Rosita Apodaca

IFL Executive director

Sara DeMartino

IFL English language arts fellow

Tabetha Bernstein-Danis

Assistant professor, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

English learners (ELs)—or emergent bilinguals (EBs) as educators now refer to these students to remove the deficit stigma from their identity (Garcia et al., 2008)—must engage in academic conversations every day to gain access to the world of knowledge. Their educational mission is the simultaneous acquisition of knowledge and English. As educators committed to equity know, EBs cannot wait until they are fluent English speakers to participate in academic conversations. Academic language is an essential component of an equitable educational program for EBs, and equitable teaching practices that embed academic language development for these students must support deep thinking, conceptual understanding, argument, and discussion. All of these practices are grounded in two Principles of Learning—Accountable Talk® Practices and Academic Rigor in a Thinking Curriculum (Resnick, L. et al., 2005). These practices are central to being ready for college, career, and life. There is a body of work that demonstrates that well-structured talk produces robust learning and helps “build the mind.” These benefits show up in standardized tests, transfer to other content domains, and persist over the years (Resnick, 2015).

Using Accountable Talk practices (or generically, “academically productive talk”) as a tool to support EBs to engage in academic conversations requires a change in mindset about how we educate students learning a new language. Rather than limiting instruction to teaching students a language, we propose using both the native language support and emerging English skills to learn concepts and ideas. Challenging academic work results in productive struggle for students and requires that a lesson’s cognitive demand is not diminished. Rather than removing the struggle and potentially encouraging learned helplessness in students, teachers need to maximize EBs’ access to challenging content without depriving them of the opportunity to grapple with difficult new concepts.

Accountable Talk Discussions

At the IFL, we believe academic discussion is purposeful and productive, occurring via sustained conversations about meaningful content that is anchored in grade-level culturally relevant texts and tasks. Students work together to co-construct knowledge, and both students and teachers negotiate meaning through “talk moves,” such as asking for clarification, paraphrasing, and building on or disagreeing with previous ideas.

The following examples show ways in which teachers can mediate rigorous discourse in a fourth grade classroom. Teachers play an important role in augmenting ways for students to be successful when they use complex academic language. The development of this complex language positively impacts students’ vocabulary and reading outcomes, allowing them to more quickly keep pace with their native English-speaking peers.

To reach these goals, EBs need opportunities to listen to academic language in authentic contexts. They also need opportunities to use purposeful language, such as to explain, disagree, agree, or build on others’ ideas. Teachers who call on various students to explain their thinking about the same idea provide students with opportunities to hear new concepts explained multiple times in multiple ways, maximizing their ability to make meaning from these new ideas. EBs also need to be taught vocabulary indirectly during discussions to get to the gist of the subject being discussed and directly after they have had the opportunity to hear it used in context.

Developing knowledge and academic language requires having something meaningful to discuss, and that usually means using culturally relevant texts. Fillmore (2010) says that the only way for students to acquire the language of literacy is to encounter these structures and patterns in the materials they read. The texts they discuss need to be sufficiently complex so that students can discover how academic language works.

The teacher whose work is illustrated here had one or more of the following goals of Accountable Talk practices in their lessons (Michaels, S. and O’Connor, C., 2012):

  • Help individual students to share their reasoning so that it can be heard and understood.
  • Help students to orient to others and listen to what others say.
  • Help students to work on deepening their reasoning.
  • Help students to work with the reasoning of other students.

Example 1: Building on Ideas
In the first example, EBs are engaged in an instructional unit on child labor. The teacher is working to help students understand a complex informational text through utilizing Questioning the Author (QtA) for comprehension. In the excerpt, the teacher has asked students to explain why the author used different examples of child labor from around the world.

Student 1: That there is not only one place that has child labor. That they have it like around the whole world.
[Turn and talk]
Teacher: Carlos, go ahead Carlos.
Student 2: I want to add something also. Because, he is telling us about all these places because if somebody wants to stop child labor, they just can’t say one country. Because other countries does it. So, you can’t say, “Oh El Salvador does child labor” because they, they will tell on the other people. “Egypt does it too, so you can’t just blame us too.”
Student 3: …if they are going to do something for that for the whole world should care. Because there’s… child labor in the whole world. Even in the United States.

