Editor’s Note: Socratic Seminars can be tricky to pull off in any class, much less one entirely composed of English Language Learners.  Jessica Bell does it, though, and was gracious enough to write this guest post sharing her experience. I’m adding it to The Best Posts & Articles About Asking Good Questions — Help Me Find More.

Jessica Bell teaches Sheltered English and English as a New Language at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Follow her on Twitter @jessbell79.

As a High School ESL teacher, I want to prepare my students for success, not just in high school, but more importantly, life after high school. To be successful, students must be good communicators – and be able to use all language domains. It is of course a goal that they become more proficient so they can test well on their English language proficiency exams, but the ultimate goal is that they participate fully in a non-school environment. I want them to feel comfortable speaking to customers, employers, and peers in person and on the phone. I want them to feel confident going to the bank or buying a car or signing a lease that they have read and understood all the details. I want them to be able to ask questions about what they have read – and be able to understand the answers. Language proficiency is more than just success in school – it’s helping our students become confident adults.


One strategy that is very beneficial with high school students is a specific kind of academic conversation called Socratic Seminar. In this model, students read a text, think critically, annotate, prepare questions, and then come together and discuss in a student led discussion. This is most often seen in advanced classes – G/T, AP, Dual Credit, Honors, etc… but these skills are necessary and valuable for all students. I made this a goal for my ESL students. Click here for examples of Socratic Seminar.

Like most difficult tasks, I started with a plan. Before I even brought up Socratic Seminar with my students, I wanted to practice reading complex text, thinking about what they had read, creating and answering questions, and feeling comfortable speaking to each other. I focused primarily on nonfiction text because many of my students needed additional exposure to nonfiction. We modeled reading together as well as reading independently. I modeled think alouds while we read to build familiarity with both thinking out loud and they types of higher level thinking questions I would be looking for. I used many interaction strategies, including turn and talk, and talk read talk write. Click here for more information on talk read talk write.

Once I felt like my students were ready for the next step (I invested many repetitions over the course of a month), I introduced the idea of Academic Conversations and Socratic Seminars. Click here for a copy of the slides I used to introduce this topic with my classes. Important to note is that we spent time in class watching examples and non-examples and I both explained and elicited responses from students about why the videos were or were not examples of Academic Conversations/Socratic Seminar.

We began in small steps. We practiced using talk moves (conversation frames) with partners and groups of four. I provided them with talk moves scaffolds to hold for every conversation. We continued reading non-fiction then writing and answering complex questions. Then we put the pieces together. I moderated the first conversation (we utilized the I Do, We Do, You Do) framework and we spent a lot of time in the We Do part of the model. To lower the affective filter, for the first few conversations, I didn’t record a grade. I did keep track of who talked, who asked questions, who built on each others answers, and I selectively corrected student’s mistakes. My goal was to make them comfortable with the process. Then I introduced the rubric I would use to grade, and again, filled it out without recording a score in the gradebook. It was important that students felt success before they felt like I was “grading” their performance. If you would like additional information about Academic Conversations, I recommend Jeff Zwiers’ book.

It is important that to note that although I didn’t put a lot of conversation grades in the gradebook at first, my students were talking. They were becoming comfortable. They were asking questions. More and more conversations (about the articles and about other topics) were happening.It does take time. This is not a quick process with English Learners. Be prepared for the silence, the wait time, the uncomfortableness, the shyness, the hesitation when speaking. But, work through it. Did we see English Language proficiency growth? Yes. But more importantly, my students are more confident speaking, wherever they are. My students, and all students, are capable of extraordinary things. With the proper guidance, they can feel comfortable sharing with everyone.