The book ‘Whoever You Are’, Written by: Mem Fox, and Published by: Hachette Children’s Books Australia (1998), Sydney, N. S. W: uses simple everyday language to describe the immense similarities and differences shared between human beings. ‘Whoever You Are’ (Fox, 1998) is aimed at Kindergarten students aged five years and over. This book could be used by teachers to help develop children’s oral language skills in activities such as discussions prior to reading, about the ways in which children are alike and different and a lesson that requires students to listen to the book and answer open-ended questions prepared by the teacher.
Literacy supports the acquisition of oral language skills by allowing students to practice, using their oral language known as phonology and their listening skills which requires awareness of phonemes through hearing literacy read aloud. Literacy is universal; it arises from peoples need to communicate with one another (Cambourne, 1988). Literacy requires skills in reading, writing, listening and speaking as well as modern multi-literacies (Green, 2006) and semiotic signs and symbols to create meaning from and make meaning of the world.
Literacy is influenced by people’s social, environmental and cultural backgrounds (Bull & Anstey, 2005). The concept of people communicating with one another comes from Cambourne’s (1988) explanation that people learn to talk because they are human, while Green (2006) outlines the importance of acquiring both basic and multi-literacies. Bull and Anstey, (2005) explain how peoples social, environmental and cultural backgrounds influence what and how they learn, one of which is oral language.
Oral language skills includes the knowledge that speech makes sound, known as phonology and incorporates intonation, timing, syllables and phonemes (Hill, 2006). The first activity aimed at developing oral language introduces the book ‘Whoever You Are’ (Fox, 1998) and focuses on the use of spoken language by inviting students to discuss ways in which their class mates are the same and different. This activity encourages talk through discussion and allows the students to develop ideas and present them while encouraging understanding of semantics.
The teacher is able to scaffold learning through open-ended questions and encourage students to elaborate on what others have said, this can help expand vocabulary and develop awareness of syntax (Hill, 2006) requiring students to use their active listening skills. Listening requires awareness of phonemes, or the sound that language makes (Hill, 2006). The second activity is aimed at developing oral language and requires students to actively listen to the book ‘Whoever You Are’ (Fox 1998), after which the teacher will ask open-ended questions.
This activity encourages listening and talking skills, as students are required to listen to the story enabling them to answer the teacher’s questions. Listening to books introduces new vocabulary and syntax, which is internalised and later used to construct language (Brace, Brockhoff, Sparkes & Tuckey, 2006). Listening to stories read aloud allows the rhythms and cadences to be heard, helping develop the use of phonological skills (Hill, 2006). The book ‘Whoever You Are’ (Fox, 1998) is full of phonemes, for example, “There are little ones just like you all over the world” (Fox, 1998).
Literature is instrumental in developing student’s oral language skills. These activities show how literacy supports student’s acquisition of oral language while promoting the use of their active listening skills through group discussions. These discussions encourage students to listen to the teacher as well as each other, to construct ideas from what they have heard and practice their oral language by voicing those opinions using their vocabulary.
Teachers in Australian classrooms need to view students with different dialects, or English as a second language, as having a language difference rather than a language deficit (Caruso, 2007). Teachers need to be aware of the linguistic diversity that exists in their classrooms, which will enable them to create a supportive oral language environment that promotes the development of Standard Australia English [SAE], while instilling the value of mastering the dominant dialect in Australia.
Linguistic diversity refers to those students in Australian classrooms for whom SAE is not their first language or dialect, for example Aboriginal-English speakers. Teachers assessing student’s SAE need to be mindful of language difference and not mistake it for language deficit. They should instil the importance of being competent users of SAE, as it is required to function successfully in society. Not to do so, could place these students in disability classes unnecessarily, disempowering them educationally and leading to cultural denigration and loss of personal identity (Caruso, 2007).
Teachers must ensure they provide all students in their classrooms with a supportive oral language environment that helps develop their use of SAE. For teachers to create a supportive oral language environment, they need to become familiar with their students linguistic abilities. Teachers need to have an understanding of the different languages and dialects spoken at home and the cultures that influence them. Teachers should demonstrate a positive attitude and incorporate a value system that embodies their own views and those of their students, parents and the greater community.
Teachers when grouping, rewarding, disciplining or assessing their students, need to take the linguistic, cultural and social backgrounds of their students into consideration (Barratt-Pugh & Sinclair as cited in Allen, 1997). Teachers who implement these strategies will promote an environment that values linguistic diversity, giving students the confidence they require to develop and master their SAE skills. Teachers can promote the development of SAE by incorporating a range of linguistic specific activities in their lesson plans.
These activities need to be culturally relevant and match the student’s intellectual level ensuring linguistic involvement. One activity might include ‘make a story’ – each student receives a card with part of a story on it and through discussion with other group members, students need to place their story card in the correct sequence. Teachers could also establish structured play areas or literacy corners within the classroom, allowing students to explore and participate in these activities in their own time and at their own pace (Barratt-Pugh & Sinclair as cited in Allen, 1997).
This will encourage and support the competencies of students in SAE. Teachers have a responsibility to bridge the gap between language difference and language deficit. If teachers know and understand the linguistic abilities of their students, they are able to design and create a supportive oral language environment that targets the specific linguistic needs of those students. When developing lesson plans, teachers can also include linguistic specific activities that address the problem areas their students have, promoting the development and use of SAE, while also instilling the value SAE has in Australian society and culture.