Strategies for Developing Oral Language for Learning

Strategies for the Development of of Oral Language for Learning

Peter Olm (2008)

This assignment will investigate the implementation of an oral language strategy to support students’ literacy learning and encourage “exploratory talk” (Sharpe, 1998, p.77) in the classroom. Exploratory talk involves students talking for learning and thinking and includes predicting outcomes or hypothesising, clarifying ideas, and offering or challenging suggestions (Sharpe, 1998). As this form of talk is closely linked with the role of thinking in learning, the teaching strategies being discussed will draw on relevant theory based around approaches for developing skilled thinking in learners that support the oral language of students and develop their overall language ability in an academic setting. Anecdotal evaluations of the impacts of the oral language strategies on students’ literacy learning will also be given.

It is through language that school subjects are taught and through language that students’ understanding of concepts is displayed and evaluated in school contexts (Schleppegrell, 2004, p.1). Gee (2004, p.19) refers to the notion of “academic language” comprising the specialist varieties of language in use in educational context and maintains that “academic language is not one thing, but rather a set of different, related varieties of language”. Oral language is delivered by talking and received by listening. Exploratory talk is one form of oral language that is specific to academic contexts and it is a critical tool in helping students to reason and comprehend new concepts encountered in their learning as it enables thinking and learning to occur (Sharpe, 1998 and Walkerdine, 1982, in Sharpe, 1998). Schleppegrell (2004) argues that developing the kind of knowledge valued by education requires students to learn new ways to use language and that schools need to be able to educate students in the ways of language that are valued in the school context.

In this regard, students are therefore required to be aware of differences in language subject to context, and to know what to do, what to pay attention to and know when to employ different forms of language. De Bono (1976) suggests that “knowing what to do, when to do it, how to do it and what to take into consideration” requires skilled thinking. It can be argued that this ability links to the concept of metacognition. Metacognition might broadly be defined as “self reflection” and “thinking about one’s own thinking” (Costa and Kallick 2000). More specifically it could be termed as “self-appraisal”, referring to the self-evaluation of one’s abilities, knowledge states and cognitive strategies, and “self-management”, referring to the self-monitoring of ongoing behaviour through planning, correcting mistakes and using fix-up strategies (Paris and Winograd, 1990, in van Kraayenoord & Paris, 1997). Harpaz (2003) comments on notion of “thinking dispositions” being a reasoned motivation to think in a specific manner, and the”disposition to think”, being the inclination to be involved in thinking and value it. To combine Harpaz’s two statements, a useful definition of having a disposition towards exploratory talk in an academic context might be: valuing and having an inclination to be involved in exploratory talk, and displaying a motivation and sensitivity towards understanding exploratory talk and using it in a specific and reasoned manner(Costa and Kallick 2000, Golding, 2006, Harpaz 2003, and Ritchhart, 2002). It can be argued that intelligence can be applied with learnable skills of thinking (or “metacognitive skills”) that assist a person to solve problems, understand concepts and perform intellectually demanding tasks more proficiently (De Bono, 1976 and Perkins 1995). This assignment is therefore looking at teaching strategies that aim to develop the disposition of students towards using metacognitive skills as part of their oral language in assisting them to cope with the academic language demands placed upon them.

To support the notion of a dispositional approach as a teaching strategy, on might refer to Gee (2004), who argues that deep learning occurs best as a cultural process rather than it does as an instructed process. In practice, adopting a dispositional approach may indeed be more a process of indirect cultivationwhereby learners are encouraged to develop particular skills or habits in a self-directed manner (Costa and Kallick 2000, Golding, 2006, Harpaz 2003, and Ritchhart, 2002). Therefore, exploratory talk is required to be regularly contextualised within learning activities and the learning environment. Through providing authentic contexts for exploratory talk to be encountered by students, there is an onus on learners to value and have an inclination towards using it, displaying a motivation to understand it and sensitivity towards knowing when it should be used, rather than developing these oral language capabilities in a contrived instance. This also requires teachers to allow learners to collaborate with them on projects that the learners could not carry out on their own, with the role of oral language being the supporting factor that enables learners to develop their capacity in exploratory talk (Gee, 2004). Learners are given continual verbal feedback for their efforts and collaboration allows for the teacher to scaffold the learning process (Gee, 2004). In the case of encouraging exploratory talk in the classroom, the developing of a disposition to engage in oral discourse of this manner is coupled with developing the self-directed disposition to think in an exploratory manner. This requires that “learners work in a “smart” environment filled with tools and technologies, and artefacts store knowledge and skills they can draw on when they do not personally have such knowledge and skills” (Gee, 2004, p.13). In order to achieve the aim of effective thinking that can be expressed as exploratory talk one strategy might include the use of attention-directing devices (De Bono, 1976, Golding, 2006). The aim of using such devices would be to direct a learner’s attention towards ways of thinking that might have normally not have been carried out. They reinforce the importance of various concepts, definitions and key understandings and support students as they recall and make connections with prior knowledge and learning. De Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats (1985, revised 1999) is an example of an attention-directing device, as are concept maps, “Problem-Solving Toolkit” strategies, sentence starters and “Habits of Mind” (Costa and Kallick 2000) cards. These devices provide a supportive framework upon which educational talk can be based. In the classroom context, I have found that they have provided a framework and metalanguage for students to refer to as part of a metacognitive routine that enables links between academic, exploratory talk and student understandings. Having the attention-directing devices on display and actively referring to them as part of a teaching strategy helps to contextualise talk interactions between teacher and students. I have found that over time, students have become more autonomous and developed a self-directed disposition towards using these forms of exploratory talk in their learning as a result of the teaching strategy having been implemented.

