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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.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Promote Speaking With ELLs Through ‘Community, Conversations, and Celebrations’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 23, 2019 24 min read
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(This is Part Three in a five-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

Today’s answers come from Sandra C. Figueroa, Cecilia Pattee, Barbara Gottschalk, Michael D. Toth, Becky Corr, and Susan Michalski.

Response From Sandra C. Figueroa

Sandra C. Figueroa, who has devoted her life to increasing opportunities and literacy achievement for underserved students, has served as a teacher, mentor teacher and leader, elementary principal, K-12 director of curriculum, and English-language specialist:

I promote speaking with English-learners through building community, conversation, and celebration. What follows are my beliefs and what I do to promote speaking for all learners in my classroom.


I believe community is all about being able to speak and listen to all voices in our classrooms, even if they are not English voices. We all have a voice, and it is important for me to promote speaking through reading and writing poetry with my students.

Here is one example of what I do to ensure all voices are heard, which can be adapted to other short writing. First, I write free -erse poetry or copy a favorite poem on chart paper every Monday. I read the poem first, then we read the poem together, and my students read the poem in a variety of ways all week long. On Friday, everyone gets a personal copy of the poem to read, illustrate, and identify unknown words and to write their own poem to share with peers. For my English-learners, these poems become their first successful reading text. Everyone is expected to choral read the poem, memorize ,and/or read it with partners, small groups or on their own. It is always my student’s choice how they will read it, who they will read with, and who they will read to. Students sign up to perform the poem throughout the following week. I model how to provide feedback, and then peers take over the responsibility to identify speaking strengths and give ideas to work on to their peers. The poems become a ritual and routine that keep us grounded in a strong learning community all year long. We keep the poems in a personal poetry journal. The collection of poems becomes old favorite reading texts, rereading their favorite ones to build fluency, expression, and key vocabulary.

The poems have become a wonderful parting gift at the end of the school year. Last year, my middle school students chose to have their poetry journals autographed by their peers as a way to remember our time together.


I believe that the most powerful way to promote speaking for English-learners is to provide a structure for all class conversations. Here is how I structure our classroom conversations. Every morning, we begin by sitting in a circle and passing a rain stick around the circle to share our thoughts, ideas, and learnings. We practice hearing each other’s voices and learning from each other. The rules are simple. We never miss a day. No one talks when a person has the talking stick. The person with the talking stick can’t talk until they have everyone’s attention. Student’s can pass if they need more time or are not ready to share at the moment. The first day of school is the hardest, and I am prepared to take all the time we need. Our sharing is simple at first: “Good morning! My name is ____. I am grateful for ______.”

As we go through the school year, I stretch their thinking, speaking, and ideas by modeling my own thoughts, ideas, and learning. My students follow my lead and go around the circle until everyone has had a chance to share what they can. If someone get’s stuck and needs help speaking their thoughts, peers raise their hands to support. The speaker selects a peer to help clarify, organize, and share their thoughts. It is magical to experience the love and support that develops through this simple process. We watch how peers strengthen each other’s oral language throughout the school year. This structured daily conversation is a powerful way to promote authentic conversations for a real audience and purpose. My English-learners flourish because the work is challenging, and they can observe, hear, and monitor their own learning, speaking, and listening over time.


I believe celebration of learners’ strengths is crucial to learning. As music is such a joyful way to promote speaking for English-learners, we celebrate everything with music. Here is what we do to embed music into our day. With my guidance, we select songs for celebrating special moments, transitions, word work, and to units of study. Learning to sing the lyrics to favorite songs and acting out the lyrics and adding pictures to the lyrics helps all my students remember words forever, especially those new to English. These words become part of our word study and picture dictionaries and are used as resources for reading and writing. I share my love of old jazz and my favorite music artist Louie Armstrong’s, “What a Wonderful World.” Years ago, I found a picture book to the lyrics of Armstrong’s song, and we start every morning listening to the song, turning the pages, and singing. “What a Wonderful World” becomes our class theme song. I collect music and picture books to promote speaking because it is easier for my English-learners to sing than to speak at first. My students start adding the songs to the poetry journal as keepsakes. No matter how difficult things get outside our classroom walls, we celebrate everything with music and we use our favorite songs to bring us back and remember that in our classroom we “make it a wonderful world”.

