Why do we spend so much time talking?

IMG_6769I remember listening to my friend Manya (Mrs. Frazier) telling me that the most important thing language learners do in ELD class is to talk.  And, ever critical, I wondered to myself… yes, but shouldn’t we spend equal time listening, reading and writing?  As so often happens, with experience I’ve come to value my colleague’s insights more and more.  I’ve come to realize that talking is fundamental to other language skills.  So, yes we talk more than anything else, because talking is the way we process all other learning.

Speaking and Listening

In the earliest stages, speaking reinforces listening skills.  We ask students to learn vocabulary through call and response exercises. Students repeat words and phrases in song and rhyme, using rhythm and repetition to reinforce patterns of English language  and to practice pronunciation.

As students become more skilled at speaking they recall vocabulary to describe a scene to a friend, or in giving instructions to complete a project. Students move from repeating to re-voicing to demonstrate listening comprehension. And later kids realize that in these listening to understand exchanges, they need to become more precise speakers to clearly make a point. The more students practice speaking, the more they are able to demonstrate their creative and complex ideas. And, isn’t this what most of us desire? We speak so that we can heard.

Speaking and Writing

One of my favorite pre-writing activities is the brainstorm. Students activate prior knowledge, connect their ideas, and build a resource for writing. At the end of a brainstorm session, my students have a shared word bank to refer to as a resource for more nuanced vocabulary or simply spelling.

Students rehearse for writing by orally presenting their thoughts in an organized way. I come often to an activity I learned in a Step-Up-To-Writing workshop in which students walk themselves down a path of visual clues prompting for a topic sentence, then an idea with explanation, another idea/explain, and a third idea/explain, before landing on the cue for a conclusion. This exercise is visual and auditory and oral… the process becomes more concrete and writing is improved!

I caught myself making a mistake last week, when time was limited. As I looked around the room at a a group of writers, hoping to check in with each one I missed the opportunity to use speaking to improve writing.  I’ve done this more than once. I will look over a shoulder and tap a spelling error, or say “check on this sentence here”. However, the best learning occurs when students self-correct and the more effective strategy is to say “Please read your writing to me.” As students read, they find their own errors or omissions and fix them on the spot.  One way to make the most of time, and to shift the ownership of learning to the students is to have them read their writing to one another.  I often use the inside-outside circle cooperative learning structure for sharing writing.

Speaking and Reading

In ELD class we do much more reading aloud than we do silent reading. In my prior life as a reading specialist, I might have prompted students to silent reading sooner than I do now as a language teacher. I believe it is really important for language learners to “hear” the words they read. I am not saying that we should always read everything whole group, in fact I hope to get students doing more partner reading. When students sit side by side and take turns to read, especially if it is expected that there is some conversation and peer-coaching going on, kids will practice listening, speaking and reading all at once!  I am also sure that the ones who practice more, learn more.  So, if I have the whole class listen along and we “popcorn” read around the room… there is a whole lot less practice going on for every student than in paired reading.

A favorite speaking/reading lesson that I believe is valuable for language learners is self-assessing reading fluency.  Reading poetry is tons of fun! With a fluency-self check, students can intentionally focus on different aspects of language as they read aloud.  Students can use technology to record and listen to their own voices, and set their own goals.  Which aspect of fluency have I mastered, and what areas should I practice?

Fluent Reading Self-Check

  1. Does the pace of my reading sound like talking? Students practice reading quickly.  By the way, singing is a super way to practice making words flow together naturally too.
  2. Do I read in phrases, and pause for punctuation? Students learn the cadence of English language patterns.
  3. Do I read with inflection? Students practice making their voice rise and fall to appropriately demonstrate meaning of the sentence. There are connections and comparisons to be made here between native language and English.
  4. Do I put meaning in my voice? When students read to understand, and then read aloud with true comprehension, they make the meaning clear by the way they express certain words.
  5. Do I read so that others will understand? This is very connected to number four, but it presents a slight change of perspective. Students need to enunciate clearly, pronounce words correctly, and make the reading interesting for a friend or audience who is listening.

Let’s Get Them Talking!

talking partners

Reading, Writing, Listening… Speaking!  

I am an English Language Development teacher.  Teachers all through my building send their kids to ELD and to NLD (and other classes like PE, Tier 3, Title I, resource room).  In my job I think about words a lot, and I wish we didn’t use so many acronyms and abbreviations.  They are confusing! Once in awhile a student who doesn’t come to my class asks me “What is ELD?”  I’ve had parents, and even teachers who’ve asked this question.  Sometimes folks will get them mixed up.

I teach E.L.D.

