Why Not? Discussion for Language

Science Inquiry

113d3e571712af017a9743d9d71cd25cThe Inquiry Project focuses on the use of academic talk in the science curriculum. How do we get science teachers to value the use of academic discussion, deliberation, and debate when acquiring scientific vocabulary? Schools that integrate language and science instruction can close the science achievement gap for English-language learners, according to a yearlong analysis of six California school districts by the nonprofit Education Trust-West. Among the report’s recommendations are adopting the Next Generation Science Standards and providing regular, engaging language lessons. There is a quality for academic discussions that teachers should take note with the difference between “output” and true interaction. The Oakland Unified School District created a rubric for teachers to assess their own teaching practices, and to see how teachers can grow in the direction of offering better interaction between students in the classroom.

The Literacy in Learning Exchange  offers a webinar for science teachers to begin the process of teaching evidence-based argumentation within the science curriculum. “The presenters share examples of ways to teach students to glean appropriate evidence from informational texts and other resources and methods for compiling and sharing evidence in a cohesive, academic manner in both written and oral formats.” All of my colleagues can benefit from the Seven Ways to Scaffold Instruction for English Learners.

imagesNPRed recently offered a story titled “English Language Learners: How Your State is Doing” to give more background on the 5 million (and growing) identified English Language Learners in the United States. An undercurrent that is reported is how “gifted” ELLs are not being identified as gifted and talented, and how educators are at-risk of failing to adequately serve this community.

Once again, the Teaching Channel offers great insight regarding the importance of teaching language learners the academic discussion techniques. I have pulled directly from Nicole Knight’s blog post:

Why are Academic Discussions So Important for Our ELLs?

Academic discussions help all students develop reasoning skills and deepens understanding of content and multiple perspectives. For ELLs, academic discussions are critical to language and content development because:

  • ELLs need the opportunity to hear language in authentic and varied contexts. Teachers, as well as students with higher language proficiency, serve as language models. Particularly important is exposure to discipline-specific language so ELLs hear what it sounds like to communicate in an array of academic contexts.
  • ELLs need opportunities to produce language in contextualized and purposeful ways. They need to practice applying form (e.g., grammar, vocabulary) and function (e.g., language used to clarify, explain, argue) to communicate and build ideas.
  • ELLs benefit from redundancy of ideas and their related vocabulary. Discussion allows for multiple opportunities to hear new concepts and content explained, analyzed, and interpreted.
How Do We Make Sure Our ELLs are Fully Engaged in and Benefiting from Academic Discussions?

Just because we give students the opportunity to discuss, doesn’t mean they will. We need to provide additional supports and structures so that the students who can benefit the most from academic discussion actually do! Here are five important teaching strategies you can use to support your ELLs to fully participate:

1. Mix up your grouping structures, but give more time to pairs. Whole group discussions provide a great opportunity to model discussion skills, to hear a broad perspective of ideas, and to synthesize learning from small group or pair conversations. The biggest payoff, however, is paired conversations, because they maximize speaking time and increase overall engagement. Even when the structure is a whole-group discussion, consider inserting paired conversations (Turn and Talk or Think-Pair-Share) throughout to allow for ELLs to rehearse their ideas and related academic language.

2. Use discussion strategies that require every student to talk. You can simply open a discussion with a Round Robin, or use Talking Chips or Discussion Cards that allow for equitable participation. Watch students actively participate in discussions in Participation Protocols for Academic Discussions.

3. Provide language support. Providing students access to language resources, such as sentence stems and word banks, gives students both the academic language and confidence to participate. A note of caution: overuse of prescribed sentence starters or stems can actually stifle talk, as students just fill in the blanks. Better yet, have students rehearse a few choice sentence stems and relevant vocabulary before they engage in academic discussion. The goal is for students to know how to access and use language supports when needed and independently (Watch Talk Moves in Academic Discussion).

