Contexts for oral language
Oral language activity can be approached through five principal contexts:
- talk and discussion
- play and games
- improvisational drama
- poetry and rhyme.
Talk and discussion will, of course, feature in each of the other four to a greater or lesser extent, the role of oral language in approaching poetry and rhyme is indicated in the section Approaches to poetry.
Talk and discussion
In the classroom, talk and discussion should be characterised by a relaxed atmosphere of informality which masks a well-thought-out approach to the language needs of the children. This will consist in providing a range of contexts and strategies in which appropriate
language skills can be acquired. For example, children's reading, both in English and in other curriculum areas, will frequently provide a valuable basis for talk and discussion.
In learning to initiate and sustain conversations in these various contexts children need to develop an understanding of their role as speakers and listeners.
They need to have practice in
- listening attentively
- taking turns to speak
- offering the information most essential to the listener
- making comments and responses that are appropriate.
The role of the teacher in developing active listening
Children, by and large, come to school with a considerable knowledge of language but their ability to attend actively to what is said often needs to be developed. It is important that contexts for language are created by the teacher in which the children are encouraged to listen and respond.
These may include learning to respond to simple instructions and directions story-based activities such as listening to and retelling stories, recalling particular events in a story, asking questions, and communicating the narrative through role-playing language games, rhymes, songs, poems and jingles through which an awareness of sounds may be fostered
clapping and dancing to syllabic rhythms in order to further enhance the child's awareness of sounds.
A classroom framework
The teacher should adopt a collaborative, supportive and interactive role in facilitating these activities. Children will require a classroom framework in which the teacher
- encourages children to engage in conversations in a purposeful manner
- ensures that children's contributions are valued
- acts as facilitator and mentor, helping the children to be explicit in what they say through modelling responses, thinking aloud, questioning, prompting, clarifying and extending vocabulary
- points out possible areas of meaning that the topic might embrace helps children to analyse and categorise these provides appropriate vocabulary, sentence structures, phrases and descriptive language
- creates contexts with agreed rules for discussion in which contributions are listened to and valued
- models different types of response.
Talk and discussion in other areas of the curriculum
Many opportunities will arise for talk and discussion as part of the learning process in other areas of the curriculum. SPHE, for example, will provide a natural forum for a consideration of a variety of the issues of the day. This use of oral language activity as part of the learning process is stressed in other curriculum documents also. In mathematics, for instance, talk and discussion are central in the approach to problem-solving and in history they are featured in many of the activities. Indeed, it can be argued that the trawling of the collected knowledge of the class and reviewing it through discussion should form the prelude to the acquisition of any new concept or skill.
EXEMPLAR 1 - Using a children's book as a focus for talk between the teacher and small groups of children
Play and games
Play is the natural medium through which the child exercises imagination in order to deal with feelings, situations and ideas outside his/her experience. Children, because of their limited experience and the particular stage of their conceptual development, can understand the real world only partially. In play they create a make-believe world in which they can choose and control the characters, circumstances and events, and through which they explore and try to understand the real world. This make-believe world provides the stimulus and the context through which they learn to represent things symbolically and reach conclusions about reality and its meaning.
As a learning medium play is crucial in the junior classes. It brings children from the here and now into the world of the imagination where they can use language and make-believe to explore their reactions to experiences and ideas.
Factors affecting the content of play
There are a number of factors that will affect the content of children's play and have an influence on the range of experiences they can derive from it.
Among these are
- their experience to date and their framework of reference
- the competence with which they can use language to create play contexts
- their ability to communicate ideas in play
- their ability to sustain play and extend it.
The role of the teacher in play
The mediating role of the teacher is crucial in helping children to use imaginative play to extend and enrich their language ability and their conceptual framework. It is important, in the first place, for the teacher to provide a wide variety of materials and contexts which will facilitate children's play in the infant classroom.
Given materials and contexts children will play spontaneously. However, if they are to experience the maximum learning from it the teacher must influence it and direct it. This can be done through interacting with individual children and groups of children, contributing to the particular activity, supporting it with collaborative talk and challenging the children.
The teacher can achieve this enrichment of language by
- asking questions
- prompting new directions for the play
- suggesting possibilities
- initiating dialogue
- introducing a new child into the particular activity
- encouraging individual children to co-operate in play activity
- encouraging role-playing
- encouraging children to talk about what they are doing and to discuss it with other children.
Learning activities in role-playing
The children should be encouraged to involve themselves in role-playing, to talk about what they are doing and to discuss it with others. In this way a number of learning activities can be created, the most obvious of which would be
- labelling -- naming objects, parts of objects and the functions of objects
- making choices
- co-operating and sharing
- considering problems
- negotiating with others
- arriving at and justifying decisions
- developing and sustaining an idea
- experimenting with relationships
- adopting different roles
- exploring feelings
- re-creating their concept of the world imaginatively.
EXEMPLAR 2 - Using play to develop cognitive abilities through oral language
The telling and reading of stories should be a feature of children's experience in every class. Throughout their school lives they should have the opportunity to listen, on a regular basis, to a rich and varied selection of stories.
The importance of story
Listening to stories is important in a number of ways:
- For young children it is their first and principal access to the world of literature and the imagination.
- Through listening to stories they gain an awareness and an appreciation of the structure of narrative, learning about sequence and cause and effect.
- If told in language that is colourful and challenging or read from the works of good writers stories can help expand vocabulary.
- Stories can give children an appreciation of the potential of language and develop their own use of language.
- Listening to stories can help them with their own storytelling.
- Listening to stories improves listening and attending skills.
- Discussing events, characters, motives and consequences in stories assists cognitive, imaginative and emotional development.
