Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Academic Discussion for ELLs

As part of my job, I routinely visit content classrooms to observe instruction. Often times I walk into these classrooms and find them to be quiet places where you can hear a pin drop. The teacher is lecturing or monitoring independent work. And the students....well, they're not talking about what they're learning.

I'm always a little baffled by this! After all, academic discussion is a critical part of learning and a key factor in language growth for ELLs. Rich discussion gives them opportunities to use the language authentically to answer important questions, share key ideas, explain their thinking, and more. It also builds important speaking skills that will, in turn, support writing as well.

What IS Academic Discussion?
Academic discussion demonstrates the following characteristics:
  • Purposeful and sustained conversations about content
  • Anchored in grade-level texts and tasks
  • Use of tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary as appropriate
  • Students working together to co-construct knowledge and negotiate meaning
  • Students using discussion techniques such as asking for clarification, paraphrasing, and building on or disagreeing with a previous idea
Features of Academic Language
When it comes to academic language for ELLs, WIDA breaks it down into three levels or dimensions- the word level, the sentence level, and the discourse level. The chart to the below identifies key features in each dimension. As students move through the proficiency levels, we want to see growth in all three dimensions. For example, students at the beginning proficiency level will be generally using basic vocabulary and simple words, sentences and phrases to communicate. As they grow their academic language skills, they will produce more language, add details, begin to use more complex grammar, and begin effectively using tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary. When designing activities and supports, it is important to consider all three dimensions.

Scaffolding Academic Discussion
In order for ELLs to effectively participate in academic discussions, they will need scaffolds. Check out these posts on sentence frames and word walls to learn how to incorporate these supports. Such scaffolds are key to making academic discussion in the classroom accessible for English learners. 

Next time, we'll discuss how to use questioning to encourage academic discussion, and touch on differentiating questions by proficiency level, so be sure to tune in next week!

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