4. Accept imperfect language. When ELLs are engaged in academic discussion, privilege communication over precision of language. Overcorrection or too much attention to grammatically correct language can hinder ELLs language production and interrupt the flow of ideas. During a discussion, we want our ELLs to approximate correct and sophisticated language, not perfect it.

5. Expect and require extended responses. One of the biggest disservices to our ELLs is to accept one-word or abbreviated responses — even worse is when we complete their sentences. Instead, provide wait time, encourage students to continue, and press students for evidence by asking, “Why?” or, “Can you give me an example?”

Conversations for Language Learners

I am one of the biggest fans of the Teaching Channel for teachers to see some of the best practices from around the country. When it comes to academic discussions and language imgreslearners, the Teaching Channel offers a lesson plan for “Participation Protocol for Academic Discussions” that demonstrates one way to track student participation, and create a structure that students need as a framework for their academic discussion success. One teacher adapts the Socratic seminar-style to a Senior Project and some of the additional strategies to assist English Language Learners. In “Academic Discussion: Analyzing Complex Texts” a teacher uses the discussion method to analyze texts in order to support English Language Leaners, and teach the academic moves necessary to analyzing text and speaking. In an additional video, “Talk Moves in Academic Discussions” a teacher describes how different “talk moves” or sentence starters can be helpful to second language learners. There is also a blog where teachers can offer resources. The most recent entries to the blog English Language Learners and Academic Conversations, I have pulled directly from a post from Jeff Zwiers regarding oral language skills ~

Here are three strategies to help develop oral language skills:

Strategy One: Adapt Activities to Include Authentic Talk

Adapting current activities to include more authentic, original, and extended discussions gives students opportunities to contribute more than one sentence to a conversation. Sometimes, we miss the opportunity to encourage language development. For example, many teachers use some form of a jigsaw activity, in which students get into expert groups, read a text, and answer questions or fill in charts. They then go to mixed home groups to share their information. Yet, often what happens is this: students just read aloud what another student has copied from a resource — and opportunities for oral imageslanguage development are lost.

To improve this strategy, you can have the experts engage in a discussion of what to put, in their own words, onto paper. Then, they can rehearse what they’ll say — covering their papers to avoid reading aloud. Then in home groups, you can have each person glance at their notes, cover them again, and share with the group members, who listen and take notes. You can even ask students to try to speak in paragraphs, starting with a general claim or topic sentence, and then support it with evidence sentences. For example, in this video, notice how the talk evolves as students prepare their ideas for sharing.

Strategy Two: Use Activities that Develop Strong Language

Use activities that allow students to develop a “stronger and clearer” answer, as they talk to different partners successively in an activity. Instead of the all-too-common whole class discussion, with the teacher asking questions and a few students answering, ask a question and have students talk to three different partners. Or have students talk in different groups (see this 1-3-6 activity video).

A crucial aspect of this strategy is that students shouldn’t say the same thing each time; rather, they need to build on the language and ideas of previous partner(s) to improve, expand, clarify, and support their evolving answer each time they share it.

Example Activities (from Zwiers, O’Hara, Pritchard, 2014):

Interview Grid: Students talk with one different partner each time, making their answers stronger and clearer each time, taking minimal, if any, notes on the chart. Note that this activity can also work using inner-outer conversation circles, such as the one in this Debrief Circles video.

Opinion Formation Cards: Students receive a quotation from the text (before it’s read) that includes evidence for one side or the other of an issue. Students share their quotations and their evolving opinions, with reasons and evidence for them.

Opinion Continuum: Students share where they fall on the continuum of a two-sided issue and why. At the end, they share if they shifted at all along the continuum based on their conversations with partners.

Strategy Three: Use Strong Discussion Prompts

Try to use discussion prompts that foster evaluation in some way. Evaluation is usually needed for ranking, prioritizing, and choosing. For example, if you ask for evidence of a theme or a claim, many students just find the first three remotely evidence-y things they can, and stop there. But if you prompt students to rank the evidence from strongest to weakest, or to find the most influential cause of some war, you can often get deeper thinking and better conversation.

