More Talk = Better Relationships

Dear Dr. Mooney, 

Our school year wrapped up just a week ago, but I’m already thinking about August. Isn’t that crazy?!  Don’t get me wrong. I definitely need a break, particularly with as challenging a year as this one. However, I’ve decided that one thing I need to do this summer is find ways to help my ELs feel more included in our class next year. With the different teaching modalities we had this year, it was quite difficult for students to get to know one another. It seemed to me that ELs who feel more comfortable with their classmates tend to make more language progress. The problem is that some students are just so shy I’m not sure how to help them make friends. Do you have any suggestions?

Tired and Searching

Dear Tired & Searching,

Congratulations on making it through this school year. Challenging is a mild way of describing it! It’s actually encouraging, not crazy, that you’re already thinking about next year. I think that means you have found your calling!

I agree that students who are more comfortable interacting with their peers generally make more language progress. Dr. Stephen Krashen would say that their affective filters are lower, thus the comprehensible input is becoming intake for them. They are able to acquire language!

One of the hardest things to do as a teacher is to watch as students are left out of their classmates’ interactions. Sometimes it’s intentional, but often it’s not. Students simply are more drawn to certain classmates than others. Once they find a few friends, they tend to keep the circle small.

This can be very obvious when it’s time to choose partners or small groups for an activity. I never liked that myself as a student, because if my one best friend was absent, I wondered if anyone would be willing to be my partner. 

One way around this is to assign partners or small groups yourself. This way, you can better mix language and academic abilities, as well as personalities. You might also consider creating static groups in your class. Require students to form the same small groups throughout the month. This way, there’s no question about who will be in the group, or who their partner will be. ELs can benefit from this arrangement because it can also allow them to become more comfortable with those in their small group. New friendship bonds may develop that would not have otherwise.

I actually use this strategy in my university courses because even in college, people tend to stick with the same friends! I purposefully mix students that I think will work well together, but that don’t already seem to be connected. Sometimes this works really well, but at other times, I have very silent groups. With the availability of technology, four students will sit at the same table before class starts, all staring at their phones while ignoring the human beings sitting a foot away!

In order to encourage students to get to know one another, I started posting Table Talk Ideas on my opening PowerPoint slide. I asked students to put away their phones during class and recommended they use the Table Talk Idea if they didn’t have something else to talk to about in their group.

It was amazing how much students began to talk more with each other. At the end of the semester many commented they didn’t like the “random” small groups at the beginning but later realized the benefit of getting to know others. It wasn’t always a success, but for the most part, getting to know classmates on a personal level led to increased communication about academic tasks during class.

Table Talk Ideas is something you could incorporate into your class in a developmentally appropriate way. Choose questions that you know your students can discuss and then post 1-2 at the front of the classroom each day. You might need to practice using them together at first with a whole class discussion, but then turn the responsibility over to students and their groups. Even if your ELs are reluctant to talk at first, they will be learning about their classmates in a more personal way as they listen. When they hear something that resonates with them, they may be more willing to speak up and show how much they have in common. You likely can’t imagine the benefits that could result!

Below are a couple of Table Talk Ideas I used…

  • What was the last funny video you saw?
  • What’s your perfect weekend?
  • What do you bring with you wherever you go?
  • What is something popular now that annoys you?
  • Would you rather be covered in fur or covered in scales?
  • Would you rather live on a sailboat or in an RV?
  • Would you rather have to eat with only a fork or only a spoon?

And here are some resources where you can find more…

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