Research, such as that undertaken by Piaget (1978) and Vygotsky (Krause et al, 2003), Erikson (1997) and, later on, Bronfenbrenner (Krause et al, 2003), has put child development within social, economic and environmental contexts. Language, its acquisition, and how children talk, are recognised an essential constituents of these approaches. For example, at a Piagetian level, language acts as an indicator of a child’s age and stage. For Vygotsky and Erikson, it reflects the student’s pre-conceptions, interpretations and understandings of the world and its workings as well as levels of pro-social skills. For Bronfenbrenner, language reflects the individual’s environments within specific systems ranging from personal (microsystems – family, peers, teachers) to external (macrosystems – culture, beliefs).
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Currently, the value to student learning of specific talk types has come to the fore. For example, the importance of exploratory talk (Dawes et al, 2004) within the classroom talk context (Grugeon et al, 2005) has been realised as a means of developing pro-social and thinking skills. The first section of this essay extends this validation of children’s linguistic development. It does this through a survey of how theory, reason and practise combine to define children’s talk at primary level.
It also looks at the formats that have been generated to support this (e.g. National Curriculum for Key Stages 1 and 2 and the National Literacy Strategy for Key Stages 1 and 2). The second section gives a general discussion of forms of talk. The third section focuses on the classroom environment and the teacher’s role in an increasingly holistic approach to student’s language and learning. It looks at the different language forms as exemplified in Figure 1 and how a teacher can best develop a students skills through talk.
As the brief survey above shows, the basic human urge to communicate has been much studied, qualified and quantified. Many of the educational models of communication (eg Lasswell’s, 1948 adaptation of the 5 W’s and Johnson’s processes of interpersonal communication, 1986, both cited in Marsh, 2004) place parameters on children’s talk by encouraging specific forms of talk. The National Curriculum emphasises exploratory and questioning (see Table 1) language. It provides frameworks within each learning area and stage where these forms of talk can be scaffolded into a student’s means of communication. Understanding how children interpret, manage and convey information in important in order to effectively encourage questioning and exploration.
Table 1. Examples of talking and listening in the National Curriculum
|Examples from the National Curriculum frameworks of teaching ‘talk’|
Group discussion and interaction Religious education
Group discussion and interaction Science
Speaking Design and technology
Listening Information and communication technology
Listening Art and design
Group discussion and interaction Music
From the perspective of children’s talk, language must move through a number of stages and in doing so reflects both physical and cognitive development. It could be argued that two functions of talk, at the early stages, are as a means of learning and as something to be learnt (although arguments to a ‘universal’ basic grammar point to language as instinctual eg Chomsky, 2000: Jackendoff, 1993).
Gradually the parameters for this talk develop into more efficient tools with which to gather, interpret and communicate knowledge. It is important to bear in mind that language is more than just a tool for representing knowledge(Karmiloff-Smth, 1979, p.14).
The influences on the child’s way of, and purpose in, talking, may start as parents and carers and their specific attitudes and values – their cultural capitol as Bourdieu would put it (cited in Webb et al, 2002). They also include culture and environments and, as Jackendoff (1993) points out, society. Children arrive at school with this background of child-directed speech. The amount and type of expansion and recasting appears to be linked to social, cultural and economic environments and impacts upon how a child can interpret and respond to school.
Whilst this essay cannot give syntactical, phonetic, semantic or grammatical elements in children’s language development the space they deserve, their importance is acknowledged. However, the importance of oral language is now enshrined in the National Curriculum and integrated across the Key stages. As Dockrell et al (2004) point out in their examination of methods of supporting language development in young children, the approach initiated in Teaching speaking and listening in Key Stages 1 and 2 (QCA, 1999) increasingly focuses on teacher modelling. Research shows (e.g. Hart and Risley, 1995; Peterson and Siegal, 1999) how socio-economic factors and environments can influence a child’s basic linguistic knowledge (eg the literacy hour (National Literacy Strategy, 1999) has intended to make up for short fall in a students pre-existing language.
As the previous section briefly covers, the mode of children’s talk helps identify cognitive stage, personal knowledge, preconceptions, pro-social skills and terms of reference. It also mentions the reciprocal determinism, as Bandura (cited in Krause et al 2003)would put it, where environment is a product of both the individuals’ internal and external factors. However, this next section takes a level playing field approach to modes of talk. For example, leaving learning difficulties and ESL aside for the moment, a teacher would not expect a five year old to still be using the telegraphic speech (two word sentences) typical of a two year old. You may expect some over and under-extension, but essentially key stage 1 students should be demonstrating more metalinguistics awareness.
