Speaking and listening across the curriculum

Speaking and listening mediates learning across all curriculum areas. It has been long recognised that literacy is not a generic skill that is applied in the same way across all disciplines. Rather, literacy is subject specific and dynamic (Wyatt-Smith and Cumming, 2003).

Speaking and listening across the curriculum involves the integration of these modes with reading, writing and viewing. Working within the different subjects involves:

  • using subject specific terminology
  • moving from the use of everyday language to the use of language which holds the grammatical and conceptual constructs of the subject
  • using language in social interactions when engaging with tasks required to develop content knowledge and skills.

Talking about the subject specific texts, used in classrooms to develop content knowledge, and talking about the writing students need to produce in areas of study, simultaneously address content knowledge and literacy.

Supporting EAL/D learners

EAL/D learners are learning to speak and understand English, and at the same time, speak and listen in English in order to engage with the curriculum. This includes:

  • understanding and using vocabulary and structures of the curriculum area
  • understanding the content of the curriculum area, which is mediated through language
  • developing academic forms of language, in oral and written modes.

The teacher plans opportunities for EAL/D students to develop their confidence in speaking in English and scaffolds students' oral language production to become more age and level appropriate and to move from using social language to more academic language (Cummins, 2008). The teacher supports EAL/D students to:

  • listen to, and notice new structures and vocabulary
  • learn set or formulaic sentences
  • develop strategic awareness of how to manage conversation in English (Newton 2018, pp. 190-191, drawing on Ellis, 2003).

In the classroom learning context, there are two main types of interaction involving spoken language. The first is the teacher/student interactional context, in which the teacher as the more knowledgeable other (Vygotsky, 1978) models the language of the field and inducts students into the language practices of the subject discipline.

The second context is student/student(s) interactions, in which students reason together, collaborate and build their understandings (Alexander, 2006; Alexander, 2008; Mercer, Dawes, Wegerif, and Sams, 2004).

The type of talk used in collaborative peer situations is described as exploratory talk (Barnes, 2008). Exploratory talk helps the speaker sort out thoughts and trial ideas. It is useful for students to engage in exploratory talk when making meaning from the texts encountered across the curriculum. Exploratory talk can be extended to include elements addressing social or ethical issues, thus moving into critical thinking.

For EAL/D learners, the practice of exploratory talk may focus on constructing language, also known as ‘collaborative dialogue’.

Collaborative dialogues support students to solve linguistic problems and to build knowledge about language. Students use language and learn about language at the same time (Gibbons, 2009, 2012; Swain, 2000).

Examples of language-focused collaborative dialogue include:

  • discussing and refining the appropriate language required to write a science explanation text
  • clarifying the instructions in a procedural text
  • brainstorming arguments and persuasive language and techniques required to prepare for an oral debate.

Ways to include talk as a pedagogical tool across the curriculum:    

  • Use reciprocal teaching to explore texts
  • Complete pre- and post- learning charts. I used to think…Now I think
  • Use the What if teaching strategy to explore content. For example: What if Burke and Wills survived?  What if we don’t recycle?
  • Use jigsaw strategy
  • Present groups of students with an artefact from the topic of study and give them a set time to talk. For example: an ANZAC medal. One member of the group keeps check to ensure the group remains focused
  • Student create open-ended questions for groups to discuss
  • Floor storming: Use images or phrases from the area of study and layout on floor or tables. Students work in groups to make links across two or more images/phrases
  • Role play/drama
  • Listening triangle. In groups of three, students take turns to speak on a given topic. The first speaker speaks for one minute, the second speaker speaks for 30 seconds and the third 15 seconds. Each speaker adds to the cumulative discussion.
  • “Even better if…” discussions

Oral language plays an important role in helping students understand curriculum content, as it is a vital link to writing. Teachers need to assist students to bridge from talk to writing, and from writing to talk. One way of doing this is to make explicit the link between thought, talk and writing, and to examine how language changes as we change the mode of communication (Hammond and Miller, 2015).

  • Talk to yourself (think about the concepts and ideas you wish to communicate)
  • Talk with others ( think about what you say, how you say it and what others contribute to the discussion)
  • Put it in writing (think about how you will express your ideas through writing)
Supporting EAL/D learners

EAL/D students require multiple exposures to encounter, engage with, and elaborate on new language across all areas of the curriculum. They can benefit from:

  • recording their ideas in writing (or as drawings), in their home language, English or a combination of both. With this resource, they can focus on communicating using English and understanding the comments and questions of their conversation partner
  • initially having a small audience to present to or converse with (e.g. a partner, a small group), before speaking in front of the whole class
  • having multiple opportunities to practise the same language (e.g. interviewing multiple students using the same question prompts, giving the date and describing the weather)
  • participating in choral recitations (e.g. songs, poems and rhymes, reading a text aloud).

