"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen."
John Steinbeck, US novelist (1902 - 1968)
When I mentored student teachers I told them, "If I could offer one piece of advice for every teacher — it would be to do think-pair-shares in the class every day." The think-pair-share is a very simple, yet effective technique that allows ELL students time to process their thoughts — often in two languages — which takes more time.
To understand how this works, imagine you are an ELL student and the teacher has just asked the class a question such as, "Why did the ancient Egyptians create pyramids?" Immediately students around the room shoot up their hands and offer answers. As an ELL student, you are still searching your memory banks to translate the words "ancient" and "pyramids." You've finally got the meaning, now you are thinking about the possible answers — again searching your memory for what you've learned in class and read in the textbook. You think you have a viable answer, but you're not sure if it's right or exactly how to say it, and if you make a mistake others might laugh at you.
At this point you may decide to offer an answer, but the teacher has already moved on and asked two new questions. The average wait time for teacher questions is one second! For an ELL student it may become a habit to sit back and listen while others engage in class discussion. While listening to the discussion, the ELL student may or may not understand what is said, and the teacher may be hesitant to call on the student in order to avoid embarrassment.
Steps of a Think-Pair-Share
This kind of situation, where both the student and teacher are hesitating to increase interaction, is the reason why think-pair-share is so effective!
- Ask a thought-provoking question of your class.
- Give students some time to think about the question on their own, as well as the language they will need to respond.
- Have students share their thoughts with a partner; this gives the students the opportunity to 'check out' their answer with another student or hear another possible answer. If confused, the students can ask their peers for help.
- Finally, ask students to share thoughts with the whole group, which serves as a form of accountability for the students. In this discussion/explanation, the teacher gets feedback on what the students do or don't know though informal assessment.
In the example given above, the teacher asks the class,
"Why did the ancient Egyptians create pyramids? Let's do a "think-pair-share." Everyone take a moment and think about the question."
The room is silent for a minute while everyone reflects. At this time the ELL students may be putting together language and content concepts. Next the teacher instructs the students,
"Now turn to the person next to you and tell them what you are thinking."
The ELL student has an opportunity to offer his/her idea in a relatively comfortable setting — perhaps with grammatical errors — or to get more information from his/her partner. This can reinforce the student's confidence in his/her thinking and provide modeling for how to say the idea correctly in English. The teacher lets students share for a couple of minutes and then brings their attention back.
"Okay, I heard lots of good ideas. Who would like to share what you talked about?"
At this point, when students offer an answer, they have had some time to work with the concepts and also may feel that they are not offering the idea "on their own" but as part of a pair, which may not seem so intimidating.
A benefit of the think-pair-share is that the teacher has an opportunity to hear from many students — including the "quiet" ones. I have seen some of my shyest students offer wonderful answers after they had an opportunity to do a think-pair-share. It also gives the teacher the opportunity to observe all the students as they interact in pairs and get an idea of whether all students understand the content or if there are areas that need to be reviewed.
A "circle chat" is another activity for student-to-student interaction that is a little more involved, but always fun and informative. In this activity every student speaks with a variety of partners, which allows for greater exposure to other thoughts and students. I have often used this as a pre-writing exercise to really get my students' imaginations going. Here is a step-by-step guide to the activity. It may be a bit confusing the first time you try it, but once the students get the hang of it, you'll be able to start it easily. For younger students the teacher may want to ask simple questions and make the discussion time much shorter.
- Clear a space in the room large enough for all the students to stand together in two concentric circles.
- Take the total number of students in the room and divide it by half. This is the number of students you will call forward. Let's say in this example it is 10 students.
- The 10 students stand in a circle.
- Call the next 10 students to come forward and form a circle around the first circle of students.
- Tell the students in the inside circle to turn around and face their new partner in the outside circle. Everyone should have a partner. (If there is an odd number of students the teacher may form one group with three students).
- The students will have two minutes to talk to their partners about the question they are asked. The teacher will want to use a bell or another sign to get the students' attention when the two minutes are up.
- At the two minute signal, the teacher asks student in the outside circle (make sure students understand that only the "outside" circle moves) to take one step to the left. Now each student has a new partner to talk to.
- Continue this process — asking a new question each time new pairs are formed — until the students have worked their way around the circle.
This activity is quite noisy and usually generates energy and laughter. For some pairs — quieter students, emerging English speakers, or those without much to share on the question — the conversation may be short and teachers may observe them standing quietly waiting for the bell to signal a change to a new partner. This is okay, because new partners and new questions bring new opportunities to interact. Teachers may also enjoy circulating among pairs as they talk in order to hear what great ideas students are sharing.
Creating an interactive classroom environment is very important to the success of ELL students. Just as it would be difficult to become a good piano player by listening to someone play, with no opportunity of your own to practice, ELL students need more opportunities to practice language skills in an academic environment in order to become more successful students. When teachers create a variety of opportunities for students to interact and use English, language and content learning is accelerated.
This site has short, helpful tips for the educator in a hurry. It offers an overview of a variety of techniques to improve the ELL student's learning experience.
On About.com's Secondary Education website, you can find many icebreaker ideas for starting the school year and new classes. Many activities can be used for the elementary level, as well.
This site offers many intriguing photos, including a photo of the day, news photos, photo gallery, and short video clips. These can be useful for supporting content instruction, fostering dialogue with emerging English speakers, and creating writing prompts.
Provides ideas for a variety of interactive student activities, such as information gap, ordering and sorting, problem-solving, and conversation grids.