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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.

English-Language Learners Opinion

Use Practical Strategies to Improve English-Learners’ Speaking Skills

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 11, 2023 13 min read
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Speaking from my experience as a Spanish-language learner, it can be pretty scary to try speaking in a new language.

Here are some ideas from teachers to help our students do just that ...

It’s ‘Challenging’

Irina McGrath, Ph.D., is an assistant principal at Newcomer Academy in the Jefferson County public schools in Louisville, Ky. She is a co-creator of the ELL2.0 Google site and enjoys creating and sharing resources to support English-learners and teachers of ELs. Irina is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and a University of Louisville and Indiana University Southeast adjunct professor:

Unlike reading and writing, speaking and listening skills are innately developed as a child is learning their native language, listening to their parents and those around them, and creating sounds and babbles to match what they hear. As a result, developing these skills in a second language can be challenging, and this is often seen in the ELL population as students are learning English as their second or third language. Many factors influence the rate of acceleration of speaking and listening in a new language, including students’ personalities, comfort level with speaking in public, motivation, time to learn English, and the amount of support a student receives. When helping English-learners develop speaking skills, teachers need to consider the following:

  • Enhance English-learners’ confidence in their speaking abilities by creating a classroom environment where students are not afraid to speak up in front of their peers and where errors are celebrated and expected.
  • Make it as natural as possible for students to practice and become familiar with the language. In addition to offering opportunities to speak English in class, encourage conversations between classes, in the hallways, cafeteria, and on the playground.
  • Offer a listening ear and let the students feel heard. If we want our students to become proficient in speaking English, we need to support their desire to talk by being good listeners who are genuinely interested in what the students have to say. Who would want to talk when no one is listening?
  • Select topics the students are passionate about and know a lot about. Ask students to share about their families, schooling in home countries, favorite food, sports, dreams, and aspirations so they can feel excited to talk and listen to others.
  • Use scaffolds such as word walls and sentence frames. They are a great starting point for ELLs to begin forming sentences on their own to communicate thoughts and ideas.
  • Use technology to allow students to develop speaking skills. Select apps that English-learners are familiar with because their focus should be on practicing speaking skills and not on learning how to operate an app or a platform. Padlet, Vocaroo, Flipgrid, Screencast, and Loom are among some of the most popular and easy-to-use tech tools that allow English-learners to record and rerecord themselves until the desired outcome is reached and students are satisfied with the final product.
  • Finally, offer nontech opportunities. Numbered Heads Together is a collaborative learning strategy that allows students to practice speaking skills as they review important content and discuss answers to questions posed by the teacher. During Numbered Heads Together, students are placed in groups of four where each group is given a number based on the total number of groups. Within the groups, the students are numbered one to four. The game begins with the teacher providing a review question for the groups to discuss answers under a predetermined time constraint. Once time is up, the teacher randomly selects a group and a number one to four to choose an individual to provide an answer based on the group’s discussion. If they are correct, the group will receive a point.

‘Building Confidence’

Ciera Walker is an eighth-year systemwide elementary school ELL teacher in east Tennessee:

As an educator, I try to make my students as comfortable as possible to prepare them for speaking assessments. Speaking is a skill that I practice with my students weekly in order to help them feel both comfortable and confident—while simultaneously giving them the tools necessary to show what they know.

In my classroom, I use Flipgrid. This is a free tool that gives students the opportunity to respond to prompts with a video recording.

Some of the strategies that I use to develop and improve my English-language learners’ speaking skills throughout the year are:

  • Gradual release of responsibility:

    • I Do: At the beginning of the year, I model for my students how to respond to speaking prompts. We use a rubric to score my speaking and discuss as a class strengths and areas in need of improvement.
    • We Do: After a few weeks, we look at the prompt together as a class and brainstorm together. I put student ideas on the board for students to reference. If my students are still working on reading/beginning readers, I will add pictures from Google image searches as students suggest and copy the image to a Google Slide so they can reference the slide while they are speaking. While we brainstorm, we also use the rubric to provide more guidance about important things to include (vocabulary, sentence stems, etc). Then, students record their own speaking, and I go over the rubric with them individually during student conferences.
    • You Do: Finally, students work on pulling apart the prompt and brainstorming individually to record their responses. Then, I conference with students individually and give them individualized and specific feedback.
  • Building confidence by practicing weekly: By practicing weekly as part of our classroom routine, students become more comfortable with recording themselves speaking. Some students never become comfortable with recording their faces so I allow them to only record their voices—every student is different, and my goal is to meet them where they are in order to help them improve their speaking skills. Even more reserved students improved in their speaking skills throughout the year. Another way to build confidence is to have students go back and look at the first video they recorded and compare it with the most recent.
  • Meaningful feedback: I write my feedback in student notebooks on one page using a line to separate different topics (you can give feedback on Flipgrid; however, it seems easier for my elementary students to have it in a concrete place in their notebooks). For my students that are not reading yet, I use symbols or very short feedback. For my students who are reading, I give more detailed feedback with important things underlined or starred. Students use their feedback during the brainstorm time in order to review and improve their speaking skills. Generally, I keep feedback very short—one or two things to work on so as to not overwhelm them. Once they accomplish that, I give them additional goals to meet.
  • Reviewing feedback and discussing what it means and how to apply it: Oftentimes before letting students record their responses, we share what feedback we were given the previous weeks to help students internalize what pieces of the feedback they will use.
  • Sharing exemplars with student permission: Around the midpoint of the school year, some of my students become confident enough to want to share their videos with the class for us to critique them using the rubric. Of course, we set guidelines for providing feedback and use the rubric that students are familiar with from teacher/student conferences. I am always sure to get student permission before sharing with the class.
  • Having fun with it: Once students have more confidence and begin to feel comfortable with the process of speaking, someone always learns that Flipgrid has fun backgrounds. Students became eager to share their creations once they found all of the fun settings that Flipgrid had to offer.

