What Is It?
One important reason for fostering student discourse is that talking can serve as a precursor to writing. Coupled with the fact that many young writers struggle to find topics about which to write, it makes sense to encourage students to write about things with which they are most familiar.
Effective teachers create opportunities for students to tell details about events in their lives. Usually, this takes place in one-on-one teacher-student conferences. At other times, it occurs during paired student discussions. Once students have orally shared their experiences, they find writing much easier.
To scaffold writing for students, teachers demonstrate the value of first talking in general terms about their own recent experiences and then beginning to write. For example, once a teacher has finished relating her story, she says to students, "Now I want to put my thoughts and words into print." At this point, she can use a chalkboard, chart paper, or an overhead projector and write her story for the class to see. The teacher explains that she didn't need to include all the details of her verbal story to make her written piece convey the meaning she intended. She describes why she chose some words over others, how she wanted to begin her story, and how she wanted to end it. Throughout this process, she stresses the fact that talking about the story first made it easier to write.
Implications for ELLs
The connection between speaking and writing is an especially important one for English language learners (ELLs). By observing and participating in the teacher's composing processes, ELLs gain insight into many aspects of writing. Students learn writing may begin with the intention to interact, inform, amuse, remember, persuade, or celebrate. They realize that words can be broken into sounds which are represented by letters. They notice that the teacher doesn't always try to "sound out" words but sometimes just remembers them or consults the word wall. They see how the teacher thinks about her title as a way to focus her writing. They hear the teacher consider how to begin with an attention-grabbing sentence, and they learn that the teacher is always thinking about what will interest and inform the audience. In this way, they discover the logic behind capitalization, punctuation, and paragraphing. Finally, they are privy to the teacher's self-evaluation (e.g., Teachers say,"Did I tell you what my favorite place is? Did I tell you why I like it there? Did I tell you what I do there? Do I have details? Did I write a conclusion? I forgot the conclusion. Where should my conclusion go? What should I say?"). Gradually, students understand that if you can say it you can write it.
Strategies for Supporting ELLs
Teachers of English language learners (ELLs) scaffold the transformation of oral language into written language in a variety of ways. Sometimes teachers use the Language Experience Approach, asking students to tell a story about a drawing or experience, which the teacher then transcribes for them. Students read and reread the story aloud. The teacher cuts the story apart into sentence strips and word cards for students to scramble and put back in order. After students can competently put the sentences and words in the correct order, the teacher prepares a version with selected words replaced by blanks for students to fill in, or students recopy the complete story.
Another scaffolding strategy is to hold a group discussion on a familiar topic such as favorite weekend activities.
Then teachers write a model sentence and list the students' oral contributions on chart paper.
On weekends I like to_____________________with____________________.
Beginning ELLs may need to repeat the sentence pattern and the listed items after the teacher says them in order to match the spoken and written words. Using the chart as a model, students write about their own weekend favorites. Students read their final stories to the class for feedback and discussion. They can illustrate the stories and display them in the classroom. Finally, the stories can even provide the basis for a guessing game.
Glimpse of the Classroom
Mrs. M. asks the class to listen to the following scenario. This past weekend, her dog was struck by a car. While her dog was not seriously injured, she had to take him to the veterinarian to check for broken bones. She describes her experiences and anxiety while in the waiting room and later in the examination room. Fortunately, the dog was fine--bruised but no broken bones.
After Mrs. M. relates the story to her class, she begins to write about the event on large chart paper. As she writes, she refers to her oral retelling of the episode so that students can see how events in their lives can be recorded. Mrs. M. asks students to recall an important point in their lives and share it with a classmate. After their stories are shared orally, they write them in their journals.
This is an example of the power of oral language and how it can shape writing.
Questions to Think About