Just because English-learners can’t speak, write, or read in English does not mean they are not able to participate, observe, listen, think, and speak at high levels. Community, conversations, and celebrations are an efficient, effective, empowering, and enjoyable way to promote speaking for all learners.

Response From Cecilia Pattee

Cecilia Pattee has been in education for 15 years in Idaho. Currently, she works with teachers providing professional-development workshops through the Boise State Writing Project & the National Writing Project. When she’s not with teachers she’s spending time with her two kids, puppy, and husband of 12 years:

Ever wonder why English-language learners have less trouble speaking in the hallways, in the lunchroom, or on the playground than in the classroom? Some may say the reason is due to the difference in academic language vs basic interpersonal communicative language, but I would argue it’s more than that. I would argue that it’s also about the desire and motivation to communicate with others. Teachers can create similar motivation by providing relevant curriculum, providing the language needed to participate in conversations, and offering opportunities to practice speaking.

If students are not motivated to use the language, then promoting speaking will be a more difficult job. I need to consider how my curriculum is relevant to my students. Reframing my thinking from seeing ELLs through a deficit perspective to one of an asset perspective allows me to see more potential. Students often have assets that aren’t identifiable in a home-language survey or a standardized placement test, things like resilience, creativity, strength in storytelling, dependability, and many others. In order to learn about these hidden assets, I like to tap into students’ funds of knowledge based on Luis Moll’s work.

Starting close to home, with familiar content, positions students to be successful. For this reason, narrative writing, poetry, such as Where I’m from, music, and other lessons that provide opportunities for them to share their stories or express themselves inspire participation and a motivation to communicate. Along with the invitation to speak, it helps to clue students into unspoken norms we have in our culture by building trust and sets the foundation for a culture of inquiry. For example, one of the first things I let my students know is that asking questions doesn’t mean they’re dumb. ELLs may come from cultures where they have been taught not to question an adult or that if you ask questions it’s because you lack knowledge. Model and give them permission to ask questions, to clarify, to inquire, to wonder, or ask for examples and much more.

After inviting students to speak, I continue to build trust by providing them the necessary language to speak with confidence. I use mentor texts, such as children’s books and may also include audio and visual to provide language. Sentence frames work to provide models of more specific academic language. Providing a variety and choice for students with sentence frames will also increase their use. In particular I find Dr. Kate Kinsella’s work on language for academic discussions or academic collaboration useful.

Having the language, students are ready for a platform to practice speaking. See, Think, Wonder is a different spin on a KWL (What I Know, What I Want To Know, What I’ve Learned) chart. I like using it with my ELL students because I can introduce this strategy with an image or video and transfer these skills to text and ultimately writing. The strategy also intuitively uses words I want them to use, so it’s easy to construct sentence stems such as “I notice, observe (see), _____ makes me think _____, I wonder _______ based on _______ . The strategy can start individually, progress to small group, then move to whole group and allows for structured academic-language practice. Similarly, the RAFT

(Role, Audience, Format, Task) strategy,allows for structured academic-language practice that can be embedded into any lesson and allows students to write from a different perspective, therefore play with language.

Providing opportunities to practice speaking is more than asking students to turn to their partner and share, reading aloud, or retelling. This is a good start, but you will eventually want to move to a more targeted practice.

