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Oral communication: At the HEART of learning

Marie-Josée Morneau
French Immersion Consultant
Seine River School Division, Manitoba
Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers (CAIT)


Once upon a time, we thought students learned best when they kept quiet, listened to the teacher, followed instructions and could answer any question quickly and correctly. In the 21st century, we are well aware that today's youth can no longer sit passively in our classrooms all day; they must know how to solve problems, use critical thinking, be creative, work together and communicate effectively.

Why target oral communication?

For the past two years, the Seine River School Division has conducted an annual assessment of language skills for students in Grades 5, 8 and 11. The document Reference Framework for the Oral Communication Competencies of Second‑Language Learners, developed by the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers, is the diagnostic tool used to assess students' level of oral French according to the following six parameters: general communication skills; vocabulary; grammar and syntax; presence of the first language (L1); rhythm and intonation; and pronunciation.

Although results seem to be improving, an analysis of our students' errors shows that, in general, they have a limited vocabulary, have difficulty forming complex sentences and must often simplify their ideas to be able to communicate them in French. It is therefore essential that we develop an action plan to improve oral communication skills among our students and help them think critically in French. We must target specific oral communication skills and knowledge when developing and teaching French immersion programs to help students of all levels express themselves easily and accurately.

What should students know, understand and be able to do?

We sometimes tend to focus on the concepts that need to be taught while overlooking the skills required in academic programs. For example: what do students need to be able to do with numerical operations? If students must be able to explain and apply the order of operations in Grade 6, they will need the vocabulary to do it. We must therefore teach students the specific subject‑related vocabulary, the right expressions and correct sentence structures in a direct and explicit manner, in order to enrich their linguistic background. They will then be able to communicate like mathematicians, scientists, historians, artists and musicians.

Winning strategies for oral communication

According to the Universal Design of College Algebra website, most students must be exposed to a new word more than 10 times before mastering it. As a result, we need to include a wide range of specific oral communication strategies in our planning. What do we plan to do with the vocabulary and expressions we are introducing?

Second language learners benefit from visual supports such as picture books, custom dictionaries and word walls. Printed language supports seem to be a good starting point. However, to be of even greater benefit, these tools must be interactive, that is, used actively in the classroom. For example, we could ask students to use their own words to explain one of the terms posted on the wall, while a peer tries to guess what it is; if students are able to explain what a simplified fraction is, for instance, they are more likely to be able to simplify fractions.

Modelling also plays a major role in language learning, especially with regard to accurate vocabulary. The teacher must present the word of the day and its synonyms, along with correct expressions and sentence structures, and then encourage students to apply them in formal or informal contexts. Making students aware of incorrect expressions (such as Je suis fini) and continually demanding a better quality of language is not always easy, but it is necessary in order to create confident and effective bilingual communicators.

According to David Booth (1991), verbal exchange allows students to make connections between what they already know and what they are learning. Giving them the opportunity to express themselves orally in all fields reinforces the development of literacy; hence, the importance of planning continual interaction between learners, regardless of the language of instruction or the subject matter being taught. Allowing frequent pauses when students are reading out loud, so as to give them the opportunity to paraphrase what they have heard, is an example of an active listening strategy that helps students test their comprehension and make connections. Questioning is another discussion strategy that motivates students by piquing their curiosity; it involves asking various open‑ended questions to stimulate the students' different levels of reasoning. Too often, teachers ask simple questions that do not encourage students to formulate hypotheses or think critically. We want to encourage students to participate actively in the discussion and to formulate their own relevant questions; they can then structure their own thinking and influence what others think.

Vocabulary and discussion games motivate our students and encourage them to work together; why not design play activities involving key natural science vocabulary for use in literacy centres? One of the learning centres could easily target oral communication in a specific context. For example, asking students to formulate a sentence with as many human science vocabulary words as possible would force them to make connections and deepen their understanding while having fun. Learning through play also allows the teacher to observe the students' linguistic behaviour and provide them with immediate and ongoing feedback—a winning combination for everybody!

How do we know if students are learning?

According to Damian Cooper (2007), a balanced assessment includes written, oral and practical tasks. Very few learning objectives need to be assessed through writing, so why are written tests still so popular? Almost everything that is done through writing can be done orally.... Giving our students the opportunity to communicate their knowledge, skills, values and attitudes orally not only helps us reach our various learners, but also provides them with an ongoing opportunity to improve their language skills. Providing students with a simple list of keywords to be used during oral presentations in math, for example, will guide students toward a higher level of thinking and will guarantee a better‑quality final product, since students must make connections between concepts they have learned. Assessment and teaching go together. Throughout the learning process, the evidence gathered to show that oral communication is improving should reflect the language skills being taught as well as the academic learning objectives. If not, then it may be necessary to rethink assessment and teaching in our classrooms.

It's through speaking that we learn to speak

Speech is a fundamental thinking tool at every stage of the learning process. Storytelling, describing, summarizing, discussing, reformulating, assessing, justifying, arguing, convincing and debating are essential skills for all, throughout life! Our French immersion students need daily encouragement to express themselves with confidence and to take risks, in an environment that provides them with a wealth of genuine and enriching communication experiences. However, using French in the classroom is not enough.... Our learners will not magically acquire the skills needed to communicate clearly and effectively in French. We must plan and teach in a way that targets the desired results, and it is by using our roadmap that we will reach our destination!


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