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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: ‘Promoting Speaking for ELLs Must Be Intentional’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 22, 2019 13 min read
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(This is Part Two in a five-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today, Joyce Nutta, Carine Strebel, Jenny Vo, Dr. Catherine Beck, Dr. Heidi Pace, and Pamela Broussard share their responses.

Response From Joyce Nutta & Carine Strebel

Joyce Nutta is a professor of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Education at the University of Central Florida. She works with universities and school districts to integrate English-learner issues into teacher preparation and professional learning.

Carine Strebel is an assistant professor and ESOL coordinator at Stetson University. She teaches ESOL-focused courses, conducts training on instructing English-learners for her colleagues, and provides in-service professional development for school districts in the central Florida area.

Check out their book, Show, Tell, Build: Twenty Key Instructional Tools and Techniques for Educating English Learners:

Anyone learning a new language knows how important, yet challenging, it is to speak it. Whether talking with other second-language learners, or with native speakers who grew up speaking the language, piecing together sentences using newly learned vocabulary and grammar can be intimidating, even frustrating. But speaking is incredibly important for second-language learners, and engaging in meaningful and supportive activities requiring speaking is a crucial factor in developing proficiency in any second language.

Pair and Small-Group Activities

One excellent way to increase English-language learners’ (ELLs) speaking is through small-group and pair activities. The opportunity to speak one-on-one or among two or three peers offers much more student talking time than a teacher calling on individual students in whole-class discussions. Just using pair and group activities, however, won’t ensure that ELLs participate in discussions or communicate about their tasks. They need to be grouped deliberately and they need language support that is differentiated by English-proficiency level.

Students can be grouped in regular, or base, groups that remain constant over time or grouped in the moment for a particular activity. When grouping ELLs in mainstream classrooms, it helps to categorize strategies for putting students together, as shown in the following table.

Language Support for English-Learners

Our table includes types of support for ELLs to participate successfully in group activities, and one of those, sentence frames, is a go-to tool for teachers of ELLs. Sentence frames can be used in writing as well as speaking, and they can be adapted for different levels of English proficiency. They pair nicely with word banks, which, like sentence frames, give ELLs language to use that they may not have yet mastered for spontaneous expression.

Sentence frames are templates that include parts of a sentence and blanks for students to fill in. Differentiating sentence frames for English-proficiency levels can be thought of as a sliding scale. For example, a sentence frame for agreeing or disagreeing at advanced levels of proficiency might be a sentence starter, such as, “I agree because _______________________.” For intermediate ELLs, the sentence frame might include, “I agree because _________________ when ________ __________________get too _________________________ to _____________ __________________________.” The beginner’s frame might look like, “I agree because _______ falls when the ___________ droplets in the ________ get too _______ to stay in the air,” with a word bank with “snow, rain, ice, water, air, ground, heavy, light.” ELLs can be given sentence frames and word banks prior to any group activity to prepare and practice their answers before being asked to state their thoughts.

We have compiled
resources for speaking here.
The links under Chapters 7, 10, and 12 access useful materials for cooperative learning, sentence frames, and instructional conversations. By properly structuring your groups and providing the right kind of support, you can make sure your ELLs participate in productive, engaging speaking opportunities.

Response From Jenny Vo

Jenny Vo earned her B.A. in English from Rice University and her M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lamar University. She has been teaching for 22 years and is currently an ESL ISST (Instructional Support Specialty Teacher) in Katy ISD in Katy, Texas:

Most English-learners go through a silent period in which they do not want to talk in school. Coming to a new country and having to start over is difficult, let alone having to learn another language. Before we can focus on academics, I feel it is important for us as educators to address the student’s emotional needs. We need to work to lower the students’ affective filter before we can meet their linguistic and academic needs. When students feel safe and confident in their environment, then they are more able to focus their attention on academics. The silent period varies with each student. During this period, we should not force them to speak without support. So how do we promote speaking with these students, and what kind of support do we give them?

First, if we want our English-language learners to speak, then we need to provide them with authentic opportunities to use English and the linguistic support to help them speak correctly. We need to reduce teacher talking time and increase student talking time. Students need to be given many opportunities to participate in academic conversations. Plan for group discussions, debates, experiments, etc. When crafting your questions for discussion, make sure they are open-ended to encourage inquiry, exploration, and deeper thinking. Additionally, for academic conversations to work, we first need to teach the students the protocol of conversations—partners talking turns talking, listening, and responding to each other. Model this routine and have them practice.

Another great way to support students in their speaking is to provide them with sentence stems. The most common problem I see with my ELLs is the difficulty they have in formulating and phrasing their responses to questions. Sentence stems support them by giving them a starter to work with. Sentence stems will also encourage students to speak in complete sentences and use proper sentence structure. I recommend introducing 3-4 sentence stems for each unit of study. Model to the students how and when to use certain sentence stems and give them lots of opportunities to practice until they internalize them. Post the sentence stems on the walls in your classrooms where the students can see them and can refer to them independently.

Another great strategy that I love to use to promote speaking with my English Language Learners is the QSSSA strategy (Seidlitz & Perryman), which is explained by the graphic below:

(graphic by Jenny Vo, strategy from Seidlitz & Perryman)

Having the sentence stem provided and the opportunity to practice with a partner builds our ELLs’ self-confidence and decreases their fear of speaking in front of the group. Furthermore, the randomization process forces them to be accountable because they must be prepared to share.

