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March 12, 2015
Vol. 10
No. 13

Purposeful Partner Talk to Close the Academic Language Gap

Every student is an academic language learner. Use these strategies to increase the frequency and quality of partner talk in your classroom.

Talking is an important precursor to effective reading and writing. For many language learners, if they can't say it, they can't write it. But, in our urgency to get kids to read and write, talking has taken a backseat—which makes it all the more difficult for English language learners (ELLs) to keep up. As Williams, Stathis, and Gotsch explain,
"The idea that ‘you learn to write by writing’ is well and good for English-only students who need only to practice their writing skills to become better writers. However, this maxim is not helpful in describing the task for many English language learners who are struggling with a limited English vocabulary, a shaky grasp of syntax, and unfamiliar English grammatical forms and functions. In this case, more writing is not the solution." (2009, p. 22)
One way to close the academic language gap is to encourage teachers to schedule regular times throughout the school day for students to engage in academic conversations using targeted disciplinary vocabulary, including transition words that will ultimately lead to longer, more complex sentences with higher-level vocabulary. Here are some strategies for and examples of purposeful partner talk that helps ELLs attain academic language.

Emphasize Speaking and Listening

Many times students are asked to talk with a partner during class to answer a question such as "How are renewable and nonrenewable energy sources the same or different?" Usually in scenarios like this, each partner will report on what they identify as a similarity or difference, and then the conversation ends. To encourage a richer conversation, however, teachers can model an academic conversation that includes both listening and speaking:
Teacher: I'm going to ask you to talk with your partner about similarities and differences between renewable and nonrenewable energy resources. Your partner might say, "Renewable and nonrenewable energy resources are different because one is easily replaced in a lifetime and the other is not." In academic conversations, we listen and speak. When we're good listeners, we ask the speaker a question about what she said—for example, "What do you mean by ‘easily replaced in a lifetime’?" I want you to do the same thing. After your partner shares, use the question starter, "What do you mean by _____?"
Another strategy that promotes both listening and speaking is called the "Paraphrase Passport" (Kagan, 1992). With this strategy, students work in pairs to review notes and speakers are held accountable for listening carefully to their partners. Here's how it works:
  1. Students partner up as A and B.
  2. Partner A starts by saying, "I identified _____ as important because _____."
  3. Partner B paraphrases what she heard: "What I think I heard you say is _____."
  4. Partner B contributes something from her notes: "I also heard the teacher say _____ is important because _____."
  5. Partner A paraphrases what she heard partner B say: "You think that _____."
  6. The process continues until all notes have been reviewed.

Develop Richer Responses

During partnered conversations about math, a teacher might say, "Talk with your partner about how you will solve the problem." An ELL student may reply, "Add." In fact, many students will give the most limited response they can. Teachers can support all students in their academic language acquisition by providing sentence starters to help them sound like mathematicians: "Initially, I would _____. Next, I would _____. Finally, I would _____."
During a science experiment, a teacher might say, "Predict what will happen if we add more hydrochloric acid." Many students may provide a prediction with as few words as they can: "It will fizz over." The teacher can then promote academic language by modeling a sentence starter such as "I hypothesize that if we add more acid, then _____" and requiring students to incorporate a scientific term (e.g., volatile) into their answers.

Support ALL Students

These strategies and examples illustrate that it's not only English language learners who can enrich their academic language through partner talk. Students who are native English speakers can face similar challenges with academic language. Think about your students of poverty. Do they come from homes where nonspecific language is used often (e.g., "Will you get that thing over there?")? Do they come from homes where parents often give directives to their children rather than engaging them in conversations and asking for their opinions?
Students come to school with varying degrees of exposure to academic language, but, as Wong-Fillmore points out, "There are no native speakers of academic language" (2013). To remind ourselves that all students need explicit instruction in academic English, we use the acronym ALL™, which reflects the idea that all students are academic language learners.
To support ALLs in using the language associated with schooling and help them to "sound like a book" (Hill & Flynn, 2006), we need to put specific structures in place that will allow multiple opportunities for students to talk with each other, hear good models of English, and learn the English that's been targeted to support the content.

Hill, J. D., & Flynn, K. (2006). Classroom instruction that works with English language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kagan, S. (1992). Cooperative learning. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers Inc.

Kinsella, K. (2012). Cutting to the Common Core: Communicating on the same wavelength. Language Magazine, 12(4), 18–25.

Williams, C., Strathis, R., & Gotsch, P. (2009). Speaking of writing. Language Magazine, 5, 20–22.

Wong-Fillmore, L. (2013, January 8). Common Core and English language learners [Webinar]. Retrieved from

Jane D. Hill is a managing consultant with McREL International, in Denver, Colorado.

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