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|From policy to practice: the oral language challenge for teachers
Dr. Áine Cregan
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In recent decades, a clear and unambiguous recognition of the importance of oral language development for learning, acquisition of literacy skills, and ability to access the curriculum effectively has emerged. This has resulted in a focus on oral language development which is manifest in the policy documents of education systems worldwide. Translating such a policy, which advocates the development of children's oral language skills, into effective practice in the classroom appears to be problematic.
Of particular concern is that in schools in the Irish education system, where English is the medium of instruction, and particularly in those schools serving contexts of disadvantage in Ireland, successful implementation of policy in relation to the development of oral language continues to be challenging.
Successful teachers of oral language have knowledge about language and how language is mediated in the educational context including, for example, knowledge of the basic units of language, principles of word formation, awareness of language for communication, language of socialisation, language in the context of evaluation/assessment. Teachers also need to know about the particular language style required in the context of school, academic or literary language style - its importance, its characteristic features – and crucially, a non-judgemental awareness that this style of language is not immediately accessible to all children.
Teacher knowledge of pedagogy, and in particular knowledge of social constructivist pedagogy, requires teachers to engage frequently in tasks for pupils such as pair and group work, scaffolded, exploratory learning, and exposure to literature and drama.
Research findings are unequivocal that parents can make a difference to the success of their children in school. Because variation in home patterns of interaction can lead to differential preparation of children to engage with school, it is important that teachers would have knowledge about parents - what parents can do to support children's oral language development, and how this support can be generated and sustained. To harness parental support, schools need to reach out to parents in ways that signal a desire for meaningful partnership, that indicate a belief by teachers that parents can help, and that schools provide the necessary support for parents to fulfil this role.
A case study, funded by the Department of Education and Skills, was conducted which involved working with ten teachers across three schools in designated disadvantaged contexts in Ireland over a period of one academic year. The result of this intervention support suggested that all case study teachers improved in terms of knowledge of language and the pedagogy of language, many of them indicating that they are now considerably more confident about promoting oral language development effectively in their classrooms.
A significant effect of empowerment through knowledge on these teachers was recognition that the oral language challenge is an issue that must be tackled by schools and teachers - not a problem to be blamed on children and their families. Teachers were often surprised and even amazed at what children could actually do with language when scaffolded and facilitated in the process.
Children, too, benefited from the impact of teacher support in this study. Among the children, teachers reported increased levels of confidence and self-esteem, much enjoyment in talking activities, and clear evidence of a range of characteristics of academic style of language use when engaged in typical school-type talking tasks.
In an effort to translate existing policy around the importance of oral language development into effective practice in primary classrooms, it is apparent from the findings in this study that new policy implementation structures need to be set in train by the Department of Education and Skills. These structures fall broadly into three categories:
Dr. Áine Cregan is a Senior Lecturer in English in the Faculty of Education in Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland, a Teacher Education College. She was a consultant to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) primary committee on English in the Revised Primary Curriculum, and currently she is involved with the NCCA (Dublin) as an advisor on an Early Years and Primary Language Committee.
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