Encouraging the development of metalinguistic awareness runs throughout the National Curriculum. For example the English section states:
Pupils should be taught about how speech varies:
- in different circumstances [for example, to reflect on how their speech changes in more formal situations]
- to take account of different listeners [for example, adapting what they say when speaking to people they do not know].
Clearly, at the basis of this are two fundamental skills – the ability to explore an issue and the ability to communicate within the parameters that have been established. Exploratory talk, as pointed out by Dawes and Wegerif (1998) is an essential skill that, for many primary school situations, needs to be taught. Their example is with regard to the use of computers by small groups. It stresses the need for children to learn to take turns talking, to listen to each other, respect each other’s opinions, question each other, discuss and finally agree on an outcome. Students need to know the necessary formats for this to work. For example, one student may have a very clear idea of the issue but may not be able to explain it well. Without the tools to communicate effectively, the student’s knowledge cannot contribute to the group. This brings us to the issue of the teacher as facilitator of constructive talk.
language acquisition cannot take place in the absence of shared social and situational contexts…
(Chapman, 1978, cited in Bransford et al, 2000, p.94)
With the goal of allowing students to develop their communication skills (and the associated processes such as literacy, pro-social skills etc), teachers need to provide a learning environment based on building confidence in enquiry.
This guiding introduces a number of important issues. Firstly, the teachers must be aware of their own preconceptions, attitudes and values. For example, the curriculum demands that teachers maintain high expectations for their students. Without this, students can at best loose their enthusiasm for learning in specific areas, and at worst can sabotage their own learning. As much as a student’s language reflects their background values and conceptions, so can a teacher’s. An effective teacher needs use a number of strategies to enable students to contribute orally in a number of different formats. Modelling and motivation are just two of these strategies at work in each format.
Both through drama and other exploration, children can develop a better understanding about effective communication, both verbal and non-verbal.
Speaking, Listening, Learning: working with children in Key Stages 1 and 2 DfES 0626-2003 p.7
Good modelling is an essential part of a teacher’s repertoire. The words confidence and fluency run through the National Curriculum and one part of achieving this is to provide the students with both the vocabulary a situation demands and the means of using it. For example, Listening Mathematics involves practical activity, exploration and discussion (5.1.a Mathematics, National Curriculum). However, as Dockrell, Stuart and King (2004) consider, difficulties in defining a good oral go beyond modelling:
it is not sufficient simply to provide ‘good models’; the language from the adult needs to be carefully tuned to the child’s language. It needs to be offered in such a way as to extend and support, and children need plenty of opportunity to practise their fledgling skills.
Dockrell et al, Supporting early oral language skills, 2004
A positive learning environment needs several elements. One, as Figure 1 shows, is motivation. This is a key element in producing types and forms of children’s talk. Young children will often talk out loud as they explore a problem, new situation, and put the issue into self-questioning and self-resolution. At this early stage, exploratory talk is often self-generated. At primary level, the teacher takes responsibility for ensuring that valid learning is taking place. Whilst exploratory talk is to be encouraged, it is more guided and learning more scaffolded, be that in a constructivist paradigm or a more structured setting. If the teacher can catch the student’s interest, then motivation occurs naturally.
The curriculum gives four groups of speaking, listening, group discussion and interaction (Speaking, listening, learning: Working with children in KS1 and KS2 – extends and supersedes the Teaching speaking and listening in Key Stages 1 and 2 (QCA, 1999)). Specifically, the teacher needs to provide individuals with talking formats and opportunity to practice them. The following is one from the English Framework:
What is being talked about?
Who is talking?
What kind of talk?
Speaking, Listening, Learning: working with children in Key Stages 1 and 2 DfES 0626-2003 (2003)
Added to this could be what does this mean and how should I respond?
Sadly, there is no space here to go into the excellent lesson plans and strategies (see for example Grugeon et al, 2005) for enhancing enquiry learning through exploratory talk or activities such as Talk Box activities (Dawes et al, 2004). In summary, the effective teacher needs to:
- develop a safe and motivational learning environment
- be clear and explicit (Johnston, 2004)
- provide and scaffold the basic tools for communication
- to listen and judge how successful their strategies are and reflect on how to improve them
- to tailor communication to individual learning styles
- to provide ample opportunity for students to practise these skills
- to use small group work
- develop a students metalinguistics awareness
- encourage a students self-regulatory processes
- enthuse and encourage students
- maintain high expectations
These are just a few of the important elements in producing well-rounded, confident students. It should also be taken into account that school is a format in itself, for example playground talk is a valid component of student learning. Therefore, it is as important to listen to the vernacular as to teach confidence in the more formal contexts. Finally, this essay hopes to have conveyed an understanding of the importance of oral language. It also recognises the effect that talk has on other areas of a students learning.
