The 4 C’s of 21st century learning for ELLs: Communication
| February 12, 2015
In the first part of this series, we explored critical thinking as an important skill that students will need to master in the 21st century. The jobs of tomorrow are unknown today, and while the world is changing quickly, it is also shrinking.
Small and large companies alike are building global teams, selling services and products all over the world. Global communication is instantaneous. Given this, tomorrow's workforce will need to be skilled in communication, the second of the four C's of 21st century skills explored in this series.
Communication, essentially, is the transmission of information, including feelings, thoughts, perceptions, expectations, commands, attitudes, knowledge and more. Skills such as explanation and negotiation are vital in the classroom, and will be increasingly so in the job market our students will face.
As educators in the 21st century, we must teach students effective communication skills as a life skill that will benefit them in their school career as well as in their future professional careers.
Communication skills in the 21st century include active listening, use of academic or formal language, nonverbal communication, effective writing, speech delivery (including rate, volume and enunciation), argumentation, citation of effective reasoning and evidence, and more.
These need to be considered for both teachers and students. How are we, as teachers, communicating most effectively with our students? How are we teaching students to communicate with us and with others?
English learners have both advantages and disadvantages with this particular skill. Because the world is shrinking, and technology facilitates global communication that is fast and convenient, English learners will need to be able to skillfully communicate in what is rapidly becoming the international language of business, English.
The advantage that English learners have, of course, is that they are able to speak another language as well, and may have deeper cultural knowledge and understanding of ways of thinking and perspectives in other parts of the world.
Teachers are constantly communicating in schools — with students, with other teachers, with administrators and parents. Effective teacher communication in the classroom is vital. On a daily basis, we impart information, give directions, ask questions, listen to student responses, assess student work and more.
All of these skills require effective communication techniques. In order to maximize effectiveness and learning, there are several considerations we must take into account, especially when we consider the needs of English learners.
Dr. Stephen Krashen emphasizes the importance of comprehensible input, especially for English learners. But the concept is important for all students. Effective communication in the classroom means, in part, being sure that students understand what you are saying and what they are reading.
Comprehensible input is accomplished in numerous ways, depending upon the group of students with whom you are working. Scaffolding — providing support to students through the use of visuals and other forms of nonlinguistic representation — as well as providing background information and vocabulary instruction will benefit students greatly as they learn new material.
Increase use of academic vocabulary
Students should be exposed to high levels of academic language with added support and scaffolding. For example, teachers can use high-level academic vocabulary by adding in a contextual definition. These short phrases explain the meaning of a word that the students might not otherwise understand. Showing students a picture or diagram can also help them to understand a word used.
Each of these methods can be used quickly to enhance student understanding. As students hear and read academic vocabulary in context, they can begin to more deeply understand what some call the "language of opportunity" — words and phrases that are precise and complex.
Actively listening to students
Students come to us multiple times a day to ask questions, share an idea, explain their actions, etc. At times, we have multiple students vying for our attention at any given moment. It is estimated that people can say between 80-100 words per minute, while our brains can process information at about 600-800 words per minute.
This means we have spare capacity that is not always used for listening to the message. In the classroom, it may be used to keep an eye on the rest of the students in the classroom, think about the lesson coming up, or attend to another student.
It is important, though, that we focus (as best we can) on what students are saying, and what they are not saying. When listening to English learners, they may not have the precise language they need or want in order to most effectively state their message. This fact may require that we listen more attentively to determine the message that the student is trying to communicate.
There are a few simple steps and techniques that can be used with little preparation to increase student communication in any classroom. Some of these steps take no additional preparation, only remembering to include the opportunities for communication. Others take a bit of thought on the part of the teacher but get easier with time.
Step 1: The 10/2 Rule
The 10/2 Rule states that for every 10 or so minutes of input (lecture, video, reading, etc.) there should be about two minutes of processing time. Some have called this "chunk and chew" — chunk information logically, then let students process or chew on the information in some way.
The numbers are not hard and fast. Depending on the age of the students and the complexity of the topic, you may want to shorten the amount of input before having students process the content orally or in writing. It may not take students two minutes to process, or it may take a bit longer.
Use formative assessment and observation to determine when it is appropriate to bring students back together from a discussion or from a writing opportunity.
Step 2: Provide a specific prompt and use structured interaction techniques
There may be a number of reasons students are hesitant to talk with one another during interaction times. It may be that they are unclear as to what to talk about, they are unsure about what to say, or that they do not know who should start and are resistant to going first.
To combat these issues, consider first when to provide students a prompt for discussion or writing and what that prompt will be. The more specific you are with the prompt you provide, the better.
Using a specific number can be helpful, such as "share one prediction of what will happen when I add this chemical to our mixture and why you think so" or "name three events from the story that led up to this point." When the prompt is more vague, such as "discuss what we just read," students are less likely to be clear as to what they should talk or write about.
Another important consideration is who will begin the discussion. Structure the interaction opportunities in your classroom so that it is clear who will go first. There are numerous ways to do this, including having students partner up in an A/B format.
Give a prompt as to who will be begin by saying something like: "Turn to your A/B partner and make a prediction as to what would have happened if this battle had not been won. Partner B will begin, then Partner A will respond and share their prediction. You have three minutes. Begin."
The A/B partner format is not the only method that can be used. Classroom geography can be another method, having the student sitting closest to the window or door, or the student on the North/South/East/West side of the room begins. Physical features such as the person with the longer or shorter hair, or the older or younger student of the pair are also effective.
Through the utilization of structures such as these, English learners will be given opportunities to share their thoughts as often as other students, as structure provides them with these opportunities. Consider adding sentence frames or starters for English learners and other students who could benefit from additional structure and academic language practice.
Step 3: Hold students accountable
Once students have shared with a partner and/or written something down, have a few students share with the whole group. Rather than starting with volunteers, as many teachers do, use this three-step selection process.
Begin with students you select to share. As you walk around and listen to student conversations or look at what they have written down, choose students that have made an interesting point or discussed something you would like to emphasize.
Second, call on a few students randomly. Use a structure such as numbered heads, wherein each student is assigned a number between 1 and 4. Call on a group of students and ask one of the numbers to share. Some teachers at the elementary level use tongue depressors or popsicle sticks with student names on them for this purpose.
Lastly, call on volunteers who may have a great need to share or who have a point that has not yet been discussed. This gives an opportunity for more students to share, including English learners. When we call only on volunteers, we often get only the same small number of students who always enjoy sharing their ideas.
Communication is a critical skill in the 21st century, and becoming ever more important as the world continues to shrink. English learners, while learning to communicate in English, have the added benefit of being able to communicate in another language. Additionally, they may more deeply understand cultural differences in regards to communication with people from other cultures.
These skills are an asset in today's job market and will continue to be important skills as students progress through their lives.
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