Response From Barbara Gottschalk

Barbara Gottschalk was most recently an English-language-acquisition teacher for the Warren Consolidated schools in the northern suburbs of metro Detroit. Her book, Get Money for Your Classroom: Easy Grant Writing Ideas That Work, was published by Routledge in 2017:

Ms. Gottschalk, don’t you get it?” The little 1st grade English-language learner asking me this question seemed genuinely concerned I was losing my mind. He was perplexed because I kept asking him and his classmates questions whose answers I obviously already knew. In other words, I was asking display questions like:

“This girl is sitting. What is she doing?”
“This girl is standing. What is she doing?”
“Is the balloon on the elephant?”
“Is the balloon behind the elephant?”

and so on ad nauseam. In the middle of the year, I’d been required to change the nature of my pullout sessions to meet the dictates of my district’s newly adopted direct-instruction intervention program for lower-level ELLs. The highly scripted curriculum had many drawbacks, but my student’s question to me indirectly pointed out one of its biggest—the lack of authentic communication. It was so apparent to this young English-language learner because I had spent much of our time together in the first part of the school year asking referential questions—questions whose answers I didn’t already know. Questions like:

“Which of these books I’ve read aloud did you like the best? Why?”
“What was your favorite illustration in this picture book we’ve just read together? Can you describe it clearly enough so I can find it in the book?”
“I missed meeting with you yesterday because of your field trip. Which animals did you see at the zoo?”

There’s a place for display questions in your teaching toolkit, but asking display questions of individual students during a group discussion is an inefficient way to assess knowledge. Having students answer these questions in pairs or small groups provides more speaking practice, but if students have mastered the content, they’re still asking each other questions whose answers everybody already knows. That’s not real communication. In contrast, notice in the following examples how referential questions require students to draw on their own opinions or experience:

Display - “What was the main point of this video clip?”
Referential - “What is one thing you remember most from the video clip? Why?”

Display - “What does ‘frustrate’ mean?”
Referential - “What is something that frustrates you? Why?”

Display - “What is the past tense of ‘catch’?”

Referential - “Tell me about the last time you caught a cold.”

Display - “What is one trait of the main character in this story?”
Referential - “What is one trait you have in common with the main character in this story?”

Of course, it’s important to educate your students about the importance of speaking practice. Too often, students are learning how to spell words they can’t pronounce, writing answers to social studies comprehension questions using terms they can’t talk about, and conducting science experiments they can’t describe. Even if your students aren’t convinced that speaking practice will help them learn better and faster, the right kind of practice at least encourages them to try. Answering referential questions motivates students because it allows them to apply their knowledge and also share information about themselves. That’s why one easy way to promote speaking with English-language learners—all kinds of learners for that matters—for teachers and students alike to ask each other more referential questions.

Response From Michael D. Toth

Michael D. Toth is the author of the award-winning book, Who Moved My Standards, the co-author with David Sousa of Improving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning Through Academic Teaming (forthcoming, 2019), and the co-author with Dr. Robert J. Marzano of The Essentials of a Standards-Based Classroom, School Leadership for Results, and Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference. Toth founded Learning Sciences International, where he serves as the CEO and leads LSI’s Applied Research Center. Toth addresses teachers, school leaders, and superintendents at national conferences, policy forums, and workshops, including the past addresses to the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:

We need to think beyond traditional English-language-learner strategies to rethinking the classroom environment for ELLs (and all students) to thrive.

The traditional classroom setting—where students are expected to sit quietly in their seats and passively memorize information—is typically ineffective at building academic-language skills in native English speakers, much less in English-language learners. In this environment, the confident speakers raise their hands and get to practice their speaking skills the most; less confident speakers (including ELL students) may not feel comfortable speaking in front of the entire class, miss opportunities to practice speaking, and might pass under the teacher’s radar.

Direct-instruction-driven classrooms like the one described above fail to build the complex communication skills that all students, especially English-language learners, desperately need to practice.

Rethinking the Typical Classroom

To effectively prioritize student speaking skills, we need to rethink the predominant type of instruction students experience in the classroom every day. This core instruction may be classified as teacher-centered, student-centered, or team-centered. The great majority of classrooms we see in schools are teacher-centered (direct instruction, independent practice, and activity centers).

Almost no classrooms we visit are truly team-centered. In a team-centered classroom, direct instruction is limited to briefly establishing base knowledge. Then, students take the lead on their learning within teams for much of the class time.

