Story Circles: An Oral Language Development Strategy that Makes Space for All Students’ Language Traditions While Also Making Academic Language Explicit
In language, we have four modalities of communication: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. In schools, we are often most focused on developing reading and writing, not as much on oral language development (maybe thinking the vast majority of our students are coming to us speaking and listening just fine so let’s get them reading & writing!) However, what we may forget is that the language spoken is most likely social language, or what Cummins calls Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) which will not have the same language patterns as academic speech. To teach reading and writing, we need to bridge students from oral to the written language. If we don’t explicitly teach the structures of academic oral language, then, we are building a bridge from the social oral language to the academic written text of school which we may not find very successful, particularly with students whose oral discourse patterns do not match the academic discourse patterns of school. Consequently, a gap in reading and writing achievement is born.
While we want to make the language of school explicit, we also need to recognize that these language forms in academia are based on middle class European American language traditions. The diverse language traditions students develop at home may not reflect the mainstream; however, their value is not any less. For example, the language of school incorporates two common forms of storytelling – a recount and observation, both of which convey experiences in a linear fashion. Another method of storytelling not modeled in schools is a more “topic-associating style” that is more episodic and thematic (See below for examples). However, all three styles successfully communicate experiences; thus, they should all hold value in the classroom.
Erin Elizabeth Flynn details in the latest September 2016 issue of The Reading Teacher a great classroom strategy that not only explicitly builds students’ academic oral language but also incorporates and values the diverse language traditions of all students, thus creating a multilingual and multiethnic classroom. While her focus is on its use in the early childhood classroom, this strategy could be modified to be incorporated into any age classroom that is building reading and/or writing skills. A description of her technique is included below.
Story Circle Strategy with Examples of Common Storytelling Forms Adapted from Flynn, E.E. (2016) Language-Rich Early Childhood Classroom: Simply but Powerful Beginnings. The Reading Teacher, (70)2, 159-166.