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Who’s Talking?

No matter what our roles are in schools, we all are language teachers because we all teach content through language. By using language as a vehicle, we teach a lot of different content! However, how can we ensure that we are doing right by our linguistically diverse students?

There is a saying in the multilingual field when it comes to comprehensible input strategies, scaffolds, and supports: It’s good for all students, but necessary for multilingual learners. In this article, we will reflect upon ways to build more opportunities for oral language practice in our classrooms.

One practical tip is to take an upcoming lesson and see how much time you have allocated to each language domain: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Remember, this doesn’t have to be an equal amount of time across each domain- it’s just a good practice to consider your lesson through a language lens!

Pay special attention to how much time students are given to engage in speaking (to themselves, to others, or to another audience). Compare that with the time that you as the teacher are speaking.

Building in more time for students to engage in speaking doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are some easy strategies for you to begin!

Sentence stems (the beginning of a sentence) and sentence frames (language patterns within a sentence) are powerful ways to help students utilize academic language and also provide a pattern to utilize when speaking (or writing!). For example, if you are studying fractions in your next class, you may utilize stems or frames such as the ones below.

These can be shared in a common area such as a bulletin board, or printed and posted in an interactive notebook (either physical or digital). Students of any level of proficiency would benefit from using these!

Another way to create more time for speaking is by examining your lesson routine. Where are there moments that can be utilized for students to speak? Consider your warm-up! Begin with a prompt of some sort (*bonus* - when you share the prompt out loud AND students are reading it from a shared space, you are incorporating two language domains! Score!). Have students work in pairs or groups to define a word, share a thought, or collaboratively solve a problem together.

By providing students with multiple exposures to speak, you are employing oral rehearsal- which is really powerful for language development! After providing a prompt, have students all talk at the same time to share their answers out loud. This is a low-stakes sharing opportunity. Next, have students share their thinking with an elbow partner. This provides students with a moment for peer feedback. Students may be able to help provide a missing word, or adjust syntax, or affirm thinking. Students can rely on nonverbal communication (smiles, eye contact, or even a confused, furrowed brow) as feedback: Do I need to make any adjustments to my sentence(s) based on what I just shared with a partner? This process can be repeated with another partner set or can be expanded to a group share. Then, as the teacher, I can ask if anyone would like to share their thinking. You will likely have more hands in there to share because you will have more confident speakers!

Consider your audience as well. We all make different language choices based on our context and our audience. For example, I speak one way with my own children, another way with my colleagues, and still another way when I’m presenting at a conference. After assigning a speaking task, let students know who they are talking to - are they simply talking to a peer? Or, are they preparing to defend their answer to a nonprofit organization’s board on ways to maximize their budget? By identifying an audience, students can be mindful of which language registers they may employ.

How can we ensure that students who are learning virtually still have an opportunity to speak with other students? By utilizing breakout rooms with lots of structures established prior, students will be able to engage with their peers. Other platforms you may wish to use where students can record videos or audio responses to each other are out there, and many are awesome!


*Google Hangouts Chat threads (students can drop short videos in the chat!)

*Chatterpix (have students create a talking image explaining something, and have other students create a different talking image to respond).

Modeling conversations is also a good practice. Spend some time talking about what to do when a conversation stalls. Allow students an “out” when a moment gets awkward- especially for middle schoolers! For example, that moment when you feel that you’ve completed the task but you still have time left over. Or perhaps, when no one is willing to “begin” the conversation in a breakout room. You may even have students establish a funny code word to use when they feel awkward! Calling out the moments can provide everyone a giggle, and even build community! I put an example code word in the chart below.

Give students a tool like this, or better yet, co-construct one together.

Let’s also equip our speakers with tools that they can utilize when they need help in conversations with each other. One like this is simple but effective.

By embedding a few examples of how to ask for help or how to offer help, you are setting everyone up for success, and everyone has the opportunity to lead or be supported by a peer.

All students, regardless of age, grade level, or language proficiency can benefit from more talk time. By giving students more opportunities and tools, your scholars will have more successful conversations, more time with oral language around the content, and more engagement with the lesson!

Carly Spina

Carly Spina has 15 years of experience in Multilingual Education, including her current role as a district EL/Bilingual/Dual Language Instructional Coach for 8 schools (EC-8th grade) in the Chicago suburbs. She is passionate about equity and advocacy for linguistically diverse students, families, and communities. Spina enjoys connecting with passionate educators across the country.

Carly Spina is currently working on her first book for EduMatch Publishing, tentatively titled Beyond Visuals: Innovative Supports for Multilingual Learners, which is anticipated to be published in 2021. The book will include the exploration of the following ideas as it relates to multilingual learners: SEL, academic supports, family engagement, educator self-care, and more.

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