The Need for Re-engaging English Learners Socially and Academically
As K–12 educators transition to in-person instruction after two years of pandemic disruption, careful attention is rightfully being devoted to addressing students’ social–emotional learning (SEL) needs and academic voids. Schools are striving earnestly to provide safe and supportive havens for re-engaging youths who have suffered tremendous learning loss and social isolation. English learners count among the students who have been most victimized by distance education, leaving them at profound risk of intractable learning loss. The prolonged social isolation they experienced interrupted their development of English language, literacy, and subject matter (Sugarman and Lazarín, 2020). English learners have additionally endured high levels of stress and formidable challenges developing meaningful relationships with their peers and teachers (Williams and Marcus, 2021). To foster self- and social awareness, concerned educators are dedicating time at the top of their lessons to noncurriculum-aligned reflection, discussion, and interpersonal skill-building. Resources for writing and discussion prompts linked to the core SEL competencies are readily available from CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (https://casel.org). The extensive CASEL SEL reflection prompts can be utilized in whole-class or small-group discussion and provide rich opportunities for learning about peers and strengthening classroom relationships.
Challenges of Assigning SEL Prompts without Conscientious Preparation
Despite the decided merits of devoting class time to activities with a focus on personal growth and positive relationship-building, English learners all too often remain on the sidelines. CASEL acknowledges the importance of considering students’ cultural and ethnic backgrounds and stresses that more research needs to be conducted to determine modifications that can make SEL lessons more accessible and impactful for different populations (CASEL, 2015). For English learners to participate willingly in a lesson discussion intended to promote a critical SEL competency such as self-awareness, teachers need to offer more than a relevant bell-ringer prompt and quiet journaling time. Equipped solely with a quick write, an English learner is unlikely to feel emboldened to disclose personal experiences and perspectives, whether in a small-group or whole-class context. Similarly, a brief “think–pair–share” interaction with an elbow partner won’t be the deciding factor that entices an otherwise reserved English learner contributor to step up to the plate and volunteer. While it isn’t imperative for every student to share a reflection in an SEL lesson forum, if English learners hardly ever hazard a response, their peers and teachers gain little insight into these linguistically and culturally diverse class members’ attributes, experiences, and perspectives.
Years of supporting English learners in K–12 and college settings have helped me understand the instructional scaffolds that can safely transition a reticent English learner from habitual class discussion spectator to engaged participant and attentive listener. English learners at all proficiency levels benefit from careful attention being devoted to 1) their conceptual and linguistic preparation for contributing to an SEL-focused interaction; 2) opportunities to rehearse with a trusted peer; and 3) facilitation of the ensuing whole-class discussion.
Essential Discussion Scaffolds for English Learners
Assign Initial “Community-Building” Discussion Prompts
Many English learners approach class discussions across the curricula with apprehensions about their grasp of the subject matter and their ability to convey those understandings in a second language with appropriate word choices and sentence structures. Well-intentioned teachers may refrain from calling on English learners out of concern that doing so may cause these vulnerable learners undue stress and elevate their affective filter, thereby blocking cognitive engagement and language acquisition (Krashen, 1986). As an unfortunate consequence, English learners may have a limited track record of positive prior experiences participating in class discussions of any nature.
This is worth noting because SEL-focused topics and prompts can require far greater personal reflection, linguistic agility, and risk-taking than volunteering an answer to a math problem or a key detail in a lesson text.
The SEL framework includes five core competencies: 1) self-awareness;
2) self-management; 3) social awareness; 4) relationship skills; and 5) responsible decision-making (https://casel.org). Each presents a range of opportunities for students to introspect about their own strengths and challenges. Like all students, English learners benefit from a complexity progression, moving from discussion topics that are more accessible and affirming to those that require greater interpersonal exploration and risk-taking.
To initiate English learners to take a more dynamic and accountable role in lesson discussions, begin with daily brief, supported experiences that enable them to share positive things about themselves and gain insights about their peers. Highly scaffolded and routine five- to ten-minute interactions focused on individual attributes, interests, and identity can strengthen classroom relationships. With more promising classroom interaction experiences under their belts, tentative contributors will build confidence and stamina for more complex questions.
