ERIC Identifier: ED389029
Publication Date: 1995-00-00
Author: Zhang, Hong - Alex, Nola Kortner
Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Oral Language Development across the Curriculum, K-12. ERIC
At the most basic level, oral language means communicating with other people.
But when we talk about oral language development across the curriculum, we do
not mean teaching children to speak as much as we mean improving their ability
to talk or communicate more effectively. Speech is not usually simply basic
communication--it involves thinking, knowledge, and skills. It also requires
practice and training. How can we help our children to develop oral proficiency?
What do we need to do as teachers to facilitate that development? These are the
questions we will discuss in this Digest.
Oral language acquisition is a natural process for children. It occurs almost
without effort. The ability to speak grows with age, but it does not mean that
such growth will automatically lead to perfection. To speak in more effective
ways requires particular attention and constant practice. Holbrook (1983) sets
out three criteria for oral language competence: fluency, clarity, and
sensitivity. To help children achieve these levels of development is our
responsibility as educators.
Many studies have indicated that oral language
development has largely been neglected in the classroom (Holbrook, 1983). Most
of the time oral language in the classroom is used more by teachers than by
students. However, oral language, even as used by the teacher, seldom functions
as a means for students to gain knowledge and to explore ideas.
Underlying this fact are two assumptions. One of these assumptions--that the
teacher's role is to teach--is usually interpreted to mean that to teach means
to talk. Accordingly, teachers spend hours and hours teaching by talking while
the children sit listening passively. Such conventional teaching-learning is one
of the obstacles preventing the real development of oral language. Children
leaving these classrooms tend to carry this passivity over to their learning
attitudes, and tend to be "disabled" in their learning abilities, as well.
The second assumption is based on the fact that children start learning and
using oral language long before they go to school. Therefore, it is assumed that
the primary learning tasks for children in school are reading and writing, which
are usually seen as the two major aspects of literacy.
In one investigation Stabb (1986) reported a steady decline of the use of
oral language in classrooms as a major reason for the inhibition of students'
abilities to reason and to forecast as they progressed from lower to higher
grades. Such a phenomenon is found not only in the language arts classroom, but
also in other classrooms. According to Stabb's and many other researchers'
observations, classrooms are dominated by teachers talking and by workbook
exercises. Researchers call this phenomenon "teachers-talk-students-listen" or
"teacher-dominated." In related research, Willmington (1993) surveyed school
administrators who attested to the importance of oral communication skills for
teachers--and they considered listening to be the most important skill of all.
Another result of teacher-dominated classrooms is the negative effect upon
children's attitudes toward learning. Operating under the two above-mentioned
assumptions, teachers often fail to see that literacy learning is a
continuum--an ongoing process of learning--for children. Learning before going
to school and learning in school are often viewed as separate processes. Oral
language, which is the major learning instrument for children before going to
school, is no longer available with the onset of formal schooling. Confronted
with new tasks of learning to read and write while being deprived of their major
learning tool, children tend to feel depressed and frustrated. Learning begins
to loom large, and schooling gradually becomes routine--exactly the situation
described in Stabb's research.
After a few years students will have become programmed to a kind of passive
learning atmosphere--the teacher talks, the students listen and do their
homework. Here, learning simply means taking down whatever is given. In this
type of classroom environment, students learn the basic skills of reading and
writing. However, they will not learn how to think critically and how to make
sound judgments on their own.
Stabb (1986) speculates that we teachers often become "so involved with
establishing routine, finishing the textbook, covering curriculum, and preparing
students for standardized tests that we have forgotten one of our original
goals, that of stimulating thought." Though Stabb's speculation sounds critical,
she does provide us with a thought-provoking expansion of the relationship
between oral language development and thinking abilities development. In
delineating a debate program for elementary school students, Aiex (1990) notes
that, although the focus of the program is on the development of oral
communication skills, critical thinking and reasoning abilities are also
developed along the way.
ORAL LANGUAGE AS FOUNDATION
From the preceding, we can see
that oral language is indeed an important link in the process of children's
learning and thinking development. It is not merely a language issue; it is also
an intellectual issue which deserves serious attention from both teachers and
researchers. From the perspective of language development, oral language
provides a foundation for the development of other language skills. For most
children, the literacy learning process actually begins with speaking--talking
about their experiences, talking about themselves. It is through speech that
children learn to organize their thinking and focus their ideas (Lyle, 1993).