Good oral work enhances pupils’ understanding of language in both oral and written forms and of the way language can be used to communicate. It is also an important part of the process through which pupils read and compose texts.
The NLS Framework for teaching YR to Y6
References and further reading
Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (eds) (2000 expanded ed) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Commission on Behavioural and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council, Washington, DC: National Academy Press
Chapman, R.S. (1978) Comprehension strategies in children. Pp.308-329 in Speech and Language in the Laboratory, School and Clinic. J. Kavanaugh and W. Strange, (eds) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Chomsky, N. (2000) New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Dawes, L. and Sams, C. (2004) Talk Box: speaking and listening activities at Key Stage 1. London: David Fulton Publishers
Dawes, L., Wegerif, R. and Mercer, N. (2004) Thinking together: Activites for Key Stage 2 Children and Teachers. Birmingham: Imaginative Minds
DfES. The NLS Framework for teaching YR to Y6
DfESFramework for teaching (DfES 0500/2001) National Literacy Strategy:
DfES Speaking, Listening, Learning: working with children in Key Stages 1 and 2 (DfES 0626-2003)
DfES Grammar for writing (DfEE 0107/2000) National Literacy Strategy
DfES Developing early writing (DfEE 0055/2001) National Literacy Strategy
DfESMathematicalvocabulary book(DfES 0313/2000) National Numeracy Strategy
DfES NLS Framework for teaching(DfES 0500-2001). National Literacy Strategy
Dockrell, J., Stuart, M., and King, D. (2004) Supporting early oral language skills in Literacy Today, September 2004 Vol. 40
Erikson, E.H. (1997) The Life Cycle Completed: Extended version New York: W.W. Norton and Co.
Gee, J.P. (2004) Situated Language and Learning: a critique of traditional schooling. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge
Grugeon, E., Hubbard, L., Smith. C. and Dawes, L. (2005) Teaching Speaking and Listening in the Primary School. London: Fulton Press
Hart., B and Risley, T.R. (1995) Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes cited in K. Krause, S. Bochner and S. Duchesne, (2003) Educational Psychology for learning and teaching. p.21. Southbank, Victoria: Thomson
Jackendoff, R. (1993) Patterns in the Mind: language and human nature. Hemel Hempstead, Herts: Harvester Wheatsheaf
Johnston, P.H. (2004) Choice Words: how our language affects children’s learning. : Portland, Maine :Stenhouse Publishers
Krause, K.L., Bochner, S., and Duchesne, S. (2003) Educational Psychology for learning and teaching. Southbank, Victoria:Thomson
Karmilloff-Smith, A. (1979) A Functional Approach to Child Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Marsh, C. (2004) Becoming and Teacher: Knowledge, skills and issues. (3rd ed). French’s Forest, NSW: Pearson Education Australia
Peterson, C.C., and Siegal, M. (1999) Representing inner worlds: Theory of mind in autistic, deaf and normal hearing children. Psychological Science, 10(2), pp.126-129 cited in K. Krause, S. Bochner and S. Duchesne, (2003) Educational Psychology for learning and teaching. p.21. Southbank, Victoria: Thomson
Piaget, J. (1978) success and Understanding. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Webb, J., Schirato, T and Donaher, G. (2002) Understanding Bourdieu. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen and Unwin
Winch, G., Johnston, R., March, P., Ljungdahl, L., and Holliday, M. (2004) Literacy: reading, writing and children’s literature. (2nd ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press
Whitton, D., Sinclair, C., Barker, K., Nanlohy, P., and Nosworthy, M. (2004) Learning for Teaching: Teaching for Learning. Southbank, Victoria: Thomson
Wolfe, P. (2001) Brain Matters: translating research into classroom practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Play and effect. http://www.genkienglish.net/playandaffect.htm. Accessed 5 Jan 2006
National Curriculum. http://curriculum.becta.org.uk/docserver.php?docid=728. Accessed 3 Jan 2006
Oral language skills.http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/Pubs/dockrell.html Accessed Jan 4
National Curriculum frameworks. http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/literacy/publications/framework/