In district initiatives and research endeavors, I have witnessed English learners at all grade levels actively engaged in introductory lesson discussions with an aim of building community. Prompts that support self-awareness and relationship skills lend themselves particularly well to forging positive classroom connections. Following are some of the prompts I have used successfully with partner educators in schoolwide efforts to increase the quality and quantity of students’ interactions while improving classroom relations.
Sample Initial Discussion Prompts to Build Community
What are some of your best characteristics?
How do you describe yourself and why?
What is a (book, movie) you would recommend to a peer?
Who is someone you respect in your family or community?
What is something you have done to make your family proud?
What are the benefits of being bilingual?
What are the characteristics of a lesson partner with whom you work effectively?
How does an effective lesson partner demonstrate attentive listening?
Provide Response Frames and Precise Word Banks
To become fluent and confident in academic interactions, English learners must be equipped with appropriate language tools to respond competently. As we usher them into discussion contexts with increasingly complex topics, addressing either SEL or core curricula, English learners are more likely to contribute if they perceive they are up to the task. Educators across disciplines can increase students’ perceptions that they are prepared conceptually and linguistically by providing targeted language support. English learners understandably need a myriad of opportunities throughout the school day, within and outside of the classroom, to interact informally with peers using their natural language resources. However, when critical lesson topics become more challenging and competent communication is paramount, English learners deserve more than encouraging words to confidently enter a lesson forum.
A response frame is a highly effective tool for supporting English learners in responding more willingly and capably during lesson discussions. A response frame resembles a sentence starter in that it launches a response to an authentic, open-ended question that can be completed in a variety of ways. It is not a formative assessment item, with only one correct or desired means of completing the frame. Although a well-crafted response frame invites original content and phrasing, it specifies the grammar and precise vocabulary targets for a competent contribution. This places the teacher in a strategic position for effective modeling, a prerequisite for English-learner language advancement and lesson engagement. Form-focused modeling and explicit guidance help novice English speakers and writers notice language features in meaningful content (Dutro and Kinsella, 2010).
The response frame in Table 1 requires addition of meaningful content, a verb phrase beginning with a strong action word, a base verb that has no inflected ending (e.g., -s, -ed, -ing).
The grammar cue that a base verb is required is the preposition to. Creating a response frame that supports my students in responding more adeptly also enables me to display and explain my model response. This proves to be far more productive than simply modeling aloud a strong response and entrusting comprehension to English learners’ auditory processing and on-the-spot language analysis.
A precise word bank is used in tandem with a response frame to activate word knowledge and demonstrate to students how to move beyond the everyday words that immediately come to mind as they consider a discussion response. An equally vital role is to build background and stimulate idea generation for students who need a conceptual boost. A final function of a precise word bank is to reduce performance anxiety for students when asked to contribute alongside classmates they perceive as more capable.
Structure Partner Interaction Prior to Class Discussion
After assigning a response frame, provide silent and uninterrupted think time for students to consider what they’d like to share and craft their responses in writing. Once students have completed their responses, structure an A/B partner interaction so students have a chance to rehearse their responses and receive feedback prior to the unified class discussion. Assign A/B partners and cue which partner you would like to share first. This will maximize the interaction time, ensure each student contributes, and prevent passive individuals from sitting idle and not reaping the benefits of the lesson activity. Encourage students to each share their response twice: first to rehearse, second with expression. Repeated sharing builds oral fluency and confidence while also promoting more accurate and accountable listening.
Post directions for partner interactions and class discussions with clear guidance for responsible speaking and attentive listening. Visibly displayed directions help English learners understand and remember expectations for more advanced or complex lesson interactions with embedded content and language targets such as accountability for responding in a complete sentence, comparing, and elaborating.
Facilitate Equitable Class Discussion
Recognizing that English learners are likely to approach class discussions with some trepidation, caring educators often invite their contributions but refrain from ever requiring participation. While a degree of empathy is well warranted, if we limit inclusion in class discussions to volunteers, we may spend the entire school year never hearing from many of our linguistically and culturally diverse class members. With a goal of strengthening classroom relationships through SEL prompts and courageous discussion, we must strive to include perspectives and experiences that represent the diversity of the classroom community.
