Importance of Oral Communication – A Personal Journey

posted in: CEFR, Curriculum | 4

I grew up learning French as a second language in a very traditional manner. We learned grammar, memorized verbs and tenses, we filled in blanks on sheets with patterns that repeated themselves over and over again. If you were a logical thinker, things like this came fairly easy. However, there was no room for creativity and no chance to truly express yourself in the target language.

My first awareness of my lack of confidence to communicate orally was when I was in my second year of university. We had to read a novel in French and then answer comprehension questions in an interview type setting. I can remember how flustered I had become in that situation because I wasn’t comfortable speaking the language.

The next time I noticed it was in the following semester when I started the course but felt extremely lost because the others in my class had spent 3 months living abroad in France. I could no longer keep up with the conversation. Due to the way the hockey season fell, I was not able to go on an exchange throughout the school year; one of those things I always wished I had had the opportunity to take. That year I stopped taking the language and it wasn’t until 4 years later, when I graduated from teacher’s college and was hired to my board that I pursued another French class.

I have experienced many moments in my life where I had a sense of intimidation to use the language. I never felt confident with my oral communication skills but it wasn’t until I became a teacher that I became aware of it and realized why I felt that way.

It dawned on me while sitting in a French PLC, when the presenter at the time shared a quote from James Britton, a British teacher and scholar:

“Reading and writing float on a sea of talk,”

This quote truly resonated with me. If my students can orally express their ideas with confidence, they will be able to write and read it with more ease as well. The focus becomes less on grammar or spelling, and more on the way they communicate their ideas. Do their sentences make sense. Can I understand what they are trying to say? Are they writing it like they say it?

At this point of my career, a colleague of mine, Cheryl, also shared her ideas of a ‘Conversation Wall’ in the second language classroom (instead of a word wall). The premise was that to get our students speaking we need to make the necessary words and expressions readily available for them to use. Linked with oral communication, the more they use these words and expressions, the more confident they get with the language and the better they communicate orally and in writing.

In this moment I realized I had NEVER felt comfortable or confident speaking the language because I had rarely, if ever had the opportunity to use it orally, and I would argue that often when we did use it orally, it was rehearsed (or memorized). Furthermore, I could not properly apply those words and expressions to different situations.

It was these two ideas together that significantly changed the way I thought about language and evolved how I was going to teach it from then on out.

1. I want my students to be able to use the language confidently and somewhat spontaneously. (I realize the limitations to core French, in that I only see my students for 160 minutes a week, which is not nearly enough to achieve fluency) I want them to be able to talk about things that are important to them. For example, every week we talk in the target language about what they did or what they will so on the weekend/holidays.

2. Scaffolding is an extremely important part of building confidence in speaking a second language. I always model the different situations, we work in partners with examples on the board. Then I take the example away after some practice and leave just the question and the sentence starter as a prompt. Finally, we take away the visuals and see what they can do independently.

3. In order for my students to reach this type of proficiency it is my duty to provide as many opportunities as possible in class for oral communication. If you walk in my classroom, it is often loud, but it is productive. We talk with our partner, in small groups, we do oral recordings and self-reflect. We are more often than not speaking. The writing and reading is a bi-product that comes naturally after they have gained a certain fluency with the language.

I feel that my ideology is always being challenged, but I think as an educator I need to be flexible. Students change, technology changes, theory changes. The world so is constantly evolving and if we can’t evolve with it, we fall behind. Right now I feel like I am keeping up, and I definitely don’t feel like that everyday. I hope I can continue to approach my classroom with an open mind in order to keep up with the evolution.

How have you evolved as a foreign language teacher?

4 Responses

  1. Lisa Noble

    This is, in a nutshell, exactly why I found my world turned upside down, in a really good way, when I discovered the AIM approach – all of a sudden (okay, after a lot of hard work on all of our parts) , my students had the frequent use vocabulary that they needed to be able to actually communicate – and they were excited about it!

    I particularly like that you noted they write like they talk. We don’t spend a lot of time on conventions in my classroom (and worksheets are almost unheard of), but my students, for the most part, can communicate. With my grade 4’s – we’ve just moved into adding “pourquoi and parce que” to their answers to “comment ça va?” questions, and they’re working incredibly hard to be able to figure out how to say what they want to say.

    I do have a “word wall” in my room, but it’s made up mostly of frequent use vocab, and then we add specific things we need for different topics we may be talking about.

    I was lucky enough to do my degree in translation (français vers l’anglais) in Ottawa, and that forced me (despite my southern Ontario, non-immersion background) to put it out there, and speak French; however, I now find myself in a professional environment where our FSL P.D. is being offered exclusively in French, and it is intimidating like crazy to a great many people, and I’m not sure how best to help. I’m an extrovert, and I don’t really care, at this point, if I make mistakes….but others aren’t there.

    Lots to think about. Thanks

    • Thank you for sharing. I like hearing about the successes other Language teachers are also experiencing with the shift to oral communication. It’s very exciting and I look forward to seeing the influence it has on students desire to continue taking French through high school and their confidence and ability to use the language after several years of instruction like this.

      I have to admit that I would be intimidated by PD completely in French, however I was given the opportunity to attend a regional meeting in London just a bit ago and there was quite a bit of the
      PD given in French. I was amazed at how much my own French has improved with teaching it. I am more comfortable now than I ever have been with the language, and I think its because I have to use it every day. I am going to France this summer as well and I am looking forward to having the chance to use the language and challenge myself!
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s been great to connect and reflect in this way!

  2. Nice post. I found it noteworthy that you did not mention listening. To me, this is where Krashen gets it right. Oral communication at a higher level can only emerge from large amounts of comprehensible input, so lessons need to be filled with good listening as well as copious opportunities for speaking.

    • Good point. I find speaking and listening must evolve together. A conversation cannot continue if one person is having difficulty understanding. That reminds me of my first post, in trying to find authentic oral resources (particularly listening activities) for my students who are around A1 level. (http://www.mmemallette.com/2014/04/test/) With the internet it is easy to find many different authentic resources, but trying to find ones that are accessible to people who are beginning to learn the langauge can be difficult if they can not access any of the language within. Thanks for sharing.

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