Module 3: Oral language: how the task shapes the talk

Reading 1: From speaking to writing in the content classroom

Using the Mode Continuum

  • the language used in face-to face contexts does not need to be as explicit or specific as other modes of speech or writing – the shared experience and use of gestures and body language combined with situation-specific terms such as “that one over there” are enough to convey meaning
  • the further away we get from a face-to-face context, the more explanatory we have to be – we need more detail in order to convey meaning to our listeners/readers
  • in a spoken recount the language changes to use nouns and descriptive verbs, adjectives, adverbs
  • also in spoken and written recounts the tense changes, as the speaker or writer describes an event that happened in the past – this requires more sophisticated grammatical constructions, especially in written texts
  • moving into informational texts, such as expositions, the language and grammar become even more sophisticated, discussing concepts rather than events – this brings information into an abstract level, which must be difficult for children who are not yet completely comfortable using rich language to discuss concrete, first-hand situations.
  • the mode of communication generally moves from spoken as easiest to written texts as hardest, but there are instances where a spoken text requires significantly more skill, such as leaving a coherent and detailed phone message
  • it can be very difficult for a second language learner to move straight from a spoken to a written task, due to these differences in vocabulary, grammar and mode of addressing the reader
  • to assist second language learners it may be useful to move from most spoken-like (situation-embedded) to most written-like (situation-independent) tasks – ie support the students to develop the necessary skills and acquire vocabulary needed to represent their understandings as they move from easier spoken activities through to being able to write about what they know in an informational way.
  • Example of one teacher’s program:
    • small-group learning experiences – situation-embedded, face-to-face communication
    • introduce key vocabulary (whole class) – teacher gives them words to describe what they have just discovered
    • teacher-guided reporting (whole class) – groups share their learning with the whole class, teacher supporting as needed – situation-independent, face-to-face communication; also required students to generalise their learning – key skill in moving away from first-person texts to third-person writing
    • journal writing (individual) – situation-independent, most demanding level of communication
  • the examples given clearly demonstrate how the students’ language use changed as they tried to explain what they were learning using firstly basic words, then new vocabulary, then tried to explain concepts to another group of people – the use of language became increasingly more explicit in conveying information
  • prime example of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development – teacher assistance in acquiring relevant vocabulary and modelling more grammatically-correct phrasings allows students to move up from staring point to more sophisticated level of both conceptual understanding and communication skills.
  • increased wait-time was a significant feature of student success – teacher needs to wait more than two or three seconds to allow the child time to put together what they want to say; students given time to think it through and also time to correct themselves following teacher/expert peer modelling will show better skills the second time around


  • this case-study showed the value of “learning-by doing” and also of teacher-student talk – student acquired concrete experiences then was able to follow teacher modelling to translate that into more conceptual vocabulary and communication modes
  • prior knowledge is obviously important when learning new language – students learned new terms more easily when they had a concept ready to be labelled; trying to learn the new words and a new idea at the same time is more cognitively demanding. Therefore it is important to ensure that students have sufficient prior knowledge when introducing language
  • this case study showed that students built their understanding of concepts first, then moved on to the related language, and experienced  a great deal of success – it may not always be a good idea to start with a list of vocabulary terms with no intrinsic meaning for the student and have them work towards applying meaning to an otherwise meaningless collection of sounds. Instead we can start with the meaning and give them the words to describe it.

My Response

Something Known: I am familiar with Vygotsky’s theories due to my training as a LOTE teacher – this reading reminds me of introducing new fruit vocabulary by throwing pieces of plastic fruit to students – they already knew what fruit was, and giving them a concrete example of the meaning of a new term made it much easier for them to learn; ie they were accessing prior knowledge and connecting the new vocabulary to it.

Something New: the specific sequencing of tasks from most spoken-like to most written-like is familiar, however I had not considered just how large a gap there can be between relating something face-to-face and writing about it in the third person – I think that the teacher-guided whole-class reporting could be an excellent strategy in moving students towards more skilled writing.

Something to Investigate Further: how I can apply this idea of moving students from spoken to written texts to my work as a TL – I need to sit down with some of my lesson plans and try to identify places where students will be asked to move from first-person to third-person modes and see if I can develop some workable activities to bridge the gap, eg in book reports or non-fiction projects

Reading 2: Using Small Group Work

Before you start

  • group work is but one technique in the toolbox
  • effective groupwork requires explicit instruction of cooperative learning skills, teacher knowledge of individual students and own strengths and weaknesses

Rationale for group work in learning

  • Small group and pair work can be valuable especially for ESL students
  • opportunities for content-focused exploratory talk
  • use specific language features in purposeful ‘non-threatening’ context
  • more expert peers can model language use
  • oppotunities for teacher to work closely with individual or small groups
  • increased discussion of thinking, language and strategies – metacognition
  • students collaboration and cooperation

Getting started

  • start small – small groups, small timeframe, small spoken tasks
  • be explicit in instructions, in purpose, in supporting skills, provide equipment
  • make sure roles are allocated and understood
  • make sure reporting method is clear beforehand
  • practice and reflect on group skills
  • group work can come in any combination:
  • multiple groups with different or parallel activities;
  • smaller and larger groups with extra adults in the room
  • try different group formations and observe dynamics


  • be clear about purpose: this drives size, structure, time
  • everyone should understand what to do, why, who does what, and what to do when finished
  • modify or allocate simpler roles to ESL or special needs students that allow them to successfully participate

Group size and structure

  • depends upon task and activity, need not be constant
  • 4-5 best for discussion
  • 2-3 best for writing
  • uneven is better for consensus (no hung juries)
  • pairs may be expert/novice or mutual exchange
  • group composition should reflect needs of task, eg diversity promotes discussion; language levels should support each other
  • cross-sections can be very positive but beware antagonistic extremes.

Other suggestions

  • vary reporting techniques
  • use ‘goldfish bowl’ technique to refine group work skills
  • reporting could include summaries (ppt?)- great way to move to purposeful written text

Task organisation

  • everyone doing the same, or rotating groups through, or everyone different and reporting back to class for comparison and discussion
  • some definitive product should show what was learnt
  • teacher summation of outcomes also important


  • review relevance, clarity, cooperative skills, academic skills
  • talk to class about why things might not have worked

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