Conversational classrooms

You might have discussed in recent times with your teaching and educational colleagues, or with your students’ family members, or with your contacts in the community, a concern about the…

You might have discussed in recent times with your teaching and educational colleagues, or with your students’ family members, or with your contacts in the community, a concern about the struggle many children and youth have in expressing ideas orally with fluency and confidence. You may have remarked on their sometimes-faltering manner of speaking and that what they say is not necessarily coherent and appropriate, or even what they meant to say. You may well have mentioned how limited is their use of more complex, precise vocabulary, with ‘like’ pitting their speaking to a distracting degree. Perhaps you observed how many children and youth struggle to hold a conversation of any length, especially when the topic of conversation demands what might be termed ‘higher level thinking’ and sustained topic development, including explaining their thinking.

While these observations might be anecdotal and informal, those working in schools bring substance to the claim. On-entry data gathering and assessments of five year olds in many schools identify significant numbers of children with low oral confidence and fluency. They are limited in expressing their ideas fully, limited in vocabulary their vocabulary knowledge, struggle to talk in utterances of any length, and according to some teachers, are challenged to talk with age appropriate knowledge about even very usual, everyday events and occurrences. (van Hees, 2011).

The on-entry gap in language of five year olds is not easily closed. Recent British research (Strand, 2014), on the back of years of research examining factors affecting low SES educational disadvantage, suggests that poverty strongly correlates with on-entry and on-going educational differences between children. Equity of access is to the fore. This is a complex area of research and discussion – a ‘hot topic’ indeed, with no simple or easy solutions.

There’s good news, however. Evidence points clearly towards the possibility of ‘catch up’ and ‘keep up’ for students living in the complexities of social and educational disadvantage. Schools in your area may well be beacons in this regard. McAuley High School, and feeder school, St Joseph’s Catholic Primary, Otahuhu, come to mind. Difference-making factors in both these schools include unswerving belief in the capabilities of students; high student expectations; finetuned, scaffolded learning support; high calibre teaching staff and leaders; strong home-school partnerships; high levels of student self-belief; and a focus on ‘what really matters’ – the essence of enablement educationally.

In terms of closing the on-entry expressive and vocabulary gap of five year olds in low SES communities from a schooling angle, what matters? The answer lies less in providing individual student intervention programmes and more in changing the ‘taken for granted’ pedagogical patterns operating in classrooms across all Year levels. Let’s tease this out.

Our reference point is first and second language research. Optimising language acquisition conditions (van Hees, 2011) suggest high levels of meaningful interaction are needed between the ‘learner’ and scaffolding others – those who offer new and more, in relevant contexts. Talk accompanying actions and materials, multiple opportunities to receive ‘goldilocks’1 zone vocabulary and fullness of expression conveying expanded conceptual understandings, and multiple opportunities to ‘try out’ ‘new’ alongside expressing ‘known’, support acquisition potential.

Alongside an environment of quality and quantity of expression, optimal learning conditions to enhance uptake and ultimate acquisition (Gass & Selinker, 2008) are needed. Participation and involvement, noticing and attending, relevancy and connectedness, by each and all learners, ignite acquisition pathways. Learning is more likely to occur as a result.

Take a look inside a ‘typical’ primary classroom during organised teaching learning time. Check out whether optimising expression and optimal learning conditions operate for each and all learners. Are there high levels of balanced, turn-taking interactions, learner/s to learner/s, learner/s to teacher? Is the quality of expression such that students notice and participate in fullness of expression exchanges, with goldilocks’ zone vocabulary available and attended to? Is each student given multiple opportunities to ‘try out’ known and newly acquired thinking and saying? Do feedback responses offer the student more – an expansion, expressively and conceptually? Is teaching and learning a conversation – dynamic and dialogic, with all participating and given space to contribute and express?

It is highly likely this glimpse into the ‘typical’ organised teaching-learning time in the classroom will reveal otherwise. Questions and questioning will dominate, almost all generated by the teacher. Students will respond to teacher questions with hands up, waiting to be chosen…or not. The ‘chosen’ will most usually express minimally and aim ‘towards’ being ‘right’ in the eyes of the teacher. Approval matters. Many students express little to nothing throughout organised learning time, other than social, communicative talk with peers. Explicit attention to vocabulary gifting and expansion will seldom occur. Rather, pumping students to delve deeper for ‘more of their own’ will take precedence. Seldom occurring will be the dynamic cut and trust of ideas exchange – what we might hear in families where balanced sharing of ideas and thinking is the ‘bread and butter’ of meaning-making relationships and learning.

If we are to grow each learner’s cognitive and language acquisition potential, explicit attention to optimising environments in the classroom is not an option but a must. What is important for educators to realise, and work towards, is that organised teaching-learning times in the classroom can become expressively and cognitively rich and involving for each and all students, thereby expanding their meaning-making and expressive potential. If we are to close the on-entry and ongoing gap of students, if we are to address concerns about the struggle many children and youth have in fluently and confidently expressing ideas orally, if we are to address the persistent vocabulary gap of many learners, schooling can and should play a critical part. For sure, families and social environments are major partners also, but what goes on in the classroom can majorly contribute to young people’s potential to meaningfully and confidently converse and interact.

Let’s fully embrace our role and capabilities, and address the concern face on. Classroom environments where quality and quantity of expression is the norm, where optimal learning conditions exist to enhance uptake and ultimate acquisition, are attainable. Should professional development with this focus be your priority, contact me to discuss options and content – see contact details below.

References: Gass, S. M., & Selinker, L. (2008). Second language acquisition. New York: Routledge/Taylor.

van Hees, J. (2011). Oral expression of five and six year olds in low-socio economic schools. The University of Auckland.

Strand, S. (2014). School effects and ethnic, gender and socio-economic gaps in educational achievement at age 11. Oxford Review of Education, 40(2), 223–245.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 2.17.32 PMDr Jannie van Hees
Auckland UniServices Ltd
University of Auckland
09-623 8899 ext 48348 027 495 2684

1 not too simple-not too complex; not too fast – not too slowly; not much – not too little; appropriate and relevant.