April 8, 2021
Helping English Learners Find Their Voice

Posted in: Aha! Blog > Wit & Wisdom Blog > Equity > Helping English Learners Find Their Voice

I studied French for eight years in school before I moved to Paris and found out I was still pretty bad at speaking French. Disheartened as I was, I should not have been surprised. While I diligently conjugated verbs and memorized vocabulary words in school, I rarely spoke French in class and had never conversed with a native speaker. Today, as a teacher of English learners, I know that my students do not have eight years to waste being pretty bad at speaking English. They need to speak, listen, read, and write English effectively as quickly as possible.

Guiding English learners on this journey can be daunting for even the most experienced teacher. And sometimes, trying to be supportive, we allow our English learners to remain passive observers in the classroom, hoping they will pick up language through exposure. But this misses the active piece of the puzzle. In 2006, the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth concluded that effective literacy instruction for English learners must focus on developing oral proficiency (August and Shanahan 2006). Indeed, active speaking and listening accelerates literacy development. “Students with strong oracy are more likely to develop strong literacy levels in English as well” (Lems, Miller, and Soro 2017, 46). This means we need to get our English learners talking—a lot.

How do we get them to speak up, to find their voice in the English language? In this blog, I share three strategies for developing English learners’ speaking, listening, and other literacy skills. 

1. Ground conversation in content.

Teacher working with student

English learners develop social language first, which helps them navigate the world in their new language. So their conversations often focus on social topics such as shopping or soccer. But this superficial discussion does not help prepare students for the language used in academic settings and texts. Nor is it the most effective way to build vocabulary. “Language development and cognitive development are interrelated and mutually dependent; [English learners] learn language as they learn content” (Bunch, Kibler, and Pimentel 2012, 2). We can’t be afraid to use real content as discussion starters. Our students will be more engaged in a worthwhile topic and practice vocabulary and grammar structures that help them develop their academic language.

For three weeks in June, I co-taught a secondary newcomer summer program. We had 11 Spanish-speaking students from Grade 5 through Grade 12 who had been in the United States between two and 18 months. Many English learners go through a silent period that can last up to a year as they develop receptive language and some confidence in their new surroundings, so we focused on building a classroom community embracing risk taking and encouraging oral language. We spent time on focused English language lessons, but our most successful parts of the day were our content lessons. Through a modified Wit & Wisdom® module, we studied the essential question, “What makes a great heart, literally and figuratively?” We read biographies of great-hearted people such as Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln as well as informational texts about how blood flows through the heart. The students developed both a body of knowledge and related vocabulary they could practice using every day.

In addition, my students discussed a worthwhile question that resulted in debates such as whether Jackie Robinson was courageous or cowardly for not fighting back against the baseball fans who tormented him from the stands. When students are given a “simple” prompt such as “discuss your favorite sport,” many English learners answer it using as few words as possible, focusing, for example, on trying to remember the correct verb conjugation. But when students are trying to argue their point on a topic they really care about, they are more creative, using all of their language skills to make their case. This is the fire we want to see in our students, and engaging content is the spark.

2. Engage every student in the conversation.

Many English learners are understandably self-conscious about or frustrated by their lack of English proficiency and are quick to let other students do the talking in class discussions. We need to use small group pairings with clear expectations so that every English learner can actively engage in discussion (Baker et al. 2014). In any discussion opportunity, students should be welcome to use their native language to process content or ask clarifying questions. Since my colleague and I designed our newcomer summer program to focus on English language development, we used bilingual discussion but also honored our class’s agreement to use English as much as possible. Here are two variations on Think–Pair–Share that we used to help our students simultaneously develop speaking and listening skills and content knowledge.

grade_students_in_a_circleThe first variation is Mix and Mingle. On one of the first days of our heart unit, students completed a written Exit Ticket explaining the difference between a literal and figurative heart. Then we added a speaking component so students could Mix and Mingle to share their responses. In this activity, students stood up and walked around until the teacher told them to stop and find a nearby partner. Partner A shared a response with Partner B, who complimented her on her response, and then the two reversed roles. With our newcomers, we provided the optional sentence frame “I like your answer because...” Then, students moved around again to find new partners. This process is repeated as many times as the teacher wants, allowing students to practice repeatedly rehearsing answers and refining them as they hear from others as well as listening for targeted content and vocabulary.

