By Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney Snyder / Originally published on the Colorin Colorado website / November 17, 2014 

In our last post, we shared information about the new Teaching Channel ELL series based on  Academic Conversations (2011) by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford featuring related classroom videos developed in partnership with the Oakland Unified School District. This week we’d like to delve deeper into these resources and provide strategies for building the oral language skills of ELLs across content areas that are framed around four practices.

Most teachers understand that pair and group work provide excellent opportunities for ELLs’ oral language development because each student has more time to talk than in a large group discussion, and students often feel more comfortable sharing their ideas in a small group environment. However, in order to build on the skills described in the CCSS, it may be necessary to re-envision pair and group work and provide additional supports for ELLs. ELLs may find group work challenging if they do not understand their expected role in the task they are working on, or if they do not feel confident in using the language required for the task.

In this blog post we will first examine two speaking and listening standards that can be used to help frame group work. Next, we will highlight four student practices based on recommendations from Zwiers & Crawford (2011) and the practices demonstrated in the Teaching Channel classroom video clips. These four student practices will foster oral language development and support ELLs in meeting the standards. For each of the practices, we will provide an explanation and share some Teaching Channel video clips that show the practices in action.

Four Practices for Fostering ELLs’ Oral Language Development

These four practices are:

  1. Coming to the discussion prepared
  2. Using appropriate body language for discussions
  3. Participating by taking turns
  4. Making connections to what others have said

Guiding Common Core State Standards

First, let’s take a look at two standards that are part of the Speaking and Listening Anchor Standards for K-12 that are most relevant for our purpose.

Comprehension and Collaboration Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

According to the standards listed above, all students (including ELLs) will need practice in holding discussions with varied partners, learning to effectively express their ideas with supporting evidence, and learning to build on the ideas of other students.  Teachers can help ELLs meet those standards with the following practices.

Come to the discussion prepared

As we discussed in our Socratic Circles blog post, it is important for students to have sufficient preparation in the content they will be discussing. To view a model of ways teachers can help students prepare and engage in academic discussions through small group work, take a look at the video of Ms. Groves’ class discussion of Siddhartha’s Journey. In the video, Ms. Groves described having students do several close reading of the Siddhartha’s text and answer text-dependent questions that are open-ended, are not only limited to questions with one right response, and require students to answer using evidence from the text. Students then shared their responses to the text-dependent questions in small groups.

In making recommendations for the types of questions and prompts teachers can develop to help students plan for think-pair-share activities, Zwiers (2010) makes some suggestions in the table below. Teachers can provide these types of prompts in a graphic organizer or a journal prompt prior to classroom discussions. It is important to note that these types of questions and prompts can be used across content areas and academic conversations should not be limited only English language arts.

Types of Questions and Examples

Create Questions That… Examples
Focus students on key content concepts.
  • What was the Magna Carta and why was it important?
  • Explain how the author uses metaphor to enhance the story.
  • Draw a picture of the water cycle and explain how it works.
Allow for divergent and personalized responses, as long as they connect back to evidence in the text.
  • If you were a colonist at this time, would you have chosen to fight against the British? Why or why not?
  • How does our school community deal with waste?
  • Describe how acids and bases are used at your house.
Emphasize one or more thinking skills being developed in the lesson and unit. Thinking skills that come from standards include: questioning, interpreting, classifying, persuading, evaluating, analyzing, comparing, and synthesizing.
  • What were the results of the Industrial Revolution?
  • Come up with two questions about electronic motors.
  • What can you infer about the character’s feelings from her actions?
Deepen understandings and focus students back to the essential standards of the text, lesson, and unit.
  • What does this have to do with our goal of learning the many ways in which different people helped in the war?

Adapted from: (2013). Think pair share tips. Retrieved from

In structuring group and pair discussions, it is helpful for ELLs to have their written ideas or notes for reference. However, it is also important to help students transition to being able to speak without the use of notes. As you saw in the video of Ms. Groves’ class, she suggested that her students not always read from their notes. Similarly, this video clip of Ms. Brewer’s class shows how sticky notes can be used to support student discussion. Sticky notes will help students hold on to their ideas without allowing them to rely too heavily on written notes in a discussion.

Use appropriate body language for discussions

It is important that students learn the body language associated with academic discussions. Zwiers and Crawford (2011) identify behaviors that are valued in school:

  • Appropriate eye contact (which can mean not constantly staring at the other person but also not always looking down, away, or past the other person)
  • Facing each other with the entire body
  • Leaning toward the partner
  • Showing understanding through head nodding
  • Appropriate gesturing (not rolling eyes, sighing, or folding arms)

ELLs may need some direct instruction in what is considered culturally appropriate body language for discussions in U.S. classrooms. All the while, teachers of ELLs should recognize and respect how ELLs might show respect and engage in discussions in their cultures. This video of Ms. Nguyen’s 6th grade less provides an example of a participation protocol that demonstrates one way to teach students how to appropriately use body language to engage in a discussion. She includes the following criteria in her class’ participation protocol: look at your partner, lean towards your partner, lower your voice, listen attentively, and use evidence and examples. As students are having discussions, she uses a checklist to monitor how well they are meeting these criteria.

