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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Build Speaking Skills With ELLs

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 20, 2019 24 min read
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(This is the first post in a five-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you promote speaking with English-language learners?

Obviously, when learning a new language, it’s important to be able to speak it.

This extensive series will consider effective strategies to teach and encourage English-language learners to communicate through speaking their new language.

Today’s contributors are Valentina Gonzalez, Sarah Said, Mary Ann Zehr, Dr. Jeff Zwiers, and Dr. 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.

You can find many categorized and updated resources related to this topic at Speaking & Listening on my resource-sharing blog.

Teaching English-Language Learners is the link where you can find related previous posts that have appeared in this column.

Response From Valentina Gonzalez

Valentina Gonzalez is currently a professional-development specialist for ELLs in Texas. She works with teachers of English-learners to support language and literacy instruction. In addition to presenting, she writes a monthly blog for MiddleWeb focused on supporting ELLs. She can be reached through her website elementaryenglishlanguagelearners.weebly.com or on Twitter @ValentinaESL:

English-learners (ELs) benefit from time to discuss in the classroom using the target language and domain-specific vocabulary. Unfortunately, even today, our students are still not talking enough about academic content in the classrooms. Studies show that most of the talk happening in classrooms comes from the teacher, and when students talk, their answers are at a low level, usually one word or simple phrases. On top of that information, ELs are called on to speak less frequently in classrooms across our country. So the question becomes, how do we promote speaking especially for our ELs in order to advance their language development and see academic growth?

When I was a young language learner, I, myself, spent most of my day listening quietly in the classroom. It was ingrained in me from my parents that my job as the student was to go to school and listen to the teacher. He/she held the knowledge, and it was not my role to speak. This was a learned cultural difference that I brought from home to my academic setting. Unless my teacher spoke directly to me, I could go all day without saying a single word except for at lunch and recess with my closest friend. Then when I got home, I told my mom everything I learned that day in school ... only I shared with her in Serbian (our native language). I had very little practice speaking English and using academic vocabulary with my peers.

Though speaking at my home using my native language was truly a wonderful bridge for me and helped me to internalize what I learned at school, I wasn’t practicing enough academic English vocabulary. That very well could have been a different story. We may not be able to control the language or vocabulary our students use at home, but we have a great deal of control over how they use it in our classrooms. We have to get them speaking regularly using domain-specific vocabulary on a daily basis. As they listen to their peers, they are building more vocabulary. And as they speak, they are growing their own writing vocabulary. And this listening, speaking, and writing vocabulary will also help them build their reading vocabulary.

Here are four steps that promote speaking with English-learners:

  1. Create a safe environment

Creating a safe classroom for all students to talk is most important. If an EL is nervous about speaking or making a mistake, chances are they won’t try. A classroom that embraces mistakes as opportunities for growth helps to lower the affective filter of ELs. This means we allow for mistakes in speaking. We encourage open questioning and curiosity. We embrace thoughtful communication. We leave space for student to student talk. As teachers, we step aside from the center of the classroom “stage” and allow our students to speak with partners and in groups frequently.

  1. Model

Clearly and explicitly model the expectations of talk. Show students what the conversation will look like. What will each participant do? What will they say? What will they look like? Model so there is no ambiguity. Making the communication structure visible is critical for language learners. If everyone knows the expectations, then the target is clear and more easily achieved. We set students up for success this way. I remember before I learned to model conversations how my students would drift away from the conversation. I felt like they were being ornery or off task. I thought it was their fault. But really it was mine. I didn’t outline for them what the talk should look and sound like so they just tried and mostly didn’t live up to my expectations until I showed them explicitly what the academic conversation should look and sound like. And then guess what? They could do it! And they felt so proud of themselves!

