Academic Conversation  

July 10, 2014
In many classrooms, there is interaction without depth, such as talking activities used to check for learning of facts and procedures rather than to teach or deepen understandings.

•  Think-pair-shares tend to consist of quick, surface-level answers and only one turn apiece by partners. They are more useful for quickly answering questions and to break up a long activity such as a teacher lecture. They usually lack depth and when given more time, the chats quickly lose focus because students lack skills to stay on topic or extend it.
•  Small groups are often seen where students never negotiate meaning, never build on one another’s ideas but just fill in charts, share their own answers to questions and either allow one student to dominate and do all the work, or work alone next to one another.
•  Answering with memorized sentence stems and frames are useful to get students started when they understand what the frame means, but can be awkward during a conversation when students keep looking up at the wall to read them or use them inappropriately.

Electronic communication and computer programs lack the face-to-face communication that is needed to develop language and may limit in-depth communication with others. Information may be exchanged, but exploration of a topic, the building of ideas, and emotional connections are missing. Electronic exchanges are often one-sided. The message is not adjusted, or is more difficult to adjust when the receiver misunderstands, meaning cannot be negotiated, and the thinking involved is not the same as with a real partner in communication.

What does this mean for English language learners? Students internalize and develop language when they are immersed in it and when they use it for real purposes. Three processes are vital: listening, talking, and negotiating meaning (Krashen 1985; Swain 1995; Long 1981). Negotiating meaning means using nonverbal and verbal strategies to express, interpret, expand, and refine ideas and their variations in meaning in a conversation (Hernandez 2003). These processes also apply to academic language, which is the set of words, grammar, and organizational strategies used to describe complex ideas, higher-order thinking processes, and abstract concepts found in academic and professional settings. It is used in lectures, textbooks, presentations, and workplace meetings.

Conversation gives English language learners the opportunity to practice the academic language they are learning from many different sources: teachers, texts, media, and peers. In a whole class or even in a small group, students can lose focus. But in pairs, because students are engaged with only one other person, they are more likely to listen and take in more challenging structures and words to make sense of them. They are also more likely to express their ideas with the more challenging language. Finally, in many conversations there is a great amount of repetition of ideas and vocabulary which helps students learn the language as they strive to clarify or state their ideas in a better and clearer way than the first or second time it was said. For example, two students may have very different understandings of a term such as liberty. As they negotiate its meaning with different partners, they will push themselves to use more precise examples and more advanced language.

Academic conversation in pairs is a powerful tool to strengthen learners’ chances for academic success and later their ability to do well in higher education settings and the workplace. For English language learners, it is essential that teachers offer students the tools to develop the oral language skills that will contribute to their later success.

-by Rosemary Cervantes, English Language Coordinator