I have been prompted to draw attention to oral language in the classroom by an article in Edutopia Weekly. It’s free of charge and well worth a look.
This week’s article 4 Strategies for Sparking Critical Thinking in Young Children is about ‘fostering investigative conversation’ in K-2.
The importance of talk in the classroom has always been of interest, and concern, to educators generally and teachers in particular. We know that talk helps clarify thinking, it comes before writing, and that talking and listening with others and building our own understandings is critical to learning.
As early elementary teachers know, young learners are able to engage in critical thinking and participate in nuanced conversations, with appropriate supports. What can teachers do to foster these discussions? Elementary teacher Jennifer Orr considered a few ideas in an article for ASCD.
This link to Jennifer Orr’s article also includes this clear description of what critical thinking is.
This is certainly a description we can use with our students as we use talk with the issues we are addressing in class:
Linda Elder and Richard Paul (2008), who have done extensive work on critical thinking, write:
Good thinking is thinking that (effectively) assesses itself. As a critical thinker, I do not simply state the problem; I assess the clarity of my own statement. I do not simply gather information; I check it for its relevance and significance. I do not simply form an interpretation; I check to make sure my interpretation has adequate evidentiary support.
Here are the main ideas, plus a couple of extras to help keep discussions going –
- Encourage debate by introducing ‘friendly prompts’. This works particularly well when linking ideas like ‘How many books do we have in our library? How could we find out?’ or ‘Which is longer, a river or a stream?’, and one that was put to me by a student after an in-depth study of insects – ‘If insects are so clever, how come humans rule the world?’
- Put your students in the question. Younger children are still working out their place in the world, and enjoy the focus on their own lives.
In the article,
‘Educator Todd Finley has a list of interesting writing prompts for different grades that can instead be used to kick off classroom discussions. Examples for early elementary students include:
What’s the most beautiful person, place, or thing you’ve ever seen? Share what makes that person, place, or thing so special.’
What an interesting topic to pursue through talk.
Aidan Chambers’ Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk describes a generous ‘how to’ for when reading with students. His process includes questions like ‘Has anything that happened to this character happened to you?’, ‘What will you tell your friends about this book?’
Lorraine McDonald’s latest book A new literature companion for teachers, (3rd Edition 2023 pp 7-8) expands on Chambers’ process.
- Open several doors. Provide opportunities for students to develop as contributors. The use of participation cards is suggested here. I would see that as a short-term ‘bridge’ to use as we develop the trust and confidence in our talking and listening processes as part of the culture of our classrooms.
- Provide discussion sentence starters. These can be a bit too contrived and teacher-driven. However, it’s good to provide prompts to share the discussion and to keep it moving.Examples include: Could someone respond to that idea? Can you tell us a little more about that?Can you say that in another way? Can someone tell us a little more about that idea?These are expanded comprehensively in Becoming a meaning maker: Talk and interaction in the dialogic classroom (Edwards-Groves & Davidson, 2018 p.101)
Talking about words
This links well with another article that I came across last year. Allaana Bills, Year 5/6 teacher at Aratula State School in Queensland, has written ‘Words Inspire Us’, for ALEA’s Practical Literacy. That title is a good enough hook to get me in, as someone who loves words.
But it is Allaana’s description of the role that talk plays in her students’ exploration of the English language that is relevant here.
Allaana starts the day with the students reading to themselves.
[The students] … soon settle, the only sounds to be heard those of pages turning … Then follow the questions. Why is there an <n> at the end of ‘solemn’? How do I say ‘silhouette’? Why aren’t there many words ending in <x>? …
I love these questions. … What I love about these comments and questions is that my students are noticing words as they read. (p.6)
The students are noticing words. And they are using talk to as an integral component of the learning about them. Allaana goes on to describe examples of the strategies the class uses for in-depth studies of our language.
Well worth a read.
Open up the greater possibilities for learning with classroom talk
Children would never learn if we taught them what they know. They learn by watching, experiencing, feeling, hearing, innately matching spoken words to moments and events, matching what is heard to what is seen, and most of all, developing imaginative capacity.
Winch, Johnston March et al p. 521
Allaana introduces her article with:
in + spire -> inspire
… from the Latin base spirare, the infinitive form of the verb ‘to breathe’. It means to fill the lungs with air, to enlarge the mind and to animate the soul.
P.S Curriculum foregrounding of oral language in the classroom:
The Australian Curriculum and its attendant Literacy Learning Progression foreground oral language –
This sub-element describes how a student becomes increasingly proficient at active listening, strategic and respectful questioning and using language to share information and negotiate meaning and outcomes. Students interact across an increasing range of curriculum contexts and purposes in pair, group or whole-class oral interactions. This sub-element focuses on the development of two-way interaction processes to clarify and create understanding.
This sub-element is closely related to the sub-elements Listening and Speaking.
The NSW English Syllabus states:
Students will communicate for a variety of purposes or functions. Students will have greater control over their environment if they are able to communicate using more established communication functions.
Bills, A. (2022) Words Inspire Us, in Practical Literacy, Vol. 27 Number 2 June 2022, Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA)
Chambers, A. (1994) Tell Me: Children, Reading and Talk PETA and Thimble Press (1993)
Edwards-Groves, C. & Davidson, C. (2017) Becoming a meaning-maker: Talk and interaction in the dialogic classroom, PETAA: Newtown
Fisher, D., Frey, N. & Rothenberg, C. (2008) Content-Area Conversations: How to Plan Discussion-Based Lessons for Diverse Language Learners ASCD
McDonald, L. (2023) A new literature companion for teachers, 3rd Edition, PETAA
National Literacy Learning Progression accessed 22/05/2023
NSW Education Standards Authority English Syllabus accessed 22/05/2023
Winch. G., Johnston, R., March, P., Ljungdahl, L. & Holliday, M. (2014) Literacy: Reading, Writing and Children’s Literature, 5th Edition, OUP
Dufficy, P. (2005) Expanding Talk Roles in the Classroom, Chapter 4 of Designing learning for diverse classrooms (pp37-52) where he explores patterns of interaction, developing challenging talk, and putting his learning principles to work with small group and whole class talk.
Edutopia Weekly at www.edutopia.org. It’s free of charge and well worth a look.
Hammond, J. & Miller, J. (2015) Classrooms of Possibility: Supporting at-risk EAL students PETAA: Newtown
Winch, G. & Holliday, M. (2014) Oral Language, Chapter 3 in Winch, Johnston, March, Ljungdahl & Holliday (2014) Literacy: Reading, Writing and Children’s Literature, 5th Edition, OUP