  1. Scaffold

Our goal is that our students become independent at everything in life, be it walking, riding a bike, reading, paying bills, and even holding a conversation. But no matter what, they need a scaffold to begin the JOURNEY to independence. For ELs and many other students, structuring conversations alleviates the stress of how to hold the conversation, so they can focus on what’s important ... the content. Though turn and talk is oOK every now and then, it is loose and less supportive for students who need a bit more support. I have a few favorite scaffolds for talk in the classroom: think-pair-share, talking heads, and QSSSA. Most of these offer students sentence starters to propel their thought. One problem often seen with partner talk in the classroom is that one partner dominates the conversation. These three methods offer all students an equitable chance to participate in discourse. For ELs who are more shy or resistant to speak, this encourages active participation.

  1. Wait Time/ Think Time

As teachers, we’ve probably all been guilty of playing the question game with our class. We ask a question and immediately call on a student to answer. The students are well aware of this game, and many don’t even try to answer unless called upon. Most know who the teacher usually calls on, too. In order to get ELs and all students really thinking and talking, we can employ some wait time, otherwise known as think time. It’s quite simple yet completely effective.

  • We pose a question.
  • WAIT about 5-10 seconds.
  • Here I like to provide my ELs with a sentence starter to help propel their thought.
  • And then let them all share with a partner or group. This step ensures that EVERYONE talks and not just one individual.
  • Now I can call on a student at random to share what he/she said or what their partner said.

Wait time is important for ELs because it allows for processing, translating, and building bravery to answer.

If we want to promote more talk with English-learners in our classrooms, we, as teachers, have to talk less. Give our students the room to talk more. Amplify their voices and empower them with the confidence to speak up. Their voices are important and hold value. We have to trust that by allowing them to talk, we are unlocking the potential for them to uncover the curriculum rather than us working so hard to try to “cover” it daily by telling them everything. Giving them the power to negotiate for meaning, grapple with ideas, question their thinking and their classmates’ thinking will create a space that fosters curiosity and breeds thought. After all, our job is not to teach them facts. They can simply Google anything these days. But rather ,we are here to teach them how to learn and think, communicate, and question and grow as learners each day.

Response From Sarah Said

Sarah Said is currently a district-level administrator who oversees English learning and bilingual programs in two elementary school districts in suburbs south of Chicago. Sarah spent over a decade teaching and advocating for English-learners spanning from the early grades to high school age. She has a graduate degree in instructional leadership: literacy, language, and culture from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is married and a mother of three who enjoys traveling with her family:

They’ll “Drop the Mic One” Day Soon ...

Us cool kids “drop the mic” when we give a triumphant speech. The English-learners in our classroom will one day “drop mic” as well in a way that will inspire us and shock us all at the same time. We need to have hope in our students as we support them in developing their speaking skills. There are some people that want to explicitly teach conversation skills to English-learners to a point where the students may find it so amusing that they don’t take seriously ... aka bad TPR (Total Physical Response) implementation. And, there are other teachers who think the students will learn speaking skills through sitting there, listening to the teacher drone on and on because their brain will magically acquire a language. Buehler ... Buehler ... Neither way helps.

Let’s be real, students need to learn oral language in a nonthreatening, nonbelittling, and organic way. If we roll up our sleeves and really try to support our students’ oral development as much as we do reading and writing, they will soon enough be able to “drop the mic” and amaze all one day soon! How do we do that? How do we really try to develop the speaking skills of English-learners. We need to do this step by step to really home in on developing skills.

Give Them Time and Let Them Listen

First, we want to give them time and let them listen. As we go through structure speaking—yes your kids can speak in class—let your newcomer take their time to listen. Sometimes, newcomers go through a silent period; we need to honor it. By honoring it, we can then take baby steps to rich academic conversations. We can then work with that student one on one to develop speaking skills. Later, we can partner them up with a student who will support them. Then we can move them to groups of four students until we get them into full-class discussions. Yes, they can get there. But it all starts with allowing them to listen and be comfortable in that environment first. Building a relationship with you and their classmates will give them the confidence they need to participate in class and begin developing their speaking skills.

