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Oral language: To think, shape and convey ideas: A guest post by Dr Jannie van Hees

Hi everyone

It is my pleasure today to introduce Dr Jannie van Hees who has written today’s guest post on the topic of supporting the development of oral language in the classroom. It is titled, Oral Language: To think, shape and convey ideas.  


Jannie works for Auckland UniServices Ltd, University of Auckland, and she is a recognised national and international educational expert. At the heart of all her work is a focus on language, and fullness of expression and participation by students. She is focused on effective classroom practice so that students are truly engaged, participatory, meaning-making and expressive.


Her areas of expertise include: expanding oral language in the classroom; vocabulary expansion; crafting writing and writers; the Year 1 intensive oral language (IOL) programme; scaffolded curriculum planning for content and language; collaborative classroom observation and analysis; assessment – oral, reading and writing; catering for early English language learners; and developing teachers’ applied grammatical knowledge.


I know you will enjoy reading this post she begins with one of my favourite posts by Wittgenstein. I would like to suggest that you may like to take her text and discuss it with a colleague, and personally reflect on its messages and implementation implications in your work with students.


Kind regards


Oral language: To think, shape and convey ideas

‘The limits of my language means the limits of my world’ (Wittgenstein, 1922). Ponder on this a little. Conceptual and cognitive growth depends on language availability. Language availability grows conceptual and cognitive capabilities. He also said, ‘Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it’ (1915).

Now ponder about what we call oral language, namely, expressing one’s thoughts verbally, externalising what is internal (in the mind) for the purpose of communicating to others; saying what would otherwise remain hidden or unrevealed and ‘inside me’. From this point of view, speaking is the ‘end product’ of what is already in the mind mentally.

What is the relevancy of this in terms of classroom and learners? At the heart of the matter in the classroom are two realisations: a) For a learner to be able to construct and express utterances (spoken or oral language), what is already and ready in his/her mind is their oral language reservoir. The extent of this mental reservoir determines greatly (not wholly) what a learner is able to express. How this reservoir gets filled is a question of maximal importance to you and peers as learning scaffolders in the classroom. Availability of reservoir-filling language under optimising conditions is critical to ‘grow’ the learner’s resource base. b) For a learner to develop control over speaking and to be able to express with increasing meaning orally, derived from one’s mind and thinking, takes practice. The more opportunities a learner has to try out ‘saying’ to make meaning, the more his/her oral language reservoir is strengthened and expands.

Oral language is THE prime human expressive tool that allows communication to take place between people. Babies are hard wired for this. A baby’s cry is primal communicative oral language. The same baby’s oral language growth depends on multiple moments of meaningful language exchanges with another/others. More means more.

So into the classroom where oral language expansion is a condition and consequence of ‘what we do here’, namely, engaging in teaching and learning conversations richly and continuously. Deliberately, the focus is on optimising oral expression by all and by each, where dialogue and conversations between learner/s and learner/s, and teacher/s and learner/s are given space to flourish. It is a place where each learner is ‘pushed’ to express, where contributions are valued and responded to, and where deliberate and incidental acts of sharing ‘what’s in and on my mind’ offer an external reservoir of oral expression which individuals can internalise to enrich their inner mental reservoir.   

Let’s consider what optimising conditions for oral language expression to flourish, looks and sounds like in the classroom. Were you to walk into such a classroom, you would notice learners ‘given permission and opportunity’ to chat and converse often and as required for brain engagement to be occurring. At times, these would be ‘controlled moments’ of talk; at other times, they simply occur because ‘that’s what we do here’ – we are in dialogue with each other. In this classroom, talking is the ‘bread and butter’ of developing brainpower, of developing ‘intelligence’ and thinking, wiring up neurons and energising the brain of each learner.

You would notice the teacher and other adult scaffolder/s as conversationalists (not interrogators or interviewers). They would be similarly engaged in conversational exchanges with individual learners and any group of learners. To the fore would be fullness of expression – ‘really saying what we mean so others know what we mean too’.  It would be everyone’s endeavour (and joy) to express ‘on the edge’ of possibilities through and by talking with each other. Careful scoping of one’s inner reservoir of thinking and expression is given time. Careful shaping of what gets expressed by each person is ‘each person’s brain business’. Learners consciously push their expressive capabilities, giving details, elaborating meaning much of the time, and scoping their word reservoir to convey precisely what they mean.

In this classroom, the teacher and other adult scaffolder/s offer ‘more’ in ways that engage learners in some active mental and/or expressive way. Responsiveness is also the ‘bread and butter’ of this dialogic classroom. What ‘we say here’ offers potential learning for and responses from others. What we say grows and pushes our own and others’ brains and expressive power. ‘What you say matters to me; what I say matters to you.’

There is a buzz and ‘messiness’ in this classroom alongside many moments of controlled talk where respectful listening, turn-taking and responsiveness to others is the norm. There is time and effort given over to talking richly with and to each other. The ‘sayers’ stretch themselves to select appropriate and precise vocabulary, and to say in a way that others notice, understand and want to engage with. The teacher and other adult scaffolder/s, and fellow learners, are poised to offer support when and where needed.

How does this classroom appeal to you? You the teacher/scaffolder; you the learner? To create such as classroom is both simple and complex. The rewards are too precious to ignore. To maintain ‘business as usual’ where too much teacher talk and questioning dominates space and time, where too few learners are engaged and expressive, where too little conversation is occurring and there is too much passivity of the brain, where expressive richness by learners is minimal, doesn’t appeal. Such a classroom is likely to NOT result in optimised days of learning in the classroom. The two realisations above are minimally in place.

A final thought. ‘Children learn language from their language experiences – there is no other way…. from actual “usage events”..from particular utterances in particular contexts, and build up increasingly complex and abstract linguistic representations from these’ (Lieven & Tomasello, 2008, p. 168). Expanded oral language in the classroom is akin to a daily and on-going talk fest and feast.


Dr Jannie van Hees

Auckland UniServices Ltd

University of Auckland


Lieven E.V., & Tomasello M. (2008). Children's first language acquisition from a usage-based perspective: In P.Robinson and N.Ellis (eds). Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. (pp. 168-196).

van Hees, J. (2007). Expanding oral language in the classroom. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Wittgenstein, L. (1915; 1922). Ludwig Wittgenstein. Retrieved on October 13, 2014, from: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ludwig_Wittgenstein