Three Ways to Boost Language Use and Development in the Virtual World

Do you remember watching a small child acquire language skills? First, they listen; then, they speak; soon, they write, and next they read, spiraling their growth in these language skills over time, ongoinging. Learners at all levels need a balance between experiences with receptive language (listening and reading) and expressive language (writing and speaking). One of our many challenges in this era of remote learning is that students have fewer opportunities for social interaction and academic discourse, limiting their chances for oral language use and development in academic settings. And yet, spoken discourse is so important, especially for English Language Learners who need experience with collaboration and conversation to build their language skills. To this end, many teachers working in virtual and hybrid settings are finding that three key strategies help stimulate learners’ expressive language: topic, choice and structure.

“I can get my students to talk about the video game Among Us any day of the week,” one teacher noted, highlighting the importance of high interest topics in stimulating conversation. While time is so precious that we may feel reluctant to devote it to topics not in our Standards, casual social talk can build learners’ confidence and quickly springboard into engaged academic conversation. Relevant, authentic topics can also be rooted in our content: Aurora West College Preparatory Academy art teacher Sophia Zelios showed learners videos of different artists around the world who were using art to practice activism. After watching clips of rappers, performance artists, graffiti artists and more, students were excited to talk about how the artists were using their voices and communicating important messages through their art. Similarly, in other content areas, evocative images, juicy questions, controversial current events and vexing puzzlers can serve to get learners engaged in online conversations.

Everyone loves choice – that’s why Chipotle and Starbucks are so successful! Academic conversations are no different. Learners can be encouraged to engage when they have the power to select how they use their voice: in the chat function, using a shareable platform (such as google doc or Jamboard), by using their own voices aloud, or by recording themselves on a platform like SeeSaw or FlipGrid. We can also use these different tools to scaffold learners’ participation from writing to talking. We can also provide choice about the topic. A colleague recently launched a conversation by asking participants, “What is your favorite thing to talk about that you could talk about all day long? Write about it in the chat.” Then, she asked participants to unmute and expand verbally, with excellent results.

With any topic, conversation structures support learners’ successful participation. Two key ideas in any structure are preparation and response: Before asking learners to speak, we might provide them a structure, such as notice and wonder, then invite students to think, write, draw or otherwise collect their thoughts in order to conjure what they’d like to say. For example, a quick think-write-talk sequence allows students to gather their ideas, record those and then use their voices to share. When students do share, we as teachers can be tempted to respond to their thinking by providing affirmation or feedback; instead, here is an opportunity to invite peers to respond, “Do you agree? Disagree? Want to add on or clarify?” By providing structure to the conversation, as well as offering wait time and truly expecting students to respond, we create a forum for students to engage. And when they do, we can be ready to celebrate and affirm their voices, promoting future participation.

These three intentional moves – choosing engaging topics, offering choice and providing structure – can go a long way towards enhancing conversations that benefit all students, and especially English Language Learners.

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