Postmodernity and oral language learning

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Author: Joel Batson
Date: Feb. 2014
From: Practically Primary(Vol. 19, Issue 1)
Publisher: Australian Literacy Educators' Association
Document Type: Report
Length: 1,658 words
Lexile Measure: 1640L

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This article explores approaches to increase the effectiveness of oral communication, language and literacy learning in primary classrooms as an antecedent and complementary component of successful reading and writing. The strategies and ideas canvassed here come as a tactical response to the nature of our postmodern society in which the changing face of families as units, whose centrality was once based on oral traditions, is now transforming into a more decentralised pod-system of members whose discussions within and beyond the home are focused on media-rich, often asynchronous, written or electronic communication.


Although many families continue the traditions of discussion around the dinner table, conversation about the rights and responsibilities of families and friends and even citizens such as the postman or fire brigade, reading story books every night before bed, and weekend get-togethers, this human paradigm is changing. Parents work longer, children play more video games, mobile entertainment and in-car DVD players are more popular than ever and television and relationships with peers often revolve around text messages, Facebook and Instagram. All these happenings require minimal face-to-face interaction and thus fewer oral language development opportunities outside of school. Interspersed oral language learning experiences are therefore crucial to the postmodern educator who needs students to read, write, comprehend, speak and listen to the subtle messages of the English language in order to be confident, effective communicators and learners. Munro (2011) has summed up this need by positing the idea that a greater understanding of language and its functions directly affects learning and metacognitive thinking. Emotional intelligence and resilience may also be a welcome result of a confident communicator as students who engage in conversation and understand the nuances, expressions and colloquialisms of language would be well-adapted to thrive in a postmodern knowledge economy where effective communication is a prized commodity in an increasingly interconnected global society held together by language (Preston & Symes, 1992).


The Australian Curriculum English, Mathematics, Science, History and Geography, and no doubt all other state and territory syllabi refer to communication of ideas, demonstration of learning and responding to content specific stimuli. This alone provides a catalyst for ensuring students are afforded the skills and knowledge of oral language, for without them, they would be faced with setbacks in their own learning or ability to prove that they have indeed learned. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority's (2013) General Capabilities for learning in Australian schools outline 'Literacy', which describes a continuum for learning that includes comprehending texts, composing texts, text knowledge, grammar knowledge, word knowledge and visual knowledge. Each of these elements has a strong foundation in oral language and the development of language as a set of skills to address the complex nature of communicating, both receptively and productively in the world today and tomorrow.


The strategies, activities and ideas contained in this article apply to all learning areas and are compatible in a wide range of primary classrooms. Several ideas, though, could be useful with older students, given some differentiation and adaptation. Oral language and vocabulary development need not be stand-alone activities and would benefit students most by being a thread woven throughout every learning experience and work program.


Storybooks present an interesting opportunity for teachers to scaffold oral language development in the early years. When students engage with picture books, short stories, big books, or e-books of any kind, there are inherently things to be learned about oral language. Whether the teacher or adult reads aloud, or the students are reading together, some questioning techniques encourage students to think about and develop their knowledge of the language system and share these ideas verbally. Perhaps the most salient of these opportunities is teaching the need to recognise that sentences are grammatically correct in print and that we should try to echo these patterns in speech so that we can be understood by others. For example, when reading a book about a dog who cannot find his bone, students could be questioned about how they might ask for something that is lost, or suggest new sentences to replace those in the book. Teachers can then respond by modelling appropriate grammar and having students practice new skills in a range of formats and contexts. Additionally, students should be encouraged to illustrate any of their extrapolations from the story and discussion and then synthesise this by using their drawing as an image to be narrated, perhaps using tablet technology forming an electronic record of their oral language development over time and tool for feedback between teacher and student.


