In the classroom, the ability of students to provide explanations while talking to the teacher is an important skill. I looked closely at what English learners are able to do with their emerging English in a school setting while I was working on my dissertation in California. Among my findings, I found that when situations called for students to provide an explanation, the teacher wasn’t always successful in supporting student talk. Let me give you an example.
During one of my visits, Ms. Nielson and her fourth grade class were chorally reading a story about young detectives who land a new case investigating why a garbage can is making gasping sounds. The client suspects there might be a monster inside the garbage can.
Ms. Nielson pauses the reading and asks the class if they think there’s a monster inside the garbage can. Some students say yes; others say no.
A student named Olivia says no, and this interaction follows:
Why DON’T you think that there’s a monster inside Olivia?
[Two second pause] Because, um . . .
By asking why, Ms. Nielson is asking for a reason-giving explanation. Olivia’s use of because in her reply directly signals that she will provide a reason-giving explanation. She uses the conversational device um commonly used to buy thinking time.
Why do you think the garbage can is making all the gurgling noises?
In her attempt to help Olivia, Ms. Nielson latches onto the beginning of her explanation and changes the question from “Why don’t you think there’s a monster inside?” to “Why do you think the garbage can is making all the gurgling noises?” In doing so, Ms. Neilson changes her question from why something is not to why something is. This type of question change requires Olivia to construct a different response.
After a generous eight-second pause, Ms. Nielson attempts to help by changing her question again. This time the question changes from a why question to a what question.
What do you think is going on in the garbage can? What’s your prediction?
Olivia’s response now requires a shift from explaining why she thinks the garbage can is making gurgling noises to telling what she thinks is happening inside the garbage. Ms. Nielson immediately follows with another shift, a shift to telling what she thinks will happen in the story.
Ms. Nielson provides a sentence starter to assist Olivia’s response.
I think the garbage can’s gasping because . . .
At this point, Ms. Nielson expands on the sentence starter and gives Olivia more pieces to help her construct an appropriate response. The scaffold, however, changes the appropriate and expected response once more. Instead of supporting a response communicating a prediction, Ms. Nielson’s sentence starter is now setting the stage for the reason why the garbage can is making gasping noises.
I think the garbage can is gasping because, um . . . [Two-second pause, while Olivia clears her throat] Um . . .
Complete your sentence. What do you think, what do you think’s going on?
Maybe there, there’s a . . . a
After a four second pause, Ms. Nielson moves on to another student. The entire exchange lasted just a little more than a minute.
This excerpt shows how Ms. Nielson’s sincere attempts to scaffold an explanation from Olivia misfire. It’s something that many of us — including teachers experienced in working with English learners — might do in similar circumstances.
If we believe our students are struggling, we try to help by providing scaffolds. Like Ms. Nielson, we might phrase the question a different way or provide a sentence starter. But, as we saw above, supporting student talk takes more than using the strategies in our toolkit. It requires us to think carefully about how the scaffolds we’ve provided influence student responses.
Ms. Nielson and Olivia are not alone. I am sure that I’ve had similar exchanges with my students. You might have, too. And while Olivia was identified as an English learner, similar exchanges likely happen with non-English learners, too. So what do we do now?
Next time you find yourself shifting your question to aid a student response or use sentence starters ask yourself:
- When I rephrase a question, does it prompt the same response or am I asking a completely different question?
- Do the sentence starters I’m asking students to use fit the question I asked them to answer?
Come back here and share. Let’s make sure our “scaffolds” are supporting students and not getting in the way.