By Matthew Emerson
Matthew Emerson is the federal programs specialist for Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah.
The mantra of every English Language Learner (ELL) teacher should be to tell students to talk in class, please. The more talking the better! Encouraging students to engage in classroom conversation is absolutely critical for teaching language skills. Gone are the days of the “sage on the stage” philosophy where teachers expect students to remain quiet and focused on a lecture. When it comes to ELL classes in particular, that method simply won’t get the job done. That’s because acquiring language skills requires not just memorization and writing; it requires all four communication strands, especially give-and-take conversations. Structured discussions are proven to both hasten language acquisition and produce much deeper levels of understanding.
The ASCD book, “Content Area Conversations,” by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Carol Rothenberg, states that talking is the foundation of literacy, and “English language learners need access to instruction that recognizes the symbiotic relationship among the four domains of language: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.”
At the Canyons School District, located outside of Salt Lake City, we serve a significant ELL population, including refugees from countries in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and many other areas. Because of the diverse language needs and abilities of our students, we make structured academic discussion a huge focal point in our ELL classrooms. Research says if students can’t talk about a subject, they won’t be able to write about it either. So we try to get our students to practice new words by talking about a topic first before having them write about it. Here’s how this looks:
When students are learning a new vocabulary word, the instructors first teach the word, and then they start a conversation in which students use that vocabulary word to respond spontaneously and to express their thoughts and opinions. Once students have used that word as part of a conversation, it becomes part of their personal vocabulary. This improves comprehension and retention of that word.
At Canyons, we have a blended learning model that uses the online English Learners solution from Middlebury Interactive Languages, now part of Fuel Education (FuelEd). Middlebury is a supplemental blended instructional curriculum that allows students to learn the fundamentals of academic English while completing projects in English language arts, social studies, math, and science. The curriculum is engaging, energizing, and effective. In addition to being aligned to the four WiDA domains (speaking, reading, writing, and listening), the activities are scaffolded from level 1 to level 4 so all students are developing language skills at their own pace.
We are also able to collect student progress data from Fuel Education every six weeks so we can see how students’ language skills are progressing. This gives us insight into which students are excelling and which may need more support.
While Middlebury Interactive gives students an excellent base of language skills, it simultaneously allows teachers, the true pedagogy experts, to deepen instruction based on students’ needs when necessary. Our English Language Development (ELD) classes support different levels of ELL students, including refugees who have never received any formal education. Because of this, our ELD teachers must determine each student’s needs and tailor instruction to their skill level. Teachers add extra enrichment to lessons for students who may need more help.
For example, when we say “drag and drop,” we usually mean the act of using a computer mouse, but what do you do if you have a student who has never used a computer? These words have multiple definitions in English, especially in different contexts, so teachers can customize the Middlebury lesson with their own videos and resources on dragging and dropping to help students understand the concept. This latitude to go deeper where they need to go deeper is ideal for developing deeper levels of language.
Our goal for this instructional model is to significantly increase the amount students speak in class regardless of their initial skill level. For example, I observed final projects at a classroom at Alta High School. One of the project-based lessons through Middlebury Interactive required students to conduct interviews with their families and present those to the class. As part of their grade, class members were required to ask questions of the presenter. So they’d go around the room and the students would ask questions and the presenter would answer. The students were talking the entire period. That’s the power of these scaffolded projects.
Students need to be able to converse in a language in order to truly learn it. Using a blended learning instructional model with a supplemental curriculum like Middlebury Interactive that promotes conversation in the classroom and embracing these back-and-forth discussions is a great way to teach language skills to ELL students. It is the ideal marriage of complete curriculum and teacher input, and facilitates both engagement and focused language development.