Use Tech Tools Like Seesaw to Scaffold Speaking in Front of Others

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you would know that I am a huge fan of Seesaw. This application does a world of good for English-learners. Many people know about it’s benefits to connect students to families. But it has strong benefits with supporting student voice. I am a proud Seesaw ambassador and very pleased with what the app offers for helping English-learners develop speaking skills. You can learn more by going on Twitter and following the #ELLchat_bkclub discussion on hashtag called #Seesaw4ELs. Seesaw also has great communities on Facebook where people can learn more ideas of others using the application.

Based on the assignments you offer, students can record their opinions, they can read and listen to themselves, or they can practice simple greetings on there. They can really go through the application and have tons of practice learning. It is accessible for primary- but can be used in secondary-level classrooms as well. The only people who see what the students have done are the teacher and parents who are added by a family app. Once they are confident speaking on technology, they can then move on to speaking in front of more people.

Plan Structured Speaking Activities That Have Appropriate Supports

In order to explain this, I will tell you about my own failure. Many years ago, I had moved into a high school English-learner classroom. I wanted to conduct a Socratic seminar in English with newcomers. I gave them a text and an overarching question. I did not model the structure nor give them appropriate roles for the activity. It then became a discussion free for all that became difficult to control. I had to go back to the drawing board later and realize my mistake. I didn’t give them enough explanation of the Socratic seminar beforehand. I also didn’t model the activity appropriately.

I went back at it a week later, I showed them a video of how Socratic seminar should be done. I also gave them a text that was more meaningful to them. And there was an appropriate pre- and post- activity related to the seminar. More wait time was given. I also gave them sentence and question starters to support them. Bingo! We as a class were successful!

Building speaking skills in English-learners takes the ability to build relationships with them, a classroom environment that allows freedom to fail, creativity, and well-structured lesson planning. You also have to understand that your students need modeling and the ability to practice their skills. You have to find ways to really give them an equitable chance to develop those skills. Give it time, and one day they will “drop the mic” and have you in awe with their speaking skills.

Response From Mary Ann Zehr

Mary Ann Zehr taught core English and history classes to English-language learners for seven years in the District of Columbia public schools. Currently, she is teaching 9th grade English at Harrisonburg High School in Virginia. She still has some ELLs in her classroom:

To be successful in promoting speaking with English-language learners, I must carefully plan and structure speaking activities. I’m not one of those teachers who can wing it in leading a discussion and get everyone in the classroom participating. Challenging, higher-order questions don’t pop into my head spontaneously. I think of these kinds of questions and write them down as part of my lesson planning.

I’ve developed several protocols that support students to speak. One protocol is for student debates. For this protocol, I provide one or two texts about a debate topic. For example, I used the April 30, 2018, New York Times article, “Worried About Risky Teenage Behavior? Make School Tougher,” by Austin Frakt, as a text for one debate .The article caught my eye because the Learning Network of The New York Times developed activities for its use in the classroom.

As part of my debate protocol, I divide a class into two teams. With The New York Times article, I assigned one team to make the argument that making school more rigorous helps to reduce risky behavior in teens. I assigned the other team to argue that making school harder does not affect teens’ risky behavior.

In their teams, students read the article and highlight any evidence to support the position, or “claim,” that they have been assigned. Then, still in their teams, each person in the group practices speaking the claim and giving evidence and reasoning to support the claim.

After the teams have prepared their arguments, I match up students in twos, with a student from each of the teams in each pair, to argue their opposing claims. The class comes alive as each student expresses the arguments he or she has prepared in a one-on-one debate. Lastly, we have a group discussion during which students are free to express their true opinions. Again, students use the format of making a claim and providing evidence and reasoning to support it. I also coach students to use posted sentence stems, such as “I agree because ...” or “I disagree because ...” or “I’d like to add ...” I’ve used this same protocol successfully for students to debate whether military recruiters should be permitted in schools, whether the United States should celebrate Columbus Day, and whether schools should permit students to have cellphones in class.

Another protocol I’ve used to promote speaking is reciprocal teaching. With this protocol, I divide a class into teams of four or five students. I assign each team the task of preparing to teach and then teaching a chapter of a book or scene of a play. For example, in 12th grade English, we read and analyzed the play, “Blood Wedding,” by Federico Garcia Lorca. We analyzed the play particularly for what it said about traditional gender roles.

