For years, I’ve been helping classroom teachers and EL specialists learn to support multilingual students who are learning English, so it may surprise you that some of my favorite resources for EL teaching and learning aren’t specifically designed for “learning English” in the narrow sense of conquering vocabulary. That’s because every student, of every background, in every location is in school to learn a sort of foreign tongue: academic language. In our first few years of life, all of us begin learning and using social language, the everyday conversational vocabulary and grammar that helps us connect with our families, friends, and neighbors. Academic language includes sentence structure and discourse in addition to vocabulary.
After reading how the American linguist Lily Wong Fillmore describes this phenomenon, I came up with the acronym ALL to help teachers remember that all students are Academic Language Learners, learning to hold academic conversations with each other. Even native English speakers are ALLs when they’re in school.
In my lifetime I’ve seen student talk—students having conversations with each other in the classroom—go from a punishable offense to a prized goal. (As a student myself, when my teacher Sister Mary Francis had to leave the room, she put me in charge of writing the names of students who talked on the chalkboard!) Today, we know that a silent classroom is something to be avoided, because if no communication is happening, it’s very hard to gauge whether any learning is happening.
The vital role of classroom conversation was highlighted in this Educational Leadership article in which my colleagues Bryan Goodwin and Max Altman showed that Hollywood often gets the teacher’s role all wrong. In many movies, the teacher gives a tour-de-force of a lecture to their students, and eventually the teacher’s words sink in and the students gain wisdom. In the real world of teaching, you and I know, this technique would be highly ineffective. The best learning for students, including multilingual learners, involves guided instruction, active learning, and student conversation (peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher) using evidence to support critical/analytical reasoning. And that means we as teachers need to learn a hard lesson: The less we talk and the more we let students talk, the better.
As Bryan and Max pointed out, teachers can make progress on two goals at once—gaining vocabulary and critical-thinking skills—if they upgrade their learning objectives to encompass a wider range of complementary skills. For example, “Give students frequent opportunities to discuss learning” becomes “Give students frequent opportunities to discuss what they are learning with the use of sentence starters and/or key vocabulary and/or a piece of grammar they may need; e.g., future tense to make predictions.”
I’ve added two books on student discourse to my professional resource library so I can glean more ideas for EL teachers and EL students, and they, too, are not specifically geared to EL teachers: The K–3 Guide to Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers and Sara R. Hamerla, and Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk by Shana Frazin and Katy Wischow. Both have given me insights into the refreshing movement in the field to teach students how to talk.
Most classroom teachers have never had to think about teaching students to talk because by the time they get to school, students have been talking since they were 12–14 months of age, starting with one-word utterances and proceeding to phrases and then sentences which became longer and more complex over time. I’m excited by the shift I see happening, with more teachers viewing student talk as a good thing because it can be harnessed to enhance academic conversations and general literacy skills. Multilingual students need to hear good modeling of English and they need to use the language they are learning, and both of these happen when classrooms are full of talk.
Here’s something else to think about: You may have to take a step back and teach students how to have a social conversation before they can be expected to have academic conversations. Before the COVID-19 era, I would notice families in restaurants, stores, and parks, and everyone was looking at their phones. Are students receiving good models of social conversations at home? Or has texting and scrolling sidetracked us from what used to be social conversations in which we asked questions, nodded, made eye contact, added onto the conversation?
While the shift to allowing and encouraging student discourse in the classroom is certainly underway, it won’t happen overnight. We may need to give some thought to building a culture of classroom talk—expressly granting permission to our students for there to be classroom talk, and establishing guidelines and protocols to help our students keep their conversations productive, positive, and on point. If students come into your classroom from very traditional classrooms, being allowed to talk will be a new and puzzling environment for them: They’ll wonder what you could possibly want them to say other than a correct answer. Establishing an environment where students are free to talk about their learning, with all their ideas respected, will lay an important foundation. This is equally true whether teaching in a traditional classroom or when students are sharing ideas with each other during breakouts.
All students, not just those learning English as another language, can learn together how to engage in academic conversations.
Jane Hill, M.S., is a managing consultant at McREL. She has worked in the areas of second language acquisition and special education for 40 years. Jane co-authored Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) with ELLs (2006), CITW with ELLs Facilitator’s Guide and Participant’s Workbook (2008), CITW with ELLs, 2nd Edition (2013), and two instructional guides for schools with low-incidence ELLs.