Both explicit teaching and vocabulary on-the-run are useful tools in the teachers' kit to facilitate oral language fluency. Archer and Hughes (2011) suggest the following as guidelines for vocabulary instruction: Teach words that are imperative to the learning at hand in units of work that students are likely to utter or hear in the future; teach words that refer to unknown concepts that are likely to fall in specialised learning areas; teach words that are not easily explained with context clues in conversation or print; teach words that are abstract in nature--that is, cannot be easily shown visually such as 'compulsion'; and teach words that are difficult to pronounce. New vocabulary should be displayed and referred to regularly in the classroom. One simple mechanism to encourage engagement in vocabulary learning is to incorporate memory games or challenges such as a ladder which displays new words, the higher the student can 'climb' by explaining and using the word, the more rewards or points they receive.


The use of high quality and authentic graphics and images in subject specific learning can facilitate rich discussions. When students are engaged in conversation about an exciting image, such as a motocross rider in mid-air over a jump, they immediately and eagerly try to share their thoughts and experiences which provides a never ending supply of opportunities to teach the way we manage conversations using oral language skills. As each student waits to speak, teachers can model and gradually release responsibility of the management of the conversation following Munro's (2011) guides for managing and directing conversation. They are: starting, maintaining and ending conversations; taking turns; staying on topic; adjusting to fit an audience; and reading into subtle messages (Munro, 2011). Further, the use of a speaking stick would help visualise the turn taking responsibilities in a conversation.


For upper primary students, a deeper understanding of the English language can be encouraged by facilitating the understanding of idioms, imagery and when, where and how to use them. A lack of understanding of the link between oral and written language is highly evident in young students who read and write confidently but fail to read and use the more subtle or figurative messages within texts, or become lost when listening to others who use colloquialisms, idioms or metaphors when they speak. As a remedy, this activity has students learn (age appropriate) commonly used figurative language explicitly by investigating its history and conception and creating mini books to show how these newly learned phrases could be used. For example, barking up the wrong tree could be illustrated with a dog barking up a tree with a cat in a tree next to it. Students would then annotate the drawing (or collage) with the sentence, 'Barking up the wrong tree means to search for something in the wrong place'. Teachers need to make clear to students that figurative language and some idioms and colloquialisms should be used carefully in writing, depending on the register of the genre.


As our society continues to edge further from its roots, rich in oral traditions, new asynchronous, digital traditions are developing. The symbolism, language and rules of communication in the 21st century still demand oral language skills, a vast vocabulary and knowledge of language systems, but this emerging postmodernism seems to provide fewer opportunities for these to be practised. Teachers are therefore the key to unlocking the riddles, distinctions and functions of oral language and the art of conversation to equip students better for the literacy demands of schooling and beyond.


To highlight and reinforce excellent examples of oral language being used by students in classrooms, Twitter's format of excerpt style quotations from individuals provides a simple platform which can be easily adopted in schools without a twitter account. Using a simple poster or section of a whiteboard, teachers can 'post' tweets (for example sentences spoken by children or others) and focus on quality oral language. This sends a clear message to students that value is placed on using good speaking skills and that attempting to use newly learned vocabulary or oral language skills will gain positive attention. Students' faces are shown on the board with their 'tweet' and vocabulary or oral language foci can be highlighted for a given week, such as questions or using commands.


Archer, A.L., & Hughes, C.A. (2011). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. New York: The Guildford Press.

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2013). General capabilities in the Australian Curriculum. Retrieved July 25, 2013, from http://www. Overview

Munro, J. (2011). Teaching oral language: Building a firm foundation using ICPALER in the early primary years. Camberwell: ACER Press.

Preston, N., & Symes, C. (1992). Jean Francois Lyotard and the post-modern. Schools and classrooms: a cultural studies analysis of education. In EDU8311 Concepts and theories in educational management: Selected readings 2 (2009, pp. 18-20). Toowoomba: University of Southern Queensland.

Joel Batson BLM(Primary) CQU, MEd (Leadership & Management) USQ, has been teaching in rural South-West Queensland for 7 years. He is currently the Head of Curriculum and Primary at Tara Shire State College and is passionate about contemporary education and organisational innovation. He is also a reviewer in the Text Talk For Teachers section in Practically Primary.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A361713108