twitter @GloriaOTOY17 for more ideas on how to use Google Translate in your classroom.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Sonia, Kevin, Susan, Michele, Sarah, and Gloria for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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