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Going Beyond 'Turn & Talk': Academic Conversations for ELLs

Posted by Sarah Ottow on


A lot of my time as a coach supporting schools is spent observing teachers and providing targeted feedback to help boost language development for their English language learners (ELLs).  I also train and coach school leaders to more effectively evaluate teachers of ELLs.  In both cases, educators often wonder why their ELLs' oral language isn't where they want it to be when they are using the infamous strategy of 'turn and talk'.

We all know that student talk versus teacher talk is an important starting place for allowing students to practice language more.  Reflecting on how many minutes per class students get to use language meaningfully is also a touchstone for how student-centered our instruction is in general (think less of the traditional 'transmission-based' method of teaching and more cooperative and constructivist).  When we simply keep track how much time we allow students to actually produce language (output) versus how much time we instruct them directly (input), we often realize that we are talking more than our students!  The question I often ask educators in this situation is, How can we expect our ELLs to accelerate their language when they don't really get to use it?  And furthermore, How can we expect our ELLs to use language if we don't provide appropriate supports to do so?

One common way to get students to talk more is to use 'turn and talk'.  I see a lot of teachers instructing their students to 'turn and talk' about this and about that.  And in many many cases, students turn to each other not quite knowing what to do.  They might utter some phrases or words, perhaps some short sentences.  One student might dominate the interaction.  Or both might be completely silent or one may wonder aloud, "What do we talk about?"  The intention here is a positive one--getting students to talk more--Hooray!  However, the impact doesn't quite hit the mark.  We need to go beyond 'turn and talk' to model, support and expect deeper conversations using extended discourse across all content areas.  We need to structure oral language interactions more explicitly for authentic, language-rich instruction.  How do we do that?

What I tell teachers and leaders is to please consider what your expectations are and then to plan supports carefully for students to reach those goals.  Language objectives can really help us focus here.  If our expectations are that we want students to explain the difference between mitosis and meiosis, do they know how to compare and contrast?  If we want students to discuss the causes of the civil war, do they know how to synthesize and refer to evidence in doing so?  And backing way up, if we expect students to look eye-to-eye and engage in active listening, do they know how to do that?  There is so much involved in interactive discussions, and like any classroom procedure, this needs to be modeled and practiced.  And reflected upon.  And practiced again.  And again.

Academic conversations
is a way to create the conditions and to provide the tools for students to go beyond 'turn and talk' into deeper discourse.  Academic conversations, when implemented thoughtfully, teaches students the language of specific functions of academic language across the content areas.  If students are taught how to explain, infer, summarize, paraphrase, inquire, the list goes on...then they are much more likely to do so successfully, using the language (and content) we want them to use.  In schools where the common, systemic expectation is structured yet authentic conversations, I see high levels of student engagement, rich oral language production, and more efficacious teachers (and leaders!)  One tool that can help you go beyond 'turn and talk' into more language-rich interactions is Confianza's Academic Conversations Protocol.  Plus, our courses, Differentiation for ELLs through the WIDA Standards (for teachers) and Evaluation and Leadership for ELL Equity (for leaders) explore this practice in greater depth.

In a future post, we will explore the relationship between speaking and writing and then how to use academic conversations to connect these two domains for ELLs.  Many thanks to ENLACE Academy for sharing their academic conversation classroom posters in the picture above.

--Sarah Ottow, Founder and Director of Confianza: Educating for ELL Equity, driven by her mission to equip educators with the right mindset and practical tools to reach, teach and nurture English learners.  Sarah has written and implemented language-rich and rigorous curriculum for ELLs as a former teacher leader and district coach/coordinator.  Now, as a consultant through Confianza, she guides district teams in their curriculum development and instructional approaches.  Sarah was also hired to help write the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's English as a Second Language Model Curriculum Units and related Guidance Document.

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