Going south with Sophie Scott: a journey into oral language

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Author: Nicole Tainsh
Date: Feb. 2014
From: Practically Primary(Vol. 19, Issue 1)
Publisher: Australian Literacy Educators' Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,633 words
Lexile Measure: 1370L

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'This is so much fun, but we haven't done literacy in a while!' The words were spoken by a student in my class. I stopped short. This was a literacy lesson! I looked around, and I saw students discussing ideas, questioning, writing, collaborating, reading, rehearsing oral scripts and crucially, engaged in productive talk--just as planned. Encouraging student talk before, during and after a set task (Cox, 2011, p. 1) is a vital part of teaching oral language in the classroom effectively. When students think aloud and discuss a task with peers, in small groups and with the teacher, they make meaning as they gain a deeper understanding of both the task itself and, vitally, their own concept of the task. Oral language is important in recognising others' views, and teaching about the self. Oral discussion entails the formulation of thoughts into language, identification of relevant questions, and clarification of mutual understanding. When an individual's thoughts are expressed aloud they may then be mixed with others' ideas, agreed or disagreed with, built on, questioned, reconsidered, and reformulated.

One precondition of effective engagement in oral language is the ability to translate one's own mental thought processes into words. This process becomes increasingly complicated for students who come from non-English speaking backgrounds. Often their thoughts will be formulated in their own language; they then need to translate their ideas into coherent English before participating in the oral discussion in an English-speaking classroom. For many EAL/D students, as well as students who have not had 'rich encounters' with oral language outside school (De Courcy, Dooley, Jackson, Miller, & Rushton, 2012, p. 3) this process makes informal, immediate classroom discussions difficult to participate in. By the time they have formulated their views on the topic at hand, the discussion has already moved on. Given this, while ongoing informal oral discussions throughout the day are still crucial, giving students opportunities to plan oral language is also important. While some may argue that planned oral language is just a form of written language, the demarcations between oral and written language are not clear cut. A speech is often written before being delivered, but it is also a spoken text, once it has been given orally. Rather than separate modes, oral and written language can be considered to belong to the same mode continuum of language (de Courcy et al., 2012, p. 3).

At Granville East Public School our foray into planned oral communication, going beyond the idea of a play, speech or debate, started with a collegial discussion about the new English curriculum. As a collaborative team, we were looking for innovative, creative and achievable ways we could assist our Stage 3 students to compose 'increasingly complex' multimodal texts (BOS NSW, 2012, p. 107). Listening, speaking, reading, viewing and writing are the different interrelated language modes identified in the Australian Curriculum. Composing their own multimodal text would help our students to appreciate the way in which oral language is central to all these language modes, as students would be required to interact with language, respond to literature, and interact with others (Cox, 2011, p. 7). We had recently made several changes to our literacy program, increasing the range, depth and mode of texts used in modelled reading, viewing and writing. In recent weeks the focus had been on quality visual literature during modelled reading and writing (Booker, 2012, p. i). We used the same picture book over a number of days not only as a model but to inspire jointly constructed and independent writing, and for enjoyment as well (Board of Studies NSW, 2012, p. 15).

Sophie Scott Goes South (Lester, 2012) tells the story of Sophie who accompanies her father, the captain of the ice breaker Aurora Australis, on a trip to Antarctica. The book is mostly written in past tense, within the framework of a series of diary entries over a four week period. Having studied the book over a number of days, using text and image as a launch pad to whole class, paired and group discussions and writing, we felt the students were ready for a challenge. We decided to give them the task of producing a new text by adapting the text into a multimodal format, bringing Sophie's story 'to life' in the present tense (Walsh, 2011, p. 13). In order to be successful, students would need to communicate their understandings of the text as they realised a version of Sophie's story. Students were organised into small groups, and were randomly assigned a section of the book to work on. The overall product relied on collaboration between group members, and the class as a whole, as each section of the book was adapted and then incorporated into the multimodal format. Each student had an important role in serving this common purpose.