We read the first scene of the play together. Then I assigned other scenes of the play to different teams of students. As part of the protocol, I give them an activity packet with specific instructions for the structure of their planning and execution of a lesson. For example, each student chooses a role, such as to be the wordsmith—whose job is to lead the selection of vocabulary words that need to be taught—or connector—who ensures that each student has created a discussion question, or summarizer, or discussion leader. With “Blood Wedding,” teams of students read aloud their assigned scene and then picked an excerpt of two pages to teach. After teams had prepared their lessons, they carried out reciprocal teaching by exchanging lessons with another team.

When the planning and reciprocal teaching are going on, the students are talking. And because the students have roles, everyone speaks. I provide some guiding questions. In the activity guide for “Blood Wedding,” I prompted analysis with questions: What does the character do and say about gender roles? (I asked them to write quotes). Does the quote reinforce or challenge traditional gender roles? But students also are required to create open-ended questions of their own, which they use to lead discussions. After reciprocal teaching, we also typically hold a Socratic seminar to discuss the text that we have read.

I give grades for speaking, just as I do for reading and writing. During debates and reciprocal teaching, I circulate to make sure I hear each student speaking and give a grade for it. I often host guest speakers to my classroom. Before the speaker arrives, students have a chance to prepare a question. Then, to receive a grade, they must ask at least one question or make one comment during the class period.

Nevertheless, I still have a couple of English-language learners who are reluctant to speak and will do just about everything in their power to avoid it. Sometimes a student will take a zero, rather than speak aloud.

Recently, I’ve experimented with having students make voice recordings and send them to me electronically. I’ve created assignments for students to reflect on a particular teaching unit. Usually, I give them five questions and ask them to choose to answer three in a voice recording that lasts for at least one minute. I grade the reflection with a checklist based on the speaking rubric from the WIDA Consortium. Students earn points, for instance, for using several content words from the unit and elaborating on their ideas with examples. They use the online program, vocaroo.com, to record their reflections and send them to me. The first time I required students to make a voice recording, they were reluctant to do it in class. Some came and made their recordings in my classroom at lunch to avoid having other students hear them. But the second time I required them to make recordings, most students seemed to have overcome their reluctance. (I want to see them do the recordings so I can ensure they are not reading from notes. I want them to speak without using notes).

Recordings help me get a good sense of how each student needs to improve his or her speaking. Because I can replay recordings, I get information about how students speak that I often miss by hearing them speak only in class. Some need to use more transition words. Some need to speak in complete sentences. Others need to provide more examples.

I evaluate and reflect on my students’ speaking skills in the same way that I do for other domains of English and I use that knowledge to inform my teaching.

Response From Dr. Jeff Zwiers

Dr. Jeff Zwiers is the co-author of The K-3 Guide to Academic Conversations (Corwin, 2017) and Academic Language Mastery: Conversational Discourse in Context (Corwin, 2016). He is a senior researcher at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. He supports the Understanding Language Initiative, a research and professional-development project focused on literacy, cognition, discourse, and academic language. His current research focuses on communication-based teaching and classroom practices that foster high-quality academic interactions and literacy:

Give students authentic and engaging ideas to talk about.

This seems obvious, but we have seen way too many lesson activities in which students speak to show some knowledge of grammar or word meanings-mdash;not to communicate engaging ideas in authentic ways. And some folks think that students at beginning and intermediate levels of proficiency need the boring basics and shouldn’t be asked to communicate yet. Hogwash! All students deserve tasks in which they use language to communicate with others to get interesting things done and made.

One of the advantages of paired conversations is that students are more likely to be engaged with one other person who is either listening or talking to them at any given time. There is less opportunity to “check out.” Think about when you are sitting in a conference session, not paying excellent attention, and the speaker asks you to turn to a partner and answer a question. Suddenly, you are more engaged. Most of you.

