Increasing Academic Oral Language Development: Using English Language Learner Shadowing in Classrooms

Article excerpt


According to Diane August (2002), a senior research scientist at the Center for Applied Linguistics, English Language Learners (ELLs) spend less than two percent of their school day in oral language development. Worse yet, when ELLs are speaking in school, it is often not about academic topics or rigorous content. Instead, according to Gibbons (2002), ELLs are relegated to shallow forms of speech, such as those which require only one-word responses.

This lack of academic oral language practice is detrimental to the acquisition of English, as well as to the access of gradelevel content area material, which are both mandated by Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act. Similarly, the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (2006) suggests that oral language development is the foundation of literacy. In order for ELLs to become proficient in the basics of English, as well as grade-level academic English, it is imperative that they be given repeated and more complex opportunities to speak about academic topics across the school day.

One way to systemically create awareness around the importance of academic oral language development, or "academic talk," is to train teachers in ELL shadowing. During this process, teachers monitor the academic language and listening opportunities of ELLs at five-minute intervals over a two-hour period of time. This process allows teachers to become more reflective about their own practice, especially as they see how few opportunities ELLs typically do have for academic oral language development.

After participating in shadowing, teachers become much more sensitive to embedding "academic talk" into their lesson design, and school district office and school site administrators begin to tailor professional development around increasing opportunities for academic oral language development. In this article I will explain why academic oral language development is important and how to embed ELL shadowing into either a teacher education program, a district, an individual school, or a county office of education staff development program.

The Importance of Academic Oral Language Development

Historically, the four literacy domains- listening, speaking, reading, and writing-have been taught separately, with an emphasis on reading and writing as the "academic domains." For ELLs, however, this process of teaching each of the domains as segmented components of language is not as effective. The students' needs are great and they have little time to waste in closing the literacy gap. Instead, Gibbons (2002) notes that the domains of listening and speaking are as important as reading and writing, and they must be planned for in order to happen effectively in the classroom.

Specifically, it is helpful for educators to connect speaking to writing and listening to reading, as each of these two pairs involve similar processes. Speaking and writing are focused on output, while listening and reading are about input and comprehension. If we allow ELLs to talk about their writing before they complete the writing itself, it will often be more detailed and coherent. In this way it becomes clear how foundational literacy is to oral language development.

Similarly, when we connect listening and reading as active processes, greater comprehension can be elicited. In this way structured and frequent academic oral language development techniques can be embedded into teachers' daily instructional practice. Once teachers experience the silence and therefore invisibility of their ELL as they shadow a student, they will begin to see the negative results of allowing their ELLs to remain quietly passive in a classroom setting.

How to Shadow an ELL

Shadowing is the process of following a student over several hours (at least two hours is recommended) and monitoring both their academic oral language and listening practices. Doing this allows teachers, administrators, and community members to become sensitive to the academic oral language development needs of ELLs and begin to change instructional practices by embedding more "academic talk" into their instructional design. …