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Encouraging some students to talk in class

Local students learning English get results from group discussions

POSTED: February 2, 2013 12:07 a.m.

A small group of students sat around a table Friday morning reading about World War II.

As the students discussed what they had read, they realized they were helping each other learn.

"It helps me learn more if we talk about it," said Chandler Dial Watson, a fifth-grade student at Centennial Arts Academy,

"If I don’t get everything, maybe they’ll help me understand it better."

Which is exactly what his teacher, Heather Weiser, is trying to do.

Weiser said acting as a facilitator in classroom discussions helps her to better see which students are grasping the material and which need more help.

Weiser is one of 90 third- and fifth-grade teachers in Northeast Georgia, including several in Hall County and Gainesville City school systems, who are participating in a two-year study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia College of Education.

The $2.9 million research project funded by the Institute of Education Sciences examines the effectiveness of the Instructional Conversation teaching method in improving English languages learners’ achievements toward Common Core standards.

Researchers are seeking a final group of teachers to commit to the two-year study. Teachers who participate are provided with $1,000 to $3,000 in compensation and trained in the method’s strategies. Teachers will receive weekly coaching and support for one year.

Any elementary school administrator, third- or fifth-grade teacher who is interested in participating in the project should contact the college by Feb. 15. Teachers can sign up online at www.coe.uga.edu/clase/confirmation-of-interest-form/.

"Current instruction often fails to connect with immigrant children’s learning potential and doesn’t make the most of the cultural capital these children bring to our education system," Pedro Portes, executive director of the College of Education’s Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education.

The method involves encouraging students to discuss lessons, not just with their teachers but with each other.

Michelle Smallwood, a third-grade teacher at Chicopee Woods Elementary, said she was encouraged to participate in the program in order to help her school’s high number of students learning English.

"(Students) can learn so much from one another," Smallwood said. "Especially English-language learners that can help one another make connections through their language and culture. Giving them time to talk is one of my main goals. Many times it is ‘turn and talk’ to your neighbor about what you know or have learned or it’s a whole class conversation."

Dallas Thompson, a fifth-grade teacher at Centennial Arts Academy, said she’s noticed the difference in her classroom since participating the study.

"They’re able to hold a conversation about an important topic in a way that is both polite and useful," Thompson said. "The primary focus is not necessarily on just talking but on listening to and understanding what your classmates are saying. Then adding to that conversation in a meaningful way."

While the study is aimed at improving outcomes for students whose first language isn’t English, teachers find that the method helps all students. They say it has helped some shy students speak up and helped outgoing students learn to listen.

"The primary focus is not necessarily on just talking but on listening to and understanding what your classmates are saying," Thompson said. "Then adding to the conversation in a meaningful way."

If the students aren’t discussing the topic correctly, teachers are there to help redirect the conversation and make sure students aren’t sharing misinformation.

Thompson said she finds it’s easier to assess student understanding by listening to them talk to one another about a topic. In the past, she would have had to use assignments and tests.

"On a multiple choice test, a student could guess and the results from that assessment would be misleading," Thompson said. "However, you can’t fake understanding for long in a conversation. Especially not if your classmates and your teacher prod you for more information."


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