oral language · storytelling · writing workshop

Talking it Out: Oral Language as a Tool for Revision

It’s no secret; I’m a storyteller at heart.

Those of you who have followed the Two Writing Teachers blog for some time might know that I’m a storytelling enthusiast. You might know how passionate I am about using storytelling as a means for self-expression. (If you want to gain a foundation in storytelling, check out my Storytelling Starter Pack, or Betsy Hubbard’s more recent post on Games in the Workshop.)

When people talk about using oral language for writing instruction, the first image that often comes to mind is primary kids. Young learners might talk along with pictures they’ve drawn, dictate a story that will later be typed or handwritten, or tell one another stories as a means of crafting or drafting. 

It’s no secret that storytelling helps children develop a sense of story. It’s no secret that oral language supports kids who don’t yet have the mechanics of writing. And it’s no secret that storytelling and oral language allow students to compose writing in a low-risk, often fun way.

What many don’t realize, however, is that oral language can support writing throughout the writing process, and that learners of all ages – through adulthood! – can benefit from bringing oral language into the picture.

In this post, I’ll share a few activities that highlight the way oral language can strengthen writing instruction. Focused on later parts of the writing process, these activities support revision and feedback. I’ll explain each activity, tell you why I love it so much, and offer tips for adapting each one for different learners.

Activity: Three Bears Coaching

How it’s done: After a student tells or reads their work aloud, the other students in the group respond with specific feedback:

  • Two “baby bears,” or things that were “just right” about the writing;
  • One “papa bear,” something they wish there were more of;
  • One “mama bear,” something they wish there were less of.

Why it’s great: This is a clear, well-structured format for offering oral feedback on one another’s writing. Because there is only the “mama bear” and the “papa bear,” the suggestions are concise and often simple to incorporate. It’s also an activity that works just as easily with a whole class as it would with partners.

How could you adapt that?  My students across age ranges have adapted this model in several ways. A couple of twists they’ve added? Two “mama” or “papa” bears instead of one of each. Or, “Goldilocks” for something they could introduce into the story. Perhaps your writers will put their own spin on the activity as well!

Activity: Crowdsourcing.

How it’s done: Do kids need ideas? They can do what all the big companies do, and crowdsource! I divide students up into groups. Four is my magic number, but this could work with anywhere from two to six students. The larger the group, the more varied the support – but it takes longer for everyone to get a turn.
I set a timer, and for the given time, one writer has the floor. They get to use that time to share anything about their story they wish, and ask for any ideas or suggestions they might want. I’ve seen kids ask for character names or story titles. I’ve seen them ask for ideas on potential problems or conflicts that might arise, or for satisfying ways to end their stories. The group only moves to the next writer when the timer runs out.
Note: there is no “done” in this activity. If students run out of things to ask or talk about, they are expected to sit quietly for the duration of the turn. More often than not, this creates “think time” that allows the group to return to conversation about that student’s writing again.

Why it’s great: I love the whole idea of crowdsourcing. Those who are social media-savvy connect with the idea right away. Others will catch on quickly, because it makes sense. Crowdsourcing puts control in the hands of writers. They are the ones who decide what kinds of suggestions they want to crowdsource. They choose the kind of help they need to move forward with their work. And peers also feel they are trusted to help other writers in important ways. It’s a win-win.

How could you adapt that? 
For primary or beginning writers, it may be helpful to provide structure (such as a brainstormed chart) for what types of help to solicit. I’d also recommend starting with a short timer and work longer as kids develop stamina, and model or “fishbowl” how a group might work together in this activity
Older writers may still need some support (such as a chart) when they first learn this activity, though they will probably not need as much scaffolding and support as younger ones. Older students can also work with larger groups and take longer turns for each writer.

Activity: Read-aloud

How it’s done: Writers are divided into groups. Each member of the group has a copy of everyone else’s writing, either on paper or shared electronically. The person who wrote the text will be a silent member, listening (and perhaps taking notes) as the rest of the group reads and discusses their work aloud together. After the group finishes reading, they can hold a “Q and A” session with the author to learn more about the work.

Why it’s great: As a writer, I’ve found there’s a special magic that comes from hearing other people read my work aloud and talk about it. They bring out subtleties, themes and connections I never would have imagined others would see. Watching what others do with my writing helps me know when my writing accomplishes what I want it to do, as well as when I fall short. Student writers deserve the opportunity to have a similar experience.
Note: I wouldn’t recommend doing this activity before a group has a chance to find its footing as a writing community. The hardest part of this activity, of course, is for the writer. Staying quiet and not correcting mistakes in the text, or not answering questions in the moment, is a tall order. Handing over writing in this way requires a high degree of trust, so it’s important to wait until students are fully comfortable sharing both their successes and challenges.

How could you adapt that? 
This particular activity is best suited for students who are able to read, so it will fit more naturally with older learners. Still, there are ways of adapting this for younger children. A teacher can read a text out loud to a class or a group while the author listens to the discussion, and then classmates can continue with the “Q and A” format. Students may also benefit from having structure and scaffolding (in the form of a bookmark or class chart) on prompts for discussion and questions.

Storytelling and oral language. They’re not just for the little ones, and they’re not just for the crafting of our writing. Speaking and listening can be in integral part of writing throughout the process and for any age writer.

Do you have ways that conversation and oral language enhance your writing instruction? Share them with your Two Writing Teacher colleagues by leaving a comment below!

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