For instance, I was talking with a teacher who was asking this question, “How did the Civil War affect the families in the South?” I encouraged her to simply add “most affect” to force students to evaluate and discuss their opinions. When students evaluate, their ideas often differ. And if you allow them time to argue and negotiate the ideas, lots of learning can happen.

Debate for Language Acquisition

There is a extremely little academic literature in the Netherlands regarding debate use in secondary classrooms, whether it be for critical thinking or language acquisition. So far, the academic opus for Dutch debate is “Invest in What Energizes Students Learn: Investigating Students’ Attitude towards Debate in the Foreign Language Classroom.” images-2Written by a Ph.D. student and two professors at Utrecht University, the research study focuses on the attitude of Dutch students towards debate as an instructional tool in the foreign language classroom. The authors found that “debate does not only help students deepen their comprehension of the issue/topic in question and foster their critical thinking abilities, but it helps them enhance their language proficiency as well. By facilitating input and output, debate has ability to furnish students with a chance to take part in a learning process that involves practicing the four major skills of language.”

Through surveys and interviews, the authors state that “the participants in general believe in the power of debate in honing their four language skills. One participant said ‘you practice all the skills at the same time’. When asked whether the factor of language proficiency is an ingredient that makes them like debate, all the interviewees answered in the affirmative. One further confirmed this by saying ‘you practice the [four] skills in a fun way [in the debate]’.” The authors further admit that there is not enough research on the imagesimpact of debate in the language classroom and more needs to be done. “To make the learning process successful, teachers should invest in the pedagogical tools that students admire and make them experience fun with learning. This study has revealed that students acclaim debate as an interesting teaching tool that energizes them to participate in a rich and engaging learning process. Therefore, debate as a teaching tool should get a place in the pedagogy of ESL/EFL teaching.”

Teacher Blogs/Argumentation

I continue to follow Dave Stuart Jr.’s blog, especially when he posts about speaking and argumentation. In this blog post, Dave delves into what he calls the “5 Approaches to Teaching Argument” along with a link to his pop-up debates for classroom use.

Corrective Feedback

A topic of concern for teachers is the topic of corrective feedback to students. How much corrective feedback should be given to students? Can corrective feedback become prohibitive to learning L2? When should learners be corrected? How should learners be imagescorrected? Professors Rod Ellis and Natsuko Shintani look at the importance of corrective feedback in second language acquisition. Some of their academic review noticed that “if it is accuracy that is the goal, then immediate correction is necessary; whereas, if fluency is the goal, then immediate correction that interrupts the flow of speaking is inappropriate.” Teachers must be careful with this. If students are frequently corrected, they will spend most of their time in school trying not to get caught “not knowing something.” It becomes a game that students are more than willing to play. Creating a culture of fluency serves language learners in our classrooms.

All classroom teachers must become more cognizant of corrective feedback, and the importance of their clinical practice for the teaching of speaking and writing to language learners. Overall, teachers should be selective in the errors they correct. This can be accomplished by “focus correction” where students are corrected regarding the focus put forward by the teacher. For instance, if the class focuses on passive vs. active voice, then the correction will only become focused on the students’ use of passive voice, etc.

Learn to Discuss

In Learning to Discuss: Strategies for Improving the Quality of Class Discussion, Dr. Jocelyn images-1Hollander notices that classroom discussions are unsatisfying in two ways: 1) individual contributions are emphasized over the collective process of discussing, and 2) teachers emphasize discussion performance rather than the development of discussion skills. She notes that some strategies are important play makers in the classroom:

  • Assigning writing exercises prior to discussion allows students to compose their thoughts before being required to speak.
  • Small group discussions may be more comfortable for shyer students, encouraging them to speak more freely.
  • Grading students on their class discussion provides a material incentive for participation that may be meaningful to some students.

