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November 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 3

Fostering English Learners' Confidence

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Walk with us into International Community High School in the South Bronx, New York City. Teenagers from Bangladesh, El Salvador, Iraq, and many other countries fill the halls. Most of these students have low literacy in their native languages, but in four years, they're expected to learn English and 13 years' worth of content in subjects they may not have studied before.
Let's join the algebra classes taught by Adjoua Kouame and Joel Carillo, where a promising approach is helping students reach that goal. When the bell rings, students, without teacher direction, form groups and engage in English conversation around yesterday's lesson on quadratic equations.
There's a high level of engagement. Students take turns talking through each problem and carefully listen to what others say; everyone speaks, even those who are just beginning to acquire English. When a peer uses complex math vocabulary, some students take notes on the term and its meaning.
These students can concentrate on understanding the math because they're using a routine they've practiced often. The groups are focused, learning together as though the teachers weren't there; they own these discussions. Let's look at how teachers in this school foster such fruitful exchanges through discussion routines.

Why Routines Revolutionize Discussions

Too often, students see group discussion as a time to wait for someone else in their group to complete the work—or as a time to think about other things. When students have this attitude, teachers find themselves running from group to group to give directions, answer questions, and facilitate discussions. While a teacher works with one group, students in other groups spend lots of time waiting for help. Discussion routines can change this picture and help group work engender learning for all students.
ALL-ED is a network of research-based learning routines, with related supportive materials, that help teachers stimulate this kind of powerful collaboration. Last fall, four teachers from International Community High School learned to use these routines through professional development at Fordham University. They began to implement them daily and watched their students' independence and communication skills blossom. Eventually, all teachers at the school adopted the routines.
Let's observe two of these discussion routines—elbow partner exchange and homework rounds—in action.

Elbow Partner Exchange

This activity is a great way to start discussion routines. Two students sitting next to each other (elbow partners) engage in purposeful conversation on a topic related to the lesson. This exchange raises important questions and quickly activates background knowledge. For instance, before teaching a minilesson, a teacher might ask partners to describe together what they see in a sample math problem and list questions that come to mind. Taking turns making observations, students discover that they always know something about a new problem. When teachers gather the results of these conversations, it reduces the time spent on the minilesson because teachers can target key questions instead of reteaching things students know. As Adjoua noted,
If students don't have prior knowledge, it's hard to ease them into actual lessons. During an elbow partner exchange, students talk about what will happen [in the lesson] and any unfamiliar vocabulary, terms, or integers they are going to use … to make sure they understand the basics.
For instance, before a lesson on using the substitution method to solve a quadratic equation, Samer and Marcela have this elbow partner conversation:
S<EMPH TYPE="5">amer: I see two ys and xs.M<EMPH TYPE="5">arcela: I see a circle.S<EMPH TYPE="5">amer: Where's the circle?M<EMPH TYPE="5">arcela: If we graphed the first equation, then it would be a circle.S<EMPH TYPE="5">amer: Oh, then I see a line. The second equation is a line.M<EMPH TYPE="5">arcela: OK, so where should we start to find y?
Whereas in whole-group discussions, teachers only call on a few students, in these brief exchanges all students have someone interacting with them. Teachers use these exchanges again before students do independent practice. Partners share ideas about the hardest problems, the strategies they plan to use, and questions they still need to ask. All students become more ready to tackle independent work.

Homework Rounds

Adding discussion routines can shift a lesson from one dependent on teacher direction to one driven by engaged, focused students. For example, teachers often lament that when they return corrected homework, students rarely look at it. When Adjoua uses the homework rounds routine—in which students correct assignments together—students discuss the homework and tend to not make the same mistakes again.
In small groups, students share their answers to each homework problem or item. If different answers come up, they stop to discuss. Through their conversation, they must figure out whether some students made a mistake or whether there are multiple answers to a problem. A recorder jots down the number of each problem the group discusses and any remaining questions they have about the homework.
If some students haven't completed homework, teachers can handle it in different ways. Teachers might allow students to join the rounds only if they completed the homework; those without it can meet with the teacher, who will find out why the homework wasn't finished and offer assistance. Other teachers allow kids who didn't do the homework or who were absent to join a group with completed homework. The students in that group reteach the lesson from the previous day as they correct homework. After rounds, students who didn't do the homework stand up one at a time to summarize the lesson they missed.
This routine lets the groups self-manage. The teacher is free to circulate, observe, work closely with one group, or confer with individuals. After the group discussions, the teacher collects the recorder's card from each group. Reviewing them, he can easily see which problems many groups had trouble solving and adjust instruction accordingly.
For example, a teacher might ask someone from a group that didn't struggle with a particular problem to explain the concepts behind it. She might also create an exit-card problem to assess individual understandings, add additional review problems to the next homework assignment, or form small groups focused on helping one another understand the difficult concepts.
Traditionally, teachers grade homework after class, which means they can't shift their instruction in response to what the homework reveals until a day or two later. With homework rounds, teachers gather data immediately and can make instructional decisions on their feet, addressing the needs of all learners.

