Structures for Safety, Structures for Learning (Part I)

“We woke to the sound of guns.”  That’s how one of my students started a personal narrative in which she described getting fired on by rebel soldiers while she was living in a refugee camp in the Congo.  If you’ve taught English Learners, you may have read similar narratives.  No matter who we teach, we’ve all heard troubling stories- less dramatic, perhaps, but still filled with sadness and pain.  As teachers, it can be difficult to know how or if we can help, especially since we need to ensure that students learn as much as possible.

Debbie Zacarian recently posted a blog post on “ELs Living With Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress.”

She suggests that teachers should:

Draw from students’ strengths intentionally to help them to manage new (1) activities, (2) behaviors, and (3) language until they are able to engage in these on their own. Provide modeling, student practice opportunities, and a gradual release of supports… Consistently providing a model of expected behavior (e.g., how to engage in a paired or small group task) and providing students with multiple practice opportunities to apprentice into these behaviors using paired and small group learning as a primary method.”

What might that look like, in practice? Helping students apprentice into behaviors and language learning while providing consistent procedures that help students feel safe and ensure collaboration can feel like a lot.  Below you’ll see some procedures, along with ways to structure and introduce them, that might help.  Some of them might be things you already do- you may just not have thought of them in this particular way.


What, think-pair-shares count?  Absolutely!

What It Is:

Think-pair-shares are pretty much exactly as they sound. Students get a chance to:

  1. Think.  This might include reading or writing.
  2. Pair up.
  3. Share their thoughts with each other.
  4. Share with the class in some way.

How This Structure Promotes Safety:

Think-pair-shares are a go-to practice for me because they ensure think time.  They also take some of the pressure off ELL students who may feel nervous about speaking in front of others, ensuring rehearsal time before any public sharing with a larger group.  They can be used at almost any time, with almost any question, and their repeatability helps students feel the classroom is predictable and safe.

How This Structure Supports Language Learning for ELLs:

This structure gives everyone in the class a chance to speak and therefore a chance to appropriate academic language while practicing oral communication and listening skills.

Using a Gradual Release Model to Introduce and Continue the Structure:

Students are often used to this structure, but they may be shy about sharing with particular students.  I’ll often do a quick little warm-up to break the ice, especially at the beginning of the year.  For example, I might have them share the number of brothers and sisters they have, then have the person with, say, the fewest siblings share first.  At the beginning, and whenever we’re working with new academic language and vocabulary, I also like to give students sentence starters and a word list to support their language acquisition and give them a “safety net.”

In addition, in order to ensure gentle accountability and so that students will be sure to listen to each other, I let them know that I’ll be asking a few students to share what their partner said with the class.  This also takes some pressure off English Language Learners, since they won’t be sharing their own thoughts.  Since students may not be used to being held accountable for listening to one another, I might have them review what each person said and rehearse what to say in preparation for sharing.  Later, once students are used to the expectation, I may simply remind them periodically, although I may return to rehearsing if the academic language required is especially new and challenging.  As students become increasingly familiar with the structure, the academic language required, as well as listening to each other, I’ll remove the scaffolds I mentioned above.  I’ll also increase the challenge by asking more difficult questions, with a longer time to respond and discuss.

Round Robin

Round-robins are a way to ensure that everyone in a small-group discussion has a chance to share.

What It Is:

  1. Students form a small group, ideally facing each other.
  2. The teacher shares a question or prompt and gives some think time.
  3. One by one, students share their responses.  Students go in order around the circle.  No one may pass, but students may reiterate or agree with what someone else said.
  4. There’s no discussion until everyone has shared.  Then, discussion happens freely.
  5. For accountability, I also like to ask a few people to share something interesting a group member said.

How This Structure Promotes Safety:

Just like with think-pair-shares, round robins take some of the pressure off English Language Learners who may not be ready to share an answer with the whole class.  It’s also repeatable in many contexts, making class feel more predictable and safe.

How This Structure Supports Language Learning for ELLs:

This protocol also ensures that all students have a chance to speak and practice oral and academic language skills.  The possibility of reiterating or agreeing with what someone else has said legitimizes the more peripheral participation of English Language Learners who are just starting to appropriate academic language skills.

Using a Gradual Release Model to Introduce and Continue the Structure:

I start by discussing why we use a round robin structure and emphasize the importance of ensuring everyone has a chance to participate and practice their skills.  I’ll use many of the same techniques I do with think-pair-shares, including brief ice-breakers, sentence starters, vocabulary lists, and asking students to share what someone else said.  Modeling is particularly important with this structure, as students often don’t realize or forget about sharing individually with no discussion.  After students are used to the structure, I encourage them to lengthen their sharing and continue their discussions for longer, initially giving them discussion sentence starters to help them do so.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 9.32.41 AM

Round robins and think-pair-shares may seem like deceptively simple structures.  But when deployed thoughtfully and well, they can provide predictable and safe routines that help English Language Learners develop their skills.  More protocols soon!


Literacy Coach for New Tech Network

Posted in English Language Learners
One comment on “Structures for Safety, Structures for Learning (Part I)
  1. […] I noted in Part I of this post, Debbie Zacarian recently challenged us to support “ELs Living With Trauma, […]

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