Counting on Oral Language
“In a community of discourse participants speak to one another. They ask questions of one another and comment on one another’s ideas. They defend their ideas to the community, not just the teacher.” Fosnot & Dolk 2001
Language is the definitive and most enduring human technology and words are the tools of thought. It is language that translates impulses and needs into the rational thoughts. It is language that conveys these thoughts, first inside our own minds and then to the minds of others. It is language that spurs action, prompts reactions and carries all that we pass on from generation to generation, culture, science, ideas and knowledge. And, all language development must follow the simple path that has been tread upon for eons; from listening and speaking to reading and writing.
My colleague @CarmelCrevola has worked with focus and purpose to move our shared understanding of the importance of oral language to a position of prominence as a context for teacher professional learning. Drawing upon current research as well as the lessons learned from collaborations with schools and school districts around the world, Carmel compels us to examine the type and quality of oral language instruction that all students receive, with a particular focus on early learners. What I appreciate about Carmel’s work is the fact that it is practice-based, informed by classroom work and is transferable to all teaching contexts and content.
Context and content are key for me as I see some powerful connections between this work and the shift that we are working to achieve in the design of effective mathematics learning experiences for students. The components of effective, accountable talk can be broadly categorized as: expressing thoughts and opinions, justifying a point of view, questioning and clarifying as well as listening and responding. Each of these components can be more discretely broken down into specific prompts that can become a focus for ongoing classroom instruction.
For me, talk is the the foundation of all effective mathematics learning communities. Author and mathematics educator Catherine Fosnot challenges us to engage students in meaningful mathematics learning contexts and to create classrooms where the interplay of ideas, models and proofs is the norm. When I reflect upon the oral language components I see many rich opportunities to integrate oral language instruction and the learning of important mathematics. The essential tools of the mathematician are not only numbers, models and symbols, they are thoughts, opinions, conjectures, proofs and, most importantly, questions. Each of these tools can be the focus for explicit oral language instruction, leading to more focused writing and reading instruction within the content area of mathematics.
As we lead and learn, in our classrooms, schools and networks, we face a great challenge of building knowledge of effective practice on the fly. My goal as a school leader is to ensure that student and teacher learning is focused, important, efficient and deep. Looking at the connections between oral language and mathematics as a focus for our learning and teaching allows me to achieve these goals. By ensuring that our mathematics learning ‘floats on a sea of talk (Britton, 1983) we push our students to do the very things that mathematicians and other thinkers have done throughout the ages and provide language learning that counts, literally.