Team-centered learning is not grouping students together for a one-time project—it involves students working in small teams of 2-5 students every single day, on lesson-sized team tasks, to accomplish their learning goals. In a team-centered classroom, the teacher’s role shifts from lecturer to facilitator as he or she monitors student progress.

How Team-Centered Instruction Elevates Learning

If we transform classrooms to team-centered learning, every student in the classroom is speaking and listening to teammates, constantly using academic vocabulary, and developing critical social-emotional skills. The team-centered model benefits ELL students immensely as they build stronger support networks with their peers. The team dynamic, in turn, boosts self-esteem. Students practice speaking skills in a low-stakes setting, rather than having to answer questions aloud during whole-class discussions.

Once teachers spend less time on direct instruction, they are free to circulate to monitor team tasks. The teacher can now accurately track progress toward learning targets and spend considerably more one-on-one time with struggling students. This visible learning—when students are speaking and thinking out loud—allows the teacher to see what students understand or don’t understand.

Teachers can easily diagnose and address speaking or listening gaps, and ELL students are less likely to get lost in the crowd when the teacher is doing close monitoring in a team-centered classroom. The teacher can also determine which particular activities are most effective in engaging student interest and can make adaptions to lessons so all students have voice and choice in the classroom and come to school excited to speak and participate.

The best way to give our English-language learners continual and authentic, rather than limited or scripted, speaking opportunities is to shift our classrooms to the team-centered model.

Response From Becky Corr

Becky Corr is the president of EdSpark Consulting, which is dedicated to igniting partnerships for diverse learners through professional development, technical writing, and systems analysis. In her role as an English-language-development team lead in the Douglas County school district in Colorado, she coaches, mentors, and supports teachers and facilitates family-engagement opportunities:

First, it’s important to know why speaking is so important, and then we’ll examine some practical activities that are beneficial for all students, but critical for English-learners. Having a solid understanding of why speaking is so important, as well as the research that supports classroom strategies, empowers teachers to improve their craft and lead informed conversations with evaluators and colleagues. August and Shanahan state, “The most promising instructional practices for language-minority students bear out this point: Literacy programs that provide instructional support of oral-language development in English, aligned with high-quality literacy instruction are the most successful. Strong oral proficiency is associated with improved reading comprehension and writing skills.” In addition, processing information aloud, collaborating, and conversing facilitate the movement of new information from working memory to long-term memory, thereby solidifying student learning. Oral-language development is beneficial for all learners, but critical for ELLs.

So, what can teachers do to promote speaking in their classrooms? Here are some practical ideas and strategies:

Plan for Success:

Create a welcoming, safe, and supportive classroom environment where students are expected to participate through speaking. Start by gathering student input and creating classroom expectations that foster a safe environment for learning and interacting. Suggest adding any additional expectations that students did not discuss.

Intentionally plan for the integration of speaking activities. Consider what language you will be expecting students to know and use during the lesson. Create language objectives that target the language you expect students to use. Example: Students will orally justify their solution to a mathematics problem using sentence frames.

Teach the difference between social and academic language. Social language is language that students use on the playground. Academic language is the language of the classroom and the language needed to understand content. Demonstrate the difference for students. Provide students with a kid-friendly rubric that assesses students’ oral academic language. Give frequent feedback to students about what they are doing well and opportunities for growth.

Utilize Effective Strategies:

Think-Pair-Share is a timeless strategy that provides students with time to process the question or problem, talk with classmates, and share their responses in a safe environment. First, the teacher should pose the question. Write it on the board and rephrase using easier or more complex language to be sure that all students understand. Next, give students time to think and write ideas. Then, ask students to turn to a partner and share their ideas. Finally, the teacher can choose students at random to share answers. For this strategy to work well, students need to feel comfortable with taking risks and making mistakes. Find this strategy and more ready-to-use resources here.

Sentence frames are an excellent way to scaffold and extend academic language for all learners. Multilingual and monolingual students alike benefit from tiered sentence frames. Students at the beginning levels of English proficiency will use easier sentence frames, while advanced students will utilize complex sentence starters. Examples:

Level I: I predict that ________________ will _______________ because....

