A Kindergarten girl came home one day at the beginning of the year and her mother asked her how she liked school. “Not so much,” she replied. “I can’t read, I don’t know how to write, and they won’t let me talk!”
I used to tell parents that little story and it always got a laugh, but I worry that it is a little too true. With all the curriculum standards and fidelity to purchased programs, along with pressure to have all children achieve predetermined literacy levels we have a tendency to ask children to become focused listeners, high level readers and prolific writers, but not as much attention is given to developing their oral language. We know that oral language is the foundation for all literacy skills. We share with parents that emergent writing is very similar to emergent speaking – we need to accept their beginning efforts and build on their successes. But we don’t give all children enough meaningful opportunities to talk.
Research shows that the most effective teaching method is TO, WITH and BY. No matter what information or skills we are teaching – first we model so the children see and hear what we expect. Then we engage them in the process, doing it along with them. Then finally we give them lots of time to practice independently, but we are still close by to encourage and keep them on the right path. As far as oral language, I think we do a good job on the TO and WITH parts, but we don’t always think of enough ways to give each child lots of independent practice. Too often I found myself reminding the children to raise their hand and wait for their turn, or be a good listener. And it’s no wonder – with up to 28 children in my room it was difficult to find the time to encourage each child to gain confidence in sharing their ideas. But when I remind myself that the whole mystery of literacy is based on this vital concept I know that it is our responsibility to value the development of oral language by spending time on it.
Here is a description of typical language and literacy standards, published by NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children.)
Here is a description that I used in our district.
Aside from providing lots of time for all children to practice speaking in your classroom, the most important thing you need to consider is the emotional climate. Some children are more timid, and for them to speak out in class means they are taking a risk – a risk that their idea won’t be valued, or someone might laugh, or they won’t be heard. I considered it one of my most important responsibilities to make every child comfortable and confident to share their ideas. I worked on setting a positive emotional climate in my classroom from the very beginning of the year. First of all I tried to model how I respected the children. When a child spoke to me I tried to always bend, kneel or sit to be at their level, and I tried to maintain eye contact while they were talking to me. Of course that can be so hard when you also have to use those eyes in the back of your head to keep all the other children engaged, or on task, or out of trouble! At circle time I sat on the carpet for most discussions, so I was at their level. I tried to remember to monitor my tone of voice – sometimes I did feel a bit irritated or aggravated or impatient – but I didn’t want my voice to reflect that. Every year I had at least one impulsive little bunny who just couldn’t stop herself from blurting out her ideas, which were sometimes pertinent to our subject, other times totally random thoughts!
And there were other kids who had perfected the art of elaboration – it took them 20 minutes to tell you their Grandma had come to visit. What a challenge to encourage all children to share their ideas, and at the same time help others to know when and how they needed to participate – all the while trying to value everyone’s input and keep them all engaged. Sometimes I used a puppet who was over excited, or had hurt feelings to demonstrate these ideas to the children. I really liked using role play because then the children were doing the talking while they acted out the scenario.
One great strategy that we all use is to turn and talk to a partner. I found that I did this more often when I took the time to teach the children how to do it. It can be a great way to give every child an opportunity to talk instead of just calling on a few to share their ideas, but if it takes the children a long time to find a partner and get situated, they really don’t have much talking time. Sometimes there were arguments or hurt feelings when one or two children wanted a different partner. Through the years I found that some groups handled this better than others. Sometimes I could just say turn to your neighbor, but even then some children turned right, others turned left. With some groups I actually needed to assign talking partners so there was no question or choice involved, and of course we had to decide what we would do if a partner was absent.
I called this sitting “eye to eye, knee to knee.” There are lots of descriptions out there, the important thing is to show the children exactly how you expect them to sit, and what it looks like and sounds like when two children share their ideas.
I took this picture when we were role playing what it looks like – that’s why only 2 children were facing each other. At the end of our discussion time I encouraged the children to give each other a “pinky hug” for being a great talking partner.
I found that when I helped children learn to quickly find a partner, get into position, stay on the topic and take turns in their discussion I wanted to use this strategy often. They loved it and it was an efficient way to give every child a voice. Sometimes after turning to talk I would call on a few children to tell me what their partner had said – because we were also learning that being a partner meant also being a good listener. Just like everything else, it pays off to take time to model and practice your expectations.
Sometimes we used a similar strategy that we called Walk About, Talk About. Instead of sitting and facing each other, the 2 partners would link arms and walk around a specified area of the classroom while they talked. The novelty of this encouraged the children to look and sound very serious in their discussions, and of course they loved it!
I am having so much fun watching my grandchildren develop language skills. I have lots more time to appreciate each stage than I did with my own children! It has made me think a lot about the impact of a nurturing adult who gives the child undivided attention and unqualified encouragement. I am a very lucky Nana!! I have lots more to share about oral language – still weeding through my old files!