Building Confidence in Speaking

Although forming groups for learning is not new, using specific routines that start with a "round" in which all group members participate is new. Discussion routines are efficient because once they're established, students need no directions. As these remarks from International Community High School students reflect, routines become a vehicle that students rely on to both help them learn and help them speak and listen better:
[When teachers] explain something, we're tired, but when we do [discussion routines], the hard work becomes easier.
I learned how not to be scared about what I'm presenting. It gives me confidence.
Teachers note that the routines make students more engaged and more relaxed about speaking English:
The communication level is so great among students. They're not afraid to talk to one another. They can express themselves.

Seven Tips for Using Routines

After Rhonda taught routines to the International Community High School teachers, she visited the school frequently—along with one of the coauthors, instructional coach Laurie Gaughran—to see how teachers and students were doing and to guide them in using routines effectively. These visits revealed seven practices that make discussion routines more successful.

1. Group students who have different strengths.

Students told us that everyone benefits when teachers group students with different levels of understanding for the discussions. As various students describe the same problem-solving process in their own ways, everyone's vocabulary and understanding increases. Peers may use words that are different from those the teacher uses to explain a concept—such as words in a student's native language—which may be easier for students to grasp and remember. Many students enjoy being "teachers," explaining their own ways to solve problems and understand concepts.

2. Use simple, memorable routines.

Students value learning routines that have a name, clear directions or steps, specific time allotments, and rules for participation. When Joel calls out "triad stations," students know to get into their assigned groups of three and complete two tasks within five minutes. Each group member summarizes the lesson, adding content and vocabulary to what the previous students said, and then each student asks questions. Students use the next three minutes to answer these questions and report the remaining unanswered questions to the teacher.
This eight-minute routine assures students that they have a reliable way to clear up any confusion before the period ends. Students don't waste time deciding who will go first or planning what to do. The discussion centers on understanding the lesson.

3. Use pressure to increase focus.

Students like discussion routines that present a challenge they must meet by working together. The pressure of time limits, something at stake, and the requirement for participation built into routines keeps kids engaged and focused. Someone from each group usually reports out a summary of the group's discussion; no one knows who will be chosen, so everyone must participate and be prepared. One teacher observed,
When I said I would be choosing the reporters, everyone got tense. I saw the seriousness they put into it. I picked students who don't speak often, and they did fabulously. … They like it; you can see the pride in their eyes.
Students have recommended that teachers add points or praise when students use academic vocabulary in their summaries or connect their ideas to previous units.

4. Involve students in improving routines.

Invite students to help solve problems that come up during discussion routines. For instance, the routine might be taking too long or a teacher might feel she needs to add an assessment of speaking and learning standards. Regularly asking students how group discussions are working for them and soliciting specific ideas on how to solve problems lead to effective, easily implemented solutions.
One teacher explained, "As we proceeded with one strategy, I realized it needed more. [The students suggested] that we should add note taking … and at the end, the whole group should come up with a written plan of what they are going to report."

5. Set rules that foster confidence.

Many students arrive at International Community High speaking little English. Teachers want to create conditions in which these students can participate in discussions, so they include in discussion routines habits that help everyone feel safe, such as the confirm or contribute rule. It's always OK for a group member to "confirm"—repeat what another group member said previously—or to "contribute"—add a new idea. To confirm, a newcomer can just point to a person in the group who said something he or she agrees with; that person will repeat what was said. This rule simultaneously protects learners who are struggling with what to say and helps the group recognize patterns in participants' thinking.

6. Stick with it.

Teachers reported that often, the first time they tried a routine, it wasn't successful, but if they persisted, it worked. One student recalled, "at first I did not understand, but by the time we participated more … and I saw people transform the way they report the problems … I liked it."
The key is to establish a routine that students can manage independently and to practice it a lot. Solve problems that arise by modifying the routine, but never give up on routines.

7. Assess students' emerging skills.

Keep track of how students' vocabulary and communication skills increase. Students can use a rubric or daily journal to track their own progress. Joel made a chart featuring a word bank both to help students take discussion notes and to assess their communication skills. As each group member speaks, students note on the chart what they heard, think, and now know from listening to peers. Students circle in their notes vocabulary words that peers have used in the dialogue. Joel and the students add new vocabulary words to the chart to review each week. Students use the chart to see their language and knowledge build over time.
Teachers and students told us that the routines had boosted both language skills and content learning. A student smiled as she explained how, when she sees a math problem on a test, she can "hear" the voice of another student in her group describing steps toward a solution. One teacher said,
The language development is big; some students who did not speak before are talking now. They are all communicating … they can't say, "I am not talking today." They have to use the vocabulary and listen for it.

Toward Engagement and Autonomy

Ultimately, the secret to International Community High School's success with using routines for collaborative discussion is learner autonomy. Students own the discussion routines and the resulting learning. Asking for help has become part of these English language learners' routine; they aren't embarrassed to pose questions. The process of searching for answers and wondering together as a team leads students to spend time thinking about and purposefully using their learning. Students who used these routines in Adjoua and Joel's classes scored far higher on recent math-related New York Regents exams than did students in these teachers' previous classes.
Discussion routines like these can be used in every subject, at all grade levels. Every teacher can become effective at fostering discussions in which student engagement is routine.
End Notes

1 Rhonda Bondie and Akane Zusho developed and are researching the effectiveness of these learning routines to support educators in meeting the needs of academically diverse students.

Rhonda Bondie teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is co-author (with Akane Zusho) of Differentiated Instruction Made Practical (Routledge).

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