Oral language is the greatest use of language and is the basis of communication - in fact it is the basis of literacy.
'Language plays a vital role in the personal and social development of children. It enables them to gain an understanding of themselves and others and strengthens their social relationships.' (Oral Language Resource Book: First Steps; page 45)
Through listening and speaking students learn about themselves and about their world. Learning to express their thoughts, ideas and feelings, and being able to respond to the communications of others, enables students to participate in society successfully.
The National Education Monitoring Report 10 states that experiences provided by teachers and at school play a very important role in developing oral language skills in students. What then is the role of the school and the teacher in facilitating growth in students' oral language?
Oral language development in school does not mean teaching children to speak so much as providing them with the skills and opportunities to communicate more effectively. Speech involves thinking, knowledge and skills. Effective communication is developed through practice and training.
While oral language acquisition is a natural process this does not mean that all children will automatically acquire effective communication skills. Attention and constant practice are necessary for optimum development in communication. Holbrook (1983) specifies three criteria for oral language competence: fluency, clarity and sensitivity. The responsibility of the teacher lies in helping students to develop these levels of development.
There is no doubt that there is plenty of oral language used in the classroom. However, much of that "talking" is done by the teacher, rather than by the students, in the course of delivering the classroom programme. Research done by Stabb (1986) reported that there was a steady decline in the use of oral language in the classroom. She claimed there was a link between this and inhibition of students' abilities to reason and to forecast as they moved from lower to higher grades.
Berry (1985) and Gambell's (1988) research indicates that the development of language has a close relationship to thinking abilities. Stabb reminds us that literacy learning is on a continuum and that oral language, the major learning instrument for children before they go to school, needs to continue to be available while students are at school. Her warning is that in the process of covering the "crowded curriculum" we should not forget "one of our most important goals, that of stimulating thought."
While research done by Stabb (1986) could be said to be dated, it nonetheless holds relevant messages for classroom teachers today. Stabb reminds us about the relationship between oral language development and the development of thinking abilities. There is no doubt that as students develop oral communication skills, their critical thinking and reasoning abilities are developed along the way. We see this reflected in the English curriculum document: Oral Language. Listening and speaking are said to be: "essential for language development, for learning, for relating to others, and for living successfully in society" and "as they develop their oral language through these language functions (listening and speaking), students will be using the processes of exploring language, thinking critically and processing information." (Page 27 English in the New Zealand curriculum.)
Oral language then is a very important link in the process of students' learning and thinking development. Oral language provides a foundation for the development of other language skills. As children talk about themselves and their experiences, they are learning to organize their thinking and to focus their ideas (Lyle 1993). It is important to provide opportunities for oral language to continue to grow in the classroom...