Part 10 of WIDA’s Essential Action Series. Click here to return to the first article in the series.

Would you join me in a rigged game of chess?  I get all my pieces, but you only get to have pawns and the Queen.  Sure, there’s a chance you can win, but the chances are slim.  

The principle of “all pieces in play” is the core of WIDA’s Action 13 from Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s  Framework for English Language Development Standards (Gottlieb, 2013).  Action 13 encourages integrate all the language domains (listening, reading, speaking, and writing) within a lesson cycle instead of teaching it as separate skills. 

Gottlieb (2013) suggests that a classroom be filled with spoken and written words and accompanied by images that support these words. Language-rich classrooms empower ELs to switch between social to academic languageTwitter .

One way to structure a lesson so that all language domains are incorporated is through Talk, Read, Talk, Write (TRTW).  This process develops literacy skills while teaching content knowledge.  In this process, ELs read, write, and talk to develop a stronger command of language.

Research Says

The research about creating a language-rich classroom is highlighted below:

  • Different forms of print that are generated by the teacher and students provide a language-rich environment (New Levine & McCloskey, 2008).
  • A language-rich environment is also created when teachers provide ELs with continuous opportunities for meaningful engagement in academic conversations (Frey, Fisher, & Rothenberg, 2008).
  • One characteristic of a language-rich environment is the ability to engage with academic vocabulary during reading, while speaking, and in ELs’ writing (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2000; Pressley, 2002).
  • Different reading structures, such as read alouds and ELs reading in pairs or small groups, also characterize a language-rich environment and are linked to higher achievement (Ulano & Pucci, 1999; Elley, 1991; Tsang, 1994; Tudor & Ha z, 1989).

Based on the research, a language-rich classroom consists of the print that ELs see around them and also the interactions they have with each other while talking, reading, and writing about the content.  This article will focus specifically on how to structure such interaction so that ELs can engage in language creation. The following article (Article 30) will be about creating a print-rich classroom.

Talk, Read, Talk, Write (TRTW)

TRTW is a process created by Nancy Motley to help students learn content while developing literacy skills.  I was introduced to this process by Kim Barger, a fellow ELT on Twitter, and found the approach to be highly effective in shifting the attention away from me and onto students by having them inquire into the content.  With TRTW, I no longer feel the need to “deliver” content. Students inquire to learn content, and I guide the inquiry.

Domain-specific teachers can help ELs better access content by using TRTW to plan their lessons.  Recently, I was in a science teacher’s classroom trying to help ELs access science content.  This particular teacher had slides depicting topics such as diabetes, hormones, and homeostasis and proceeded to explain them.  The students, however, were unengaged, and the ELs were lost because of the abstract concepts and unfamiliar science-specific vocabulary.

If I were in that teacher’s shoes, I would have used TRTW to restructure the lesson while still ensuring that all students learn the content.

TRTW ELsTalk (1): Setting a Context

This first phase uses talk to develop a context for learning.  I might do a number of things such as ask students to talk about what they think they know about diabetes or watch a short video on diabetes and compose questions they would want to learn the answers to.  I could also instruct the students to talk about how life would be if they could not eat anymore sweets.

But the approach I prefer the most is setting a learning goal.  In standard practice, this is usually poorly introduced with the teacher asking “What do you want to learn?”  Often, students will say, “But I don’t want to learn anything about diabetes”.  

This response occurs when ELs are not affected by or connected to the topic.  Rather, I provide a scenario of someone who suffers from diabetes, and then I ask ELs to think of questions that this person might want to know about diabetes. Engagement occurs by shifting from learning content to solving problems with contentTwitter . Humans are problem solvers, so asking students to create solutions produces authentic buy-in.

I then have students share their ideas in pairs.  This informal conversation taps into students’ prior knowledge and sets the context for learning.

Read: Cultivating Knowledge

Proceeding along to the next phase of TRTW, I produce a text for students to read that is related to diabetes.  This phase of the lesson is when students are developing an understanding of the content itself.  For ELs, I recommend reading a section of text aloud because this reduces the cognitive demand of decoding texts.  

It helps to everyone on the same leveled playing field.  After all, the goal is for them to learn facts, not decode texts.  After the first read, I ask them to return to the text to re-read it.  I then ask them to annotate the text in two specific ways.  

One way is to translate words – not whole phrases or sentences – they don’t know and write the translation in the margin because this builds their comprehension. I wrote about the intentional use of translating in this article entitled “Tiered Vocabulary: Not all Words are Equal”.  The other form of annotation is to write a summary about the section they just read.  

