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  • 440 2007 International Reading Association (pp. 440450) doi:10.1598/RT.60.5.4


    Extending English-language learners classroom interactions

    using the Response Protocol

    The Response Protocol is one way to

    support teachers efforts to increase

    engagement among ELLs in classroom


    In order to be proficient and productive students,English-language learners (ELLs) need manyopportunities to interact in social and academicsituations. Effective teachers encourage their stu-dents participation in classroom discussions, wel-come their contributions, and motivate them bysuch practices (Cazden, 2001; Stipek, 2002).However, many educators often allow their less pro-ficient students to remain silent or to participate lessthan their English-fluent peers (Laosa, 1977;Penfield, 1987; Schinke-Llano, 1983; Wilhelm,Contreras, & Mohr, 2004). I (Mohr, first author) re-cently participated in a study focusing on howmainstream classroom teachers helped Spanish-speaking immigrant students become successful atschool. During the observations, I noticed that theteachers missed many opportunities to help ELLscommunicate in class, allowing them to be less in-volved in oral interactions.

    A byproduct of that study was the analysis presented in this article. We considered what class-room teachers could do to more fully engage ELLs in teacherstudent interactions, especially dur-ing teacher-led question-and-answer sequences.Essentially, teachers can elicit more from the lessproficient or reticent students if they consider vari-ous response options and then enlarge their response

    repertoires in order to encourage students partici-pation and help develop their language proficiencies.

    There are several reasons why ELLs may strug-gle to respond appropriately to teachers promptsand questions. Certainly, not all teacher questionsare clearly understood by students, and, if such is thecase, teachers should rephrase or clarify queries inorder to facilitate student comprehension. Teachersmay also not wait long enough for students to con-sider a question and formulate a response (Nystrand,Gamoran, Kachure, & Prendergast, 1997; Rowe,1974). In addition, while first-language learning islargely motivated by a childs intrinsic desire to so-cialize, second-language learning often needs moreextrinsic influence (Elley & Mangubhai, 1983).Wong Fillmores (1991) model of second-languagelearning identified three motivational componentsthat contribute to student progress: interest from thelearners, proficient speakers who support and inter-act with the learners, and an environment that sup-ports relationships between learners and proficientspeakers. Students may not wish to participate if theteacher expects them simply to recite low-levelknowledge or if the teacher sets low expectations forthe students. Clarity, wait time, higher order think-ing, and higher expectations are factors that influ-ence the quality of teacher interactions with allstudents, but some factors pertain more specificallyto the participation of ELLs.

    Immigrant students may come from culturesthat do not expect students to ask or answer ques-tions during classroom discussions. These studentsoften perceive the teacher to have elevated statusand think that, as students, they should respectfullylistenrather than talkin the company of their

  • Extending English-language learners classroom interactions using the Response Protocol 441

    teachers. Because U.S. classrooms are often lessformal (e.g., teachers sitting on the floor, studentsworking in groups) than their previous educationalenvironments, immigrant students sometimes take awhile to adapt to the typical questionanswer se-quence that is common there. In addition, language-acquisition theory hypothesizes that languagelearners experience an initial silent period, whichis time spent receiving the language as input, priorto developing language-production skills (Krashen& Terrell, 1983; Saville-Troike, 1988). Some teach-ers are aware of these stages and respect thelanguage-acquisition process by not calling on theirELLs. In order to not embarrass or intimidate theirELL students, however, teachers sometimes con-tinue to give dispensations when it comes to re-sponding in class. I have observed that manystudents new to U.S. culture and its educational sys-tem, and students who are timid or reluctant for anyreason, often do not participate readily in class dis-cussions and thereby assume a more passive role inclassroom interactions.

