About the Author

Kerry Enright is an Associate Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of California, Davis. Her research interests in academic language and literacy are informed by her years teaching mainstream and bilingual high school students in Massachusetts and California.

Increasing Participation in Whole-Class Discussions


Classroom discussions provide important learning opportunities for students in history classrooms, helping learners to articulate central ideas, develop and compare points of view, and assess the value of different types of textual evidence—all important skills noted in the History/Social Studies Common Core Standards. English learners can bring a wealth of unique culturally-based histories and experiences from different parts of the country and world. Teachers of English learners often find that these students participate fully in pair or group work (especially if classroom talk is structured and supported), but become silent in whole-class discussions. Preparing for whole class discussions is especially important for these students! There are many strategies and activities to support discussions in history classrooms, but these strategies will only work if they are matched to the reason for EL students' non-participation. Three kinds of factors can explain the limited participation of English learners in whole-class discussions:

  1. Second language development issues;
  2. Different cultural and academic backgrounds; and,
  3. Social context of the classroom and participation structures.
Determining the Cause

Determining the cause of low English learner participation will help you to select the right strategies for increasing participation. Second language development might impact an English learner's participation if she doesn't understand the discussion prompt or question, or can't keep up with the pace of the discussion. Cultural and academic background factors might also impact participation. For example, the discussion prompt might presume background knowledge that English learners don't share or they may have experienced different norms for classroom participation in their countries of origin. Social context and participation structures may impede ELs participation if they've been ridiculed for speaking with accented or flawed English in the classroom, or if they haven't had a chance to practice using the content-related terms in safer settings. The Participation Strategies Resource lists several factors in each of these categories that can hinder English learners' participation in whole-group discussions. Next to each factor, the Participation Strategies Resource describes instructional strategies that address this participation concern. In most cases, a combination of factors is preventing English learners from participating. Carefully observe student behavior and make ongoing efforts to get to know your students and you can identify the most likely causes and select participation strategies accordingly. The participation strategies resource can help you design instruction that promotes greater EL participation in whole class discussions.

Classroom Example

Students in Mr. Lin's classes have been examining primary sources to understand the roles of religion in American history (click here for related lesson plan). The Participation Strategies included by Mr. Lin are noted below, and explained in the Participation Strategies Resource. Most of Mr. Lin's classes are mainstream classes with a handful of English learners with intermediate to advanced English proficiency. The writing of these students has some flaws in the English, but it is comprehensible. He generally elicits student background knowledge with a quick-write prompt at the beginning of each class. For the first two days of this unit, Mr. Lin's prompts are:

    • How has religion shaped American history, values, or culture? Give as many examples as possible.
    • How has religion shaped the history, values, or culture of a country outside the United States? Give as many examples as possible.

Information from students' responses helps Mr. Lin to build connections to students' background knowledge (see CAD 1) during whole-group discussions. By having students share their quick-write answers, first in pairs and then with the whole class, Mr. Lin is able to generate key terms and ideas to put on the board, kept visible throughout the unit. This helps students who are still learning the language (see SLD 5), as well as students who simply need a chance to practice using these terms orally in pairs or small groups to develop confidence to share with the whole class (see SCPS 4). As students read, analyze, and discuss their primary sources, they add to these terms for future reference. Before whole-class discussions, Mr. Lin reminds students of their Classroom Discussion Norms, as noted in SCPS 2. He also writes the specific purpose of the discussion (CAD 3) on the board: To note the impact of various religions on U.S. history and culture. He reminds them that they are not evaluating religions, but analyzing their contributions and impact. He encourages students to share comparisons to other religions and countries when relevant. Finally, he paces the discussion carefully so that English learners can keep up (SLD 3) by pausing frequently to have students paraphrase and summarize, by noting key ideas on the overhead, and by encouraging students to ask and answer clarification questions (SLD 4). ADAPTATION: Mr. Lin's 3rd-period class includes English learners with beginning to low-intermediate proficiency in English. Their writing isn't always comprehensible in English, so the quick-write isn't appropriate to elicit background knowledge. Instead, Mr. Lin has students fill out K-W-L charts in small groups about connections between religion and history or culture in different countries. He tells students to note the specific country in parentheses after each entry, doing a few together as a whole class to model the activity for them.