Think-Pair-Share in the world of EAL

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When I was working in ELT I never called it Think-Pair-Share. It was just called pair work or group work. Now that I work in an international school I’ve learned a new name for it. Same simple but genius idea! However, it’s not always as easy as it seems… especially when you are an EAL student who is new to the language and/or the school! So what can be done to make it useful for all students, not just the majority? How can Think-Pair-Share be scaffolded to provide valuable classroom discussion practice for even those learners whose English is at the lower end of the scale? Let’s have a look!

Photo by Dulcey Lima

What is Think-Pair-Share?

TPS is a learning strategy that gives learners a chance to do as the name suggests: think about the question, discuss it with a partner before sharing the ideas with the whole class. All three stages are very important here: learners need time to think before they speak so that they can give a more detailed and extended answer. Giving them the chance to talk to a partner first helps to lower their affective filters by boosting their self-confidence that they have something to say as well as give them more ideas. Last but not least, sharing their thoughts with the whole class makes this a more meaningful and more important activity. If I know I might be called upon to share my thoughts, I will put more effort into the task in the first place.

How TPS often falls short of including EAL learners

I see TPS in many classrooms and that’s a good thing! However, I often see it done in a way that doesn’t take the needs of EAL students into consideration. On the surface, TPS seems like the perfect strategy to make learning more inclusive to EAL learners, but only if it’s done right. What often ends up happening is that the question prompt itself is unnecessarily too wordy and too complex – much like instructions tend to be (if you want to avoid that, click here).

Consider the following scenario:

Teacher: OK, so last week we talked about the process of pollination: the role of the different parts of plants and the different insects play in it. Now I want you to take a moment to think about what you remember about the process of pollination and share it with a partner. Ready? Here we go! So think for a moment. Maybe close your eyes. You can even take notes if you want to. Ok? Well done! Now turn to a partner and share your thoughts.

EAL student: ?!?!?!? What was the question?! I have nothing to say… I’ll just stay silent and hope I won’t have to speak up later. Maybe I should ask to go to the toilet…

Photo by Luis Villasmil

Do you see the problem? The poor student has too many words to process and not enough time to do it. It’s all spoken language which makes it even more challenging especially if spoken fast. There is no written record to refer to and no prompts to help the thinking process along. Not to mention that there was literally no time for the thinking to take place. Sure, most of what the teacher said were just time fillers (possible because the teacher is intimidated by silence in the classroom?!) but an EAL learner doesn’t know that – or rather they haven’t had time to figure that out. For an EAL student, almost every word uttered by a teacher presents itself as important information. They don’t have the benefit of effective filtering yet as they haven’t mastered the language.

Another frequent problem is that the pair and share stages aren’t scaffolded linguistically. Unfortunately, EAL students won’t be able to discuss or share their thoughts even if they know what to say unless they get help with how to say it. Again, consider the scenario:

EAL student: I know what pollination is but I don’t know the words for the parts of the plant in English. My partner is talking at me and asking me questions but I don’t know how to respond. How do I tell them to slow down? Can I ask them to give me time to use Google Translate? Oh, now the teacher is already calling on people to share… I hope I don’t have to. And my partner seems mad at me…

Possible solutions

So how can we make TPS work better for EAL learners? Here are a couple of ideas that have worked for me:

  1. Provide a written record of the prompt. You can display it on the board, share it on your screen, stick it on a handout as long as it’s there for the entire activity so that your students can refer to it.
  2. Display the key words or provide a glossary. Try dedicating a bit of classroom real estate to the key words of the unit or topic you are working on. It can be done as a collaborative project by your learners. Or have them write them down into their notebooks and refer to them regularly. Maybe the coursebook you use has a glossary for every unit, even better. The key here is that you need to ensure your learners are using these scaffolds to their advantage. Pro tip: allow time for EAL learners to transalte these into their L1s the first time they see them.
  3. Provide a written scaffold for the activity. It’s always a good idea to have a handout or a Jamboard slide with written scaffolds for each stage of the TPS. Here is a simple example that’s easy to adapt. Handouts like these help students stay on task and give each stage a specific focus and an aim to work towards. After the activity, it can serve as a good written record of what had been discussed and students can stick it into their notebooks to refer to at a later stage.
  4. Give enough thinking time. This is essential for success! State the prompt and then give your students some time to really think. Set a relaistic time limit for this and stick to it. Depending on the complexity of the promt you might give them a few minutes. It’s not a good idea to hurry students here but it’s equally important not to stretch this stage too long. Pro tip: stay silent or minimise noise and distractions during this stage so that your learners can really focus on their thoughts.
  5. Provide EAL students with sentence starters or substitution tables to scaffold the Pair stage. If learners have some sentence stems to work from, they will be more likely to contribute their ideas. Give these out during or before the think stage so that EAL learners can start transferring their thoughts into the target language.
  6. Monitor the Pair stage closely to know who to nominate during the Share stage. It can boost students’ confidence when they can make valuable contributions to whole-class discussions. However, being put on the spot might make EAL learners panic. Monitor closely so that you know which of your learners have been able to contribute fluently and what questions you should ask from them.
  7. Be intentional about the pairs. All pairs should be able to work well together and feel comofrtable to share their ideas. EAL learners need partners who can help them, so pair them up with someone who has the patience to wait for them. It’s also a good idea to give them a partner with the same L1 so that they can use translanguaging as a scaffold. Or you might want to pair them up with a language role model or even their buddy.

These are just some ideas that have successfully helped my learners and the beauty of them is that they help ALL learners, not just the EAL ones. Because, you know, good EAL teaching is good for everyone!

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