Level II: Based on_____________, my prediction is ___________________, since...

Give one, Get one is a very flexible and adaptable strategy that teachers can use to promote speaking and listening. First, pose a question or problem. Then, ask students to write their answer or solution. Finally, students will move about the room to talk with classmates, listen to their responses, and collect ideas. For a template and specific steps to this strategy, refer to this guide by the American Federation of Teachers.

Ensuring an environment where students feel safe to take risks sets the stage for teachers to be able to promote speaking in their classrooms. For more resources, visit my blog.


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learner: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Executive Summary, pp. 4.

Response From Susan Michalski

Susan Michalski is a veteran French teacher and recipient of the Hagedorn Chair for Teaching Excellence at the Williston Northampton School, a boarding and day school in Easthampton, Mass. Sue lives on WNS campus with her family, where she is also a dorm parent, a 9th grade adviser, and a member of the academic technology team:

Every immersion-language class has a life of its own. I have found one constant in mine over the last two decades: Every student is nervous, and crossing the threshold into our “French-only’ zone requires a leap of faith for us all. Not surprisingly, some of my most receptive students are international students, for they are practiced in the art of navigating an immersion environment. They must treat every course conducted in English first as a language course and then as a course in its discipline. In my class, however, native and non-native English speakers are on a common playing field, all limited to what I teach them and to what they can craft from their ever-growing arsenal of French. With this in mind, I offer some effective and student-loved immersion teaching practices and activities which are directly adaptable to the ELL classroom, 5 immersion M’s:

1.Model Do not stop a student’s spontaneous speech to correct her. Instead, model the correction and further engage conversation. To the student phrase, “I go-ed to the movies yesterday,” reply, “You went to the movies? I went to the movies last week. What movie did you see when you went to the movies?” A savvy student who noticed the initial mistake will also notice the correction. The offending student—without being singled out or embarrassed—will hear and will hopefully repeat the correction. Most of all, she will be encouraged to continue to speak freely.

2. Mingle Give each student a card with a question printed on it. Have students stand up, find partners, read their questions to one another, reply, swap cards, and change partners. This 2-3 minute daily activity provides routine and movement, ensuring that all students read, speak, listen, and hear in the target language at least a handful of times daily. To personalize, use the vocabulary or structures you wish to review. To scaffold, begin with questions that offer options (Do you like dogs or do you like cats?) and move to open-ended questions (What did you eat for dinner last night?) To further model, include yourself in the activity.

3. Music Use current songs to demonstrate grammar points, to connect with your students, and to discuss culture and society. Invent a jingle (or have your students!) for verb endings, grammar rules, or other class information. Be musical. Be silly—your students will remember that you were—and a hum of the song or jingle will help them recall the needed information.

4. Modernize Develop new takes on classics, like dictation. Provide students with cut-out words of a stanza of a song you plan to study, in color-coded individual plastic bags. Have them create original poems from the words. Next, play the song as they, in pairs or groups, identify and tactilely maneuver the words on their desks. Having already used the words, they will be encouraged by how much of the song they can recreate by ear alone. Later, use the materials to have kids attempt to recreate the song from memory, or use this activity before a more traditional written dictation.

5. Move Replace traditional with more active work. Consider a four-corners activity, designating up to four parts of the classroom as the “response” spots. To review verb tenses, create present tense, past tense, future, and conditional “spots.” Have two students stand in the center of the room. Read and/or hold up a written sentence on cardstock (sentences preselected from homework, if desired). Have students listen/read the cue, determine the answer, and dash to the correct classroom “spot.” In a literature course, corners might be the characters in a novel; the sentences, citations each spoke in the book .

Though unique in many ways, the immersion classroom serves as a reminder that our students are fundamentally more alike than different, and, as such, it can also be a rich resource for ELL classrooms.

Thanks to Sandra, Cecilia, Barbara, Michael, Becky, and Susan 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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