Participate by taking turns

It is important for students to take turns speaking. In pairs, it is likely that turn taking will occur naturally. However, in a small or large group, a tool such as a talking rock or talking stick (a rock or a stick that students hold to “give them the floor” to talk) can encourage all members of the group to take part in the discussion. Students can pass the talking rock or talking stick around in a circle, and the student who has the rock or stick can take the opportunity to say something or pass. The rock or stick can also be placed in the center of the group and students can take it as they have something to say. In the video of Ms. Groves’ class, we saw students pass around a talking rock as a way to support students taking turns and to encourage all members of the group to participate.

An additional way to encourage turn taking is to teach and model strategies for inviting someone into the conversation (e.g., Manuel, what do you predict the girl in the story will do next?)

Make connections to what others have said

Not only do students need to be able to share their own opinions by using evidence from texts or content material being studied, they also need to interact with the ideas of others. Modeling and providing ELs with key phrases can support them in their efforts to build on the ideas of others.

More specifically, Talk moves are the discourse behaviors that students need to practice in order to effectively engage in a discussion. Such behaviors include: restating what was said, agreeing and disagreeing, asking clarifying questions, adding to or piggybacking on what someone has said, and making connections between ideas.

In this video clip, the students in Ms. Simpson’s class practice using talk moves in a whole group discussion during a math lesson. Students will need practice with talk moves before they are able to use them on their own in small groups or pairs.

In the video of Ms. Groves classroom, we saw that she had sentence stems that were easily accessible to support students’ use of talk moves, and when monitoring the small groups she referred students back to these stems. Another idea for using talk moves would be for each student to have a handout or index card with sentence stems that can be used that students could have in front of them during discussions. The table below provides some possible sentence stems for specific types of talk moves.

Talk Moves Sentence Stems

Talk Move Sentence Stems
  • So you are saying……
  • Put another way, you are saying ….
  • What I understood you to say is ……………
  • I agree with (Yuri) because ……..
  • (Emma’s) point about …….. was important because ……..
  • I disagree because…
  • I see it differently because….
Asking a clarifying question
  • Is it your position that…?
  • Could you give an example of….?
  • I’m confused when you say……
  • Could you elaborate?
Adding to an idea
  • I’d like to add to (Rosa’s) point. I think that….
  • I agree with (Woo Jin) and furthermore I think that …..
Making connections between ideas
  • When (Albert) said….., it reminded me of……..
  • I see a connection between what (Laura) said and what (Karolina) said. The connection is…..

Zwiers and Crawford (2011) also propose conversation mini-lessons that provide teachers opportunities to introduce a conversation skill to students and then have them practice it in a relatively short time period. Examples of possible mini lessons could include asking each other for supporting examples, building on a partner’s idea, and paraphrasing conversations themes. Mini lessons should include opportunities to analyze strong conversation skills, teacher or student modeling, some type of scaffolded support (e.g., graphic organizers, sentence stems), and opportunities to practice and build independent skills.


We have shared a lot of information with you in this blog post! To help you keep it all straight, the following table provides a summary of the four student practices that support ELLs’ participation in pair and small group work. We also define each practice and share the accompanying Teaching Channel videos that show you what the practice looks like in action. Most of the videos are the same as were mentioned above. However, there are also a couple of additional videos added that model the student practices.

Student Oral Language Practice, Definition of Practice, and Video Examples of Practice

Practice for Fostering ELLs’ Oral Language Development Definition of Practice Video Examples of Practice
1.       Come to the discussion prepared Students are able to effectively prepare for a small group discussion or activity by thinking independently about the text or material that will be discussed and the key ideas that they want to contribute. They also have text-based or content-based evidence to support their ideas and the academic language necessary for the task.
2.       Use appropriate body language for discussions Students understand and are able to use body language associated with academic discussions including facing each other, making eye contact, and leaning towards partner or group members, and nodding and gesturing to indicate engagement.
3.       Participate by taking turns Students are able both to listen when others are speaking and regularly contribute to the discussion in an effective manner.
4.       Make connections to what others have said Students are able to interact with others in their group by agreeing and disagreeing with what was said, asking clarifying questions, restating what was said, and making connections between ideas.

More Resources on Building ELLs’ Oral Language

For additional resources and videos on this topic, take a look at the following:

We hope these suggestions and supporting video clips give you some new ideas for group work in your classroom. Let us know what works well for your class!