By ROGERS WALKER
—A familiar sight for many teachers is the “quiet” student who avoids eye contact to escape being called upon to talk. Also familiar is the student who talks constantly and seems to view the class as a private tutorial with the teacher to the detriment of less assertive classmates. These issues represent complex challenges that are due, in part, to the teacher’s commendable desire to support learner autonomy and respect students by giving them the option to speak or not during class discussions. As Van Lier (1996) points out, providing choice and options in lessons is essential for developing learner autonomy. However, if teachers provide too much freedom for student participation, it can deprive students of important teacher support. For instance, Van Lier emphasizes, “Promoting intrinsic motivation in our classrooms is … not equivalent to recommending to our students to do whatever they feel like, and only when they feel like it” (p. 99).
In fact, recent research by Gourd (2016) argues that free-form class discussions that indifferently allow students to remain quiet or take charge of the conversation can be harmful for all students’ language and social development. Furthermore, the quality and quantity of student oral production are essential components of student language acquisition. As Swain’s (2000) pushed output hypothesis argues, students not only need to hear level-appropriate target language, but they also need to be “pushed” to produce specific target forms and receive related feedback at the appropriate linguistic developmental stages. Thus, class discussions that don’t support equitable student contributions can limit opportunities for quieter students to develop their oral communication skills and for more talkative students to engage with the ideas of less talkative peers. When students are left out of conversations, the class loses the opportunity to encounter diverse opinions and to engage critically with a variety of ideas. Gourd (2016) encourages teachers to “use their authority” to support an optimal balance of spoken contributions from all students. The resources provided below are intended to help teachers achieve balance in their class discussions while encouraging developmentally essential participation from all students.
I. Discussion of Student Roles
A simple but powerful tool to help achieve balanced class discussions is helping students develop awareness of their roles in the classroom. Many students view their role as that of a container to be filled with knowledge by the teacher (Freire, 1970). This passive learner identity, often the result of different academic cultures, can be toxic because it cuts students off from the full spectrum of social resources available in the ESL classroom. It is a worthwhile investment of time to elicit from students, whether individually or as a class, how they see their role in the classroom. An effective starting point can be to ask students to describe the advantages of learning English in a class as opposed to from a book or on a computer. The goal of this discussion should be to help students understand their roles as active participants in each other’s learning. It can also be helpful to ask students to consider some of the following:
- Things they can learn from their classmates;
- Their role in eliciting responses from classmates;
- Their role in praising classmate contributions;
- Their role in using their learning strengths to help classmates improve weaknesses;
- The importance of language production and interaction in SLA;
- Their responsibility in creating language input for classmates to process and respond to; and
- Their membership in a community that requires demonstrating respect for others’ learning needs.
II. Materials and Practices to Support Class Discussions
Class discussions can be deceptively complex. English teachers often have developed highly advanced English discussion skills over a lifetime, leading to automaticity and possible blindness to the intricacies of the skill, including linguistic knowledge, sociolinguistic knowledge, content knowledge, metacognitive knowledge, and management of social dynamics (i.e., power). For example, Goh and Burns (2012) list an expansive taxonomy of knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary to manage an effective conversation. Goh and Burns’s work provides an argument for instruction that goes beyond instruction of form by providing meaningful opportunities for students to practice the multifaceted aspects of effective oral communication. Taking this approach, it becomes clear that instructing effective class discussions can be as equally complex as teaching an essay, yet few teachers approach class discussions as a process that requires opportunities for planning, revision, reflection, and comprehension of ideas. The following materials are intended to support a more process-oriented approach to managing class discussions.
A. Conversation Cards (for High-Intermediate to Advanced Students)
One way to address these issues is to structure class conversations to include opportunities for students to pause to manage their understanding and plan their participation. Conversation support cards can provide effective scaffolding for student participation in conversations. They can be used to support discussion of any detailed topic, such as class discussions of current events or social controversies. The cards can also serve as external scaffolding to help students operationalize and internalize certain conversation strategies. The class-discussion scaffolding tools below are intended to supplement a larger lesson that includes full class discussion as a component. The following steps can be followed to help encourage all students to provide meaningful, critical contributions to class discussions:
- The teacher should first facilitate a whole-class discussion on the topic of the lesson while eliciting comments from students.
- After at least a few students have offered meaningful contributions, pause the class discussion and ask students to take out the “Planning and Reflection” card (click here for pdf).
