Zhang Hong and Nola Kortner Aiex
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication
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.
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.
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.
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
In one investigation
(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.
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
(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.
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.
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,
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
1989). Throughout life, oral language skills remain essential
for engagement in intellectual dialogue, and for the communication
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.
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 speech.
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.
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 Curricula K-12."
Aiex, Nola Kortner
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ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication. [ED 321
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to Learn Subject Matter/Learning Subject Matter Talk."
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J. (1988). "Linguistics
and Literacy Teaching." Paper presented at the World Conference
of Applied Linguistics (Sydney, Australia). [ED 299 816]
for Developing Oral Communication Curricula in Kindergarten through
Twelfth Grade (1991). Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association.
[ED 337 828]
Taylor (1983). "ERIC/RCS
Report: Oral Language: A Neglected Language Art?" Language
Arts, 60(2), 255-58. [EJ 276 124]
Lemke, J. L.
Text Talk." Theory-into-Practice, 28(2), 136-41. [EJ 415
and Speaking in the English Language Arts Curriculum K- 12. 1989
Field Test Edition. Albany, NY: New York State Education Department.
[ED 335 726]
Investigation into Ways in Which Children Talk Themselves into Meaning."
Language and Education, 7(3), 181- 87. [EJ 485 116]
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]
S. Clay (1993). "Oral
Communication Skills Necessary for Successful Teaching."
Educational Research Quarterly, 16(2), 5-10. [EJ 480 434]
is a staff member of the Indiana College Placement and Assessment
Center, Bloomington. Nola Kortner Aiex is Assistant Director of
the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication, Bloomington,
publication was prepared (Digest #107, EDO-CS-95-10, June 1995 )
with funding from the U.S. Department of Education under contract
number RR93002011, and published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading,
English and Communication.
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions
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