1 must use strategy to improve the oral language in your classroom in o

1 Must-Use Strategy To Improve Oral Language In Your Classroom

Feb 18, 2024

Many things have changed in the world of literacy instruction over the years, research has developed, new teaching approaches have emerged and some older practices have -rightly- been shelved.

One constant throughout all this though, has been the importance of oral language on literacy development:

“Children who are surrounded by, and included in, rich and increasingly complex conversations have an overwhelming advantage in vocabulary development, in understanding the structures of language, and in tuning into the sounds of English.” (Konza, 2014).

Despite decades of knowledge of its importance however, oral language remains the ‘poor cousin’ in literacy classrooms.

In fact, when observing F-6 classrooms, I’m often shocked at just how many students can get through the entire literacy lesson without speaking. Without once rolling the lesson’s vocabulary around on their own tongues, voicing their thoughts and/or opinions or engaging in rich discussion with their peers.

(Trust me, when I tell you that you’d be surprised at how common this is!)


My talk mantra

To address this issue, I have a mantra that I encourage all teachers and schools to adopt: “no student should get through a single literacy lesson without having to speak.”

The most obvious place in your lesson to satisfy this mantra is the class discussion (usually held in the explicit teaching / minilesson section of your lesson).

First, we’ll look at what research says is currently happening in this part of the lesson and then, we’ll look at the simple FREE shift you can make to elevate the importance of oral language in your classroom.


What research says about class discussions

Countless studies conducted in classrooms across the globe have found the most common pattern for classroom discussion to follow an ‘I.R.E’ pattern:

  • I: Initiate – Teacher initiates the conversation by asking a question.
  • R: Response – Teacher selects one student to respond to the question.
  • E: Evaluate – Teacher evaluates that student’s response and potentially provides feedback. E.g. ‘That’s right’.

Here’s an example of this pattern in action:

  • (I) Teacher: Who can tell me what the author was trying to tell us here?
  • (R) Student: They were telling us that the girl was nervous.
  • (E) Teacher: Yes! They told us that she was nervous. Well done!


“IRE is the default option that teachers return to in times of stress… IREs can encourage monologic teacher talk that severely limits student or learner talk, that in turns affects the amount and quality of learning by students” (Edwards-Groves, Bull & Anstey, 2014).


As you can imagine, there are several problems with this approach being used as the sole discussion pattern in classrooms:

  • It limits the number of students who speak / listen in the lesson.
  • It benefits the fastest thinkers / loudest voices.
  • It can be disengaging for students who aren’t answering the question(s).
  • It limits the formative data teachers can gather about their students (because they’re only hearing one student’s thoughts).


What should you be using instead of I.R.E?

The best way to ensure that every student in your class speaks in every lesson is to employ the highly effective teaching strategy of Turn and Talk in every session.

This strategy is so simple, yet so powerful that I recommend it to every teacher and school I work with.


What is Turn and Talk?

As the name suggests, this strategy involves asking your students to turn their heads / bodies and talk to the person next to them for a short amount of time, on a specific topic.

It’s a quick, free and highly effective instructional technique that should be implemented in every single literacy lesson.


6 reasons you should use Turn and Talk in your literacy lessons.


 1. Turn and Talk increases student accountability

Asking your students to engage in a Turn and Talk discussion about the well-thought question you’ve posed lifts the accountability for thinking for every one of your students. You automatically go from having one student doing the thinking / talking (as in the I.R.E discussion pattern) to having every student responsible for thinking/talking.


2. Turn and Talk is more inclusive of student thinking times

Where the I.R.E discussion pattern advantages fast thinkers, Turn and Talk enables students of all thinking speeds to participate and have their say.

Inevitably, the fast thinkers will still share their thinking first with their partner, but the second partner will always get the opportunity to gather their thoughts and share their thinking when using this discussion technique.


3. Turn and Talk ensures every student gets the opportunity to speak in every lesson

In the traditional I.R.E discussion pattern, it’s easy for students to sit back and wait for the usual suspects to answer the teacher’s questions: ‘There’s no point thinking about my own answer, because I know X will answer it anyway.’

As soon as you implement Turn and Talk however, you’re removing the role of passive observer and elevating all students into the position of active contributor. You’re ensuring that every student in your class has the opportunity to speak and to be heard.

Considering that all literacy learning is built on a foundation of oral language, it’s critical for all students -and especially those from low-socio economic and/or non-english speaking backgrounds- to practise their oral language every day, in every lesson.

Remember: No child should ever get through an entire literacy lesson without speaking. Building in just one opportunity for Turn and Talk can ensure you achieve this goal.


4. Turn and Talk provides feedback to students

While the I.R.E pattern allows one student to get feedback on their ideas/contributions, Turn and Talk allows every student to receive feedback. Sometimes, that feedback is verbal: ‘I really like that idea’ or ‘I agree with your thinking…’ and sometimes it can be physical: E.g.. a confused facial expression from their talk partner. Either way, the student who has shared their thinking can ‘road test’ their ideas in a safe space and receive some level of feedback they may not have otherwise received.


5. Turn and Talk can help shorten the explicit teaching session

One of the most effective ways to shorten any explicit teaching session is to cut down on the amount of time you dedicate to student sharing.

Consider the time difference between asking your students to share their ideas for writing with the whole class one at a time (approx. 10-15 mins) versus asking every student to Turn and Talk and share their idea with the person next to them (approx. 2 mins).

Through Turn and Talk, every student gets to share, be heard and receive feedback- all while helping to keep your minilesson MINI. It’s a definite win-win!


6. Turn and Talk provides you with formative data about your students

“I don’t ask questions to test you but to help me” (Allington, 2012).

When you listen to your students’ Turn and Talk discussions, you can gain valuable insights into what they’re thinking.

  • Are they on the mark?
  • Have they truly comprehended your shared reading text?
  • What vocabulary are they using?
  • Are their justifications strong?
  • Do they have enough background knowledge to discuss this deeply?

The formative data you gather while eavesdropping on the various conversations can -and should-help guide your next instructional moves in the lesson. This is much more effective than basing your next moves on one student’s response alone (as in the I.R.E pattern).


Let's elevate oral language from the position of 'poor cousin' in the literacy classroom, to that of essential parent!

By implementing this 2-minute practise in every literacy lesson, you can ensure that every student speaks in every lesson.

2 minutes!


In my next blog, I’ll share tips on how to maximize this fabulous teaching strategy in your classroom (so there really won't be any excuses for not using it).


Related Blogs:



  • Allington, R.L. (2012) What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. Boston, MA: Pearson.

  • Konza, D. (2014) ‘Teaching reading: Why the “Fab five” should be the “big six”’, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(39), pp. 153–169. doi:10.14221/ajte.2014v39n12.10.


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