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Providing ELLs robust, authentic opportunities to practice speaking English

"Talking Circles" encourage ELLs to practice their English-speaking skills
"Talking Circles" encourage ELLs to practice their English-speaking skills

Traditionally, English Language Learners (ELLs) received language instruction in isolation, separate from their English-speaking peers. Not only have ELLs been segregated from their native English-speaking classmates, they also lacked opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation with other ELLs. This is confirmed by Ernst (1994): “language classrooms are often said to provide little opportunity for student-generated talk and meaningful use of language” (Ernst, 1994). No longer are schools bound by these antiquated practices, as teachers can give their second language learners robust, authentic experiences practicing English, both with other language learners, as well as English-speaking students.

“Talking Circles”: Opportunities to practice with other English Language Learners

A teacher-led “talking circle”, which is a group activity that encourages ESL (English as a Second Language) students to talk and interact with each other (Ernst, 1994), provides English Language Learners a comfortable environment in which to engage in meaningful dialogue with other ELLs. While it is important to provide ELLs with opportunities to learn from their English-speaking peers, it is equally important to give them a platform where they feel a sense of comfort. Working with students to whom they can relate, free from the comparative pressures of native English speakers, allows ELLs to take risks and make mistakes.

Mixed-Ability grouping: A mutually beneficial partnership

In mixed-ability grouping, English Language Learners and native English speakers form cooperative learning teams. The goal of mixed-ability grouping for ELLs is to provide the second language learners with opportunities to engage in conversation with their English-speaking peers. Doing this gives ELLs exposure to positive English-speaking role models. In exchange, the native English speakers receive valuable experiences in diversity. If conducted properly, mixed-ability grouping promotes acceptance and empathy among students of different backgrounds. As with “talking circles”, teachers must be present and active in these mixed-ability groups if they are to be successful.

Having a balanced approach to teaching English to second language learners requires experiences in both settings. Affording ELLs opportunities to practice speaking English in homogeneous and heterogeneous groups will increase their English-speaking skills.


Ernst, G. (1994). "Talking circle": Conversation and negotiation in the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 28(2), 293.

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