What’s so important about classroom talk?

‘The teacher, she stands out the front. All the students, they sit and listen and do the work. You are not allowed to talk.’ This was the description of a typical lesson by one of my students from Syria. How strange must it be for this student and the many students like her, to arrive here in Australia and be encouraged to talk in class, not just to the teachers but to other students? How crucial is it for our English language learners develop their English literacy through an authentic well-structured ‘spoken language’ program? How difficult do we make language acquisition for these students if we do not allow them to employ their first language to learn English and if we do not give them ample opportunities to talk and experiment with this new language?

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These and other questions were addressed in Module 2, Developing oral language: a bridge to literacy of the NSW Education Department’s course Teaching students from a refugee background (2016).

We began by discussing how learning a language is a ‘process’. It could be argued that learning anything is a process but experience and research have shown that some ways of teaching language are more effective than others.

How do English language teachers in NSW work out the process of learning for their students? How do they assess what their students know and what they need to learn next? The Department of Education has supplied and trained them to use a few tools. EAL/D (English as an Additional Language or Dialect) teachers use the NSW Education Department’s  ESL Scales  to be on the same page with each other when talking about and assessing EAL/D students. These ESL Scales are invaluable for planning and programming activities to support English language development. Another rubric is the NSW EAL/D Learning Progression which is not as detailed as the ESL Scales but summarises students’ typical progress through different phases of learning English. Used together they can give the EAL/D teacher a fairly good guide for supporting and stretching their students with their language learning. It needs to be noted that students move through the learning phases at different rates depending on what has happened in their lives prior to coming to Australia.

Our English language learners need to listen to language being spoken in meaningful contexts. It helps if they are not merely sitting, watching and being expected to absorb the language, although a silent phase should be expected and respected. Understanding language is helped if ‘hands-on’, purposeful, authentic learning lessons are planned so the planned conversations are around what is happening. If other students or a teacher can speak the students’ first language the student can take part in conversations and small group discussions. We must not discourage our students from using their first language to learn the equivalent words in English. Pauline Gibbons in her text Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Language (page 29) says that; Much research shows that for EL learners the stronger their first language is, the more likely it is that they will be successful learners of English and/or subsequent languages.

When in a safe relaxed atmosphere  where all students are involved and talking about what they are doing, the English language learner will usually feel more confident to experiment and make approximations with English. Tasks can be differentiated to suit the groups of children. Working in smaller groups enables more turns for talking and the teacher or support staff can then give these students positive feedback and encourage them by asking further questions and modelling the correct words or grammar.

In Module 2 of this course Teaching students from a refugee background, we learnt that lessons need to be carefully designed and scaffolded to provide EAL/D students with the support that they need to learn a new language. The most scaffolding happens in ‘controlled support’ where the teacher is usually directing the lesson and modelling the the targeted language and vocabulary to the students. The students are using their receptive skills because this is a time of language input. They are noticing the words and their meanings and storing them in their short term memory.

Once the language has been introduced, the English language learners need to practise using the words and their language forms. This involves less scaffolding and is called ‘guided support’. Its at this time the students benefit from working in groups or pairs on communicative activities that involve producing language as well as taking it in.This is called recycling language as they are doing more than committing the targeted words to their short term memory because they are having to think about how to use them. They have moved on from language input to language intake. 

After practising the language in several ways and over several lessons the English language learners can have much of the scaffolding removed. They are ready to demonstrate what they know independently in planned, purposeful activities. This is called ‘independent support’. At this stage they should be able to use the practised targeted language in a meaningful way producing original utterances. This ability to use productive language is called recasting. Using this skill helps the students to commit the language to their long-term memories which is called language uptake.

Ideas for activities to teach communicative activities can be found in texts such as: Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching second language learners in the mainstream classroom (2002, Heinemann, Portsmouth) by Pauline Gibbons

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Designing Learning for Diverse Classrooms (2005, PETAA, Sydney) by Paul Dufficy

In an earlier post, I don’t know what to do with this child, they can’t speak any English I summarised different ways of teaching newly arrived English language learners in the classroom. Here I mentioned the importance of using visual aids, pairing and grouping students for learning, teacher cooperation and collaboration and respecting students. All of these strategies more than apply to the newly arrived students from refugee backgrounds. Most importantly we need to carefully monitor these students. Take them at a pace that suits them as individuals. If they are struggling we need to go back to the point at which they were secure and start again. Learning is not always linear. The scaffolded learning needs to be adjusted to suit each language learner. Its paramount that substantive conversations with many opportunities to practise the explicitly taught vocabulary and language must come first.

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