Rather than explaining to students why an author might use various examples to support his or her point, the teacher presented students with an open-ended question, gave students an opportunity to talk about the question (represented by crosstalk in the transcript), and then gave students an opportunity to share their thinking with the whole group. The teacher’s use of a probing question and then providing students an opportunity to clarify their thinking first with a classmate allowed EBs to have confidence sharing their thinking in front of the group and building on the ideas of others.

Example 2: Academic Vocabulary

In this second example, the class is still engaged in the QtA lesson on an informational text about child labor. In this excerpt, the teacher has just asked a question about the agricultural work referenced in the article.

Student 4: Okay, I think the author is trying to tell us that, it isn’t like…all they’re getting right to have children do um like carry a lot of things and they are not like learning, and they are just like… They are doing things like adults are supposed to do.
Teacher: How did you know that children were not learning? Where in the text did you…
Student 5: Right here, Their work is harsh and violates their rights to health and education. Education is the same as learning so..
Student 4: Okay
Student 6: Okay, I want to, I want to add something else. I wanna like they say here that they are….like dangerous. Maybe like if they have an accident, they can hurt themselves, like really hard.
Student 7: I think they are like really exploding the kids.
Teacher: What do you mean by exploding the kids?
Student 7: They’re, they’re using them, like that’s not right. They shouldn’t be doing that.

Student 5 in this example utilizes the author’s language (harsh and violates, both Tier Two vocabulary words) to help Student 4 explain why he thinks the authors say that children are not learning. Tier Two vocabulary words are more difficult for both native English speakers and EBs to learn because they are words not often heard in everyday speech. The teacher provided exposure to less frequently used Tier Two words through her choice of text. Students also continue to build on peers’ thinking, an expectation that was set for students at the beginning of the year and had become commonplace for students.

The teacher is also willing to accept the student’s use of imprecise language. Student 7 confuses the word exploiting for exploding possibly because explotar means both exploit and explode in Spanish, but rather than correct the student or ignore the student’s use of the improper term in English, the teacher asked the student to explain his thinking. This explanation helps the teacher and the student’s peers to better understand what the student meant when he said “exploding,” and it also allows the teacher some additional insight into the student’s thinking about the ideas in the text. Even though the student used the wrong word, he was still comprehending an essential concept from the text.

Both of these examples provide just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to considering the arsenal of tools teachers need to build EBs’ academic English and content knowledge. Overall, we recommend the following for teachers of EBs to push their students to meet goals more on par with their native English-speaking peers:

  1. Start with a good set of norms that are established with the help of the students for using talk respectfully, and for ensuring equitable participation
  2. Utilize culturally relevant texts that provide opportunities for students to see themselves, develop knowledge around a topic or idea, and learn ELA content.
  3. Design high-level tasks that engage students with open-ended questions by utilizing classroom routines that ask students to generate, share, revise, and reflect on thinking.
  4. Have a set of talk moves that serve as tools for accomplishing the established goal(s).
  5. Have a set of mediation tools to support the varied levels of language acquisition represented in the room.
  6. Be willing to accept imperfect language from students as they learn to master English and academic language.

Engaging EBs in complex tasks around challenging texts in English is no simple feat, but with the right tools at teachers’ disposal, we know that it is one they can accomplish. Careful planning and consideration about appropriate texts, student characteristics, and the tasks that best scaffold instruction help facilitate EBs to engage in the kinds of discussions that will not only build English, but also create critical thinkers and speakers.


Garcia, O. , Kleifgen, J. A., and Falchi, L. (2008). From English language learners to emergent bilinguals. (Equity Matters: Research Review No.1)

Resnick, L. B., & Hall, M. W., with the Fellows of the Institute for Learning (2005). Principles of learning for effort-based education. Pittsburgh, PA: Institute for Learning.

Resnick, L., Asterhan, C., & Clarke, S. (Eds.). (2015). Socializing intelligence through academic talk and dialogue. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Fillmore, L. W. (2010). Charting the course of success for English language learners conference: Common Core State Standards implementation. Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Apodaca, R. (2007). Mediating learning for English learners. Unpublished research presented at The General Administrators Meeting in Austin, TX and at The California Association for Bilingual Education, San Francisco, CA.

Filmore, C. J. & Filmore, L. W. (2012). What does text complexity mean for English learners and language minority students? Understanding Language: Stanford University School of Education.

Tagged with: Accountable Talk® Discussions, ELA, Equitable Instruction, High-Leverage Teaching Practices, Multi-Lingual Learner Instruction, Principles of Learning