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Exploring the Role of Classroom Talk in Supporting the Academic Language Learning of English Learners

Tue, April 21, 8:15 to 9:45am, Virtual Room


Supporting the reading comprehension development of students designated as English Learners (EL) and their English proficient (EP) classmates has primarily focused on increasing opportunities for independent text reading. However, insufficient research has examined classroom environments as contexts for developing the language skills that underpin skilled comprehension (Murphy, Wilkinson, Soter, Hennessey & Alexander, 2009; Ravid & Tolchinsky, 2002). Discussions, in particular, hold potential for promoting knowledge of academic languages (ALs)—or language used for written/oral communication and knowledge co-construction by members of academic communities—for students still developing grade-level reading skills who may not be able to access academic texts independently.
Drawing on social interactionist theories (Vygotsky, 1986), this study examines the impact of teacher-scaffolded class discussion on middle grade EL and EP students’ Core Academic Language Skills (CALS)—or knowledge of high-utility syntax, morphology, text organization structures, connectives, and academic vocabulary used across content areas.
662 4th to 6th graders’ CALS and reading comprehension (RC) skills were assessed in the fall and the spring (grade 4=251 , grade 5=169 , grade 6= 242; EL=60; Spec. Ed.=84; Free and Reduced lunch eligible=585). CALS and RC were captured using psychometrically-valid and reliable measures (Authors, 2015, 2019a).
Classroom discussions were audio-recorded (2 lessons in each of the 34 classroom) and scored using a researcher-designed 5-point (low=1, mid=2-4, high=5) rubric (Assessment of Academic Register Learning Opportunities, AARLO) (Authors, 2019b). The AARLO captures the degree to which classroom-based oral language interactions are equitable and the extent to which they are academically-supportive of ALs use and development. Equitable classroom discussion foster students’ agency as ALs users, while valuing students’ existing competence as communicators in outside-of-school settings. AARLO indicators include use of students’ home language resources, and teacher’s use of strategies that promote student-posed questions, and more distributed participation. Academically-supportive classroom talk is characterized by providing students with frequent exposure to cognitively-engaging content as well as the language needed to communicate it, while also responding to students’ current levels of content and language knowledge. Indicators of this dimension include teacher’s use of supports such as sentence frames, pushing students to produce more precise and concise language or engaging in rephrasing of students’ comments. Two research assistants scored each lesson. The AARLO’s reliability was high (κ = 0.84), though the reliability of specific indicators ranged from κ = 0.60 to 1.
A two-level HLM model was fit that predicted Spring CALS scores when controlling for Fall CALS, Fall reading comprehension level, EL designation, special education designation, and free and reduced lunch (FRL) status. Classroom level variables were also entered into the model (classroom Fall CALS mean, % EL, % special education, %FRL), and grade and school (n=10) were entered as fixed effects. Results revealed a positive significant relation between equitable and academically-supportive discussion and CALS development in EL and EP students (no significant EL *discussion interaction) (coef.=0.105, p=0.051) (Table 1). These results suggest that classroom talk is a globally supportive practice that can be utilized to support EL and EP students.