Target the Talk

by Nancy Motley

Target the Talk

At the end of my first year of teaching, my principal asked what my plans were for the summer. After outlining my still-fuzzy summer agenda, she volun-told me to include getting ESL certified in those plans. She explained that it would be great for my career, that I’d earn a $500 stipend ($84.32 after taxes, right?), and most importantly, that she really needed me to help our English learners next year. Always up for a challenge, I agreed. Despite having had very little professional development regarding English learners, I was a good test taker and earned my certification. Upon returning to school for my second year, I had a class roster that included a majority English learners.  

While I was, admittedly, ill-equipped to meet my students’ linguistic needs, I did know a few things, one of which was that they needed to talk. My English learners would not acquire more English unless they had a chance to use it. Knowing this, I did “think pair shares” and “turn and talks” all the time. Multiple times in each lesson, my students were able to talk with a partner or their table mates about what they were learning. They became less shy, and I felt confident that they were all acquiring more English.  

That second year of teaching was hard work, with many ups and downs, but as my students and I entered “testing season” we were all feeling good. However, the feeling only lasted until I received my students’ TELPAS (Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System) results back. Less than 50 percent of my English learners had increased at least one level in their language proficiency. I was devastated and felt like I had failed them. I was speechless when I saw that even in the speaking domain, only a handful of my hard-working students had demonstrated growth. How could this be? They talked ALL the TIME!!

Talk Isn’t Enough

I wish I could go back to my second-year-teacher self and tell her, “Talk isn’t enough!” The opportunity to speak (which was plentiful in my room) is not equivalent to a structured plan for students to use the language of the lesson. You see, even though my students were talking a lot, they were only using the words in English with which they were comfortable.  

Let’s look at an example. Imagine my class was solving a two-digit by two-digit addition problem (15 + 44) for their math warm up, which is a review of the previous day’s learning. In this scenario, I asked my students to turn to their partner and explain how they solved the problem. Here is what typically happened:

Alicia (to Michael, her partner): Umm…I did 5 and 4 and got 9 and then did this one (pointing to the tens place) for 5, so I got 59.

Michael (at Alicia): Me too. 59.

Did Michael and Alicia do what I asked them to do? Yes…with the words in English that they were comfortable with and already “owned.” Did they acquire more English as a result of this opportunity to talk? I do not believe so.

Target the Talk

In order for our English learners, Michael and Alicia, and any other students to acquire academic English, we’ve got to ensure they are actually using the words and phrases about which they are learning. This is easier to accomplish than you might think. All we have to do is ask them to use them. Simply put, we tell them the words we want to hear right before we ask them to speak. I call this targeting the talk.

Let’s go back to the example above. What are the academic words or phrases I would want to hear? How about “ones place,” “tens place,” “sum,” “equals?” I might want to focus on phrases like “number sentence” or “solved the problem.” So how do I “target their talk” toward these terms? I ask them to use them. Here are some options for how that might sound:

  • Please explain how you solved the problem to your partner. I’m listening for you to use the words “ones place” and “tens place.”
  • When it is your turn, use this stem: “I solved this addition number sentence by…”
  • As you talk with your partner, use the words from our anchor chart. Let’s read them together: “addition,” “equals,” “sum.”

If I had used any of the phrases above, the overwhelming majority of my class would have followed those directions, which would have resulted in each of them actually using the academic English of the lesson.

My “go-to” phrases for targeting student talk:


  • “I’m listening for…”
  • “Use these words…”
  • “Here’s your stem…”
  • “It should sound like this…”


A few less direct ways to target student talk:

  • “Remember to use your words from the ______ (word wall, anchor chart, smart board).”
  • “Open your journals/notes, and use them while you talk.”

Can you imagine how much language our students will acquire if everytime we ask them to speak to each other, we use one of these phrases? When we consistently target student conversation, they not only use the new vocabulary, but they become more comfortable with speaking in a more formal and academic way. We are “normalizing” academic conversation.  

I’d suggest picking one or two of the phrases above and practicing. In order to remember, I like to post these phrases in various places in my room to serve as visual reminders for me to do it. While it might take some practice to build this habit, it is worth the effort. I can promise you that when we target student conversation, we do not end the year with disappointing TELPAS scores. We finish with a classroom full of students who have dramatically increased their proficiency in academic English.


2 thoughts on “Target the Talk

  1. I use a “Say Something” anchor chart that provides students with stems to help with responses. I just need to include the “what I’m listening for” when we use the chart. Thank you.


  2. “target ” is the key. There needs to be purposeful planning to ensure students are learning the target language.


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