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A conversational approach is particularly well suited to English learners who, after only a few years in school, frequently find themselves significantly behind their peers in most academic areas, usually because of low reading levels in English and underdevel- oped language skills. Students benefit from a conversational approach in many ways because conversation provides:

  • A context for learning in which language is expressed naturally through meaningful discussion

  • Practice using oral language, which is a foundation for literacy skill development

  • A means for students to express their thinking, and to clarify and fine-tune their ideas

  • Time to process information and hear what others are thinking about

  • An opportunity for teachers to model academic language, use content vocabulary appropriately, and, through think-alouds, model thinking processes

  • Opportunities for students to participate as equal contributors to the discussion, which provides them with repetition of both linguistic terms and thinking processes and results in their eventual acquisition and internalization for future use

A rich discussion, or conversational approach, has advantages for teachers as well, including the following:

  • Through discussion, a teacher can more naturally activate students’ background knowledge and assess their prior learning.

  • When working in small groups with each student participating in a discussion, teach- ers are better able to gauge student understanding of the lesson’s concepts, tasks, and terminology, as well as discern areas of weakness.

  • When teachers and students interact together, a supportive environment is fostered, which builds teacher-student rapport.

When contemplating the advantages of a more conversational approach to teaching, think about your own learning. It probably takes multiple exposures to new terms, concepts, and information before they become yours to use independently. If you talk with others about the concepts and information you are learning, you’re more likely to remember them. English learners require even more repetition and redundancy to improve their lan- guage skills. As they have repeated opportunities to improve their oral language profi- ciency, ELs are more likely to use English, and more frequent use results in increased proficiency (Saunders & Goldenberg, 2009). Discussion and interaction push learners to think quickly, respond, construct sentences, put their thoughts into words, and ask for clarification through classroom dialogue. Discussion also allows students to see how other people think and use language to describe their thinking (Zwiers, 2008).

Productive discussion can take place in whole class settings, but it is more likely that small groups will facilitate the kind of high-quality interaction that benefits English learners. Working to express ideas and answers to questions in a new language can be intimidating for students of all ages. Small group work allows them to try out their ideas in a low-stress setting and to gauge how similar their ideas are to those of their peers. Working with partners, triads, or in a small group also provides a chance to process and articulate new information with less pressure than a whole class setting may create.

chapter 1

/ Academic Language of the English-Language Arts

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