5 Techniques to Elevate English Learners Through Classroom Talk

Andrea Rients
Andrea Rients
22 May
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“Use it or lose it.”  

A small saying that carries big weight when applied to the idea of increasing student voice in the classroom. While all teachers can agree that there are many benefits of more student talk: a deeper understanding of content concepts, increased oral language development, and an increase in motivation and brain stimulation; many struggle to infuse it into daily practice.  Squirmy little bodies, the temptation of the upcoming summer, or disengagement  with the content or simply school in general can all play a part in discouraging teachers to have students engage in conversations with one another.   When teachers scaffold talk and specifically build strong protocols around talk in the classroom both teacher and student benefit: increased comfort in facilitating learning for the teacher and more robust conversation and participation for students.

While increasing talk is good for all students it is VITAL for English learners!  English learners need the opportunity to try out new words, practice grammatical structures and language functions.  When English learners are given the opportunity to process information with their peers, they are able to hear strong language models, put new learning into their own words, and actively use the academic and content language. The SIOP Model offers many tried and true techniques that teachers can incorporate into the classroom no matter what level or content they teach.  Below are my five favorite techniques to scaffold talk.

  • Chunk and Chew

This technique ensures that students have sufficient processing time with the information given in a lecture, presentation, or class discussion.  Teachers deliver a small “chunk” of information and then allow students to “chew” or process the information in partners or small groups.  For example, in a secondary science classroom, a teacher may give a quick 10 minute overview on the concept of mitosis then ask students to turn to a partner and paraphrase what was just taught.  When students verbalize information, they internalize information and will better retain what was previously stated. English learners are able practice academic language and the teacher is able to formatively check for understanding.  In the secondary classroom, for every ten minute chunk of teacher input, students should be given two minutes to chew by processing and practicing with academic language.  In the elementary classroom, for every five minute chunk of teacher input, students should be given one minute to chew by processing and practicing with a partner or small group.

Teaching ELs? Attend a SIOP® training event in select cities or attend virtually!

  • Stand Up – Hand Up – Pair Up

Students begin by individually engaging in some type of reflection or response. This could be answering a question or completing a sentence frame on a post-it note. When students have completed their response, they stand up and raise their hand in the air.  Students then walk around the room until they find another student with their hand up and high five them.  After the pair high fives, they become partners and share their answer/learning/reflection.  When they have finished the conversation, the students put their hands back up in the air and find another partner. Repeat with a new partner until time is called. This technique allows all students to work at their own pace.  Those who are quick at sharing can continue to find another partner until time is called.  Those who need a little more time to process or engage in a more in depth conversation or example have the time they need as well.  No matter what pace students work at, all students are engaged the entire time and have multiple opportunities for language practice.

  • Pair Share Trade

This technique begins with a Stand Up, Hand Up, Pair Up!  However, once students share their learning or reflection on their post it note or index card, they trade notes with one another before finding a new partner.  With their new partner, they are responsible to share what their previous partner said instead of repeating what they wrote.  This encourages active listening between partners and ensures that students understand their partner’s information before they move.  For English learners, this allows for them to hear a strong model of the language on the post-it note before they are asked to read or share the information with another partner.  

  • Pattern of Accountability

No matter what technique you use to increase talk in the classroom, follow the steps of the Pattern of Accountability to keep student engagement levels high at all times.

Time: Give students a predetermined amount of time for their interactions.  Using a timer is an effective way for students to learn how long they are expected to engage with their partners.  For example: “You have 2 minutes to share an ideas about how to solve this math problem”

Turns: Assign who will speak first and monitor turn-taking to encourage equal participation.  For example: “Partner A is the student closer to the clock.  Partner A speaks first; Partner B listens first. Switch after 1 minute.” 

Assess: Monitor by walking around and listening to student responses during the interaction.  Then call on non-volunteers or have students give a group response. For example: After listening in and hearing that Juan and his partner have a good idea to share, say “Juan, what did your say was the best way to solve this math problem?” Wait for Juan’s response. “Knock three times on your desk if you solved the problem the same was as Juan.”

  • Tic Tac Toe Talk

Tic Tac Toe Talk is a great way to give students choice in demonstrating their knowledge of key content concepts through discussion.  Using a tic tac toe board the teacher fills in each square with a sentence frame, question, or reflection prompt about previous learning. Students get up and move around the room and find a partner to talk to about one of the prompts in a square.  Once they are done sharing, the students initial each other’s paper and find another partner to talk to in order to complete a tic tac toe.  After they have completed a tic tac toe, they return to their seats.  If there is a mandatory question, it can be placed in the middle and students must complete a tic tac toe through the middle.  This technique ensures that students talk to a variety of partners and practice using academic language.

Teaching ELs? Attend a SIOP® training event in select cities or attend virtually!

Annie Rients is the Professional Learning Coordinator for Shakopee Public Schools in Shakopee, MN. Annie has been a classroom teacher, instructional coach, district-wide mentor coach, professional developer and a Pearson Educational Specialist in the SIOP Model for 15 years. She received a Master’s in Teaching and Learning from St. Mary’s University and has been a contributor to two SIOP texts: 99 More Ideas for Teaching English Learners in the SIOP Model and The SIOP Manual. She has provided professional development for teachers, coaches and administrators across the country and works directly with the SIOP authors to develop and facilitate high quality professional development around the SIOP Model. 

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