Oral Language

In the U.S., English teachers define their responsibilities as teaching reading, writing, listening, and speaking. One of the common practices in teaching oral language (speaking) is to assign regular public speaking projects. Students might research a topic, then prepare a presentation which is shared with their class. I see these kinds of projects in Norwegian classrooms–when I visited Ann’s classroom in Sandvika, small groups of her students were presenting their research on a writer with their class.

We also expect a lot of daily participation in U.S. classrooms. Sometimes this interaction happens in small groups, sometimes in the larger classroom. One of the things I’ve seen happen in Norway is that when students work in small groups, some switch to Norwegian. Although there will be occasions when we want students to be able to discuss in their native language (namely when topics are complex and demand a vocabulary that our students don’t yet have), it’s a good practice to require that certain small group work be done only in English.

In Lørenskog, Hilde did a really interesting activity when I visited her class. She had created two pictures, one to use as a template and the other that was just slightly different from the first. Hilde gave students pictures then assigned them to work with someone across the language lab (using the speaker and head phones) who had a different picture. The students described their picture, trying to identify the differences without being able to see their partner’s picture. This was a really fun activity and required a lot of discussion. Hilde listened in on the headphones to make sure students were speaking in English and to monitor their work.

Another activity to help students practice their speaking skills involves creating scenarios that correspond to topics students are discussing. In small groups, students must create a dialogue/script that reflects the scenario. This scenario could range from the simple (ordering a meal at a restaurant) to more complex (negotiating with a parent about going to a party on a school night) to the philosophical (debating about a current event). The teacher could include realia (physical artifacts like a menu or newspaper) that students could use as they perform their script in front of the class.

One of my friends in the U.S., Kathy, created note cards with each students’ name. As she taught, she’d call on students when their card was at the top of the pile. Students were graded on their response and this grade was part of their participation grade . . . which was a chunk of their final grade. She felt like this was a fair way to require and grade participation in her class.

Of course, one of the most important things to teach oral language skills is to create a supportive, open environment where students know they can make mistakes as they practice English–and where they also know that the teacher expects them to speak.

I love teaching when students do more of the speaking than I do. I love hearing my students’ ideas and learning from them. Whatever you do in your classroom, student voices should be an integral part of the curriculum.

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