Picture this, a teacher is standing at the front of the classroom lecturing while students are listening and taking notes, getting ready for their upcoming assessment. Are you intrigued? Yeah, me neither. All that does is take me back to the day I was in high school physics class trying not to fall asleep during our hour-long lecture about why static electricity was making a balloon stick to the board. What I’m getting at is, just because we were taught by way of lecturing and turned out ok (-ish), that doesn’t mean that’s what is best for us or our ever-growing, diverse, and multilingual student populations.
There is a common misconception amongst some educators that, in order for our multilingual learners (MLs) to gain knowledge within a subject area and succeed, the curriculum needs to be implemented in a “sit and get” style. It turns out that the lack of collaboration within classrooms is having a significant impact on our MLs. It’s preventing them from demonstrating their knowledge and understanding of content and limiting their overall potential for growth, particularly in their listening and speaking skills. Tonya Ward Singer described it in a thoughtful interview with Dan Alpert by discussing ideas surrounding how, in every classroom in every school, we should be implementing collaboratively engaging activities that allow for equitable participation amongst all students (Alpert, 2021).
I Used To Think… Now I Think…
I used to think that MLs wouldn’t speak, even in small groups, if they didn’t feel comfortable, but now I think that if given multiple opportunities, MLs would be able to practice their speaking and listening skills in collaborative settings.
How do we create these collaborative spaces for ML students to engage? I’m going to focus on one important rule that Ivannia Soto discusses in that same interview with Dan Alpert, the 15-Minute Rule.
Giving yourself 15 minutes to present the information to your class is just about the right amount of time before students’ attention starts to fizzle. Breaking the class into 15-minute chunks allows for a lot of movement and practice for MLs. For example, if a teacher starts class by having students write a journal entry for five minutes, followed by them having a partner discussion about what they’ve written for the remaining time, students will have engaged in writing, speaking, and listening without the teacher even uttering a word about content. It’s all about providing the time and opportunity.
Within these 15-minute chunks, it’s also important for teachers to be mindful of scaffolding. What do the students need to help them better grasp what is being discussed? Are you allowing them to take and use notes to read during their collaborative experience? Are you pausing to check in, using repetition, or providing sentence starters? Are you asking them to share what they heard their partner say? Whatever scaffolds you deem necessary during any given lesson, it’s also important to be mindful of when those scaffolds should be removed.
In the Essential Actions Handbook, action nine talks about how a teacher should "create language-rich classroom environments with ample time for language practice and use"(Gottlieb, 2013). In establishing routines where collaborative and equitable speaking spaces for MLs are ever-present, we are helping them develop the language skills to connect to content, providing them time to share and practice, and creating a safe space for them to make mistakes. These are low-stakes situations where they can challenge themselves.
Over recent years, the number of multilingual learners in our classrooms has increased. With that, we need to make sure we are supporting our ML students in ways that not only help them grow as learners but as informed global citizens. As discussed above, some ways of implementing this change are to introduce chunking, scaffolding, repetition, and providing sentence starters. Making time for equitable, collaborative discussion is also another way we can help them get there. So, the next time you want to lecture remember to let your students talk it out. It’s going to be much more meaningful for all of you.
Alpert, D. (2021, January 6). From silence to conversation: Breaking down the wall one essential shift at a time. Language Magazine. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from https://www.languagemagazine.com/2020/12/29/from- silence-to-conversation-breaking-down-the-wall-one-essential-shift-at-a-time/
Essential actions: 15 research-based practices to increase ell student achievement. Colori´n Colorado. (2019, December 20) Retrieved April 1, 2023, from https://www.colorincolorado.org/article/essential-actions-15- research-based-practices-increase-ell-student-achievement
Advocacy in action in How educators can advocate for English language learners: All in!, National Education Association, 2015, pp. 11-14.
Cleave, E. (2020). Language, education, and social justice: International strategies for systems change in multilingual schools, The Bell Foundation, pp. 1-40.
Theoharis, G. & O’Toole, J. (2011). Leading inclusive ELL: Social justice leadership for ELLs, Education Administration Quarterly, 47(40), pp. 646-688.
Kim LaBaw is a middle years program health teacher at Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana.