If literacy levels are to improve, the aims of the English language arts classroom, especially in the earliest grades, must include oral language in a purposeful, systematic way, in part because it helps students master the printed word. Besides having intrinsic value as modes of communication, listening and speaking are necessary prerequisites of reading and writing. (Common Core State Standards, Appendix A. 2010. p. 27)
If one were to listen to the cries of “foul” among education reformers and literacy specialists, one would think the most significant changes in the English Language Arts standards are calls for close textual analysis and increased attention on nonfiction texts of substance. What those outside of the field of literature may not understand is the responsibility of an English teacher is to teach close attention to the effects of diction, text structure, and organizational patterns (to name a few aspects of CC note) on text meaning. This approach is not new but has been the practice of literary specialists (aka English teachers) since the introduction of New Criticism to the canon of literary criticism. Not only have English teachers used this analytical approach with works of fiction, but they have also taught the approach using countless nonfiction texts including significant historical speeches, formal and informal essays, and even multimedia texts.
The greatest change in the ELA standards is not then the call for analytical reading of both literature and informational text, but the demand for teachers to incorporate opportunities for students to learn through practice the skills of speaking and listening as the foundations for the later skills of reading and writing. Note that I am speaking here of the ELA standards and primarily the ELA standards in grades 6-12 because the writers of the Common Core do not include the speaking and listening standards among those required for literacy in the areas of history/social studies, science, math, and technical subjects. In my mind, an omission easily fixed by individual states who could choose to add those standards to the literacy responsibilities of content fields beyond English.
Grade level standards across all grades and all disciplines can be read as imperative sentences revolving around an essential verb or verbs of the standard. In the context of teaching and learning, words like compare and contrast, describe, acknowledge, assess, integrate, cite, quote, and distinguish imply measurable action: speaking and writing as evidence of ability. If social studies classes, science classes, vo-tech classes, and math classes to name a few are to be held to the reading and the writing standards, then they should also have access to the speaking standards as justifiable measures of student proficiency. Students need to speak the language of the content, not just read the words and write in response. Student learning of concepts in science and social studies, art and mechanics can be exemplified and deepened through oral expression. ideas can be advanced and reframed, thoughts rehearsed, and understandings clarified even as they are being verbalized. Granted, writing clearly provides more opportunity for thoughtful expression of learning, but speaking in the language of a discipline, using the cadence of that discipline’s language gives a voice to thinking that may otherwise go unheard, unshared. Writing provides a lasting document; speaking provides immediacy of expression. For sure, immediacy does not preclude preparation; the Common Core Standards ask that students prepare for discussion rather than answer Round Robin questions perpetuating the age-old educational game: “I’ve got an answer in my head; can you read my mind?”How do we teach kids who live in a digital world of texts and tweets to express themselves face-to-face in thoughtful manners?
Use sentence strips or sentence starters posted on classroom walls.
- Like the students, the teacher must come prepared. Decide on the content of the student conversation: summarizing recently read text; making a comparison between two texts or concepts; evaluating the credibility of a text–use the reading standards as your guide.
- Begin by telling students that you are going to ask that they turn and talk to a partner for two minutes. The first thirty seconds, only partner A can speak; assure them that you will signal the end of the time limit (by turning on and off the lights or sounding a timer).
- Following partner A, partner B has thirty seconds. Partner B must make use of one of the sentence strips or starters to segue into their response which will be based on the prompt you provided to the class for the purpose of discussion.
- Following partner B, partner A has rebuttal, clarification, questioning time: 30 seconds
- Next, partner B works to sum up the discussion (or whatever YOU have decided on)
- Possible sentence strips:
How do we move speaking and listening into classrooms that are short on time and long on content?
I understand what you are saying and I agree but…
I saw something different in the reading. Let me explain…
I agree but would add…
I’m not sure that I agree because…
Could you explain what you meant by…
In sum, I think we are saying…
What would you add to what I’ve said…
- Teacher generates an essential question related to the concept, content, etc.
- In early stages of teaching/practicing this process, teacher also generates a series of text dependent questions and / or text dependent inferences (later, you may want to generate unsubstantiated inferences) that moves towards understanding the EQ. Prepare these so they move sequentially through the understanding process.
- Provide the teacher generated model to students. Ask students to work through the guide to find evidence for positions they may take and generate additional questions with or without answers.
- Provide students with time to identify text evidence as support for responses, generate questions, etc.
- Facilitate a Socratic discussion.
- Overtime, teacher may divide the class into and supply different groups with different questioning guides to differentiate the practice.
- Teacher not only generates a series of quesions, inferences, etc. but also a checklist of good listening an speaking practices (see below)
- Facilitate a fishbowl discussion: split the students into two groups: inside and outside circle.
- The inside circle follows the Socratic discussion format
- The outside circle monitors one inside circle discussant sitting directly across (so they can have eye contact)
- Inside circle discusses for 20 minutes (or whatever time you establish)
- Outside circle moves in and inside moves outside. The discussion now turns to how people engaged and comments on why and how they could have engaged differently.
Outside circle monitors make hash marks on a prepared sheet noting such things as:
- how many times their partner supported an observation/statement with text evidence
- how many/what novel questions their partner asks of the group
- how many times their partner acknowledged their thinking was inaccurate or changed their mind based on another’s evidence (a good thing!)
- how many times their partner complimented another’s thinking
- how many times their partner asked a question (eventually, you may indicate question types)
- how many times their partner interrupted
- how many times their partner used a designated transition (sentence stem)
- made eye contact with a person in the discussion circle: positive and negative types (eye-rolling!)
The success of inside/outside circles depends on the climate you have created in your classroom and also allows you to differentiate for groups in your classrooms. Getting kids to speak and listen effectively, change their mind and argue respectfully, and enjoy discussing substantive topics requires a set of social skills that need to be taught (more on that later). These ideas and approaches work in every content area. They can begin simply but will evolve into more sophisticated discussion and exchanges, perhaps full fledged argumentation. You will find that the intellectual empowerment of speaking and listening using the frameworks provided by the CCSS is worth the investment of time required to acculturate kids to mature adult-like conversations.