Why is it important for English learners to talk every day and how can teachers engage these students in academic conversations?

Posted on May 31st, 2012

Rosa E. (Rosita) Apodaca is a Fellow at the Institute for Learning and leads its English Learner ELA work. In this video she discusses why English learners must go beyond fluency in everyday English and how teachers can help students become fluent listeners and speakers of academic English.

[Video Transcript] Why is it important for English learners to talk every day and how can teachers engage these students in academic conversations?

In order for English learners to be college ready these students must go beyond fluency in everyday English. They must become fluent in academic English. They must become fluent in academic English as listeners, readers, speakers, and writers. We know it takes students four to seven years to become fluent in academic language so the sooner they start the better. I recommend teachers start in pre-kindergarten. And for students who are past pre-kindergarten, I recommend that teachers start tomorrow.

Isabel Beck says that if English learners can understand the concept and say it in their own language, they are probably ready to learn it in their second language.

All language is learned in context, so competence in academic language cannot be accomplished without ongoing exposure to and practice with the vocabulary and the structures that characterize the language of school. While teachers can and should model academic language functions such as seeking information, comparing, problem solving, and evaluating, that is not enough.

It is critical for teachers to plan so that students use academic language daily. It should not be assumed that being able to understand academic language as input is equal to being able to produce it, whether orally or in writing. And, oral use of academic language is also important as a rehearsal for the production of written language.

Furthermore, since all language is learned in context, teachers need to model and engage students in classroom conversations, not in some generic way, but in the context of specific content areas. Research in today’s classrooms shows that English learners can do it! So how do teachers make this happen?

At the IFL we call the routine of engaging students in academic English using Accountable Talk®.

I will show you a very short video clip of a teacher in the very beginning stages of enacting a classroom conversation using Accountable Talk with Grade 3 English learners at the very beginning level. They will be discussing The Wolf's Chicken Stew by Keiko Kasza, a story about a wolf who wants to fatten a chicken for his dinner but ends up becoming “Uncle Wolf” to the chicken's one hundred little chicks. The teacher is using an interactive read-aloud approach. We join the conversation as the teacher asks the students to consider the wolf's scheme, which is an academic function the students are learning. So how does the teacher help the students to talk? Listen carefully to both the teacher's and the students' talk. And many thanks to the teacher who is sharing her first attempt at using the Accountable Talk routine. We'll come back.

TOkay. Let's see. Let's see what he's up to. "He had another idea. 'If there were just some way to fatten this bird a little more,' " To fatten it, to make it fatter. "He thought, 'There could be all the more stew for me.' " Hmmm, so the wolf didn't grab the chicken right away, did he?
TWhat's he up to? Don't answer. I want you to talk to your partner and tell your partner what do you think his plan is?
S***gonna lay a trap for the chicken. So then, uh, the chicken's gonna eat, um, you know, the food. He's gonna, the wolf's gonna***.
TNow what do you think? What do your partners think about uh, why the wolf didn't grab the chicken right away? Hmmm, Mario?
S1Because the, the fatter the chicken will become, the more the wolf can eat.
S2Um, Mario what, um, because what um, your partner um, um, said that?
S1Because the wolf can eat um, the whole week.
S3And um, and Mario said um, I wrote it down because he said he, he only thinks of food and that's why he said he didn't grab her away because she wasn’t fat.
TShe wasn’t fat enough?
S4Yeah, but even though, it was, it was, he was right. He, he wants it fatter cause the fatter the better.
TDoes anyone else have another idea of why he let her ***. That's a really good one, that's a really interesting one. We'll see if that's happening. Seisa.
S5Um, my partner said that um, she didn't got her, he didn’t got her because um, he always was thinking of food and he want to make it, to make her fatter so that he can eat more.
TSo she can be bigger?
THmmm. What do you think Jessica?
S3Um, I think that I agree with him because um, because uh, he, the, the wolf, he likes chicken and he likes chicken, um…
S3Stew and that's why, that's why I think that that's gonna happen that he's gonna give him food to the chicken.
S4Yeah, cause, cause it said that, it said that the chicken's not fat enough.

The teacher, as you could see, planned carefully so that students could engage in an academic classroom conversation. She made very sure that the talk was grounded in very clear coherent learning intentions and linked to reading comprehension standards, in this case key ideas and details of the text. The text the students were talking about had grist, it was meaty enough and interesting and with open-ended material that made it worth discussing. Also, the teacher chose something important to talk about, a wolf scheming to fatten up a chicken for his stew. And, very importantly, the task was rich and coherent so that students could engage and talk and argue over, by using a set of open-ended questions to elicit language from students to discuss that text.

During the conversation, the teacher made sure that everyone could hear and understand. She made sure that everyone participated by asking all the students to turn and talk and by providing ample wait time before and after questions, thus giving students time to gather their thoughts and then speak. Wait time is a critical step in creating good classroom conversations for English learners.

The talk was building toward deeper understanding of key concepts of the story as a knowledge generating enterprise. She asked the students to justify their thinking of why the wolf did not grab the chicken. Justifying is a vital part of building academic language.

I hope you're encouraged to help English learners engage in meaningful academic conversations.

Research shows that English learners benefit from well-planned Accountable Talk conversations because they can help build academic language.

Give it a try!

Rosa E. (Rosita) Apodaca

Rosa E. (Rosita) Apodaca is a Fellow at the Institute for Learning and leads its English learner ELA work. As part of this work, she has designed and led professional learning and curriculum development in ELA work for English learners for school and district educators in several urban districts. She has led work on behalf of English learners at the national, state, and local levels, provided leadership for English learners for several large urban districts. Her most recent publication includes co-authoring a chapter on professional learning and leadership in the recently published Content Matters: A Disciplinary Literacy Approach to Improving Student Learning.

More information on Rosa E. (Rosita) Apodaca.