Students’ abilities to produce and understand spoken language is often overlooked in the American classroom, says Joshua Benjamin, ELL Coordinator at Community Day Arlington Elementary School in Lawrence, MA. He shares three ways to get students talking more in the classroom—and educators talking less.
In the fall of 2015, I studied elementary education and literacy instruction in England as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program. What I found was that many English schools have a broader conception of what literacy means than American schools. In both countries, teachers at the elementary level recognize phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing as the components of early literacy.
But in England, many teachers intentionally add one additional component to their literacy instruction: oracy, or the ability to produce and understand spoken language. Seeing English teachers leverage the power of oracy to help their students become stronger readers and writers, get more engaged in their learning, and gain confidence in academic discussions made me convinced that American teachers need to invite oral language into literacy instruction and get our students to talk more.
Research on classroom discourse tells us what many educators likely already know: students hear their teachers’ voices far more than teachers hear their students’. While this talk dynamic may seem an enduring part of the school experience (perfectly captured by the “wawawa” of Charlie Brown’s teacher), it doesn’t have to be this way. During my time in England and after I returned to the US, I developed some techniques that teachers can use to change the talk environment in their classrooms and make oracy a priority for their students.
To build our students’ oral language skills, we need to ask thoughtful, higher-order questions. Try this activity to develop your strengths in this area:
Find the Question
The questions we ask our students are often the most obvious. Think about a question you might pose to your class about animal physiology in the context of a unit on animal adaptations. Perhaps you would ask something like, “What part of a horse’s body makes it adapted to running?” The obvious answer is “its legs,” which requires some analysis and evaluation of a horse’s body parts and what they allow the horse to do. But what about asking a question like this: “Why can’t a horse climb trees?” That kind of question, without an obvious answer, can lead to deeper thinking and more elaborate discussion. To get started:
1. Find a familiar object.
2. Write down as many questions about it as you can. For example, pick up a pencil and write down questions like, “Why can you erase what you write with a pencil but not what you write with a pen?” and “How would school be different if we didn’t have pencils?”
3. When planning your next lesson, plan on asking questions that take students “off the beaten path” by prompting creative and critical thinking.
Focus on Peer Interactions
To raise the level of oral language in your classroom, students need to have strong self-awareness of how they interact with their peers during discussions. Try this activity to build your students’ ability to conduct academic conversations:
We know how powerful videotaping or recording can be to help you reflect on your own teaching. It can also be a valuable tool for helping students reflect on their academic performance in school.
1. Pose a question and then ask the class to turn and talk about it (the question doesn’t matter very much here because we’re trying to focus on the behaviors surrounding students’ responses and not the responses themselves).
2. Use a camera to film the class as they turn and talk.
3. Replay the video on a projector and pause at key moments to offer positive feedback. Examples of feedback might include:
- Dania, you looked at your partner’s eyes when she was talking.
- Ricardo, you used a calm and quiet voice when you shared your idea.
- Emily, you made sure to say, “I agree with” before you said your own idea.
4. Once students have heard you model feedback, ask them to share what their classmates have done well. (The more students participate in activities like this, the more feedback they can provide themselves and the less the teacher needs to provide.)
5. Play the video again and ask students to notice now what they could do better next time.
6. Pause at key moments and model giving sensitive feedback, such as:
- A few students turned to each other but didn’t start talking. Next time, let’s all make sure to turn and talk.
- One student is looking away from her partner. Next time, let’s all make sure to look at our partners’ eyes.
7. Ask another question and record on video again.
8. Replay recording and ask students to articulate specific behaviors they noticed and to comment on how well they did in comparison to the previous recording.
Teachers who do the most to promote oracy in their classrooms know that the way they respond to students is crucial to building focused, constructive, and meaningful conversations. Instead of evaluating a student’s response by saying, “that’s right,” or “not quite,” try one of the follow-up moves I created.
In order to flourish as readers and writers, our students need us to adopt an English mindset toward literacy and give oracy its rightful place in the classroom. These activities are sure to put your pupils (as a British teacher might say) on the path to becoming active participants in thoughtful academic conversation.
Image courtesy of the author.
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