In the second of this six-part oracy series, Kimberley Silver looks at why it’s important children are taught these communication skills from an early age in order to build a steady foundation. Kimberley works as a Commissioning Editor for Cambridge University Press, based in Mexico.
Lower primary EFL teachers may assume that oracy skill work is better reserved for upper primary English students because of their broader vocabulary and stronger speaking skills. However, getting an early start on oracy has important benefits, even for children whose language production is limited.
The teaching of oracy—that is, instilling the skills for students to become outstanding communicators—might seem to demand fairly advanced language skills as a starting point. And while the mastery of spoken language is imperative for truly effective communicators, oracy skills—much like reading skills—can be built from the bottom up. In other words, your 1st and 2nd grade primary EFL students don´t have to be strong English speakers to start working on oracy.
The key to teaching oracy in lower primary is keeping the focus on the building blocks of good communication while continuously sensitizing children to notice what constitutes good oracy. With focused attention and regular structured practice, teachers should observe notable improvements in student interactions in class discussions and in collaborative work, as well as in the quality of student presentations.
Since oracy skills are transferrable to a students’ native language, building oracy skills in your EFL classes will have the added benefit of improving student’s communication skills in their everyday interactions.
How do I bring oracy into my primary EFL classroom?
Step 1: Involve students in setting oracy ground rules and make them visible.
To ensure that oracy becomes a focal point in your primary classroom, start by having a session on oracy ground rules at the beginning of the school year. For young EFL students, this discussion may be held in students’ native language, although the results should be posted in English. Student involvement in this process is critical, since students should feel that they have personally contributed and that the rules are their own.
Elicit oracy ground rules by asking the following questions
What rules do we need to follow when we:
- work together?
- talk in a group?
- present our work to the class?
- watch our classmates present their work?
Draw four columns on the board and record students’ ideas. Then have students vote for the five most important rules for each category. (Some rules may overlap across categories.) Create a highly visible oracy ground rules poster or bulletin board that you and your students can refer to throughout the school year before collaborative work, discussions or presentations as a reminder to students to focus on the rules and after activities for the purpose of assessment.
Step 2: Include targeted practice on an oracy skill at least once a week.
The following skills are designated by the Cambridge Primary Path Oracy Framework for 1st graders:
Oracy skills for collaborative work and discussion
- Listening to others
- Expressing agreement and disagreement and basic opinions
- Asking questions to understand better
Oracy skills for presentations
- Projecting your voice
- Standing up straight
- Giving and receiving positive feedback
Notice that there are a few common denominators:
- Students can practice these oracy skills even with the most basic English-speaking skills
- Targeted work on these skills can be easily integrated into your regular class curriculum
- Consistently focusing students’ attention on them will benefit the quality of one-on-one interactions as well as group and full-class activities
- These skills are easy for students to self-assess or peer-assess
Here´s an example of how you could focus one of the skills above:
1- Define an oracy skill of the month, for example, listening to others.
2- Make a sign with the featured oracy skill and place it in a highly visible location in the classroom.
3- Have a conversation in your students’ native language about the featured oracy skill. For listening to others, ask students questions like these:
- When you are talking, how do you know when your classmates are listening to you? How do you know when they are not listening? (Explain that non-verbal cues such as being quiet, making eye contact and not fidgeting or moving around unnecessarily help show that we are listening. Asking questions about what the speaker says is another way to show we are listening.)
- When you are talking, how do you feel when someone is not listening?
(When classmates are not listening, the speaker may feel bad or upset. Sensitive individuals may feel that what they are saying is not important or respected.)
- Why is listening to others … important when we are working together? … when we have a discussion? … when your classmate is giving a presentation? (Point out that when students listen to each other, they work together better. They can also learn from each other and help each other. When someone is giving a presentation, classmates who listen make the speaker feel respected and valued.)
4- Include one session per week of practice on the target oracy skill as part of your regular class activity. For example, if you are going to have a class discussion and the target skill is listening to others, encourage students to pay close attention during the activity to any actions that demonstrate that they and their classmates are listening or not.
Step 3: Follow-up oracy skill work with a quick self- or peer-assessment.
One way to ensure that oracy skills become second nature is to encourage children to self- and peer-assess skills immediately after a task. For lower primary students, assessment should be fast and straight-forward because the aim is to get children to reflect on whether or not they and/or their peers practiced the target oracy skill.
For the skill listening to others, you can ask questions like these:
|Self-assessment Questions||Peer-assessment Questions|
|During the task, did you …
1. listen to your classmate(s)?
2. look your classmate(s) in the eye?
3. remain still?
4. ask your classmate(s) questions?
|During the task, did your classmate(s) …
1. listen to you?
2. look you in the eye?
3. remain still?
4. ask you questions?
For any task you assess, ask either self-assessment or peer-assessment questions to avoid overwhelming your students. Write Yes and No on the board and have students respond by pointing to the corresponding answer. Alternatively, students could raise their hand to indicate Yes and leave their hand down to indicate No.
The point is to get young primary students to start to notice how they communicate and how they can make small adjustments to communicate more effectively. A deeper analysis or discussion is not needed at this preliminary stage in their oracy development.
Final tip: for early oracy development, focus on the skills, not the language.
As English teachers, it’s natural to want to focus on the language children are producing. However, when assessing structured oracy work with 1st and 2nd graders, language production is secondary to the effort students are making to practice the target oracy skills. As students progress in their language abilities, the focus on their English will gradually become more relevant in their oracy work, but for lower primary students, the focus on skills over language production is crucial both for building confidence and strengthening the foundations for oracy development.
If you are interested in learning more about oracy, see the first post in our series by Kimberley Silver: Oracy #1: Making oracy a regular feature of your Primary classes.