However, strategies to develop good thinking need to transcends merely the internal processing of tasks and extend into observable behaviours, in this case exploratory talk. This brings forth frameworks of thinking “behaviours”, with (Costa and Kallick’s (2000) 16 Habits of Mind being one example that I have used in my classroom. In essence, the 16 Habits of Mind represent various labels that break down strategies, attitudes and metacognition into various independent groups. In the case of oral language development, I have found that using the 16 Habits of Mind framework as a strategy for promoting exploratory talk has provided students with a metalanguage to refer to as they describe their thinking and learning. In providing such a framework for student reference, there has been noticeable success in students being able to recall and use metacognitive skills and transfer them to new and unfamiliar contexts. Whilst the strategy may be seen as being specifically academic, I have found that it is of a generic nature in that I have observed that it has enabled students to engage in exploratory talk in a manner that has been beneficial in a wide variety of academic contexts of the content that they have been learning.

It is important to acknowledge the role of discussion and teacher modeling in the development of skills (Golding, 2006, and Harpaz, 2003). In providing such learning experiences, I have been able to provide students with “exemplars” through my teaching pedagogy and curriculum planning. In this case, it is the use and teaching of tools such as Habits of Mind and attention-directing devices in a modeled and explicit manner that has enabled the overall strategies discussed herein to be successful in my class. In this regard, Gee (2004) states the importance of creating an environment rich in support for learners where they are able to observe “masters” at work. This involves the modelling behaviour accompanied by talk that helps learners know what to pay attention to, something which I have made possible through explicit teaching and modelling of exploratory talk, using the aforementioned strategies, in my class. Duke and Pearson (2002, p.225) refer to the importance of modeling, group practice and independent and individual practice in students being able to learn and apply strategies of kind being discussed, whereby there is “a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student” and “students assume increasing control over strategy use, eventually using the strategies with little or no teacher support”, something which the students in my class have been able to do as a result of the teaching strategies in place.

In conclusion, exploratory talk is a form of language valued in an academic context. As it is closely linked with thinking and learning, strategies to develop this form of oral language can be based around approaches for developing skilled thinking in learners. This assignment discussed the role of a theoretical underpinning of a dispositional approach towards developing exploratory thinking and talking in the classroom as complimented by the strategies of using resources such as Habits of Mind and attention-directing devices. In order to bridge the gap from merely an internal metacognitive process to that of language practice, there is the requirement for teachers to model and explicitly teach the accompanying understandings and skills that actually exhibit exploratory talk. However, the use of attention-directing devices and an overall strategy towards developing a disposition to think and talk in an exploratory manner provides teachers with a useful theoretical underpinning combined with teaching resources that are useful within the context of a learning environment and activities that authentically require exploratory talk to be developed as a form of oral language.



Costa, Arthur L. and Kallick, Bena. (2000). What are Habits of Mind? Available:

De Bono, Edward. (1976) Teaching Thinking, England: Penguin

De Bono, Edward. (1985, revised 1999) Six Thinking Hats, Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin

Duke, N. K. & Pearson, P. D. (2002) Effective Reading Practices for Developing Comprehension (Chapter 10) In Farstrup, A.E & S.J Samuels (eds.) “What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction”. 3rd ed., Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Gee, J.P. (2004). Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. United Kingdom: Routledge

Golding, Clinton. (2006) Teacher Learning Network: Lines of Thought – From Thinking Skills to Thinking Schools Vol 13, No 2, Winter 2006 “From a Thinking Curriculum to Thinking Schools”

Harpaz, Yoram. (2003) Approaches to Teaching Thinking: A Conceptual Mapping of the Field, Unpublished, to be published in “Teachers College Record”

Perkins, David. (1995) Outsmarting IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence, New York: Free Press (pp. 13, 96, 97, 98, 99 and 102)

Ritchhart, Ron. (2002) Intellectual Character: What it is, Why it Matters, and How to Get it, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco

Schleppergrell, M.J. (2004). The Language of Schooling: A Functional Linguistics Perspective. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Assocation, Inc.

Sharpe, T. (1998). Getting Started – Ideas for the Literacy Teacher. PETA: Newton Australia

van Kraayenoord, C. E. & Paris, S. (1997) Australian Students Self-Appraisal of Their Work Samples and Academic Progress.  In “The Elementary School Journal” 97 (5), 532-537

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