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Feeding language needs: New ideas in crafting classroom lessons

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Research,   Schools and Administrators

Lunch was still hours away, but the teachers gathered for the day's workshop were already busy making burritos.

Instead of selecting beans, meat and salsa, they were choosing fillings to feed the young minds in their classrooms. The idea was to wrap educational and linguistic goals into one package, spice it up with some context that made the lesson relevant to the students, and then serve it up using a particular type of activity or process.

The burrito-making exercise was part of the third and final day of the workshop, hosted by the University of Georgia College of Education's Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education (CLASE). The workshop was one of several CLASE hosted this year to help teachers become familiar with a new method of teaching that benefits both English-language learners and mainstream learners alike.

"Everyone needs to know where this is coming from and why this is effective," said Lindsey Kim, a first-grade teacher at Rockbridge Elementary in Gwinnett County. Kim and about 80 other teachers spent time during the workshop learning how to craft questions for small groups of students, develop projects that students would find engaging, techniques to encourage the children to talk about their experiences and develop a dialogue among students that promotes equity in the classroom.

It was a process Kim said was difficult at first only because it challenged some more traditional classroom approaches. But once she understood the research behind the practices—and the positive results it's found—she's a believer in the process.

"Everyone needs to know where this is coming from and why this is effective. The research behind it—it is purposeful," she said. "For example, even if your students are doing an activity, like sorting, some might say, 'Oh, they're just doing an activity.' But you need to talk to them about how they are doing the activity. And it helps you see from that question what is the thought process that brought you to that. It's not, 'Oh, you didn't get that,' but 'Why didn't you get that?'"

The method taught at the workshop, called a "conversational instruction" method, was part of a multi-year study by CLASE. In it, third- and fifth-graders made significant improvements in how English-language learners increase vocabulary and reading comprehension when compared with traditional classroom teaching. What's more, the study found students also made gains in areas beyond English/language arts, such as science and mathematics—in some cases, they saw improvements in comprehensions between 14 percent and 25 percent above the control group. In reading, English-language learners outperformed control groups by 10 percent.

The study, which was funded by a $2.9 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, wrapped up in 2016 and final results will be announced soon.

The key to the instructional conversation method, said researcher Paula Mellom, associate director of CLASE, is how it's structured. Teachers can plan for a portion of the day to be split into "centers," or small groups of activities. The class splits into groups and rotates among student-led projects—except for one teacher-led activity.

The teacher-led activity is key, because it involves a particular type of activity, such as creating a tale, assembling pieces of a larger whole, or organizing ideas on a chart. As the students move through the activity, the teacher then gives time for each student to explain their thoughts and work with the other students to build a consensus about the correct answer.

Research found that all students benefitted from this type of instruction, but non-native English speakers benefit in particular—their interactions with their peers help enhance their vocabulary as well as their comprehension of the topic being discussed.

The workshops are necessary to implement the instructional method, though, because it requires some planning. Teachers learn how to start with their goal for the instruction—for example, sentence structure or a mathematical concept. Then, they consider what complex questions or common misunderstandings should be addressed as they move through the lesson. Then, they plan the type of project the students will work on to complete the lesson—for example, will they construct a chart? Assemble a whole out of smaller parts? From there, teachers consider the language goals they can also wrap in to the lesson, drawing inspiration from English-language arts grade standards, and then add contextualization, making the overall lesson relevant to their students.

As the workshop participants go through the process of making this educational "burrito," they are using the same tools their students will use—sorting words and their definitions, putting answers into T-charts, creating a mosaic of their answers or putting them into a sequence, for example.

And this process can be applied to a lesson that already exists, said Mellom. "Teachers can brainstorm lessons they already teach and think about how they can be restructured into different activities," she said.

Jessica Little, a teacher at Baldwin Elementary School in Habersham County, said the workshop helped her reframe her interactions with her students, shifting from the main person speaking to more of the role of a facilitator.

"This is intentional planning; we plan already, but this is to let them discuss in a collaborative way," she said. The result is each student has a voice, "and they're able to ask questions and sometimes they learn from each other.

Teachers who get the workshop training also become part of a community that shares lesson plans and ideas, answers questions and just generally supports its members. CLASE sends out regular updates and maintains a web-based portal for lesson uploads, videos, support and a schedule of workshops and other events.

Mellom said in the end, the conversational instruction method encourages students to learn in a respectful way, while giving them project-based tasks that encourage language development. School districts across Georgia have started implementing the method, and are now seeing the results and students advance from one grade to the next.

"The structure that's taught starts with a foundation, then builds students' assets by recognizing them," she said. "The idea is, everyone is a language learner—it's not just for English language learners. Everyone in the room benefits."

For more information about workshops and implementing the conversational instruction method in your school or district, please contact Paula Mellom, associate director of the Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education, at 706-542-3415 or email

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602