What Do/Can Students Learn About Oral Language?

When a teacher/researcher focuses on oral language development, what is the child expected to learn?

Is talk-based learning about vocabulary or grammar, about stories, about content, about discourse?

When teachers/researchers encourage children to engage in conversation or structure situations to encourage conversation what is the hoped for/anticipated outcome? Well that depends…..

Here is the summary of a chapter by Gordon Wells and Gen Chang-Wells (appearing both in Language Development for Teachers (1996 ) and Constructing Knowledge Together (1992) titled the “The Literate Potential of Collaborative Conversation.”

In the Language Development text, the authors note:

“Gordon Wells’ 10 year longitudinal studies of children moving from home to school in urban England settings in the 1970s is still one of the most influential works in socio-cultural analysis of home-school links.”

I would suggest that it is still work worthy of attention and influence. Here is a lengthy summary I have used in a graduate class titled “Language and Learning.”

The Literate Potential of Collaborative Talk,   Gordon Wells and Gen Change-Wells

The authors suggest that “If we accept this argument (about the nature of literate thinking) then we must also accept that the process of becoming literate can potentially take place through speech as well as through engagement with written language. For it is not the mode of language use that defines literate thinking, but rather then manner in which the language is employed. Thinking is literate when it exploits the symbolic potential of language to enable the thought processes themselves to become the object of thought. Under appropriate conditions, this can occur in either writing or speaking….”

In this article/chapter they describe two children in grades ¾ engaged in a self-chosen project based on a school-wide theme of “The Enchantment of Winter.” The task is one of interactive problem solving, involving solving problems of increasing levels of difficulty.

Throughout this chapter, it has been assumed that the prime function of schooling is to develop effective thinking.   “….we should be attempting to promote the development of literate thinking…”       Characterized by…..

*Making argument explicit by giving reasons for one’s position

*Making argument relevant to one’s own position, as well as that adopted by the other

*Need to consider alternatives

*And to justify them by appeal to systematic knowledge

*Reflecting on what one has done–questioning the outcome of one’s effort

*Revising, if necessary

*Planning and similar processes are brought to the level of conscious attention/intentional control

*Self regulatory (a “What is my question?” “Where am I going? Stance

Critically reflective in order to construction an intelligible, coherent and convincing verbal formulation (5 and 9 may be the same)

Role of Talk in Active Learning: Collaborative Talk

*Involves learning that is focused on the acquisition and development of more complex conceptual structure and cognitive procedures

*Engaging in activities in which it is necessary to recognize and solve problems of increasing levels of difficulty

*Must be able to represent the problem to oneself in such a way that one is able to generate and choose between alternative means to its solution

*Problem solving is recursive (not simply linear)

*Conscious and deliberate problem solving….to help children develop reflective awareness of their own mental processes.

*The child must play an active role in selecting and defining the activities, which must be both challenging and motivating

*There must be an appropriate level of support (zone of proximal development)

Enabling and Empowering Learning

“For collaborative talk to have this empowering effect, however, it must meet two essential conditions. The first of these has already been addressed: it must be based on the assumption that the learner has ownership of the task…. A major objective of such talk will, therefore, be to help the learner to develop conscious and deliberate control over his or her mental processes, not only in order to complete the task at hand, but also so that he or she becomes progressively more able to take responsibility for his or her own learning more generally.”

“The second essential condition arises from the first: the expert’s contribution to the dialogue should be “contingently responsive” to the needs of the learners as these needs are understood in light of the immediate situation as well as of the longer term goals of education….”

*Take the child’s attempt seriously and treat it as evidence of his or her best effort to solve the problem

*Listen carefully to the child’s account and request amplification and clarification as necessary to ensure that you have correctly understood.

*In making your response, take the child’s account as a starting point and extend or develop it or encourage the child to do so him/herself.

*Select and formulate your contributions in the light of the child’s current manifested ability as well as of your pedagogical intentions, and modify it, as necessary, in the light of feedback provided by the childBold throughout this entry mine.

* * *

This article reminds me of the book by Nichols, Comprehension Through Conversation, reviewed on an earlier blog, in which she says, ‘My kids talk. What’s the big deal?’ She pursued the question over several years, resulting in her valuable text. (See my blog post on November 11,2014, for a summary of that text).

It also reminds me of work by other authors that highlight using oral language to learn about history and science (blogs forthcoming).

With these and other sources on oral language in the classroom we need to ask the conditions under which these language skills are learned.  Does it require explicit teaching? scaffolding? opportunities for practice?  cultural and contextual sensitivity?


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