While these strategies are important, Hollander goes further to bring out the recurring problems of classroom discussion and the necessary strategies to allay the frustrations that teachers may encounter in creating a discussion-based culture in their classrooms.

Hollander points out that “when a contribution from Student B amplifies, builds on, imgrescontradicts, takes issue with, or in some other way responds to the contribution from Student A, we have a discussion.” But…students must be taught these maneuvers, they do not come naturally nor are they placed in the classroom from other teachers. The classroom teacher must make a firm decision to teach FOR discussion in order for “academic moves” to occur/teaching the maneuvers that count in academia.

Teachers should be careful with reward structures for discussion as this only teaches students quantity over quality. Teachers should further be careful not to focus on the “problem student” who does not participate, and instead focus on teaching all students the skills to effectively participate in discussion. Hollander offers the following from her own teaching (she focuses the teaching during the first week of the term, returns to this mid-term, and then again at the end of the class term):

  1. Offer an assignment/brief paper at the beginning of the course that analyzes what factors contribute to a good discussion. The findings are then shared with all students. I would further teach a self-reflection rubric that the students can begin to understand what it takes to “grow” through the rubric towards mastery. After each discussion, students self-assess (Hollander also asks students to write their thoughts about the discussion based on three questions (1. In your opinion, what is going well with class discussion? 2. What could be improved? 3. What progress are you making toward your discussion goal?)
  2. Assignment #2 involves discussion goals on behalf of the individual students (this takes away the “problem student” as this student will grow towards their own goals).
  3. Assignment #3 is in fact a major reflection assignment at the end of the course. All assignments are offered as an appendix to the article above.

Hollander’s paper is one of the best research-based articles that I have read regarding the importance of discussion in the classroom while it still offers excellent classroom-experience strategies that she herself works on with her students.

More Evidence for Discussion & Philosophy

Recent Research Study: “Children who participated in a philosophy class once a week overimages-1 the course of a year saw significantly higher math and literacy scores.” The Education Endowment Foundation of the U.K. conducted a major research study to find that young children who were taught philosophy through a discussion-based approach were more likely to achieve higher level math and literacy scores, with “disadvantaged youth” demonstrating the largest gains. The foundation offers a tool kit webpage that has multiple studies and the interventions necessary to find success in a school setting.

“Kids who took the course increased math and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching, even though the course was not designed to improve literacy or numeracy. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds saw an even bigger leap in performance: reading skills increased by four months, math by three months, and writing by two months. Teachers also reported a beneficial impact on students’ confidence and ability to listen to others.” This study is just more evidence for discussion-based strategies and teaching with philosophical texts.

Where Should a Teacher Start?

The Touchstones Discussion Project offers excellent social science/philosophy content for discussion in the classroom. A newsletter from Touchstones points to the progress made with their discussion-based curriculum. As a classroom teacher, I cannot say enough about the Touchstones content, as I have used their content for my weekly formative Socratic seminars. The content is engaging for students and it connected to their study of history and language.

The Gift of Gab

The Gift of Gab for Literacy in Secondary Math Classrooms

The Secondary Literacy Partnership offers professional development webinars in order to offer quick impact takeaways for classroom teachers. The professional development presentation “The Gift of Gab for Literacy in Secondary Math Classrooms” intrigued many imgres-1of my colleagues who are struggling to teach mathematical literacy. How are our schools preparing our students? How are math teachers facilitating problem solving, procedures, and concepts through collaborative communication?

The Common Core State Standards is the opportunity for a shift in the teaching of mathematics from “calculating” to incorporating methods of “disciplinary literacy,” and allow students to take a leading role in the discovery.