As well as providing students with a clear learning intention and associated success criteria, students were given some tips as to how they could go about adapting a text to a multimodal format. Students were then given time during our normal literacy sessions to plan the presentation of their section of the book. The first step in the process was the identification of key ideas from their section of the text which they were to present. They then used a blank template to storyboard their ideas and indicate how they would be presented. Students were subsequently given time to write a script for scenes that would be enacted or added as a voice-over to a still image. It should be noted here that incorporating drama into the multimodal presentation was particularly enjoyed by students. Indeed, using drama to enhance literacy is not only effective (Ewing, Hristofski, Gibson, Campbell, & Robertson, 2011, p. 33), but highly motivating. Students also had to work in their groups to source background images for the scenes they would be acting out or using to enhance their oral script voice-overs.

After some discussion, the teachers decided on the Adobe Premier Elements 11 program to edit and publish the finished product. While there are a number of different products teachers can choose from, some of our team were already familiar with this program. Using the tool in the Adobe program we were able to offer our students the chance to film some of their scenes in what we called the green room. A simple set up using a large green sheet and a screen meant that students could add their own backdrops to their scenes, sourced from the book itself or from the internet. The filming was completed in a two hour block, although we were pressed for time. As we only had the one two-hour block set aside, students who were away on that day did not have the chance to participate in the filming. While students had written their own oral scripts and rehearsed them, being filmed for the first time was daunting for some. Several students developed innovative ways to allow them to deliver their script while being filmed. Others were not happy with their original takes and wanted to re-film a few times. The oral scripts prepared by students were often changed and adapted on the spot as they responded to the challenges of being filmed. Once filming was completed, and students had recorded their voice-overs, the film had to be sequenced, and then inserted into the program. Sound, images and the green screen key were added separately.

In spite of some limitations, specifically the time required in planning and execution, the flexible nature of the project means it could be adapted for a variety of age groups and settings. For a class of EAL/D speakers, the clear benefit of the planned oral language project was the range and scale of immediate, complex and unplanned oral language taking place at the same time. Without realising it, in the course of preparing their multimodal text, students were also involved in wide ranging informal and immediate oral language, as they worked in their groups to express own views, justify ideas, negotiate, evaluate and collaborate to produce their planned oral scripts. As EAL/D students in particular grappled with the task at hand, they were engaging in various mental multilingual thought processes as informal dialogue paved the way towards formal scripted speech. The nature of the group based activity meant that students were able to engage in these informal discussions at their own pace, further encouraging participation from even the most reluctant speakers. Consequently, I couldn't let the comment go unchallenged: 'This is so much fun, but we haven't done literacy in a while!' 'Are you sure about that?' I replied.


Board of Studies NSW (2012). English K-6. Sydney, NSW: Board of Studies.

Booker, K. (2012). Practical Strategies: Using Picturebooks to Empower and Inspire Readers and Writers in the Upper Primary Classroom. Literacy Learning: the Middle Years, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. i-xiii (insert).

Cox, R. (2011). Talk for learning: developing and expanding oral language in the classroom: e:update 018. Marrickville Metro: Primary English Teaching Association.

De Courcy, M., Dooley, K., Jackson, R., Miller, J., and Rushton, K. (2012). Teaching EAL/D Learners in Australian Classrooms: PETAA Paper 183. Marrickville Metro: Primary English Teaching Association.

Ewing, R., Hristofski, H., Gibson, R., Campbell, V., and Robertson, A. (2011). Using Drama to Enhance Literacy: The School Drama Initiative. Literacy Learning: the Middle Years, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 33-39.

Lester, A. (2012). Sophie Scott Goes South. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Walsh, M. (2011). Multimodal Literacy: Researching Classroom Practice. Marrickville Metro: Primary English Teaching Association.

Nicole Tainsh is a classroom teacher at Granville East Public School. Prior to joining the staff there she taught in regional NSW. Nicole is passionate about literacy and loves exploring ways in which new technologies can be used to extend the range and depth of the everyday literacy program.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A361713105