Sunday, December 6, 2015

Why do we spend so much time talking?

I remember listening to my friend Manya (Mrs. Frazier) telling me that the most important thing language learners do in ELD class is to talk.  And, ever critical, I wondered to myself... yes, but shouldn't we spend equal time listening, reading and writing?  As so often happens, with experience I've come to value my colleague's insights more and more.  I've come to realize that talking is fundamental to other language skills.  So, yes we talk more than anything else, because talking is the way we process all other learning.

Speaking and Listening
In the earliest stages, speaking reinforces listening skills.  We ask students to learn vocabulary through call and response exercises. Students repeat words and phrases in song and rhyme, using rhythm and repetition to reinforce patterns of English language  and to practice pronunciation.
As students become more skilled at speaking they recall vocabulary to describe a scene to a friend, or in giving instructions to complete a project. Students move from repeating to re-voicing to demonstrate listening comprehension. And later kids realize that in these listening to understand exchanges, they need to become more precise speakers to clearly make a point. The more students practice speaking, the more they are able to demonstrate their creative and complex ideas. And, isn't this what most of us desire? We speak so that we can heard.

Speaking and Writing
One of my favorite pre-writing activities is the brainstorm. Students activate prior knowledge, connect their ideas, and build a resource for writing. At the end of a brainstorm session, my students have a shared word bank to refer to as a resource for more nuanced vocabulary or simply spelling.
Students rehearse for writing by orally presenting their thoughts in an organized way. I come often to an activity I learned in a Step-Up-To-Writing workshop in which students walk themselves down a path of visual clues prompting for a topic sentence, then an idea with explanation, another idea/explain, and a third idea/explain, before landing on the cue for a conclusion. This exercise is visual and auditory and oral... the process becomes more concrete and writing is improved!
I caught myself making a mistake last week, when time was limited. As I looked around the room at a a group of writers, hoping to check in with each one I missed the opportunity to use speaking to improve writing.  I've done this more than once. I will look over a shoulder and tap a spelling error, or say "check on this sentence here". However, the best learning occurs when students self-correct and the more effective strategy is to say "Please read your writing to me." As students read, they find their own errors or omissions and fix them on the spot.  One way to make the most of time, and to shift the ownership of learning to the students is to have them read their writing to one another.  I often use the inside-outside circle cooperative learning structure for sharing writing.

Speaking and Reading
In ELD class we do much more reading aloud than we do silent reading. In my prior life as a reading specialist, I might have prompted students to silent reading sooner than I do now as a language teacher. I believe it is really important for language learners to "hear" the words they read. I am not saying that we should always read everything whole group, in fact I hope to get students doing more partner reading. When students sit side by side and take turns to read, especially if it is expected that there is some conversation and peer-coaching going on, kids will practice listening, speaking and reading all at once!  I am also sure that the ones who practice more, learn more.  So, if I have the whole class listen along and we "popcorn" read around the room... there is a whole lot less practice going on for every student than in paired reading.
A favorite speaking/reading lesson that I believe is valuable for language learners is self-assessing reading fluency.  Reading poetry is tons of fun! With a fluency-self check, students can intentionally focus on different aspects of language as they read aloud.  Students can use technology to record and listen to their own voices, and set their own goals.  Which aspect of fluency have I mastered, and what areas should I practice?
Fluent Reading Self-Check
  1. Does the pace of my reading sound like talking? Students practice reading quickly.  By the way, singing is a super way to practice making words flow together naturally too.
  2. Do I read in phrases, and pause for punctuation? Students learn the cadence of English language patterns.
  3. Do I read with inflection? Students practice making their voice rise and fall to appropriately demonstrate meaning of the sentence. There are connections and comparisons to be made here between native language and English.
  4. Do I put meaning in my voice? When students read to understand, and then read aloud with true comprehension, they make the meaning clear by the way they express certain words.
  5. Do I read so that others will understand? This is very connected to number four, but it presents a slight change of perspective. Students need to enunciate clearly, pronounce words correctly, and make the reading interesting for a friend or audience who is listening.