‘Ensure That All Voices Are Accepted’

Chandra Shaw has more than 24 years of experience in education, as a teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, and now a literacy consultant at one of her state’s regional service centers. As a TEDx speaker and amateur YouTuber, Chandra loves to find ways to share her passion and love for teaching and learning with educators everywhere:

The best way to help English-language learners develop speaking skills is to raise teacher expectations for prioritizing oracy in the classroom, which means allotting a substantial amount of time for both social and academic conversations.

This may sound like a no-brainer, but some might be surprised at the reality of the average ELL student’s day in general education classes. In many cases, these students sit passively, not given opportunities to speak, especially in upper grade levels where the traditional sit-and-get lecture style of teaching may still be prevalent. Secondary teachers are a lot less likely to provide students with scaffolds to assist in discussion techniques.

In elementary grade levels, many teachers understand the need to supply conversation aids like sentence stems and allowing small-group talk before responding to the whole class, but some still pity ELL students into lower expectations by never requiring them to actually use their voices in class to present information and explain their understanding for fear of “embarrassing” the students simply because their grasp of the English language may not be at the advanced level of proficiency.

Teachers should learn to utilize language aids to increase the amount of time students have to develop effective communication skills through speaking by dispersing opportunities for social and academic oracy throughout the class period. Teachers also need to ensure that they are working to build a learning environment in which students know that a person’s level of English-language proficiency has little to do with their intelligence or the value of their contributions to classroom discussion and do everything within their power to ensure that all voices are accepted and strongly encouraged to be heard.


Using ‘Flip’

Keenan W. Lee, M.Ed., is an urban English-language-development (ELD) teacher in central Pennsylvania. Lee specializes in curriculum and instruction in early-childhood education and English-language development of multilingual learners:

To help English-learners develop speaking skills, we as educators must offer many opportunities for the students to use the language. Ideally, the greater the opportunity to communicate with peers, teachers, etc…, the more the students become comfortable speaking and using language.

In my classroom, I like to practice speaking skills using Flip (formerly known as Flipgrid). When using Flip, it allows for the students to practice speaking skills by answering a prompt that has been provided by me. In the beginning, I offer students sentence starters to help formulate their oral response, but as the year goes on, I take away the scaffold and have students use their speaking skills that they have learned over the school year.

I also like to practice speaking skills 1:1, partners, and in small groups with my ELs. Ideally, when I do 1:1 practice with the students, I find out something they’re interested in and have students have a back-and-forth exchange with me about the topic. This works well with students who do not feel as comfortable speaking in front of others. In terms of small groups, I like to have a group of four to five students practice their speaking skills around a children’s read aloud that I have read to the group. I will ask a series of questions to the students and have them respond to me or respond to their partner next to them. This allows me to tie in content that we are learning while also practicing their speaking skills.

Finally, another way to have students practice their speaking skills is during your morning meeting. Allowing students to ask and answer questions of their peers and adults in the classroom helps our EL students become more comfortable using the English language to communicate. I have seen so many of my ELs want to ask questions or even just have conversations with their peers during morning meeting in our classroom as they become more comfortable with speaking. Again, offer your EL students ample opportunities to speak in order to develop their oral language skills.


Thanks to Irina, Ciera, Chandra, and Keenan for contributing their thoughts!

This is the third post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.

The question of the week is:

What are the best ways to help English-language learners develop speaking skills?

In Part One, Laleh Ghotbi, Anastasia M. Martinez, Ivannia Soto, and Jody Nolf shared their recommendations.

Laleh, Anastasia, Ivannia, and Jody were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Wendi Pillars, Jana Echevarria, and Isabel Becerra contributed responses.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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