With a rubric for the levels of math classroom discourse, and the importance of reasoning and explaining, students learn by communicating their oral math language. Students need to make sense of the word problems instead of just blindly going into procedures of problem solving. “True learning depends on an understanding of how ideas fit together”images-1 (Piaget). What does “productive struggle” look like in the classroom? Productive struggle is necessary for students to begin communicating their ideas with their classmates. Math teachers can begin by teaching students the importance of asking questions instead of the teacher asking the leading questions and offering feedback. Monitoring students during “number talk” allows the teacher to work the room facilitating the thought process of students.

With a list of web links for math literacy resources, teachers can begin the process of this new framework for teaching mathematics.

L2 in the Classroom: Input, Interaction & Output


Collaborative tasks give language learners what they ultimately need (input, feedback, output). One essential question to ask is, “are there better language-learning tasks than others?” The Grammar-Translation Method and the Direct Method are frequent methods in language-learning classrooms, but linguists agree that these methods are outdated and do not lead to necessary language acquisition. Professor Ineke Vedder of the University of Amsterdam points to the Communicative Approach and the Task-based Learning and Teaching (TBLT). One teaching and learning strategy that couples the Communicative Approach and TBLT is the Dictogloss activity. Dictogloss has long been considered an approach in which students “make meaning” with a clearly defined communicative outcome.

Dictogloss Activity

Step 1: Text read by teacher – the text is read twice by the teacher, at normal speed. The first time the students just listen.

Step 2: Listening and taking notes – second time the text is read by the teacher the students take notes.

Step 3: Text reconstruction in small collaborative groups – in groups of 3 or 4 students the text is reconstructed. Together they first compare their notes and then decide who of them will have the role of ‘secretary’, the one who has to do the writing. The condition is, however, that all students are responsible, not only the one that does the writing. The imagesteacher is present in the classroom (‘silent spectator’), but doesn’t intervene.

Step 4: Analysis and correction – students go once more through the written reconstruction of the text and correct errors, or add or omit text elements, if necessary. The text is then copied/handed in to the teacher/sent by email, etc.). Students then receive the original version of the text and compare the original version with the text they have just produced.

Step 5: Feedback – feedback or follow-up activities by the teacher, on the basis of both the oral reports of the groups (‘what difficulties did you encounter’) and on the basis of first impressions by the teacher.

Studies prove that during the collaborative activity all language skills are involved in the dictogloss procedure: listening, reading, speaking and writing. The role of interaction and output are crucial for language learning as are the episodes of ‘noticing’ during the activity (the episodes where learners’ attention is focused on form), while they are engaged in a communicative activity and are negotiating meaning.

Complexity of Language Teaching

images-10-44-18-pmA recent online article points to the continued need for public speaking and the four
reasons why millennials should develop their public speaking skills. Why are these skills not addressed in our secondary classrooms? One reason is that it is more complex than we may originally think. If it is a complex measure as your first language, what could make it possibly more complex? A second language.

Professor Rose van der Zwaard of the University of Amsterdam explains the problematic teaching methods of the past, and the possible reasons for failure to launch a second language. During her presentation, she gave the example of her own son who studied at a school in the Netherlands that has an outstanding reputation. While there, he studied images-1French, but the teacher made the students spend an enormous amount of time conjugating verbs. When they went to Paris for vacation, the professor asked her son to go to the counter to order a croissant. He returned to ask her, “How do you say croissant in French?” (This is not a joke). Explicit knowledge transfer does not work for language acquisition if there is no communicative activities in which the students are “making meaning” (i.e. discussion, deliberation, debate).

Dr. Ian Tudor goes deeper when he writes that we must learn to live with the complexity of language teaching. Ultimately, Tudor points to the need for “local” decision making for the teaching of language. He points to the recent trend of technology and how “technology offers potential, but does not in itself guarantee that a given result will be obtained, not in a complex human activity like teaching.” Tudor’s thought on the explosion of “edu-technology” flies in the face of the overwhelming trend in U.S. schools of spending more money on expensive technology. The concept of “localism” is defined as ethnographic in the sense that it explores the “cultures of learning” in order to accurately address the needs of students, and therefore any possible language intervention.