If we build their confidence with community-building discussion prompts, response scaffolds, and partner rehearsal, English learners will have a more productive mindset about contributing within a unified class forum. There are practical classroom-tested strategies educators can use at any grade level to reduce student anxiety and enlist a more eclectic array of responses. To broaden the response pool, don’t rely on “professional participants,” those who habitually raise their hands when you solicit participation. Similarly, refrain from resorting to digital devices, as random selection tools can preoccupy students with whether they will be chosen, preventing attentive listening and authentic engagement.
The four strategies for eliciting responses detailed below have a proven track record in linguistically and culturally diverse classrooms. They strike a balance between preselected, random, and voluntary responses while giving students’ agency to initiate contributions and validate their peers.
Strategies for Eliciting a Range of Responses
Preselected Initial Reporters
After assigning a reflection/discussion prompt, monitor independent writing and partner interactions. Preselect two students with somewhat representative, not exceptional, responses to launch the discussion. Advise students early on that you will enlist discussion assistants throughout the year and that they will all have opportunities to be the “discussion jump starter.” Preselecting two initial contributors breaks that awkward silence when no one steps up to volunteer and reduces pressure for teachers and students alike. When preselecting students, speak softly to minimize disruption with brief, neutral phrasing: e.g., I plan to call on you first to share your point of view. As you start the class discussion, acknowledge you have preselected initial reporters with affirming phrasing: I’ve asked Name and
Name to start our discussion. They have (points of view, experiences, examples) you will appreciate.
Ask a preselected reporter to select a reporter from a different table or part of the room. Specify that the selector must do so efficiently using an assigned sentence starter: I select Name; I’d like to hear from Name. The selected student contributes and then chooses another classmate. Enlist two or three student-selected contributions before segueing to partner nominations, another productive strategy for engaging students in the reporter selection process.
Briefly recap the initial lesson contributions. Invite students to indicate with a raised pen/pencil if their partner shared a different idea. Assign a sentence starter with a citation verb: Name shared with me that . Name pointed out that . Call on a couple of volunteers to report their partners’ ideas and commend their attentive listening. This strategy is more effective when the content is affirming, relevant to many students, and involving less personal risk-taking. Otherwise, the actual contributor should be responsible for sharing if they so desire.
Voluntary Final Reporters
Open the discussion to students who have not yet had an opportunity to contribute. Clarify options for voluntary contributions: 1) your own idea; 2) your partner’s idea (with recognition: I’d like to share my partner Name’s idea). While monitoring writing and partner interactions prior to launching the discussion, invite one or two students with strong or exceptional responses to volunteer using encouraging phrasing: I would really appreciate it if you raised your hand when I call on volunteers. I know your classmates will benefit from hearing your response.
Developmentally appropriate SEL prompts, response scaffolds, and partner rehearsal will bolster English learners’ confidence, but reticent contributors must also perceive that their teacher is genuinely committed to hearing from a range of students. Varying our strategies for eliciting responses will democratize and enrich discussions while helping teachers and students alike develop greater empathy and appreciation for diversity.
CASEL (2015). CASEL Guide: Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs: Middle and High School Edition. CASEL.
CASEL (2022). “SEL Reflection Prompts.” https://casel.org
Dutro, S. and Kinsella, K. (2010). “English Language Development: Issues and implementation in grades 6–12.” In Improving Education for English Learners: Research-Based Approaches. CA Dept. of Education.
Kinsella, K. (2020). English 3D Language Launch. Teaching Guide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Krashen, S. (1986). Principles and Practices in Second Language Acquisition. Pergamon Press.
Sugarman, J. and Lazarín, M. (2020). Educating English Learners during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Policy Ideas for States and School Districts. Migration Policy Institute.
Williams, C. P. and Marcus, M. (2021). Pandemic Response to Pandemic Recovery: Helping English Learners Succeed This Fall and Beyond. Century Foundation.
Kate Kinsella, EdD ([email protected]), writes curriculum, conducts K–12 research, and provides professional development addressing evidence-based practices to advance English language and literacy skills for multilingual learners. She is the author of research-informed curricular anchors for English learners, including English 3D, Language Launch, and the Academic Vocabulary Toolkit.