- Have students use the “Planning and Reflection” card to write down how they understood one of a classmate’s comments.
- Next, have students choose either one of the question cards or one of the statement cards from the “Question and Statement” worksheet (click here for pdf).
- Students can review the sentence stems on the back to help them pose a question or make a statement to one of their classmates on the topic of discussion.
- Continue the class discussion, and pause at various points that are opportune for deeper analysis to have students use the question and statement cards to facilitate their questions and comments.
- The teacher should encourage all students to talk and be prepared to call on specific students and ask others to wait in order to ensure equal participation. The teacher can also have students call on each other to respond to comments.
- After the discussion has ended, have students use the reflection card on the “Planning and Reflection” worksheet to reflect on their language use and the topic.
B. Conversation Guidance Worksheet (Low-Intermediate to High-Intermediate)
Another way to provide support to students for group discussions is to provide them a conversation guidance worksheet. The worksheet is intended to provide lower-level learners varying levels of support for class discussions while also affording opportunities for learner autonomy. The provided example, “Conversation Guidance” worksheet (click here for pdf), gives students the option to contribute to a class discussion by doing any of the following:
- Asking a question written in advance by the teacher;
- Making a statement by completing a sentence stem;
- Asking their own question.
This worksheet needs to be prepared by the teacher in advance of the class discussion so the teacher can write some questions that will be relevant for the discussion. After the class discussion, the student should place a check mark next to each question or statement type that he or she performed during class. Finally, the student should write a sentence or two about what he or she learned from asking the question. Teachers can use the provided example to create their own worksheets that fit the topic and level of language proficiency of their students. The goal of this worksheet is to provide both support for student conversation participation and the opportunity for students to exercise increasing levels of autonomy and spontaneity of production as recommended in Nunan’s (2004) principles of task-based language teaching.
C. Question Cards (Intermediate to Advanced)
Using student-generated question cards is a powerful tool to foster deeper discussion of topics. This tool can be used to support any kind of class or group discussion. To begin, the teacher should have a pack of index cards available in class. When the class discussion reaches a pivotal point that merits deeper reflection, the teacher should pass out a note card to each person in the class. The teacher should then ask the students to write a question about the discussion topic on the note card for one of their classmates. Students could also write questions for the teacher if relevant to the lesson. Then, the teacher should have students take turns using their cards to ask each other questions. Teachers can even number the cards and use the numbering to order student turn taking. This strategy can be used to facilitate open class discussions on topics such as a reading or a video that students have watched. Teachers can also use this tool to perform comprehension checks of information that has recently been covered.
Teachers often set the valuable goal of providing authentic, learner-centered discussion opportunities for students. There is much to be said for creating discussion events that enable students to engage with current, meaningful topics and that give them a sense of legitimate participation in both the class and local culture (Lave & Wenger, 1991). However, teachers should keep in mind that providing linguistic and content preparation alone for class discussions is often not sufficient scaffolding for all students to be able to participate meaningfully. The language classroom, while a subcomponent of the larger culture, is a contrived environment that exists as such to afford a safe space that both encourages, and, indeed, necessitates student language production and risk taking. Furthermore, oral-discussion skills are of such a complex nature that they merit being cultivated with the same attention to process as is given to writing and other complex skills. The teacher, as facilitator and manager, can use her knowledge, skill, and authority to both make more transparent the complex discussion subskills and to help widen openings for all students to participate in class discussions.
Thanks to Dylan Woods for the “Conversation Guidance” worksheet in section II. B.
Rogers Walker is passionate about using creativity to help students achieve academic and personal growth. He has taught in a variety of English language instructional contexts, including in IEPs in the US and EFL programs abroad. He is the associate director of Intensive English Programs at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, CA. He has a BA in English from George Washington University and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Teachers College, Columbia University.
Goh, C. C., & Burns, A. (2012). Teaching speaking: A holistic approach. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Seabury Press.
Gourd, K. M. (2016). What about Sam—the kid in the corner whose voice doesn’t come out?—Tensions between open discussions and inclusive educational opportunities for English learners. The CATESOL Journal, 28(1), 139-159. Retrieved from http://www.catesoljournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/CJ28.1_gourd.pdf
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Nunan, D. (2004). Task based language teaching. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Swain, M. (2000). The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue. In J. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and language learning (pp. 97-113). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. New York, NY: Longman.
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