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Partnership helps English language learners in 2 countries

Kristen B. Morales

December 18, 2016

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A new partnership between the University of Georgia and the Costa Rican Ministry of Education will help improve students' vocabulary and reading comprehension both in the United States and in classrooms in the Central American country.

Researchers in the UGA College of Education are working to train teachers in Barrow County and in Costa Rica as part of a months-long exchange program. The partnership draws from research released last year by the College of Education's Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education (CLASE), which found a particular method of instruction called "instructional conversation" was extremely successful in helping English-language learners catch up with their peers in subjects such as language arts, science and mathematics.

The educators—six teachers and one administrator from Costa Rica and seven teachers from Barrow County—spent time earlier this year learning the teaching method during a workshop in Athens. Since then, Barrow County teachers have traveled to Costa Rica and, more recently, the Costa Rican teachers returned to the United States to see the American lessons in action.

"I consider this program to be personally and professionally enriching in the sense that I got to learn a lot not only about culture but also about the American educational system," said Jonnathan Mejias, who teaches English as a foreign language in Costa Rica. "The training on instructional conversations broadened my methodologies and it was very refreshing to see how it works."

What makes the instructional conversation, or IC, method unique is the framework it gives teachers to help them construct a lesson. In general, students work in small groups to complete a specific project, such as writing a paragraph or constructing an argument using source material presented by the teacher. But in the course of the lesson, the teacher asks open-ended questions and allows the students to guide the discussion around the task at hand. Students use statements such as, "I disagree," "Tell me what you think" or "Please explain your source material" in the process.

Because the students need to build a consensus among the group, it's important that all voices are heard. As the teacher hears the discussion, they get a sense of how the students are digesting the material, and what might need further review. And as part of the process, students evaluate themselves, their group, and stay mindful of goals set at the start of the lesson.

"These are the skills all students have to learn—finding contextual evidence and getting them to think about the context," said Paula Mellom, associate director for CLASE. "This gives them a framework to do that. This is a process."

Because both sets of educators teach English-language learners, Mellom said the exchange is a chance for the teachers to support each other and get new ideas. And incorporating this instruction method into regular classroom activities can have a profound effect on English-language learners, who might speak for no more than 5 minutes a day in a traditional classroom model.

That's because the IC method encourages input from all students, giving English-language learners a chance to speak English in a small group, while also modeling language use among native English speakers.

Ysheena Lyles, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Bear Creek Middle School, said learning the IC method has added a new purpose to her students' small-group work. It's also provided a safe space to allow children to experiment with their own leadership capabilities.

"This is a tool to let you be able to assess where your kids are. You can assess just by listening," said Lyles, who added that other teachers in her Barrow County school are now interested in learning the IC method. "It's been a lot of, 'Can I watch?' ... I always had discussions in my classroom, and this has put more responsibility on my students to lead the discussion."