Developing Educator Expertise to Work with Adolescent English Learners

Module 3 – Shifts in Our Understanding of Second Language Learning: From the Teaching of Oral Skills to the Development of Oracy: A Focus on the Conversation with Alice Stott

By Aída Walqui

OVERVIEW    |    INTRODUCTION    |    PART 1    |     PART 2    |     REFERENCES

Part 1: Twenty First Century Needs and Changing Views of Oral Development

Activity 1.1: What dispositions and skills do English Learners and all students need to develop in school? Read – Think – Annotate

Participants will engage in: individual reading and annotating

Duration: Approximately 3 minutes

The World Bank, an organization with 189 member countries, has the dual mission of ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity in sustainable ways in developing countries. You will read and critique the definition of adult literacy that the World Bank proposes.


  • Read the World Bank’s definition of literacy silently.

  • Take 2 minutes to jot down on a piece of paper a list of what else, beyond just literacy — including communication dispositions and skills — you think education should provide for youngsters so that they can participate productively in an increasingly globalized, intercultural, and multilingual world.

“[Adults are literate when they] can both read and write with understanding a short simple statement about their everyday life.… Literacy rate is an outcome indicator to evaluate educational attainment [in a country]. This data can predict the quality of the future labor force and can be used in ensuring policies for life skills for men and women…”

Activity 1.2: Share and compare ideas

Participants will engage in: discussion of perspectives on the development of literacies

Duration: Approximately 4 minutes

Participants will share the ideas that they wrote in their lists from Activity 1.1 to see what ideas other colleagues had. A full list of all ideas shared in the group emerges.


  • Seated at tables of four, participants share one idea at a time from their lists from Activity 1.1, in a rotating fashion, until they have run out of ideas.

  • There is no conversation during the sharing.

  • Each participant adds to their list ideas that they did not originally have on their list.

  • At the end of the sharing there is a 2-minute discussion: Where were the coincidences? Which ideas appeared only once? Why may that be the case?

Activity 1.3: Compare table ideas with those formulated by an expert

Participants will engage in: contrasting their ideas with those of Dr. Noguera

Duration: Approximately 6 minutes

Video: Pedro Noguera: Deeper Learning

Participants are invited to watch together a brief video in which Pedro Noguera, Dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, talks about Deeper Learning. The term was first used by Barbara Chow, then at the Hewlett Foundation, to refer to the assortment of skills and dispositions that teachers needed to develop in all students in order to meet the demands of an ever-shifting world.


  • With their jointly crafted lists, participants watch Pedro Noguera talk about Deeper Learning, what it entails, and the conditions for its development. The short video is part of a presentation that Dr. Noguera gave to the National Association of Independent Schools in November 2020.

  • As participants listen to Dr. Noguera’s ideas, they check ideas they had in their notes, and add those they didn’t previously have. Participants’ new notes should address what Noguera thinks is required pedagogically to accomplish Deeper Learning.

Activity 1.4: Producing a short list of Deeper Learning dispositions and skills

Participants will engage in: extending their definition to “Deeper” Learning

Duration: Approximately 5 minutes

Participants will organize their notes on important features of Deeper Learning. (Later in this module, they will discuss which pedagogical practices produce Deeper Learning and which ones do not.)


  • Working together in groups of 4, participants organize their ideas and produce a list of the dispositions and skills needed to achieve Deeper Learning that everybody in the team feels comfortable with. Invite them to provide a rationale for the list included.

  • Participants can compare their table’s list with the following list:

  1. Critical thinking and problem-solving

  2. Collaboration and leadership

  3. Agility and adaptability

  4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism

  5. Effective oral and written communication

  6. Ability to access and critically analyze information

  7. Curiosity and imagination

  8. Intercultural flexibility

  9. Multilingualism and multidialectalism

  10. A sense of social responsibility and ethics

Activity 1.5: The pervasive influence of the past in English as a foreign language (EFL)/ and English as a second language (ESL) in teachers’ expertise


Participants will engage in: individual reading and note-taking (homework)

Duration: Approximately 10 minutes

We started this module analyzing what our students need for effective civic participation and to be “college and career” ready — a mantra that we repeat about the goal of education without always thinking about precisely what it means. Considering the relatively low level of current civic participation in the general population, as well as the need for English Learners in middle and high school to prepare for critically considering ideas and being able to powerfully express their ideas in society, educators need to rethink the opportunities that we offer our students to learn. We need to support all students — particularly English Learners and students for whom English is their family language who are not succeeding in school — to equitably reach the goal of civic participation and college and career readiness. Why is this the case?