The quality of storytelling or story reading is important. Whether read or told, a thorough preparation is necessary if a story is to have the maximum impact on the children because, in a real sense, it requires a performance on the part of the teacher.
Consideration should be given to
- the narrative flow
- the mood of the story
- the dramatic highlights and climaxes
- dialogue, if any
- appropriate variations of voice and pace.
If the teacher has a facility with accent so much the better but this is not essential for a story to be effective. A useful variation is to let the children occasionally hear recordings of professional readers and storytellers or to invite a local story-teller to visit the class and tell stories. Although stories can be read or told with no other purpose than to provide an enjoyable listening experience they can also stimulate valuable oral language activity, writing and follow-up reading. A variety of response should be encouraged. One form of response is illustrated in Exemplar 3, p. 47. Children should also be encouraged to find similar or contrasting stories in books in the class library and to read them silently or aloud to the class.
Language activities and stories
Children should engage in a variety of responses such as
- asking questions
- answering questions
- repeating appropriate lines of dialogue
- using tone of voice to highlight moods and particular events
- re-creating characters, events and emotions in role playing
- miming stories and parts of stories
- describing different characters
- re-telling the story
- re-telling particular incidents in the story
- recalling different words and phrases
- recalling lines of dialogue
- discussing why characters said certain things
- acting out incidents in the story
- miming the story
More sophisticated responses can be expected from older children who could
- retell the story, concentrating on its most important elements
- take turns retelling it
- choose the most important features of the story and compare their choices with those of others
- discuss words or phrases that are particularly colourful, striking or informative
- mime the story to stress mood and emotion
- recall details of characters and events
- summarise the story
- compare it with other stories heard or read
Writing activities in which children
- write the story in their own words
- write about a character
- write about what they liked best in the story
- write the story from the point of view of one of the characters
- write a new ending to the story
- write a sequel
- write what happened before the story began
Listening to stories can encourage children
- to tell their own stories, choosing their own stubject
- to tell a story about given characters
- to listen to the beginning of a story and develop it themselves
- to tell or write a story in collaboration with others
- to tell or write a story about characters they have encountered in their reading
EXEMPLAR 3 - A sample of extension work based on a story
The role of drama
The curriculum envisages a central role for improvisational drama in oral language activity in every class. Because language is central to every area of the curriculum, it will form a dimension of children's learning experience in areas other than language and the arts.
Although drama can be a powerful teaching strategy it is important to remember that it is an activity and an experience that has a discrete value of its own. It has a contribution to make to the development of the child that is quite independent of any learning objective for which it may be used in any particular curriculum area. This dimension of drama should be kept in mind at all times. In other words the specific learning that might accrue from an experience of drama in SESE, for example, will be only a part of the benefit the child will gain from it.
Drama in the primary curriculum
Drama has a number of specific characteristics which mean that it can make a unique contribution to the development of the child.
- is a holistic activity. It involves every aspect of the child's personality: spiritual, moral, emotional, mental and physical. It is through bringing all of these into play, as children interact and create an imaginative world, that the potential for development lies. In the combined engagement of different facets of the child's psyche, as he/she experiences the exploration of imaginary situations and contexts, new insights are born and self-knowledge is revealed
- is an open-ended, creative activity. In a drama lesson certain contexts, situations, characters, conflicts, dilemmas, etc. may be suggested to the children. The teacher may indeed prompt the children towards a particular facet of the exploration but essentially the development should spring from their own creativity and imagination. Their interaction with each other in the roles they play, in the attitudes they adopt and in the feelings they live and express can lead them to new perceptions and intuitions which, in turn, fuel new developments in the situation being played It is in this creative, unpredictable, open-ended nature of drama that much of its value resides. It is from this, too, that all its cognitive and affective educational benefits derive. In controlling and deciding how the particular drama experience develops, the children not only fulfil their own needs but acquire an ownership that makes it all the more valuable to them.
- has a fictional focus. It is in its imaginative dimension that the essence of improvisational drama lies. Children create new personalities and by projecting themselves imaginatively into them. They attain a 'new reality'. A dimension of experience denied to them in normal life becomes available to them in the only way possible -- through living it in their imagination. This experience -- this 'new reality' -- brings them into contact with new ideas, different emotional experience and fresh knowledge
- a quest for knowledge. Children can attain new knowledge and learn new skills through drama, and in school it can be used for this purpose. More importantly, they come to new insights and perceptions not only about themselves but about other people, the nature of social interaction and the issues that arise from it. Such knowledge is attainable only through the specific methods of enquiry that drama uses. Every drama lesson has the potential for language development. The range of the language and the purposes for which it is used will vary with the particular situation being explored but language is intrinsic to it.
Drama and the development of skills
In the curriculum statement the integration of drama with English is indicated in twenty or more content objectives. For younger children, for example, it suggests the use of role playto develop active listening skills. It also recommends the use of improvisational drama in developing children's ability to use language in social functions such as greeting, saying goodbye, etc.
The curriculum also suggests that drama has a particular affinity with activities directed towards cognitive, emotional and imaginative development.
A number of content objectives recommend the use of improvisational drama, in particular those in which children will explore and respond to stories, fiction, poetry and other expressions of feelings, attitudes and opinions. These can provide a rich context for improvisational drama. In any of the drama exercises which explore these situations it is essential that children
- think and feel themselves into the situation
- imagine and play the characters as they really might be
- express emotions and actions in detail and with conviction.
The methods of enquiry that improvisational drama posits are contingent on this idea of an intense engagement with the characters and situations. Without such an engagement the exercise would lack truth and, in all probability, be fruitless from a learning point of view.