Another variation is Give One, Get One, Move On. In this activity, students also moved around the room from one partner to another. But this time, they exchanged information. In our version, each student was given a famous quotation that described the heart either literally or figuratively. Partner A read the quotation and asked Partner B whether the quotation used the word heart literally or figuratively and why he thought so. Partner B answered, Partner A evaluated, and then the two students switched roles and repeated the task. Finally, they switched quotations before finding a new partner. Again, we offered a sentence frame and used class-created anchor charts with literal and figurative heart vocabulary walls posted for student reference. Before they knew it, the students had analyzed numerous complex texts interactively and orally.

3. Elevate the conversation with visual art.

966px-Thomas_Eakins,_American_-_Portrait_of_Dr._Samuel_D._Gross_(The_Gross_Clinic)_-_Google_Art_ProjectAnalyzing visual art is an incredibly powerful way to lure all students into a rich conversation. Using visuals to support English learners is a well-known scaffold, and pairing text with a video or image can be a great comprehension aide. But English learners can also thrive in a lesson that is based entirely on a visual text. Throughout our study of the heart, we considered two pieces of artwork demonstrating interpretations of literal and figurative hearts. We used the same framework for analyzing written complex text. First, we noticed and wondered, which is a perfect access point for students of all proficiency levels, and one that is consistent throughout Wit & Wisdom lessons. Next, I posed guiding questions to help students consider how the artist had organized the painting. Then, I provided them with context about the painting and a quote from the artist, which students used to review key details in the painting and distill the essential meaning. Finally, they connected this new learning to our larger discussion about the heart. We scaffolded this discussion to encourage all students to participate. Students reflected independently and then formed larger discussion groups. Since students had already developed and rehearsed ideas, they were able to participate confidently in the larger group discourse. Additionally, they all had a common base of content and vocabulary from our whole group activities.

These lessons ended up taking far longer than expected because we couldn’t get students to stop talking. They were so excited to share their thoughts about something worthwhile and somewhat mysterious. When they came up with a theory about the painting, they wanted to share their ideas with everyone. Art, more than anything, prizes looking at things from different perspectives, and students felt that everyone in the room valued their perspective. One of my students had been in the United States five months and was still very self-conscious about his English. I worked with him nearly every day for those five months and had never heard him speak so many consecutive English sentences as when he delighted the entire class with his telenovela interpretation of Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, complete with twin sisters separated at birth.

Teachers of English learners know the importance of lowering our students’ affective filter so they feel comfortable experimenting with their developing skills. Exploring visual art achieves this goal by allowing students to demonstrate their observation and analytical skills without the burden of reading in a second language. At the same time, they are refining skills that will help them when they return to written text. Visual art connected to content also reinforces the developing knowledge and vocabulary base, which is essential for reading comprehension and written expression. Finally, students are actively engaged in interactive meaning making, which boosts oral language development. They can use this practice to express more complex ideas in their writing.

English learners should not be forced to talk, which goes double for students just starting out with the language. They should, however, be encouraged to share their thinking orally for a range of reasons, from accelerating their second language reading and writing development to showing them how much we as teachers value their thoughts. Particularly when we ground our discussions in rich content, we help our students understand that language is a tool to gain knowledge and communicate ideas and that everyone has ideas worth sharing. We can help our students find their voice, both literally and figuratively.

Want to learn more about how you can help English learners find their voice and improve their literacy skills? Watch the recent Great Minds webinar, hosted by Sarah Webb and Sarah Woodard, by clicking the button below.


Topics: Equity