An action research study shows that teaching oral communication skills can simply be a matter of finding the right structure.
When South View Primary School‘s principal pointed out that the students’ oral communication scores were a concern, Yeow Mun Ching was not surprised.
“There’s not much time in class to learn how to express yourself, let alone sustain it for five minutes!” she says. “Many of them are tongue-tied and lack the confidence to articulate their ideas. They don’t know where to start or where to focus.”
While some may consider this a simple case of students having nothing to say, Mun Ching felt that it was a question of providing the right guidance.
By using a step-by-step approach to teach oral expression, she found that students were not only more confident in expressing their thoughts but starting to be aware of the moral issues in the situations they encounter.
Finding the steps
Mun Ching admits that she first thought of developing a new approach because she wanted to “kill two birds with one stone”. With the school implementing Oral-Practice Tutorials to help P6 students taking their PSLEs, combining the task of improving her students’ oral skills and making them practise describing pictures (a typical question often asked during oral examinations in PSLE) seemed like a good way to save time and maximise school resources.
However, she was determined not to follow the usual method of “initiation-response-evaluation” – where the teacher’s only role is to ask questions and assess the student’s answer. “I thought it wasn’t very helpful leaving students on their own,” she says. “I wanted to explore a teaching strategy that would make learning more meaningful, less stressful and had greater retention.”
The result is what Mun Ching calls Directed Oral and Thinking (DOT), an approach which gives students a step-by-step process to follow when discussing a given situation. Using the catchy phrase, “Let’s DICE it up!” (see box), students are encouraged to refer to four easy steps that can guide the way their answers “flow”. According to Mun Ching, this gives students a structure to fall back on instead of grappling for words to say.
Does it work?
Before they started using DICE, students were often limited to simply describing a picture’s elements. If they felt that a picture depicted something “wrong”, they were unable to explain why they thought so in the first place. In a way, the DICE framework addresses this problem by providing a path which goes from interpreting a situation to making a judgement about what they see. “It’s not only evaluating what is right or wrong but coming out with justifications and moving forward to give recommendations,” explains Mun Ching.
Mun Ching chose to use pictures which depict moral dilemmas, giving the DOT approach elements of values education as well. And while she doesn’t expect every child doing the activity to be morally upright, she hopes to make an impact on the way students think about such issues in the future. “If we look at our role as teachers, education is not just intellectual development,” she says. “I try to find every opportunity to inculcate values in pupils.”
So far, feedback from students and fellow teachers has been encouraging. “They feel that they have something to talk about. Finally!” Mun Ching says proudly. “They are also a lot more confident during the oral exams. They have something to bring with them instead of not knowing what to expect.”
Still, the DOT approach does not provide answers to all the difficulties students encounter in developing their oral skills. For students with limited vocabulary, Mun Ching recommends providing them with a list of words to help them express themselves more thoroughly. “If they say something is ‘good’, I ask them, ‘What is good about it? Is he being considerate or civic-minded? Is he showing care or concern?'”. Putting a little more effort into giving students extra support can go a long way.
Spreading the word
With the DOT approach now implemented schoolwide, Mun Ching is happy to share her resources with more teachers. One step towards this was the NIE Redesigning Pedagogy conference in 2007 where she presented her findings to teachers from schools across Singapore.
And if you’re wondering if the DOT approach will work for your classroom, Mun Ching has a simple word of advice, “Teaching is a contextual art so sometimes there is no best solution for all classes. Adaptation is something we have to do constantly. First, identify the gaps in your pupils’ learning then maybe you can come up with your own activities to help them.”
Note: South View Primary School‘s Oral-Practice Tutorials are out-of-curriculum tuition sessions where teachers help P6 students hone their oral communication skills using resources that are consistent with those used in the PSLE. Teachers are given the freedom to choose their own teaching approaches. Mun Ching’s DOT approach was developed from the OPT.
> Interested in learning more? Click here to read about a CRPP study on teaching oral communication.