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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 28

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Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: How can I ensure that my English language learners have the opportunity to engage in rigorous academic discourse?

As we discussed in our answer to Question 11 of this blog series, it’s critical that students have an opportunity to talk to each other about their academic content. If students only ever answer questions from their teachers, critical learning opportunities and, for English language learners, critical opportunities for language acquisition, are lost. In that post, we focused on the power of protocols to provide a structure for academic discourse. Here we focus on Conversation Cues as a structure to engage and support English language learners and their peers in thoughtful and extended academically oriented conversations.


“Conversation Cues have been one of the single most important drivers of equity at all grade levels in all subjects.”

–Sarah Mitchell, Instructional Coach, Lead Academy, Greenville, South Carolina


Conversation Cues are questions teachers can ask students to promote productive and equitable conversation, helping to gauge students’ thinking and understanding. The questions encourage students to have productive discussions and generate new ideas. Conversation Cues are based on four goal that encourage each student to:

  • (Goal 1) Talk and be understood (e.g., “I’ll give you time to think and sketch or discuss this with a partner” and “Can you say more about that?”)
  • (Goal 2) Listen carefully to one another and seek to understand (e.g., “Who can repeat what your classmate said?”)
  • (Goal 3) Deepen thinking (e.g., “Can you figure out why the author wrote that phrase?”)
  • (Goal 4) Think with others to expand the conversation (e.g., “Who can explain why your classmate came up with that response?”)

By introducing Conversation Cues one goal at a time, you can slowly build the capacity of all students to engage in rich, collaborative discussions. For example, some students who are shy, introspective, or have less knowledge or language ability in some contexts may respond more readily to a Goal 1 Conversation Cue: “I’ll give you time to think and write or sketch,” while other students may be willing and able to respond to a Goal 4 cue: “How is what Lupe said the same as or different from what Young Bin said?”

This video features four practices that support English language learners. Go to minute 3:20 to find the spot where Conversation Cues are featured.


Conversation Cues help all students begin to think deeply about the material, to explain their thinking, and to learn to listen to various points of view as they consider the material. You can encourage students to gradually begin using appropriate Conversation Cues themselves, along with other discussion conventions, to expand their independent interactions with their peers. The four tables below show a complete set of Conversation Cues.




Conversation Cue goals are adapted from Sarah Michael’s and Cathy O’Connor’s Talk Science Primer, Cambridge, MA: TERC, 2012. http://inquiryproject.terc.edu/shared/pd/TalkScience_Primer.pdf. Based on: Chapin, S., O’Connor, C., and Anderson, N. (2009). Classroom Discussions: Using Math Talk to Help Students Learn, Grades K–6. Second Edition. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions Publications.


For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: ELcurriculumblog@eleducation.org.