Michael Toth in EdWeek: Promote Speaking With ELLs Through ‘Community, Conversations, and Celebrations’

This article was originally published in Education Week

We need to think beyond traditional English-language-learner strategies to rethinking the classroom environment for ELLs (and all students) to thrive.

The traditional classroom setting—where students are expected to sit quietly in their seats and passively memorize information—is typically ineffective at building academic-language skills in native English speakers, much less in English-language learners. In this environment, the confident speakers raise their hands and get to practice their speaking skills the most; less confident speakers (including ELL students) may not feel comfortable speaking in front of the entire class, miss opportunities to practice speaking, and might pass under the teacher’s radar.

Direct-instruction-driven classrooms like the one described above fail to build the complex communication skills that all students, especially English-language learners, desperately need to practice.

Rethinking the Typical Classroom

To effectively prioritize student speaking skills, we need to rethink the predominant type of instruction students experience in the classroom every day. This core instruction may be classified as teacher-centered, student-centered, or team-centered. The great majority of classrooms we see in schools are teacher-centered (direct instruction, independent practice, and activity centers).

Almost no classrooms we visit are truly team-centered. In a team-centered classroom, direct instruction is limited to briefly establishing base knowledge. Then, students take the lead on their learning within teams for much of the class time.

Team-centered learning is not grouping students together for a one-time project—it involves students working in small teams of 2-5 students every single day, on lesson-sized team tasks, to accomplish their learning goals. In a team-centered classroom, the teacher’s role shifts from lecturer to facilitator as he or she monitors student progress.

How Team-Centered Instruction Elevates Learning

If we transform classrooms to team-centered learning, every student in the classroom is speaking and listening to teammates, constantly using academic vocabulary, and developing critical social-emotional skills. The team-centered model benefits ELL students immensely as they build stronger support networks with their peers. The team dynamic, in turn, boosts self-esteem. Students practice speaking skills in a low-stakes setting, rather than having to answer questions aloud during whole-class discussions.

Once teachers spend less time on direct instruction, they are free to circulate to monitor team tasks. The teacher can now accurately track progress toward learning targets and spend considerably more one-on-one time with struggling students. This visible learning—when students are speaking and thinking out loud—allows the teacher to see what students understand or don’t understand.



Teachers can easily diagnose and address speaking or listening gaps, and ELL students are less likely to get lost in the crowd when the teacher is doing close monitoring in a team-centered classroom. The teacher can also determine which particular activities are most effective in engaging student interest and can make adaptions to lessons so all students have voice and choice in the classroom and come to school excited to speak and participate.

The best way to give our English-language learners continual and authentic, rather than limited or scripted, speaking opportunities is to shift our classrooms to the team-centered model.

Michael D. Toth is the author of the award-winning book, Who Moved My Standards, the co-author with David Sousa of The Power of Student Teams: Achieving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning in Every Classroom Through Academic Teaming (forthcoming, 2019), and the co-author with Dr. Robert J. Marzano of The Essentials of a Standards-Based Classroom, School Leadership for Results, and Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference. Toth founded Learning Sciences International, where he serves as the CEO and leads LSI’s Applied Research Center. Toth addresses teachers, school leaders, and superintendents at national conferences, policy forums, and workshops, including the past addresses to the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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