    Typical classroomsWhile classroom discourse events vary, re-

    search has indicated that teacher talk dominatesclassroom communication. Edwards and Mercer(1987) documented that teachers perform 76% ofclassroom talk. Ramirez, Yuen, Ramey, and Merino(1986) categorized teacher talk as consisting of ex-planations, questions, commands, modeling, andfeedback. Other studies of teacher discourse in pri-mary grades indicated that teacher talk is often man-agerial rather than conversational in nature (e.g.,Cummins, 1994). Forestal (1990) noted that 60% ofteacher talk involved asking questions, primarilydisplay questions, which expect students to recallinformation taught previously by the teacher. In onestudy of effective primary teachers of literacy, Mohr(1998) tallied the number of questions asked by theteachers in the study at almost 100 per hour.Therefore, the preponderance of teacher talk and theteachers use of questions continue as factors in howmuch classroom talk time is shared with students;both the quantity and quality of such interactionsdeserve scrutiny. For example, there are differencesbetween direct and indirect instruction; the nature oflarge-group discussion requires more guidance

    from the teacher than do small-group interactions(Johnston, 2004), and English-language learnersmay need different support in their communicationefforts than do fluent English speakers. Thus, as-pects of teacher-led discussions and discourse pat-terns warrant our continued attention.

    Asking and answering questions are typical in-teractions and are expected in most classrooms(Weber & Longhi-Chirlin, 2001). A very commonexchange is referred to as the Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE) sequence (Mehan, 1979), similarto what Tharp and Gallimore (1988) termed recita-tion questioning. However, the IRE routine may notoften be supportive of ELLs because it is a conver-gent process of seeking one right answer. ELLs maynot be able to verbalize that answer in a teacher-expected manner (Fitzgerald, 1993; Jimnez,Garca, & Pearson, 1996). Wells and Chang-Wells(1992) recommended that the third component ofsuch exchanges be feedback, rather than evaluation,so that the teacher does more than praise or evalu-ate the students response. Such feedback canachieve a variety of goalsit can clarify, connect,and elaborate the verbal interactions between teach-ers and students and among students themselves.

    Cazden (2001) differentiated teachers displayquestions from exploratory queries. Display ques-tions have specific and generally agreed-upon an-swers, while exploratory talk is speaking withoutthe answers fully intact (p. 170). Display queriesfunction to confirm the teachers instruction, whilethe latter is more confirming of students as they ex-ercise self-expression and refine their thinking. AsCazden also noted, If the potentialities of class-room discourse, in which students talk more andin more varied ways, are significant for all students,then we have to pay careful attention to who speaksand who receives thoughtful responses (p. 5).

    Another well-recognized discourse structureis the instructional conversation (Goldenberg,1993; Perez, 1996; Stipek, 2002; Williams, 2001).Goldenberg characterized an instructional conver-sation as excellent discussion that is interesting, en-gaging, relevant to students, and discerniblethroughout and that has a high level of participationthat builds upon, challenges, extends, and variesthe roles of the participants (teacher and students).One key role of the teacher in instructional con-versations is what Perez called conversational up-takes, connective comments that respect the student

  • The Reading Teacher Vol. 60, No. 5 February 2007442

    and afford linguistic scaffolds that foster more andbetter discussion of academic topics. As Reyes,Scribner, and Scribner (1999) pointed out, teach-ers who apply the concept of instructional conver-sations embrace the philosophy that talking andthinking go together, and assume that the studentmay have something to say beyond what the stu-dents teacher or peer is thinking or already knows(p. 202). English-language learners may not havesufficient English to readily express complex ideas,so teachers must respond in ways that facilitateELLs efforts to share their thinking and contributetheir voices to classroom communication.

    In academic settings, both questionanswerand conversational formats entail the use of aca-demic language. Even students who are conversa-tionally proficient need exposure to and practicewith academic language in order to function suc-cessfully at school (Daz-Rico, 2004; Weber &Longhi-Chirlin, 2001). This important aspect ofschool success is also known as cognitive academ-ic language proficiency (CALP). Academic lan-guage or CALP in English-speaking classrooms ischaracterized by Latinate vocabulary; subordinategrammatical constructions (e.g., participial phras-es, dependent clauses); less reliance on temporalcurrency (discussing generalizations, rather thanspecific events); and rhetorical and cohesive de-vices, such as conjunctions and figurative language(Wong Fillmore, 2002). These linguistic compe-tencies can be greatly enhanced by wide readingbut are generally not learned apart from schoolingprocesses. It is the teachers responsibility, then, tomodel and support students use of both conversa-tional and academic language structures becausethese are not parallel processes.