One reason that we are falling short in helping students meet these goals comes from the prevalence of the “old ways” of doing things, which may still be valuable in certain contexts, but is not appropriate for the education of English Learners in the United States. For example, if high school students in Vietnam, attending a good school in Hanoi, take a course in English, they are studying a foreign language. In the rest of their daily coursework, they are learning the Deeper Learning dispositions and skills discussed earlier in this module. However, English Learners in American schools need to deeply learn subject matter content because English for them is, sociolinguistically speaking, a second language — one that they need in order to participate in civic life. (Please refer to Module 1 for discussions of the differences involved in foreign and second language learning.)


  • As homework, you will be reading an adapted brief extract from a 2019 article by Aída Walqui: Shifting from the Teaching of Oral Skills to the Development of Oracy (from the Handbook of TESOL in K-12, edited by Luciana de Oliveira and published by Wiley).

  • Take notes on the following:

  1. The main historical changes in the teaching of English as a Second or Other Language

  2. Why this approach is not sufficient for English Learners in middle and high school

  3. What are proposed as important additions to the work of teachers of English Learners


As you read, notice italicized words so that we can track how the ideas they refer to are still prevalent today, although they emerged from old perceptions that we want to challenge.

The teaching of oral skills in second languages: an abbreviated history

A cursory look at the history of pedagogical approaches to learning and teaching English as a second language (ESL)   reveals that attention to oral skills started gaining saliency only in the middle of the last century. Prior to that, the focus of language learning had been placed on learning to read in the L2, understanding its grammar, and working with lists of vocabulary to translate literary texts from the L2 to the L1. Throughout the history of second language development, practice has lagged behind theoretical propositions, and empirical evidence — linked to encompassing theories — has fallen further behind.


Audio-Lingual Methods

In the 1950s, audio-lingual methods were born from a behavioristic conception of learning, which proposed that learning was a matter of conditioning and reinforcement (Skinner, 1957). This notion was linked to a then-popular structuralist view of language (Hockett, 1958) that considered language to be a system of systems (grammatical, phonological, lexical), which needed to be mastered by the second language learner sequentially in bits and pieces at a time. With automaticity as a goal, students practiced rapid responses to basic English patterns. The pedagogy proposed included the memorization of dialogs (which exemplified the learning target in each of its turns), repetition of prototypical sentences, substitution of elements in sentences conducted orally, and transformation drills, all of which dominated second language classes, along with reinforcement. For example, the English teacher would offer the following sentence: I am going to go swimming tomorrow (where go + V + ing was the pattern to be practiced). She would then say: dance, and the students would respond: I am going to go dancing tomorrow. The teacher would then repeat the correct form of the transformed sentence to reinforce the correctly sounding sentence in the students’ minds. She would then continue offering other transformation alternatives: shop, dance, skate. Students could produce the correct response without having to understand what they were saying. These drills later on received the name of mechanical drills or exercises, since they required no understanding on the part of the learner; they were just intended to create good language habits. In audiolingualism (the name the method received), listening and speaking were important, but they were constrained to predetermined sentences and phrases. Memorization of dialogs and mechanical drills focused on correct pronunciation, intonation, and rhythm. Accuracy (formal correctness) was primary, not understanding or participating in real conversational events.


Cognitive Methods

The cognitive revolution in learning (Anderson, 1983) and mentalist views of language (Chomsky, 1957, 1959, 1965) proposed that human beings had a universal innate knowledge of the key structures and operations in their first language. Chomsky proposed that there were two components of language knowledge: linguistic competence, the ideal knowledge of language rules that the native speaker possesses mentally; and linguistic performance, the often imperfect realization of that competence under real-life limitations. Applied to second language learning, emphasis was given to the development of students’ linguistic competence in the L2. A marked shift from habit formation to input and cognitive-rule learning took place. The goal of ESL teachers was the cognitive development of the language in its correct form, linguistic competence.