The neglect of oral language in the classroom will destroy that foundation and
severely hinder the development of other aspects of language skills.
RESEARCH ON COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT
literature on critical thinking and cognitive development indicates that the
development of language has a close relationship to the development of thinking
abilities (Berry, 1985; Gambell, 1988). This is especially true for
elementary-level students. Before achieving proficiency in reading and
writing--and even after proficiency in reading and writing have been
achieved--oral language is one of the important means of learning and of
acquiring knowledge (Lemke, 1989). Throughout life, oral language skills remain
essential for engagement in intellectual dialogue, and for the communication of
TEACHER AS FACILITATOR
Given this understanding of the
importance of oral language skills, we should reflect on our attitudes toward
the teaching-learning relationship. First of all, we need to overcome the faulty
assumptions mentioned before. As teachers, we should not assume the role of
authoritarian knowledge giver. Instead, we should see ourselves as friendly and
interested facilitators of student learning. In emphasizing the role of oral
language in the classroom, we are by no means implying that the teacher's role
is not important; on the contrary, we present a more demanding task for
teachers. To facilitate a learning process in which children are given both
opportunity and encouragement to speak and to explore their own thinking, the
teacher has to do more than tell children what he or she means, or what the text
means. Instead, the teacher has several different roles to play.
The teacher can encourage students to bring their ideas and background
knowledge into class learning activities. To achieve this goal, the teacher must
be a good and responsive listener to children's talk. Facilitation of a child's
talking in class is not enough for language teaching, however, but only provides
an environment conducive to both teaching and learning. At this point, the
teacher can raise questions concerning the content of the class or the text.
While maintaining the role of a knowing arbiter, the teacher still needs to
persuade the students. Here one point should be emphasized--implementation of
oral language development across the curriculum requires teamwork. All
content-area teachers have to be actively involved in this task. The goal is not
only to get children to speak, but also to have them learn and develop through
As the children's other language skills develop in the course of time,
classroom talk can be directed more towards the goals of exploring ideas found
in texts and sharpening thoughts. "Speaking to learn" is the vehicle for
increasing and deepening knowledge.
Two publications recommended as resource guides for classroom teachers are
"Guidelines for Developing Oral Communication Curricula in Kindergarten through
Twelfth Grade" and "Listening and Speaking in the English Language Arts
Aiex, Nola Kortner (1990). "Debate and
Communication Skills." ERIC Digest. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading, English, and Communication. [ED 321 334]
Berry, Kathleen S. (1985). "Talking to Learn Subject Matter/Learning Subject
Matter Talk." Language Arts, 62(1), 34-42. [EJ 309 762]
Gambell, Trevor J. (1988). "Linguistics and Literacy Teaching." Paper
presented at the World Conference of Applied Linguistics (Sydney, Australia).
[ED 299 816]
Guidelines for Developing Oral Communication Curricula in Kindergarten
through Twelfth Grade (1991). Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association.
[ED 337 828]
Holbrook, Hilary Taylor (1983). "ERIC/RCS Report: Oral Language: A Neglected
Language Art?" Language Arts, 60(2), 255-58. [EJ 276 124]
Lemke, J. L. (1989). "Making Text Talk." Theory-into-Practice, 28(2), 136-41.
[EJ 415 815]
Listening and Speaking in the English Language Arts Curriculum K-12. 1989
Field Test Edition. Albany, NY: New York State Education Department. [ED 335
Lyle, Susan (1993). "An Investigation into Ways in Which Children Talk
Themselves into Meaning." Language and Education, 7(3), 181-87. [EJ 485 116]
Stabb, Claire (1986). "What Happened to the Sixth Graders: Are Elementary
Students Losing Their Need to Forecast and to Reason?" Reading Psychology, 7(4),
289-96. [EJ 348 985]
Willmington, S. Clay (1993). "Oral Communication Skills Necessary for
Successful Teaching." Educational Research Quarterly, 16(2), 5-10. [EJ 480 434]