Promoting speaking for English-language learners must be intentional on the part of the teacher. Academic conversations must be planned and prepared for. Discussion questions must be relevant to the topic being taught so that students will understand what you want them to learn. Sentence stems must be provided to support students in their conversations. I craft the sentence stems based on the questions I want to ask my students to assess their understanding of what I am trying to teach. Just like how the silent period varies with each student, so will the period in which your students develop their speaking skills. But you will see progress if you give them the support that they need!

Work Cited:

Seidlitz, J., & Perryman, B. (2011). 7 Steps to a language-rich interactive classroom: Research-based strategies for engaging all students. San Clemente, CA: Canter Press.

Response From Dr. Catherine Beck & Dr. Heidi Pace

Dr. Catherine Beck is the director of schools for the Cheatham County schools in Tennessee. She is also the author of Easy and Effective Professional Development and Leading Learning for ELL Students.

Dr. Heidi Pace is a retired superintendent. She currently teaches for Concordia University and Colorado College:

When you think about language acquisition, we can divide it into two parts: input and output. Input happens first with you hearing and reading language. The output happens second as you begin to speak and finally write. Think about how a toddler learns to speak. It is very similar. You create a safe environment for students to first try words, then sentences, and finally, larger pieces of dialogue, including conversational and academic.

Teachers need to help students acquire words into their own vernacular. This takes many, many repetitions and also sentence stems to show how to correctly use the words in context. Using visuals such as Word Walls helps students to retain the words to use in both speaking and writing. Teachers must link new content to prior knowledge for ELL students. If students have no prior knowledge, then we must give it to them through visuals. Using physical gestures helps ELL students retain language. We need to spend time teaching students how to pronounce the words correctly. Taking the time to slow down in speaking will help students gain confidence in their speaking abilities.

We must give students many opportunities throughout the day to speak, to each other and to the class. Strategies such as Think, Pair, Share and Jigsaw give students opportunities to practice. Be purposeful when creating groups for ELL students as they learn best in heterogeneous groupings. Finally, offer lots of encouragement and celebrations for daily successes. Practice makes perfect, and that is exactly what we must provide for our ELL students: lots and lots of practice.

Response From Pamela Broussard

Pamela Broussard is a high school new-arrival-center teacher and presenter from Houston. She is a recipient of numerous awards, including teacher of the year and TABE (Texas Association For Bilingual Education) ESL teacher of the year for Texas. She is a Rotary Peace Fellow who has taught nationally and internationally:

When I first started teaching ESL students, I was alone in a room with non-English speakers hoping my encouragement would be enough to get them to use English. Today, there are so many other ways with and without technology to promote English speaking.

First, I teach students the target language and send them out the door. As soon as my students can say their name and do simple introductions, we tour the school and meet “the important people.” Students bring along their clipboards and a premade reference chart of photos. Then they take turns introducing themselves and asking an adult (nurse, principal, counselor, librarian) their name and their title. When we are done, students put the reference chart with the names in their binder.

Another way my students practice English is by meeting every two weeks with PALs (Peer Assistant Leadership) students. These student leaders come to the class to work with our kids. The first weeks they do introductions and games, but as the year progresses, they have more demanding language and concepts to discuss. These times together develop friendships, which increases my students’ use of English, too.

To widen my students’ experiences, I reach out to adult volunteers from the school and beyond. When you are doing a particular unit, send out a school-wide email and see if there is someone who has a story about or experience with the topic you’re teaching. For example, my students do a survival unit. Each year they interview various staff members who have survived a major event. Students write the questions and interview the volunteer. Students are highly motivated to speak well for these interviews. Another time, when my students were learning to write newspaper articles, we interviewed the director of communications for our district.

We also practice English by singing educational and radio songs. Karaoke has been one of my students’ favorite activities for years. In addition, my students perform plays and do presentations for others. We have our students put on events and invite supportive adults to attend. Students also are required to do “expert reports” for which they choose a topic and present it to the class. They are very motivated to share their expertise in a certain sport, music group, or movie.

But one of the game changers to practicing speaking happened when students had access to computers. Using FlipGrid, AdobeSpark, or Seesaw, students can make their own videos. Students can use the applications to make everything from explainer videos, family introductions, commercials, and skits, to responses to literature and political campaigns. While a student might not care how their English sounds to a teacher, when they are making a video, they practice and try to get it perfect. Speaking of perfect, my students also use the voice typing tool in Google to practice speaking. They were sure the computer was crazy when it typed “random” words while they were speaking. But within a few minutes and with a few corrections, students began to cheer as the computer understood them. Skype is another application that can be used for connecting with other classes or subject experts for interviews or games. A game called Mystery Skype connects classes around the world to play a version of “20 Questions,” where each class tries to figure out where the other is located by asking yes/no questions. There are numerous ways classes around the world connect to do projects.

When students feel they have an authentic need to use English—whether it is to make a new friend, produce a product, or conduct an interview—they are always more motivated to speak and do their best.

Thanks to Joyce, Carine, Jenny, Catherine, Heidi, and Pamela 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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