In “Classroom Discussion: Models for Leading Seminars and Deliberations,” Walter Parker looks at the differences with discussions and deliberations in social studies classrooms. As an English teacher, I have offered deliberations in my classroom in order to increase spoken language and critical thinking. Basically, the difference is that a discussion leads to the finding of common ground by the students, whereas deliberations are a discussion-imagesdebate hybrid that leads to students voting (this can include Mock Trial). Parker worries that students (and society) have taken democracy for granted, and there is a need to teach our children the need for discourse and voting. Parker further points to the multiple obstacles in current classrooms as to why more discussion is not offered. One of these reasons is that fact that teachers were not taught this way, and teachers tend to fall back on the way they were taught in secondary schools! Parker observed two teachers over the course of his study, pointing to the fact that one teaches for discussion and the other teaches for deliberation. Below is a small chart that delineates the differences. The Teaching Channel offers a great lesson with video on “Scaffolding for Socratic Seminar” for our English language learners.

Table 1. A Typology of Discussion (Shared Inquiry)

Dimensions Seminar Deliberation
Purpose 1. Reach an enlarged understanding of a powerful text.

2. Improve discussants’ powers of understanding.

1. Reach a decision about what a “we” should do about a shared problem.

2. Improve discussants’ powers of understanding.

Subject Matter Ideas, issues, and values in a print or film selection, artwork, performance, or political cartoon. Alternative courses of action related to a public problem.
Opening Question What does ______ mean? What should we do?
Exemplar Socratic Seminar Public Issues Model

Speaking of…

Cross Section of Speaking & Listening and Language Acquisition

In Rod Ellis’ journal article “Principles of instructed language learning,” there are basically 10 principles of language acquisition in the classroom. While there is controversy amongst researchers, it is agreed that comprehensible output is required (communicative activities). Too much focus on grammatical function does not take into account proper output for the language learner. One of Ellis’ conclusions is that specific Language Development classes should not be taught as “support” for the regular day schedule of the students, but instead focus on meaning-making through intensive input (instruction of grammar, vocabulary). Those specific classes work to develop this portion of language learning, while the rest of the students’ class schedules should focus on communicative activities.

In recent news, a school district in Arkansas sees major gains in their ELD program by providing block scheduled ELD classes that do not work to support the other curricular
classes. Instead, the ELD class works to provide the grammatical structure necessary, while there are some discussions and communicative activities. The ELD program is considered an early success for the school district.


L2 in the Classroom: An Introduction, Professors Ineke Vedder and Rose van der Zwaard ask the essential questions regarding who is a good language learner? Are there good and bad language learners? What is the purpose of the teaching and learning of L2? Much of secondary school English Language Development (ELD) instruction is done so with the purpose of passing tests in order to “reclassify” the English language learner out of the ELD system. Schools are rewarded for such reclassification because it demonstrates learning and language development.

Although the previous stated purpose is debatable because of the reclassification/reward system, many ELD classes are taught concurrently with the students’ regular academic schedule. For example, students will take a general education English class (9th grade English) along with an additional ELD class. I have seen ELD classes taught differently based on teacher preference and school requirements.

imgresIn Improving Literacy Instruction in Middle and High Schools: A Guide for Principles, the report specifically advances research-based recommendations to administrators for developing school-wide literacy goals. Among them are the following tenets:

  • Discussion – opportunities for deeper, more sustained discussions of content from text. Extended discussions of text can be facilitated by the teacher, or can occur as structured discussions among students in cooperative learning groups.
  • High Standards – setting and maintaining high standards for the level of text, conversationquestions, and vocabulary reflected in discussions and in reading and writing assignments.

More proof that standards-based instruction and research-based methods include discussion, deliberation, and debate in our classrooms!