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March 26, 2021

Why are Academic Discussions So Important for our ELLs?

One of the many things I love about working for Oakland, California schools is serving a community rich in diversity of culture and language. At the same time, it is no easy task ensuring that our English Language Learners (ELLs) are meeting grade-level content standards while mastering a second language.

Much of ELL instruction has been focused on 30-60 minutes of English Language Development (ELD) each day. Taken alone, this daily block of language instruction, isolated from any grade-level content, is not going to get us the results our students need and deserve. Rather, we need to see language-rich instruction throughout the day, embedded in and woven through the content areas.

What would it look like if language instruction occurred throughout the day? What would it take for every teacher to be a teacher of language in their discipline? These questions led us to identify Quality Academic Discussion as one district-wide strategy to foster collective responsibility for accelerating the language and content outcomes for our ELLs.

What Is an Academic Discussion?

In Oakland, we are greatly influenced by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford’s book Academic Conversations (2011), and we believe academic discussion demonstrates the following characteristics:

  • Purposeful and sustained conversations about content
  • Anchored in grade-level texts and tasks
  • Students work together to co-construct knowledge and negotiate meaning
  • Students use “talk moves,” such as asking for clarification, paraphrasing, and building on or disagreeing with a previous idea

Why are Academic Discussions So Important for Our ELLs?

Academic discussions help all students develop reasoning skills and deepens understanding of content and multiple perspectives. For ELLs, academic discussions are critical to language and content development because:

  • ELLs need the opportunity to hear language in authentic and varied contexts. Teachers, as well as students with higher language proficiency, serve as language models. Particularly important is exposure to discipline-specific language so ELLs hear what it sounds like to communicate in an array of academic contexts.
  • ELLs need opportunities to produce language in contextualized and purposeful ways. They need to practice applying form (e.g., grammar, vocabulary) and function (e.g., language used to clarify, explain, argue) to communicate and build ideas.
  • ELLs benefit from redundancy of ideas and their related vocabulary. Discussion allows for multiple opportunities to hear new concepts and content explained, analyzed, and interpreted.

How Do We Make Sure Our ELLs are Fully Engaged in and Benefiting from Academic Discussions?

Just because we give students the opportunity to discuss, doesn’t mean they will. We need to provide additional supports and structures so that the students who can benefit the most from academic discussion actually do! Here are five important teaching strategies you can use to support your ELLs to fully participate:

1. Mix up your grouping structures, but give more time to pairs. Whole group discussions provide a great opportunity to model discussion skills, to hear a broad perspective of ideas, and to synthesize learning from small group or pair conversations. The biggest payoff, however, is paired conversations, because they maximize speaking time and increase overall engagement. Even when the structure is a whole-group discussion, consider inserting paired conversations (Turn and Talk or Think-Pair-Share) throughout to allow for ELLs to rehearse their ideas and related academic language.

2. Use discussion strategies that require every student to talk. You can simply open a discussion with a Round Robin, or use Talking Chips or Discussion Cards that allow for equitable participation. Watch students actively participate in discussions in Participation Protocols for Academic Discussions.

3. Provide language support. Providing students access to language resources, such as sentence stems and word banks, gives students both the academic language and confidence to participate. A note of caution: overuse of prescribed sentence starters or stems can actually stifle talk, as students just fill in the blanks. Better yet, have students rehearse a few choice sentence stems and relevant vocabulary before they engage in academic discussion. The goal is for students to know how to access and use language supports when needed and independently (Watch Talk Moves in Academic Discussion).

4. Accept imperfect language. When ELLs are engaged in academic discussion, privilege communication over precision of language. Overcorrection or too much attention to grammatically correct language can hinder ELLs language production and interrupt the flow of ideas. During a discussion, we want our ELLs to approximate correct and sophisticated language, not perfect it.

5. Expect and require extended responses. One of the biggest disservices to our ELLs is to accept one-word or abbreviated responses — even worse is when we complete their sentences. Instead, provide wait time, encourage students to continue, and press students for evidence by asking, “Why?” or, “Can you give me an example?”


Ready to add this strategy to your class work? Here are some of my favorite resources on academic discussion:

PDF Download: Academic Discussion Continuum of Teacher Practice

PDF Download: A Distinction between Output and Interaction

Academic Language and Literacy: Be sure to check out the tools and resources page for discussion strategies and activities, as well as language supports for students.

Academic Language Development Network: Find resources and articles on academic language development and fostering student interactions.

The Inquiry Project: Focused on science instruction, you’ll find “video cases” and a guide for using teacher “talk moves” to deepen classroom discussions.

Understanding Language: This is the site of the Stanford based Understanding Language initiative, which seeks to raise awareness of the critical role of language in the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. The site includes academic papers, exemplary lessons, and professional learning opportunities. Teaching Channel also has a six-part video series showcasing an exemplar unit focused on ELA instruction for middle school English Language Learners.


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