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Grading Oral Expression: A Blind Spot for Teachers

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The other day, my daughter complained that her 89.5 average in history class left her short of an A for the grading period. As a teacher mom, I couldn't help but probe further. I asked her to describe her overall performance in class. She proudly responded that she saw herself as the most valuable contributor in class discussions. Who knows if that is a fair characterization. When I probed further, however, I discovered that her teacher does not assign point value or a grade to oral contributions in class. So even if my daughter's self-assessment was accurate, it would not have made a difference to her final performance assessment. Intelligent observations, connections, ideas, or questions in history that were delivered orally would not inform her grade.

Hmmm. That got me thinking about blind spots in my own practice. I often find myself making observations to students and their parents about the gap between their oral and written expression. "Jenny, you make such amazing text-based inferences in class. But I have noticed that you don’t support your ideas as thoroughly in your writing."

That kind of distinction is commonly a red flag for dyslexia. Other than considering a student's oral contributions as important clues to understanding her thinking, I resemble my daughter's history teacher in that I rarely assign a point value to anything short of a formal oral presentation. Even more striking, I rarely invite a student who struggled to express his full understanding on a written test to retake the assessment orally, even though that would help determine whether his poor score was due to deficient writing skills or poor comprehension.

Why? Well, there are many reasons for this. The first and most significant one is that assigning concrete values to conversation is less tidy and more challenging than assessing written work. Facilitating a conversation, while simultaneously recording and/or evaluating it, is challenging. Discussions are live, fluid, and messy, while grading papers is private, self–paced, and amenable to reflection and review. My students' comments don't usually fit neatly into pre-established rubrics, and even when they do, deciding how to value them while attending to the conversation is often difficult. At some point over the years, I had concluded that assigning point value to class discussion unfairly penalizes the introverts in class.

An Ingrained Bias?

However, the more I reflected on my unintentional undervaluing of oral expression, the faultier it seemed. I started to wonder if this oral/written disconnect in grading was unique to my teaching. I checked in with my colleagues. Their responses were both relieving and concerning. Relief: I wasn't alone. Concern: A general dismissal of oral expression of knowledge was common. Most teachers agreed that they not only valued written over oral expression when it came to grading, but many admitted that they rarely assigned concrete value to oral expression. Some explained that they gave students credit for oral expression under categories like "habits of mind" or "practices of an effective learner." But these categories fell outside a student's official class grade. Few teachers actually assigned a point value to oral expression in any significant way (foreign language teachers being a solid exception).

Not many would make a case to value oral expression over written. Nor should teachers diminish the value of written expression in any way. But to argue that there is an inherent tension between the two would be a mistake. Teachers can value both oral and written expression, and we should. It is true, introverts don't necessarily excel in class discussion, but students with dyslexia or other difficulties with composition do not shine when understanding is exclusively expressed in writing. One skill doesn't have to cancel the other. Our evaluation systems need to honor them both.

It must be very frustrating for a student to deeply understand a concept or issue and yet be unable to effectively translate opinions and ideas into written words. It must be even more frustrating when the teacher recognizes the student's exceptional oral understanding, but only with passing compliments. Intentionally or not, teachers communicate what really matters through their grading systems. When teachers don't attribute a measurable value to oral knowledge, the implication is that understanding is not really meaningful unless it can be expressed in writing.

As a teacher, this is not what I want to communicate. After all, much of what students are asked to do once they leave school hinges on their ability to express themselves in conversations. Shouldn't we give them credit for developing and deploying that skill in school? Most teachers explicitly teach oral skills in class, but when it comes to grading, they treat them as soft-skills. Considering all the time teachers set aside for discussion and oral sharing, it makes sense that educators find ways to formally measure student performance in this area. Assigning value to oral expression of knowledge may be more difficult and messy, but it is worth finding a way to give it the value it deserves.

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