English learners, by definition, are still in the process of acquiring English, especially the academic language used in school. Beginning speakers need practice in developing social language so that they can be understood by others and understand what others are saying. However, many English learners are conversant in English but struggle with academic language. An element of academic language that is critical for students’ success in school is oral language proficiency. A conscious focus on developing oral language is warranted because as English learners strengthen their oral language skills, reading and writing skills improve as well.
It is important to keep in mind that these students have not had the advantage of growing up speaking and listening to English from infancy. The result is a significant gap between their oral language skills and those of their English-speaking peers. So, if English learners are to develop grade-level oral language proficiency, they must be provided lots of opportunities to practice speaking and listening in class.
Student interaction is called for in all state standards and emphasized in the Common Core State Standards. Some of the skills students must attain include the following:
- Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations;
- Build on others’ ideas and express one’s own clearly and persuasively;
- Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning;
- Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks;
- Demonstrate command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.
As you can imagine, this level of language competence is challenging for students who are still in the process of acquiring English; they need support as they develop the skills called for in academic standards.
English learners benefit from classroom environments where student-to-student interaction is encouraged. But not all interaction is equal. There are a variety of techniques that can be utilized to encourage students to talk together, such as turn-and-talk, partner work, and circulating amongst classmates to share information. These techniques create opportunities for using academic language in a specific way, such as reporting on work, giving an opinion, or comparing answers.
A deeper level of oral language development comes from more extended discourse which allows students to engage in authentic, self-generated discussion about topics, and offers them a chance to grapple with ideas, make connections between others’ ideas and their own, build on a peer’s contribution, express disagreement, or make a counterargument. Language frames may be used, as needed, to scaffold students’ contributions to the discussion.
Teacher-student interaction patterns can also promote oral language development. Rather than accepting a single word response and expanding upon it, teachers should encourage elaborated responses by prompting with questions such as, Can you tell me more about that? and through elicitation, In other words…. (pause for student response). These techniques invite English learners to express their ideas more fully.
In a previous post, Student Interaction Gone Awry, I discussed the importance of finding the right balance between teacher and student talk. Teachers typically talk too much during lessons, which inadvertently denies students the opportunity to use extended language. However, asking students to think-pair-share every few minutes simply for the sake of reducing the teacher’s role is also ineffective. Purposeful interaction is the goal.
Research confirms that English learners need multiple exposures to academic words — to see and hear them, and use them in varied contexts — for the words to become part of their own linguistic repertoire. Engaging in oral language activities provides English learners with additional practice using academic words through listening and speaking.