When children engage in spoken dialogue in their early years, they learn how we make sense of the world, how we use language to reason, how we express emotions and identities, and how to work together to solve problems and get things done. As early education teachers, we offer learners the chance to develop their oral language skills, which are one of the first communication tools that children use to interact with others, form relationships, and, of course, learn.
Oracy skills pertain to the development of oral language—for example, tonal variation of voice and clarity of pronunciation, appropriate vocabulary choice, turn-taking, storytelling, and so on. Here I’ll discuss three powerful tools to help early learners develop oracy skills.
1. The Environment
How children interact with their environment may trigger and facilitate the development of rich language.
Circle time: Set a clear area, with a carpet or a circle painted on the floor, that looks inviting. Children can sit in this circle at the beginning of every day, or whenever the teacher finds it necessary or relevant, to share experiences and feelings or to sing or play.
Bulletin boards: Put bulletin boards within the learners’ reach. Organize the information on the bulletin boards in a clear and planned manner. For example, arrange information related to fruit and vegetables in two large squares, one for Fruit and one for Vegetables, with letters large enough for students to read from anywhere in the classroom. Add pictures next to the words, but avoid overloading the bulletin boards.
“Write” sentences with iconic writing (using pictures to construct sentences), so that learners can “read” short sentences. For instance, “I like (picture of grapes), but I don’t like (picture of strawberries).” Renew a part of the bulletin board every two weeks.
Books: Read storybooks every week, and put the books within the learners’ reach. Place a carpet or cushions where learners can sit and read aloud to themselves, to dolls or stuffed animals, or to each other. As they turn the pages, the children will imitate the teacher telling the story. When they repeat well-liked parts of the story, they’ll be practicing not only the language, but also the pronunciation, intonation, and even body language.
Routines corner: In one corner of the class, within the reach of all learners, place a weather chart and ask them to describe the weather each day and make the necessary changes to the chart. This is a special corner where learners can see pictures of different kinds of weather: sunny, rainy, windy, snowy. Then invite the children to complete sentences such as, “Today is ____ and ____,” using those pictures.
In the same corner, have a complete register with a photograph and the name of each child for calling attendance every day. Once most of the children have arrived, point to the pictures or names of the learners and invite the children to say if that child is present or absent. Or, just ask the children to say their favorite color when you name them, and then invite the child to pick the corresponding colored paper and place it next to their photograph. If a child is absent, that child won’t have a colored paper next to their name that day.
Mirror: Place a mirror on the wall at the children’s height, so they can see their whole body. Then invite them to touch the different parts of their body on the mirror, make faces, and use body language to express a feeling or emotion and then describe what they’re feeling. If they have fun with this activity, have them play a game like Simon Says says while they’re watching themselves in the mirror.
As teachers, we know our lessons need to have a special rhythm. Children generally arrive full of energy and eager to play with their classmates and excited about what they’ll discover and learn. Welcome learners with some playful activities for a few minutes, such as building games on the carpet or some hand-clapping games like pat-a-cake, and then invite them to go into the circle.
Organize class time so it comprises about 70 percent oral work and 30 percent pre-writing tasks such as tracing, coloring, or completing puzzles. Distribute the amount of time devoted to oral work, which includes telling and retelling stories, observing feelings and emotions linked to actions and reactions, and so on, throughout the entire class time.
Effective feedback needs to be timely, encourage learning, and foster critical thinkers and resilient learners. Different types of feedback work well with early learners.
Feedback from the teacher: Take the time to give each learner rich and descriptive feedback whenever possible, but at least once a week. It’s important that the teacher devote time to interact with the learners, asking them about the different decisions the child has made, or asking about activities or tasks the child might find motivating, interesting, or fun. This information can help make teaching more effective.
The teacher can use a routine—for example, two stars and a wish (two things you like and one thing you’d like to see done differently)—to structure the feedback to the learners so they can understand and replicate the technique.
Feedback from peers: Peer feedback can utilize this same technique. For instance, say that some of the children in class have just finished role-playing Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The teacher asks the other children who were the audience to provide feedback using the two stars and a wish technique. One child might say something like, “One star for the amazing performance of the child who was Goldilocks." Here the teacher has the chance to ask, “What makes you say so?” Or just let the child move on to the second star. The child says, “Another star for the performance of the child who was Baby Bear, when Baby Bear found his chair was broken.” The wish might be, “I would like to see Papa Bear more angry and fierce.” This kind of peer-to-peer feedback can be very constructive.
“Much of what we learn from language is indirect. We draw conclusions from the details of the person’s intonation, gestures, choice of words, or syntax in subtle, complex ways,” as psychologist Alison Gopnik has written. Early education teachers are key when it comes to giving young learners the oracy skills that allow them to communicate effectively, using all of the nuances of language.