Two main strands derived from cognitive theories of language: strategy teaching, which emphasized the development of metacognitive and metalinguistic skills (Rubin, 1987; Chamot, 2009), and the natural approach (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). The first strand proposed that learners be explicitly taught strategies that would help them learn more efficiently. These strategies were sequenced so that they would progress from the most frequent and general to the more specific, for example moving from taking notes to monitoring and recognizing problems. In the natural approach, comprehensible input, the language offered English Learners by teachers, which was supposed to be one level higher than what the student understood, was supposed to trigger the natural language device learners possessed and build their knowledge of English. In both cognitive approaches, the development of oral production to communicate was decreased, and mental activities as well as reading and listening became central. For the first, the goal was that learners know what strategies to apply in specific situations, while for the second, the central work consisted of learners listening to comprehensible input (language deliberately set one level above students’ ability to comprehend) and reading silently for the most part.


Communicative Methods

In the mid and late 1970s, inspired by Hymes’s iconic article On Communicative Competence (1972), the linguistic world started paying attention to what Chomsky had dismissed as imperfect in language: the variations in use that language displayed across situations and contexts. Not only did these variations constitute the essence of social interaction (how one requests the same thing varies if the request is made to a hierarchical demanding boss or to an intimate friend), but Hymes (1972) went on to point out the absurdity in real life of, for example, answering questions with complete sentences that repeated elements of the question (a common L2 teaching practice then and now). The shift at the time moved from linguistic competence as a goal to communicative competence, from the grammatical production of sentences to the appropriate use of language in its social context, and from listening and reading to the consideration that speaking and listening purposefully were essential to accomplishing communicative acts.


Before the communicative shift, language teaching had established instructional progressions that took students from (apparently) simpler forms of language to increasingly more complex ones, or from strategies that were more useful or generic to specific ones. What then would be the sequencing criteria for second language communicative courses? European applied linguists (see van Ek’s Threshold Level, 1977, for example) engaged in research to determine what language functions (e.g., self-identification, asking for directions, complimenting somebody) were important to work on in beginning, intermediate, and advanced L2 courses. The threshold level, the specifications of functions and notions (concepts) that a second language learner needed to command in order to survive being placed in an L2 environment, guided the design of L2 courses. Instructional materials and classes placed emphasis on the oral use of casual expressions that resembled what people who spoke the language as a family language said under normal circumstances.


One of the first communicative books to be published was Strategies, written by Abbs, Ayton, and Treebain (1975). I was a brand-new ESL teacher at the time in Perú and loved the book, which was organized by functions. It seemed at the time to be so much more natural than the exercises based on grammar that we had used before. One chapter, for example, was called Expressing surprise and disbelief and, as the title suggests, it led students into situations where they needed to use typical phrases British people used to indicate surprise. The opening exercise had the imaginary first pages of a series of newspapers (pictures and all) and the headlines read: Princess to marry a footballer, Woman to be Prime Minister (this was after all, the mid ’70s) and other such absurd news. Students were to work in dyads where one would elaborate the headline into Good heavens, listen! The princess is going to marry a footballer. The partner would then reply, She isn’t, is she? I don’t believe it! And so the class would proceed through all the headlines in the exercise.


There were many advantages to courses that included these types of activities, especially when compared to the more constrained mechanical substitution drills used before. While practice was still mechanical, it added conversational elements to exchanges bounded by the directions set up for the activity, and students could not improvise. The activity created animation in class. All students had to participate at the same time in simulated interactions, using conversational markers and phrases typical of the communicative function being practiced. At the end of the chapter, situations were provided for students to take roles — specified in cards — and simulate a conversation in which surprise was central. These role-plays turned the conversation meaningful in that attention needed to be paid to participate in appropriate ways, but no novel communication transferred from one student to the other. My students enjoyed the activities, as they had been bored before with isolated, disconnected sentences and an emphasis on correctness. Classes were full of “conversations.” However, as Widdowson (1979) pointed out, the shift from structures to functions and notions had changed little, since “in both cases the essential design is an inventory of language units in isolation and in abstraction” (p. 247).


