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Oral Language -- A Door into Literacy

I often talk with teachers of young children and of adult learners coming into literacy skills. Here are some thoughts and tips on using ORAL language to help learners step into their competence with the written word.

Children and adults still struggling to join what Frank Smith calls "the literacy club" can find a way in through oral language: talk, song, storytelling, group recitation, group or solo dramatization, improvisation, even nonsense sound-making. The way of oral language is familiar. Making sounds, words, phrases and eventually speeches is natural and fun and at the same time it offers the excitement of a challenge. Oral language development comes first and usually quite naturally so it's less scary than the complex tasks of writing and reading. By having lots of experience with words (the stuff of reading and writing), the not-yet-literate child or adult walks the path toward literacy. The more experience and confidence the learner gets with using words orally - creating meaning with them and translating meaning when others communicate - the easier it is to enter the more advanced tasks of decoding (reading) and encoding (composing and writing) words.

This is not to say that oral language alone should fill the pre-school or early school years. Children will naturally pretend to read and write as they are learning to manipulate language orally and should be given opportunities to play-act at both. Their scribble attempts to write, their "reading" of books they have memorized or skimming of reading material that is beyond them are all very important. Children's approximations or attempts to replicate what they see as grown-up behavior are essential to helping them walk through the literacy door.

Tips for employing oral activity:

1. Use spontaneous storytelling about real-life moments

Model storytalk in the way you hope children will replicate it. Limit your time and your topic yet allow your story to create a world - a scene with sounds, smells, textures, etc. - that your listeners can enter. End your story clearly by slowing or dropping your voice and pausing or stating "And that's the story of ..." Listeners are always a step behind the teller in forming mental images. Your slowing will help them finish the tale with you. Modeling may be enough to get storytelling started. In time you and the children can talk about how you chose a particular moment to tell about, how you visualized the scene mentally to recreate it, and how you knew how to end it. Show listeners that even a small moment in time can make a great story. My first personal tale "My First High Dive" began life as a one minute description of my diving off the high board and smacking my back on the water. I mined the memory for more details each time I told it, giving it a setting and adding the other characters who were present, but the tale was built on one small moment.

The more you tell naturally to children and get talking about how their own stories work, the better they get at it. The works of Vivian Gussin Paley (THE BOY WHO WOULD BE A HELICOPTER, WALLY'S STORIES, THE GIRL WHO LOVED BROWN CRAYON) show clearly how children at a very young age can tell, dramatize and talk about their stories. I found that setting a timer helps children of every age find ways to end their tales. Then talking about how different tellers decide where to end makes them more aware of shaping their tales. At every age oral storying makes for better writing. Telling is practice in composing that will help children to structure writing and make better predictions while reading.

As young as kindergarten I have worked with students to visualize a room or an object in their home. Then the children describe a particular piece of furniture, a collection of objects, the contents of a closet or china cabinet, a painting or other piece of art, or a treasured object. While this is not "story" making per se, it gives them practice in imaging and putting mental pictures into words, skills that help them comprehend in reading.

2. Recreate the literary stories and folktales you love by storytelling or reenacting them individually, in pairs, in small groups, or even as a class.

Again, model what you want the children to do or get a child or children to model a number of ways stories can be retold. If you tell a story at the felt board they will want to try it. If three children put on a skit of a book that's been read to the class, others see that it is possible. They don't have to perform it for the entire group but they can learn a lot by observing how others reenact a tale. Try different ways to get retelling going. Show how one story can be retold in different ways by having groups retell the same tale. The differences will show how you can keep the same story yet make it your own. Accuracy is not the idea, rather that the children enter the spirit of the tale, engage in the reenactment for themselves or listeners. It is important to help children know that that's important to you or some will say "That's not how it goes." You can prevent that by your introduction of the activity.

