Developing and Oral Foundation

Adam, our guest blogger, encourages
us to think about the value of
 helping students develop
oral language skills.

Bridging English Ch. 4

Developing and Oral Foundation

Chapter 4 begins with what the authors describe as a paradox:  oral language development far predates written, and yet little to no attention is paid to oral language in secondary English classrooms.  Any pre-service teacher can attest to observing far more  “silent” classrooms than rooms filled with voices.  The authors seek to utilize this chapter to encourage active student speaking in the classroom. 

This technologically driven age gives way to what the authors describe as a “new urgency” for oral language classrooms.  To quote language historian and acclaimed journalist MacNeil, this culture is “increasingly drugged by pictures [on television].” Facebook, Twitter and other forms of text-based social media have somewhat endangered the use of the spoken word.  The authors describe communications from high school students about the discomfort of “calling someone on the telephone” as evidence of this decline in the spoken word. 

Talking and listening are the basis for all language arts classrooms.  The authors present several common excuses for why oral language is absent from secondary English classrooms.

1.      These acts are natural and do not require instructional help.
2.      Talking and listening are too “unwieldy” to teach, and educators are not able to truly expand on these basic actions.
3.      Talking and listening are difficult to test.
4.      Drama, speech, and communication classrooms are where oral language should be the focus.
5.      Teachers are already pressed for time without adding another “teachable” avenue.
6.      Drama as a peripheral activity can enliven a classroom, but it is too time consuming.

The authors identify these common excuses and present several responses to each.

1.      Talking and listening are essential to meaning.
2.      These actions are the basic tools for all of human communication.
3.      The development of these skills has a direct relationship with the tested skills in modern English classrooms.
4.      Talking and listening allow for immediate assessment of a student’s understanding and interest in the content matter.
5.      Dramatic activities present multiple opportunities for growth when planned properly.

The key is to promote a balance between active oral language and written language in the classroom.  Per the authors, “English educators are only beginning to formulate a rationale, subject, and general instructional principles” for oral language classrooms (p.92).  The authors encourage educators to allow at least a portion of time for oral language in the daily classroom. 

The talking and listening classroom is the basis for this new form of secondary English classroom.  In order to promote the growth of a oral language-based English classroom, the authors provide several activities.

Oral Language Activities

3 Categories of Oral Language Exercise Schema

Individual:  Involve monologues or story-telling, individual creativity, authentic voice, and singular syntax can develop.

Group:  Work in collaboration extending from pairs to small/large groups and eventually to the entire classroom.  These activities are more elaborate, involving large casts/costuming.  Partners increase the need for talking and listening as part of presentation prep.

Control:  Students speak from a script or improvise from highly structured/guided instruction.

Below are some examples the authors promoted to engage students in oral language arts.

VOICE LESSONS – 1st Person Poems, students select one for an oral interpretation. Can be read from text, recited from memory, or recorded for later playback.  Student is placed in the role of narrator. The Canterbury Tales are one proposed selection as the stories/poems should be brief.  Emphasis should be placed on active listening from audience for tone, emphasis and volume.

HERO WORSHIP – Students read speeches and other historical documents crafted by figures such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.  Students select “sound bytes” that capture the essence or theme of the moment.  Students then arrange these by chronology, emotional color, and theme. 

EXAMPLE:  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Life and Influence
-          “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, April 1963
-          “I Have a Dream”, August 1963
-          Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1964
-          “I’ve been to the Mountaintop,” April 1968 night before his death

These activities are new ways in which we as educators can engage our students in more oral-based learning activities. 

The authors promote drama as an invaluable resource to not only enliven a classroom, but also to engage student learning and creativity through oral presentation.  It gives our students a chance to “live the literature” by donning the roles of protagonists and antagonists in their selected text. 

This chapter is littered with numerous examples of activities and ideas promoted by the authors; this chapter is a valuable tool for English classroom educators.  I would not have even begun to think about a more oral-based classroom prior to engaging this chapter and the activities provided. 

One of the most fundamental elements of utilizing oral language in the English classroom is evaluation.  This enables educators and student audience members to watch for and evaluate their peers on clarity, theme, tone, emphasis, voice and audience engagement. 

Typically, these evaluations are performed on a holistic or analytical scale.  Frazier (1997) promoted a checklist based on outlining mental processes, contributions, and negative behaviors.  Placed into a rubric, students are able to effectively evaluate their peers by simply placing a mark on the checklist when each of these attributes is displayed.

FRAZIER’s Oral Language Rubric
Mental Processes
Draws Inferences/Conclusions
Uses logic
Provides new information

Involves others
Makes “I” Statements
Affirms others
Seeks clarification
Articulates Effectively
Listens Well/Responds appropriately
Negative Behavior
Attacks others

Oral language is the basis for all written communication, and yet this is often disregarded in favor of quite, text driven classroom instruction.  We owe it to our students to promote instances of oral communication and expression.  This chapter has provided a treasure-trove of activities and examples to enable us as educators to do just that. 

What are your feelings on a “talkative” classroom versus a “silent” classroom?

What do you see as an area of weakness with an oral language classroom compared to your ideal classroom?

What activities/strategies, if any from this chapter, would you be willing to incorporate into your lesson planning?

Bridging English, 5th ed. by Milner, Milner & Mitchell