E is for English – It’s the language some of our ancestors brought to this country from Great Britain many years ago.

L is for Language – Language is used for communicating with one another, usually with words, through speaking and listening or reading and writing.

 D is for Development – To develop is to grow. In this class students are growing in their ability to use English for communication, and for learning.
     To become proficient communicators in English, students need lots of practice.  So every day students in my class will read and write, talk and listen.  But, it doesn’t help if we just say… talk more!  Read more!
     I hope that visitors to my classroom will find students engaged in activities intentionally designed for language practice.  This week, I will share a couple of ways that I am trying to encourage students to practice speaking.  If you are a teacher who already does these things, think about ways that you can do them with greater purpose or intention.  Share your ideas with me, because I am constantly thinking about how to do this better.

     There have been times in my classroom (after demonstrating a scientific principle, or in a pause during an interesting read aloud, or during mathematical conversation) when I’ve stopped my class, because I know this moment provides great potential for thoughtful dialogue.  I want kids to think more, to talk more about an idea.  But, too often I’ve let this opportunity for language growth slip by my English language learners.  When I say… “turn and talk” or “talk at your table” I’ve noticed that some kids do all the talking.  These have been great opportunities for my confident speakers, and a likely moment for quiet types to reflect on the words of friends.  But, for my students who most need to practice their language, the time wasn’t well spent.
     I’ve been thinking about why these students don’t talk, and about ways I can encourage every student in the room to use this turn and talk time well.
The Talking Stick.
     With careful planning, each person has their moment to talk as the stick is passed around the group. I might add a sentence frame such as “I heard __ say ___, and I would like to add __.”  Or, “I heard __ say ___ and I agree/disagree because ___.” 
Whose turn is it anyway?
     I want my language learners to have good language models, so table groups are planned carefully.  Seats are marked with stickers and I will say “Red speak first, then pass the stick around the table clockwise.” In this case, my beginning language learner is not in the red seat.  He will have heard a sample response from a friend, and now he can repeat or add on. Sometimes we switch talking partners.  I might have “elbow partners” or “corner partners” or “neighbors across the table” discuss.  I usually guide the turn taking with suggestions such as “Voices on the west side of the room speak first. The student on the East side should be ready to re-voice what your partner says.” 
Can you repeat the question?  
     By using sentence frames and a question answer format, students who need time to process language will hear and see the target language form multiple times.  I might post a sample response on my white board, with a pass-it-on question attached.  For example I might say… “I noticed ___ about these shapes. What did you notice Sara?”  Then Sara responds, “I noticed __ about these shapes. What did you notice Michael?”
Talking partners and shared responsibility.
     Again, I have found it helpful to carefully assign talking partners.  If both partners are close in language ability, there is often more conversation and mutual support in the talk than if one is much more advanced.  This feeling of “we’re in this together” seems to make students less concerned about making mistakes with language, and similarly they are more likely to correct each other’s errors.  Also, when sharing out is randomized, and kids know that either could be called on to share out their common understanding, both are held accountable.  Teams will practice language to make sure both partners can correctly summarize the conversation.
stars speak first hearts listen to understand

Something New

At our year-end learning celebration, I told families that if there is one thing I hope students come away with at the end of 2nd grade, it is a sense of creativity.  I hope students will have experienced a year full of wonder, and discovered that they can pursue any learning adventure.  This is what Genius IMAGE_858Hour was all about… we ended the year celebrating the wonderful things kids learned when given the time and the place to follow their curiosity.  Kids did some research on any topic of their choice, and chose any medium to share their learning with friends at the end of the year.  It was a great adventure!  I hope you will check out the page of this blog called Student Work Published to see some of the things they have done.

I told students that my own “passion project” was to learn new ways to add elements of choice and innovation to my classroom environment.  This led me to the discovery of Genius Hour, and so I am sharing my learning with them!  In my research,  I came across a book called Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level by Don Wettrick.  In the book, Wettrick tells the reader that as a young teacher he was given some advice by his father…”teach for 20 years, but don’t teach the same year 20 times.”  This resonated with me, because I am constantly finding myself in new teaching and learning situations.  And, this is exactly as it should be!

So I had a wonderful time in 2nd grade, where I got to know some fantastic kids and their families too.  I got to teach reading and writing and math in the context of science and social studies.  We built a Maker Space in our classroom, to explore science concepts of engineering and design.  What fun!

And now, I am moving again!  Not too far, just down the hall.  I am very excited about my change of role, to English Language Development teacher.  I have been teaching ELD groups alongside my wonderful colleague Mrs. Frazier for several years and am now honored to carry on after her, while she begins her next adventure wherever retirement may take her.