Speaking in a new language can be a frightening experience. English Language Learners often feel embarrassed that they will make mistakes or are nervous about being misunderstood. This can result in newcomers going through a silent period (when they do not speak but are learning a large amount of language). Even ELLs that have a higher language level can become intimidated during whole class discussions. Brain science can help explain this response. The emotional system of our brain does not function well when it is presented with frustration or embarrassment (Sousa 2011)*. Here are some steps you can take to help your students feel comfortable and improve their speaking skills.
Create a safe classroom environment
This is one of the most important foundations for ELLs (and any student, especially those that are naturally shy) to feel comfortable taking the risk of speaking in class. There is alway a risk of answering a question incorrectly or making a grammatical mistake. If a student trusts their teacher and feels safe in their classroom they are more willing to take these risks.
When I work with small groups of elementary ELLs I try and give them time to share personal news. This allows them a low stress opportunity to practice speaking, helps me to build a personal connection with them and helps build community.
Create opportunities for speaking in partner or small groups
Knowing that there are fewer people listening and more frequent opportunities to respond will help ELLs gain more speaking practice. With partners you can structure conversations so that parner 1 has a chance to speak and then partner 2. For groups give each member a job or a specific time to speak. This helps to prevent some students from dominating the conversation. A student with a lower language level might benefit from speaking second. This way they are able to hear their partners response and follow the same pattern. This also gives them additional thinking time.
Provide sentence frames/sentence starters that connect to the topic
Introduce structured sentence frames and/or sentence stems to the class. This is a great opportunity to incorporate academic language into the frames. Non ELLs may use them as a support as well. Encourage students to expand of the frames if they are able.
Reading a poem, welcome message, or short reading passage as a group allows all students the opportunity to practice pronouncing new vocabulary words without the stress of others noticing them mispronounce unfamiliar words. This is a great opportunity to expose all students to grade level material even if they would not be able to read it independently.
Structured Speaking Practice
Give students a topic to discuss with a partner. This can be a question to answer, opinion to share, or story to tell. Here are some task cards and picture cards I created that would make great aids for speaking practice.
*How the ELL Brain Learns David Sousa