And if the topic or question is interesting or useful to you, then the engagement goes up even more. But remember that English-learners can be shy and reticent to talk, especially in large groups. Many English-learners need to develop stamina in creating complex ideas and concepts with peers by engaging in sustained conversations. They need the motivation to communicate (talk and listen) and to push themselves to talk and listen beyond their usual “bare minimum just get by” levels of participation. As teachers, we want them to get so engaged that they forget they are learning. We want to immerse them in meaningful language use.

Recently, our work has focused on student conversations in elementary settings. There are many activities that attempt to promote meaningful uses of language. For example, a common one is the think-pair-share, or turn-and-talk. However, by teaching and modeling core communication skills, teachers can take these strategies to the next level. English-learners, even primary-grade students, will be more engaged and learn both content and language from each other. During academic conversations, students practice active listening as they create and negotiate ideas. How powerful can your student dialogues become?

Response From Dr. Maneka Deanna Brooks

Dr. Maneka Deanna Brooks is an assistant professor of reading education at Texas State University. Dr. Brooks’ research agenda centers on everyday educational practices that impact the educational trajectories of bilingual adolescents. Dr. Brooks’ work has been published in “Research in the Teaching of English,” “Journal of Literacy Research,” “TESOL Quarterly,” and other venues:

“I don’t speak English fluently, but I understand it and I know how to speak and write it ... not the best. But they [teachers] think that just because we look like Mexicans that they need to keep repeating, repeating, repeating ... like the ones who learn Spanish first they don’t think we are going to understand it and they keep us like away from the other ones that know English.”

—Francisco, a high school student

After Francisco (a pseudonym) shared these thoughts, I was surprised. His comment surprised me because over the three months that I had observed him in his high school English/language arts class, he rarely said a word. He spoke so little that because of his English-language learner (ELL) classification, I was unclear as to how much he could communicate in English.

Toward the end of our interview, I shared my initial assumptions about his English abilities with Francisco. He responded by recounting experiences of teachers assuming that he could not speak English because he sat near students who (unlike him) were recent immigrants from Latin America. He shared his frustration with being spoken to by white English-speaking teachers in broken Spanish because they assumed that he did not know English. Moreover, he understood white teachers’ disrespect toward those they perceived as Latino immigrant students as emblematic of racial dynamics that he witnessed outside of school. His decision to remain silent during class was a way to ensure that his intellectual and linguistic dignity would be protected.

My conversation with Francisco situates my response to this week’s question within the importance of perceptions about race in English-language teaching. I highlight two areas of learning that are fundamental to educators setting the groundwork for students, like Francisco, to believe that their contributions are important in the classroom.

  1. Learn about the linguistic and educational experiences of ELLs in your classroom.

Francisco shared how educators’ assumptions about his English proficiency contributed to his silence within the classroom. Create opportunities for students to share their educational and linguistic experiences to allow educators to avoid these types of mistakes. Importantly, this does not mean asking students to respond to direct questions about these topics in front of the entire class. This type of information can be integrated into “getting-to-know-you” projects like linguistic autobiographies, linguistic surveys, identity collages, and other such classroom activities.

  1. Learn about the racial histories of the United States and the countries with which your students have connections.

As Francisco’s comments illustrate, students come into the classroom with histories of being treated certain ways because of their racial identities. Educating ELLs, most of whom also belong to minoritized racial groups, requires recognizing the impact of racism inside and outside of the classroom. Educators who understand how race and racism operate can make informed decisions about how to best incorporate students’ identities into instruction, avoid racist practices within their classroom, and can advocate on behalf of their students. While learning about these topics through reputable external resources (e.g., documentaries, articles, etc.) is necessary, students can also teach educators through sharing their own experiences. For example, teachers can design activities in which students talk about resilience within their communities.

Students who are identified as ELLs (like all other students) are multifaceted individuals. As a result, the racial dynamics that impact the rest of society also impact their learning. If educators want to create spaces for ELLs to use their voice, it is necessary to create classroom environments where students understand that all of their identities are valued.

Thanks to Valentina, Sarah, Mary Ann, Jeff, and Maneka 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.

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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Look for Part Two in a few days.

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