An interesting development of the communicative approach that was also relevant to the education of K-12 English Learners was the English for Specific Purposes (ESP) movement. The idea behind it was that the selection and sequencing of what was to be taught in the L2 should be guided by the needs of students. In English for Occupational Purposes (EOP) courses, students of English as a second language were taught the language they needed to perform their jobs well. Somebody training to work in the restaurant service industry, for example, initially had to learn a reduced number of functions and notions to communicate with guests in a restaurant. In English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses, the goal was to support the study needs (typically reading) of advanced university students who wanted to keep abreast of developments in their field. Analysis of the communicative needs of students was a prerequisite for the design of these types of courses (Munby, 1978). In EOP classes, emphasis on oracy was quite important — the adequate use of registers to communicate in specific situations. In EAP classes, oral production in English was not important since students focused mostly on the reading of academic texts, which were discussed in the L1, given that they already knew quite a bit about the topic at hand.


Sociocultural/Ecological Approaches

Influenced by Vygotsky’s ideas formulated in the 1930s and developed further by multiple sociolinguists and educational linguists (Larsen-Feeman, 2003; Lantolf & Thorne, 2006; Lantolf, 2006; van Lier, 2002, 2004), sociocultural theories dramatically changed conceptualizations of second language teaching. Vygotsky’s (1999) proposition that “human development is the product of a broader system than just the system of a person’s individual functions, specifically, systems of social connections and relations, of collective forms of behavior and social cooperation” (p. 41) conceptually shifted our understanding of a learner who responds to teacher initiations to that of an active learner who perceives, acts, and engages in interactions, and as a result, learns. Learning thus takes place in two planes: first socially, and then mentally. Learners notice elements from the environment teachers create for learning and, guided by scaffolds (the supports they are offered to engage in activity) (Walqui & van Lier, 2010), they use these affordances (van Lier, 2008) to support their language development.


As van Lier (2008) states, “The dialogical nature of all language and language use has profound implications for language learning. At once, the nature of language is changed from a product, a static system that can be described in terms of its inner structure and components (structuralism), to a process of creating, co-creating, sharing, and exchanging meanings across speakers, time, and space” (p. 599).



Some important notions for working with English Learners in secondary schools emerge from this brief historical review. Together they challenge many of the premises and practices currently under operation in the education of English Learners. The most important points are the following:

  • Language does not develop in a lock-step fashion, moving from simpler to more complex structures or practices. As Diane Larsen-Freeman sums up this understanding, “Language is a complex, non-linear, adaptive system from which the ‘the behavior of the whole emerges out of the interaction of its parts’” (Larsen-Freeman, 1997, p. 157). 

  • Substantive, meaningful, intellectually honest interactions between students, their patterns of experience, and cognitive processes lead to the emergence of new conceptual understanding and new language practices.

  • English Learners learn new language, analytic practices, and subject matter content simultaneously by responding to “affordances” emerging from dynamic communicative situations (Valdés, Kibler, & Walqui, 2014; van Lier, 2000; van Lier & Walqui, 2012).

We will be unpacking these ideas in detail in future modules.


    In education, it is commonplace to state the role of education as preparing students to be “college and career ready.” We think it is important that education also develop future citizens’ skills and dispositions to participate in civic society in critical, responsible, and articulate ways, following the Jeffersonian ideal. In the list here, features 1–7 are commonly found in literature on education (see, for example, Wagner, 2011). We have added items 8–10 in this list.

    Adapted from: Walqui, A. (2019). Shifting from the teaching of oral skills to the development of oracy. In Luciana C. de Oliveira (Ed.), The Handbook of TESOL in K–12. John Wiley & Sons.

    For a more detailed review of the pedagogical history of L2 learning, check the appendix to Historical and Current Conceptualizations of Language and SLA in Language Teaching: A Basis for Rethinking in G. Valdés, A. Kibler, & A. Walqui, A. (2014), Changes in the expertise of ESL professionals: Knowledge and action in an era of new standards. Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Association.