Three routines to increase student engagement with multilingual students

As an ELL teacher for over ten years, one of the things I am asked the most about multilingual students by classroom and content teachers is student engagement. Sometimes, the questions are about paying attention, lack of motivation, not completing work, staying silent, or just general worries about whether they understand anything at all. Until I started spending more time in classrooms, I always had a hard time answering this question because I usually saw great engagement from them in my direct instruction in small language groups.

As I learned more about how language is learned – with a combination of comprehensible input and low-stress opportunities for output – I started seeing student engagement as the answer to these questions. Many times in the last two years, as a result of intentional collaboration around how to increase all students’ engagement, I have seen students who were seemingly uninterested and confused become enthusiastic and successful in tasks within many different classrooms.

Read on to find out about three easy-to-implement routines to engage all students in learning in the classroom!

Start by doing something meaningful with learning objectives

We all have read the research from Marzano and other researchers about starting a lesson by setting student learning objectives and providing regular, constructive feedback about them. In short, when students know what is expected of them and why they are doing what they are doing, their learning is enhanced. Better yet, when they can describe what and how they are working towards the objective, it shows deep understanding and makes their learning more sticky. I have known about this research for a little while, but it wasn’t until I started implementing them consistently in my small groups that I realized how profound working objectives to start a lesson could be for increasing student engagement. 

To fulfill district expectations, I have always had objectives posted. But what I learned last year through my consistent practice of doing something with them was unexpected and profound for both me and the teachers I work closely with in classrooms. It is now one of my go-to routines for student engagement and effective learning.

Nancy Motely writes in her book “Small Moves, Big Gains” about the power of doing something with objectives. She says, “This small move disrupts any distractions and prompts students to check into the lesson…and promotes their understanding” (Motley, p.47).   While she lists several quick things you can do to engage with objectives, the one I reach for the most is annotating the student learning objective. It is quick, easy, and low prep.

To annotate objectives, start by having students chorally read the objective with you. At this point, you may not have full student engagement, but it provides a low-risk opportunity to engage with text immediately. Then, ask for student input about a few words that may be “tricky” or new to them. I always circle a word and ask the group, “How else can we say this?” and scribe as they offer suggestions. Try to add in quick drawings (for example, investigate could be a magnifying glass). Watch as students’ lightbulbs go off – this practice automatically engages students right away with the lesson because it is their words that scaffold toward understanding.

Give sentence frames to guide student discussions

Peer-to-peer discussions are not only evidence of student engagement; they help drive motivation, an inclusive environment, and deeper learning. From experience, I also know they can be a management nightmare. One way to support students during discussions so they stay on task, use academic language and vocabulary, and stay engaged is to use sentence stems. 

Using sentence stems helps in three major ways. First, sentence stems give students a place to start, which can lead to less anxiety, attending to the task immediately, and encouraging more thoughtful answers. Using them also helps students to speak in complete sentences and can even encourage complex sentence structures and academic language. Finally, sentence stems can be designed to include important vocabulary. Giving students this scaffold can help encourage all students to participate at some level with their peers, even students who are still learning English or who typically feel anxious about speaking in class.

One tip for using sentence stems that I have started to use consistently is to read the stem chorally together as a group before turning and talking with a peer. Practicing the language together helps all students know what it sounds like, even if they are not reading independently. Making sure everyone knows how to talk about what they are learning can lead to higher student engagement in any classroom. 

Increase student talk by randomizing when calling on students

One of the most effective strategies to increase student engagement is to use routines that help create high accountability and low stakes so students are engaged and not afraid to take risks. If paired with practicing how to talk about learning with sentence stems, randomizing when calling on students is a great way to create an environment where everyone knows that their voice matters and they have an equal chance to be called on to share their answers. This promotes a positive classroom culture where students feel valued and included. 

There are lots of ways to create a routine of randomly calling on students, but the one I use and suggest most often is super simple – writing names on popsicle sticks that can be pulled throughout the day when asking for answers from the class. Assigning student numbers can also be a quick, easy routine that can be paired with spinners or dice that can be found through many free websites. 

The main thing with this routine to remember is that students shouldn’t ever feel like they are embarrassed or put on the spot. They should be encouraged to share answers after they have practiced with their peers using sentence stems or that could be open-ended so there are multiple answers possible. 

These student engagement strategies have led to routines that I use every day with students and have made the classroom a more exciting and enjoyable place to be for all of us. I hope you found something to try to engage students in more meaningful discussions and deeper learning! 

Motley, N. (2022). Small Moves, Big Gains: Teacher Habits That Help Kids to Talk More, Think More, Achieve More, (1st ed.). Seidlitz Education.

Laura McBride

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