    While students command of conversationalfluency is more readily accomplished, proficiencyin academic language appears to take five to sevenyears (Collier, 1989; Cummins, 1981). Academiclanguage is certainly more than vocabulary acqui-sition. Competence in academic English certainlycannot be accomplished without exposure to andpractice with the vocabulary and the structures thatcharacterize the language of school. The teachercan model academic language functions, such asseeking information, comparing, problem solving,and evaluating, and then use classroom interactionsto guide students use of academic talk. The op-portunity to speak academic language before us-

    ing it in written work is important for English-language learners. It should not be assumed thatbeing able to understand academic language as in-put is equal to being able to produce it. Teacherscan provide the support that students need to ac-quire this more formal register via their own mod-eling or think-alouds (Gibbons, 2002; Weber &Longhi-Chirlin, 2001) and then foster the use ofsimilar structures via interactive discussions, al-lowing students to use academic language in con-text.

    Recommended practiceCurrently, there is strong support for socially

    constructed learning, which is based on Vygotskystheory of sociocultural learning (1978). Vygotskyswork, as interpreted by educators, fosters studentsconstruction of knowledge, rather than simple ac-ceptance or reception of transferred information.Accordingly, the teacher serves as a mediator, usinglanguage to support and scaffold student learningwithin a social relationship. An essential tenet ofVygotskys theory is that who we are and how wethink are functions of the social interactions inwhich we participate (Diaz & Flores, 2001). AsGarca (2001) put it, teaching, in this theoreticalview, is perceived as assisted performance....Learning is performance achieved through assis-tance (p. 232). If learning is assisted or well scaf-folded (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976), students canaccomplish tasks and achieve learning that theywould not be able to do on their own. Thus, accord-ing to this theory, the role of the teacher is integralto student learning. It is the teacher who facilitatesthe active transformation of knowledgeor whatCazden (2001) referred to as appropriationandwho supports the students construction of newskills and competencies.

    An important distinction made by Cazden(2001) is that teachers are responsible for both theaffective and academic aspects of effective class-rooms and classroom talk. Teachers can directclassroom discourse so that both these goals aretargeted and supported. For example, teachers canaccept, deny, recast, expand, or encourage elabo-ration of students responses. Success for studentsin culturally diverse classrooms depends on the de-gree to which there are strategies that encourage all

  • students to talk and work together (DeVillar &Faltis, 1991). One strategy (among many) promot-ed by Echevarria and Graves (2003) is the use ofdirect, rather than indirect, questions to promoteclarity. So while instructional talk should be en-gaging, there is a place to use direct questions ofstudents and then facilitate the elaboration of theirresponses as a means to develop academic lan-guage use and motivate them as learners.

    For ELLs especially, the teacher serves as a con-duit for sharing information and scaffolding socialand academic language. Low levels of instructionand low-quality interactions often combine to yieldpoor academic achievement among students who arebusy constructing the meaning of the language andthe content of school. Rich language interactions,however, encourage thinking, social relationships,and expanded language use. As Johnston (2004) ad-monished, we have to think more carefully aboutthe language we use to offer our students the bestlearning environments we can (p. 1).

    Causes for concernDuring the recent research project mentioned

    earlier, I (Mohr, first author) made regular observa-tions of immigrant students newly admitted to apublic elementary school (Mohr, 2004). Onesalient finding of the study of the immigrant stu-dents first year in the school district was the mini-mal time they spent talking, either in whole-class orsmall-group formats. The teachers, although wellintended and courteous to ELLs, were reluctant toengage the newcomers in classroom discussion(Mohr; Wilhelm et al., 2004). The limited oral in-teraction for these immigrants was addressed insubsequent teacher interviews, and the teachersclaimed that they were allowing an extended silentperiod (of nearly 10 months at the point of thestudy) to the new studentsletting them get com-fortable. To observers, however, the studentsseemed neglected. Perhaps the teachers were af-fected by the presence of the researchers, but theteachers were aware that the focus of the study wason the social and academic adjustment of the newimmigrant students, so it was more likely that theteachers paid as much or more attention to thesestudents during the observations than they did oth-erwise. The lack of...


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