Finding the Voice of English Learners

English Language Learners

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famous American poet, once said, “The human voice is the organ of the soul.” As a teacher, this quote speaks to me and reminds me that one of my greatest responsibilities as an educator is to encourage all of my students to find their voices and learn how to use them. I also know, after having been in classrooms for over ten years, that this isn’t always an easy task.

While some students are eager to raise their hands and participate, others are happy to sit quietly and never say a word. This can be especially true of English learners, who are still learning a new language and may tremble in fear with the thought of making a mistake or embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates.

So what can we do as educators to ensure that all voices in our classrooms are heard?

Wait Time

One of the strategies I use on a daily basis in my Language Arts classroom is wait time. Wait time is the amount of time a teacher pauses after posing a question to students before calling on volunteers to respond. Having studied a second language myself, I know firsthand that it takes time to translate the question being asked, to think of an answer, and then to translate the answer back into another language. I’ve observed that the longer I wait before calling on students, the more hands I’ll see in the air to answer my question. Although the extended silence took some getting used to by both the students and myself, my class quickly caught on to the idea that I was going to wait until everyone had the chance to think about the question.

Sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether or not you’ve provided enough wait time for students. One clever idea I’ve seen teachers use to help with this dilemma is Magic Buttons. For this strategy, the teacher provides each student with a two-sided card that has the words, “I’m thinking!” on one side, and “I got it!” on the other. All students begin with the “I’m thinking!” side of the card facing up. When they feel prepared to respond to the question, they turn their cards over to the “I got it!” side. This lets teachers know when their whole class is ready to answer the question and eliminates guesswork. Watch Tita Ugalde‘s strategy video, Get Back To Me, for another positive wait time strategy that gives students the time they need to think and helps to build a positive classroom culture.

Think-Pair-Share

Other times students need time to talk out their ideas with another student before they feel confident enough to share their thoughts with the whole class. The Think-Pair-Share strategy is easy to incorporate and involves three simple steps. First, the teacher poses an open-ended question to the class and gives the students some time to think about the question individually. In my classroom, I encourage my students to write down their ideas on a sheet of paper during this time.

Next, the teacher has the students pair up and discuss their answers to the question. It’s important to remember the makeup of the pairs themselves can be a useful tool in a teacher’s toolbox. The teacher may want to consider which partnerships will work best together and inspire the most confidence in their English learners. I also like to establish guidelines for sharing out to ensure both students get an equal amount of time to talk. To do this, I set a timer so the students know how much time they get to share their ideas before it’s time to switch speakers.

Finally, the teacher calls on a variety of students from the class to discuss the question as a whole group. Tanya Kaplan‘s students use Think-Pair-Share in this video to simplify expressions. A similar strategy, Turn and Talk, is highlighted in Shilpa Duvoor‘s lesson, Reading Like a Historian: Turn to Your Partner. And if you want to switch things up a bit, check out this “twist” on Turn and Talk in Second Set Partners: A Turn and Talk Strategy.

Selecting Student Volunteers

Speaking of calling on students, another way to ensure all your students’ voices are being heard in class is to make sure you’re calling on them randomly. One tool I use regularly is the Random Name Picker. This free online tool allows me to enter all the names of my students to create a Las Vegas-like game wheel. It’s a fun way to select someone to call on that my students really like. Sometimes they even request it when I wasn’t planning on using it — which in the middle school world is a really big deal!

Varying which students I call on shows my students I value each and every one of their voices. It also helps build accountability because my students know there’s always a chance they’ll be selected to answer the question. Some teachers may hesitate to put their English learners on the spot; however, by giving my students time to write down their answers and practice discussing them with a partner beforehand, they feel less self-conscious speaking in front of the whole group. For a low-tech alternative, check out Tammy Ritter‘s quick tip in Card-O-Matic: Increasing Student Participation. And to see other strategies to promote equitable participation and student discussion, watch Viet-ly Nguyen‘s class in action in Participation Protocol for Academic Discussions.

Sentence Stems

Another trick for helping English learners feel more at ease with speaking in front of their classmates is to provide them with Sentence Stems. Sentence stems help take the pressure off the students to formulate an answer by providing them with the first couple of words of their response. For example, if you asked your students to explain the similarities between two characters in a novel you were reading in class, you could provide them with the following sentence stem: “I would compare ______ to ______ because… ” By providing your students with sentence stems, you not only encourage them to speak in complete sentences, but you’re also incorporating academic language into their responses. Watch Elizabeth Iwaszewicz‘s students use sentence starters with her ELL students in Fact or Opinion: An Integrated ELD Lesson.

English learners will enrich any class discussion by offering fresh perspectives and a variety of viewpoints. By incorporating the strategies mentioned above, teachers will send the message that all student voices are valuable and create a safe, accessible classroom environment that will allow their English learners to thrive.

Erica Hilliker is a middle school EL teacher at Forest Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan and also serves as the Vice President of the Michigan Association for Bilingual Education. She holds a Masters of Education in Literacy Studies with an emphasis in TESOL from Grand Valley State University. She is certified to teach English and Spanish at the secondary level. During her career, Erica has worked with English learners at all grade levels, from kindergarten to adult. Additionally, she is a certified SIOP trainer and has led professional development for teachers throughout the West Michigan area. Connect with Erica through her website: Mrs. Hilliker’s EL and SIOP Toolbox or on Twitter: @erica_hilliker

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