From interaction to discourse: Increase EL academic language proficiency
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
In classrooms all over the country, teachers have their students answer questions and engage in classroom discussions. Numerous researchers have demonstrated the importance of oral interactions in the classroom, especially for English learners.
Long (1983) asserted with his interaction hypothesis the importance of interaction to facilitate academic language acquisition. Swain (1985, 2001) and Swain and Lapkin (1998, 2008) note that it is of the utmost importance to give students the opportunity to speak and write in the second language as they are acquiring it.
Keck and colleagues (2006) found that tasks that require the use of particular language forms are shown to be more effective in promoting acquisition of the forms. Mitchell and Myers (2004) claim that interaction provides opportunities for students to "fine-tune" the language to progress toward the target-language norms.
Research has also shown that the initiation-response-evaluation/feedback pattern used by many teachers is one of the least effective (Cazden, 1986, 2001; Mehan, 1979; Watson and Young, 1986). This is where a teacher asks a question, often requiring only simple recall — "Who is the protagonist/main character of the story?" — and a student answers with a one-word or short answer.
The teacher then elaborates on the student's response. Students also learn quickly to wait for someone else to answer, or to wait for the teacher to answer the question herself. Jeff Zwiers (2008) found that explicit, "right there" questions are used about 50 percent of the time in classrooms.
In contrast, a conversational approach to teaching facilitates academic language use and greater levels of thinking and expression among students. It allows students to clarify and fine-tune their ideas, process information, hear what others are thinking, and participate as equal contributors to the discussion, providing repetition of linguistic terms and processes.
The conversational approach also allows teachers to more naturally activate students' background knowledge, gauge students' understanding of concepts (thereby providing an informal, formative assessment opportunity), and build a supportive classroom environment.
Strategies to increase interaction among students are becoming more common in today's classrooms. Many teachers report using "turn and talk" or "think-pair-share" strategies as well as the 10/2 rule of approximately 10 minutes of instruction followed by approximately 2 minutes of interaction or discussion in order to increase the amount of oral language practice English learners are engaged in.
These practices are beneficial for students. However, in order to increase the acquisition of academic language, including domain-specific and general academic vocabulary, as well as more complex syntax and deeper conversation skills, students should be taught and required to engage in deeper conversations.
The issue at hand is that when teachers ask students to turn to a partner and discuss a concept, the more verbally dominant — often the more proficient English speaker — is the first (and sometimes only) person to talk. The questions sometimes require only a one-word answer, short phrases or perhaps one sentence.
The other student may respond with phrases such as "I agree" or "That was what I was going to say." In order for students to increase the amount of language used and the quality of the verbal interactions, we must teach students to engage in discourse, rather than just interactions.
Discourse implies a more complex back and forth of verbal interactions, including building up ideas and building on ideas. When students build up ideas, they brainstorm and add ideas, words and phrases to the discussion at hand.
The skill of contributing to discussions can be challenging for students, especially when it comes to brainstorming new ideas. Students can be taught how to find ideas presented in a variety of texts, for example, so they can contribute to group discussions. Moreover, students can learn to combine ideas or adapt current ideas as a way to contribute to discussions.
Students can also be taught to build on ideas by adding additional detail or more deeply exploring particular ideas once they have been chosen. This also includes analyzing ideas and breaking them down into component parts. More language use will occur as students refine and enhance their ideas, exploring what works and doesn't work, and create hypotheses or make predictions.
Just as with effective interaction techniques, structure and language instruction will help ensure each student — especially English learners — has the opportunity to incorporate appropriate language structures and vocabulary into his/her speech. Teachers should spend time teaching students how to interact and expand language use through conversation, along with teaching the specific language that can and should be used in these conversations.
Building in structure to student interaction will help lead toward deeper student discourse. Begin with turn taking; be sure that you indicate which student should begin the conversation, and which should respond.
For example, create A/B partners, and switch between having Person A start or Person B start. Alternatively, you can have students who are closer to a certain location begin (if you are seated closer to the door, you will begin, and if you are seated closer to the window, you will follow).
Explicit language instruction should be included in every classroom, especially one that intends to incorporate student discourse. Domain-specific and general academic vocabulary should be introduced and explicitly taught, and students should have multiple opportunities to pronounce the words and incorporate the academic language into their speech and writing.
Phrases such as "I agree with you on the following points ...", "Another key idea to consider is ...", etc. should be modeled and practiced as students continue to work collaboratively and increase the level of discourse.
Other conversation skills may also need to be taught, including eye contact, pauses and timing, turn-taking expectations, and responding to others' comments and ideas. For English learners, cultural norms may differ from the kinds of expectations in the classroom.
For example, eye contact when talking with a peer versus talking with an elder or person in a position of power can differ significantly. Pauses in speech, and the amount of time one waits before responding to another, or talking at the same time as another person can be considered as normal or extremely rude.
These norms of discourse should be pointed out to students, and they should be given the opportunity to practice these skills in the classroom as they discuss content.
In a recent webinar, Stanford professor Jeff Zwiers shared several strategies and ideas for increasing academic discourse. These strategies provide ways to move from interaction in strategies such as Gallery Walk, Give One, Get One, Jigsaws, etc., to increased academic discourse.
Stronger and clearer each turn: This strategy begins by prompting students for a response to a given question or topic. From there, each student shares his/her idea with a partner. The students then switch partners, and must now incorporate language and ideas from the previous partner. In this way, sentences become stronger and longer, and provide more evidence. Students may also articulate more clearly as they utilize more precise terms learned from others, and build more complete, organized and linked sentences.
Build ideas: Choose a claim, answer, solution or an interpretation such as a theme to build up the idea. Students first create or come up with an idea. From there they clarify the idea through paraphrasing, defining terms and elaborating on the idea. Students can then add supporting ideas by finding evidence in text being read, other text previously read, movies, evidence from the outside world such as events, or events from their own lives.
Build and choose the best idea: The students follow the same skills above, then move to choosing the best idea. Students should engage in this portion of the activity semi-independently. In other words, students should move toward collaborating with a pair or perhaps small group of students to choose the best idea rather than having the teacher do this work. Through this activity, students compare and evaluate ideas.
Interaction is a powerful classroom activity that is necessary for learning. However, both language proficiency and content knowledge and skills will increase through increasing the amount of language each student uses, and building discourse wherein students will build upon each others ideas and respond to each other with increased academic language.
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