3. Create opportunities for choral recitations, partner oral reading and rehearsed individual oral reading

When children are supported as they read aloud by the voices of other stronger readers they learn sight words, pronunciation patterns, the rhythm of meaningful phrasing, voice variation in pitch, volume and rate and other aspects of reading fluently. Can you tell which children have been read to a lot? Some children come to school without many experiences of being read or talked to. We must read to them with meaning in our voices and give them opportunities to read aloud with meaning and support. Use large charts of poems, songs, fairytales, fables, personal stories - anything that will engage them and be fun to return to.

Allow them to read aloud in partnerships. As they begin to read independently, they can rehearse (that means giving out-loud rehearsal time) poems and stories for performing. Anything they spend time rehearsing they understand better. Returning to a work of literature helps them internalize how it is constructed and in turn helps them compose in reading and writing.

4. Allow improvisational play and other imaginative talk activities.

"Pretend you are an acorn which has fallen - thump - onto the forest floor. What was the fall like? What does the world look like from down there? Now you are being covered by leaves and dirt and you feel the sun warming you and the rain watering you. You begin to grow! You're breaking from your acorn home and beginning to become a little oak tree. S-l-o-w-l-y you are growing tall and sprouting leaves..." That's just one example of a teacher led improvisation I learned from storyteller Almeita Whitus, of Rochester, NY.

"Play" corners in a classroom can become restaurants, banks, offices, grocery stores and more. Children may be able to talk through the designing of a play area that includes many things for improvisation and if encouraged they can pretend with very few props at all. Once in an adult storytelling workshop given by Jay O'Callahan I was given the task to observe something in the world and then told its story. I spoke for a tree that had fallen during the winter and told how I had now become a home to small ground animals instead of birds. Others told of the life of an old barn, a brook, a book, and an antique music box. Older children can speak from a main character's point of view, retell a story from a minor character's view, impersonate an explorer, an Erie Canal laborer, improvise (with preparation) any individual studied in class.

5. Talk about literature

This is the most used, yet often misused, kind of talk in classrooms where children are learning to read. Fostering authentic reader response in which readers really explore the meanings they see in a text and they break from the-teacher-has-the-answers mentality is not easy but is sooooooo exciting once it happens. We honor thinking and the exploring of ideas and help young readers see how the experience we bring affects our understanding of what we read when we foster this kind of talk.

6. Encourage process talk in every content area of learning.

Children can talk in pairs or smalls groups about math problem-solving, science experiments, geography strategies from locating on a map to using an index, history events or people, art designing, essay or story or poem writing, vocabulary or spelling recall, music composing - any subject or activity can be improved when children talk about the how or the process of going about it.

Much of the research on learning tells us that learning is social. When cooperative learning works, talk is at the heart of it. For instance, I need help understanding a process or concept, and I listen to you tell how you went about getting an answer or I tell how I went about it and you help me see another strategy, a different way. When I try on your idea, learning takes place.

Again, modeling is key here. We can have two students or a "fishbowl" of talkers in front or in the middle of the class and then we can see how to talk in a problem-solving way that leads to learning.

7. Talk "process" about authors and authoring

This kind of talk invites children into the world of making literature and understanding how and why authors do what they do. Then children can see real authors as mentors they want to learn from and imitate. More and more materials are available about authors' lives and their processes. Bookclubs and magazines regularly offer features about authors; many visit conferences and bookstores.

With any kind of talk activity experiment with turn-taking strategies such as passing a talking stick, drawing names from a hat, taking turns by size, etc. Encourage listening during a discussion by having students refer to what an earlier speaker has said. Be patient with yourself and your students as you try new ways to bring talk and telling, improvising and supportive oral reading into your classroom. Try a strategy more than once or twice, tinkering with it till you are comfortable. Oral language empowers all children. When they open their mouths they give voice to what they are learning. Empowered (proud) learners learn more.


If you need any additional information, please feel free to contact Marni. Picture of Marni Gillard
Marni Gillard

833 Parkside Avenue
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All Materials Copyright 2004-2013 by Marni Gillard.
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