Mistakes are expected, respected, and inspected.
Because many ELLs experience language-related embarrassment, anxiety, and fear of making mistakes that can impede their willingness to communicate (Pappamihiel, 2002, 2016), repositioning mistakes as part of successful learning can alleviate these emotions and remove barriers to participation. Mistakes by students in class—either linguistic or mathematical—are valuable and essential to the learning process for everyone, and can be positively reframed as opportunities to “grow your brain.”
Develop Communication Structures & Routines
Beyond conveying that imperfect communication is still important communication, teachers can share other norms and routines to help facilitate classroom discourse. One strategy is to establish voice volume expectations (Level 0 is silence, Level 1 is for small group talk, and Level 2 is public-speaking volume which the entire class can hear); another is to use bring-backs—or call-and-response techniques such as “clap once if you can hear me”—to transition students between activities.
Educators can also teach students how to interact with one another in small groups and engage in standards-based mathematical practices, such as explaining individual and group thought processes, asking questions to other students, creating viable arguments, and critiquing the reasoning of others. Many literacy strategies, such as paired readings and ‘think-alouds,’ provide opportunities for students to have specific roles in the learning process. These roles serve to distribute conversational responsibility across all students as well as to “translate” mathematical language into more student-friendly language.
Some Agile Mind teachers organize their class using a “back and forth” style where students spend the majority of time working in small groups, and frequently come back together as a whole class before returning to groups. This modified think-pair-share is often initiated by the teacher posing a question, then saying, “just think silently for 10 seconds, silent Level 0 [10-second pause]. Okay, go.” This silence gives all students time to both develop initial understanding and prepare to produce language before being expected to speak, rather than creating situations in which English-fluent students contribute quickly while ELLs are still interpreting the question.
Routines like these enable all students to engage in academic talk and to quickly and seamlessly transition between activities. This collective effort reinforces the understanding that everyone is learning something new and together establishing a new set of expected behaviors for the class. In this way, ELLs are not positioned as outsiders who are unfamiliar with the language and culture of the class, but rather as fellow insiders and knowers who understand the local language and customs.
After learning teamwork and communication norms, students can apply these ideas in all their classroom every day. Unlike many activities and strategies that are used in isolated lessons, these routines are deeply embedded in the classroom culture: they are used every day, several times a day – and give structure to student interactions and participation.