If we think about our earliest experiences with language, we first developed spoken language by listening to others, trying to name objects and ask for things you wanted, and eventually engaging in short conversations while you built some command over the spoken word. Reading and writing followed but were built on a strong foundation of verbal fluency.
This same pattern holds true for English Language Learners. Their first step in learning English is through speaking, and of course listening to others who are fluent. While learning vocabulary and recitation have a role in language development, equally important is the opportunity for English Language Learners to hear English spoken naturally in academic conversations, and to respond as they build their English knowledge and skills.
What does this mean for the school principal? When you are observing classrooms, pre- and post-conferencing with teachers or talking informally about instruction and learning, you want to emphasize for your faculty that English Language Learners must have significant daily opportunities to practice and increase verbal fluency. This can only happen when students are engaged in active learning where student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction are encouraged.
You might ask your teachers some reflective questions, such as how much time each day is allocated to student academic conversation, in what ways do lessons allow students to share ideas and solve problems together, how frequently students are asked to generate questions and look for answers together, and how student self-assessment, not just written but verbal is built into learning activities. You also want to ask teachers to examine the balance of teacher and student talk in the classroom; your observations can provide teachers with data to make that determination. Finally, you want to assure teachers that you are not expecting quiet classrooms with only the teacher’s voice and students quietly working on assignments. You understand that for English Language Learners to develop verbal fluency they must have the chance to practice spoken language in meaningful ways.