This phase develops ELs’ reading skills because it teaches them the value of re-reading the text and reading closely for details.  ELs can learn the academic language associated with the discipline when teachers provide students with the opportunity to engage with content-specific texts.  In this science example, they are invited to read and think like a scientist through reading science texts.

Talk (2): Co-Constructing Understanding

Students share their understanding about the diabetes text in this phase.  Talking often takes the form of students asking questions to understand a confusing part of the text.  Students are co-constructing meaning as students answer each other’s questions. 

Students turn to each other to seek answers during this phase because I assume the role of a coach that guides from the sidelines.  They are the “players” engaged in the game; I offer support only when needed.  This support is often in the form of helping them reconstruct a difficult sentence structure.

The younger the ELs are, the more intervals of “Read-Talk 2” are needed.  This is because they can only handle a limited amount of text before they are overwhelmed with all the details.  The older ELs need less “Read-Talk 2” intervals, but they benefit from segmenting the text into manageable parts as well.  Often, the older ELs use “Talk 2” as a time to share more abstract thinking and reflect about the ideas.  

I push them beyond the comprehension level to the think more critically about the ideas in the text such as sharing opinions they’ve formed, identifying the author’s bias, and examining the applications of the ideas in the text. Below is a diagram of this age-based differentiation.  

Write: Demonstrating Understanding

ELs should have gained more knowledge about the topic after reading the text.  They are more empowered to demonstrate their understanding independently.  The tool I use the most in this phase is called a Quick Write, which is a daily, informal writing task where students provide a written response to an idea or comment on what they just learned.  The focus is on allowing students to communicate their ideas, not the accuracy of the grammar or the organization of the sentences.  Quick Writes are more of a formative assessment tool that provides teachers with data about students’ progress.

For the younger ELs, I might offer some sentences frames to scaffold their ideas.  This phase is particularly helpful for younger ELs because it provides them with an opportunity to synthesize the key details in the text.  If you want to learn more about using sentence frames, consider reading Jana Echevarria’s article entitled “Are Language Frames Good for English Learners” and check out Bathroom Briefs #6-8 for my examples of sentence frames. 

In contrast, the older ELs need to be engaged in a different way. They want to create and apply their understanding gained from the text.  I will often return to the scenario offered in “Talk 1” and ask students to write a reasonable solution.  If the context is appropriate, I often ask them to take a stance regarding the topic and defend it with details from the text.  Lastly, I often ask ELs to write about how the information in this text connects to another context or how this information might impact others.

The image below describes my process of differentiating the writing expected of ELs based on their age and language development.


I love the TRTW structure because it prevents me from running a teacher-centered lesson and empowers ELs to explore the topic and communicate their own understanding.  This practice also honors several of my Empowering Principles, which include teaching a process vs. teaching just content, allowing ELs to produce language instead of passively learning it, and allowing the content to be a context for using language.  

If the well-meaning science teacher would have used the TRTW approach, imagine how engaged all students would have been and how supported the ELs might have felt as they learned the new content.  TRTW is particularly helpful to content teachers who often feel pressured to deliver content. TRTW facilitates learning content by segmenting learning through talking, reading, and writing experiences.

Next Post

This was the first of two articles about Action 9.  Next week, I’ll share how to use the classroom environment as a tool for language development.  Yes, I’ll cover wall charts, but that’s just the beginning of how we can reimagine how we use the physical layout of our class to teach build a language-rich environment.


Blachowicz, C. L. Z., & Fisher, P. (2000). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms. Englewood Cli s, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Elley, W. (1991). Acquiring literacy in a second language: The effect of book-based programs. Language Learning, 41, 375–411.

Frey, N., Fisher, D., & Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Gottlieb, M. (2013). Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s  Framework for

English Language Development Standards. Madison: Board of Regents of the U of Wisconsin System.

Motley, N. (2013). Talk Read Talk Write: A practical approach to learning in the secondary classroom. San Clemente, CA: Seidlitz Education.

New Levine, L., & McCloskey, M. L. (2008). Teaching learners of English in mainstream classrooms (K–8): One class, many paths. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Pressley, M. (2002). Comprehension instruction: What makes sense now, what might make sense soon. Reading Online, 5(2). Retrieved from handbook/pressley/index.htm

Tsang, G. M. (1994). Teacher collaboration in integrating language and content. TESL Canada Journal/ Revue TESL du Canada, 11(2), 100–116.

Tudor, I., & Hariz, F. (1989). Extensive reading as a means of input to L2 learning. Journal of Research in Reading, 12, 164–178.

Ulano , S. H., & Pucci, S. L. (1999). Learning words from books: The e ects of read aloud on second language vocabulary acquisition. Bilingual Research Journal, 23(4), 319–332.