EAL/D students can be scaffolded to speak in English in different curriculum areas by using:

  • a vocabulary bank (begin by eliciting known vocabulary from students using supporting visuals/audio-visuals)
  • a prepared script (e.g. for giving instructions or readers' theatre)
  • models to base their own speech on
  • sentence starters (e.g. I disagree because ..., I think .... is a good idea, On the weekend I ...)
  • supporting visuals such as cut-outs, puppets, images or diagrams from a text
  • sentence substitution. Students replace different parts of modelled sentences with their own words or phrases to create new sentences. For example, students replace 'Firstly the butterfly lays eggs' with 'Firstly the queen bee lays eggs'.
  • information gap, jigsaw activities or barrier games such as battleships which usually involve students working in pairs. Each student has only some of the information needed to complete a task. They must share information in order to complete the task (see Hertzberg, 2011, p.54-66 for EAL examples).

EAL/D students’ knowledge of languages and their ability to transfer their understanding about languages play an important part in developing their speaking and listening and thinking skills.

They can be supported to draw on all of these meaning-making resources to fully participate in learning activities regardless of the subject, activity or language mode.

Students’ home languages are a bridge between their existing language and content knowledge, and their continued learning. As Newton (2018) states, this bridge ‘emphasizes the instructional goal of developing even stronger skills of moving between languages rather than own language use being a temporary linguistic crutch’ (p. 207). Establish clear roles for students’ home languages in the classroom, so that they are using their languages strategically for particular learning purposes (Newton, 2018). Students’ home languages can be used to support their independent learning through the use of flash cards with translations, and as their internal private speech (Newton, 2018, p. 207).

Below are examples of the functions that the home language can play in teaching and collaborative learning settings (Newton, 2018). For example:

  • to clarify understanding of difficult concepts or instructions
  • to generate and organise ideas
  • as a deliberate pedagogic strategy, such as translating
  • alongside English where students move between languages as normal practice
  • to talk about similarities and differences between cultures and languages
  • to talk about learning
  • to talk about language and provide feedback on language use (metalinguistic feedback)
  • to talk about their thinking and develop metacognitive awareness
  • to foster solidarity.

Links to the Victorian Curriculum - English

  • Listen and respond to communication of others in classroom situations and routines (VCELY139)
  • Make short presentations, speaking clearly and using appropriate voice and pace, and using some introduced text structures and language (VCELY211)
  • Understand differences between the language of opinion and feeling and the language of factual reporting or recording (VCELA305)
  • Understand the use of vocabulary about familiar and new topics and experiment with and begin to make conscious choices of vocabulary to suit audience and purpose (VCELA237)
  • Learn extended and technical vocabulary and ways of expressing opinion including modal verbs and adverbs (VCELA273)
  • Participate in and contribute to discussions, clarifying and interrogating ideas, developing and supporting arguments, sharing and evaluating information, experiences and opinions, and use interaction skills, varying conventions of spoken interactions according to group size, formality of interaction and needs and expertise of the audience (VCELY366)
Links to the Victorian Curriculum - English as an Additional Language (EAL)

Pathway A

Speaking and listening

Level A1

  • Negotiate simple social or learning activities (VCEALC003)
  • Follow simple instructions in familiar school routines by relying on key words and non-verbal communication and context (VCEALC006)
  • Respond appropriately in a range of common social and classroom situations (VCEALC084)

 Level A2

  • Negotiate familiar social and learning situations using language appropriate to the situation (VCEALC085)
  • Follow a short sequence of instructions related to classroom procedures or learning activities (VCEALC088)
  • Respond simply to questions and prompts (VCEALC002)

Pathway B

Speaking and listening

Level BL
  • Use words from sets related to immediate communicative need, interest or experience (VCEALL180)
  • Respond appropriately verbally or non-verbally when spoken to (VCEALC163)
  • Rely on other speakers to scaffold, interpret, clarify or elaborate short, simple conversations (VCEALC165)
  • Demonstrate listening behaviour, attending to tone and intonation (VCEALC162)

Level B1

  • Use learnt words in speech (VCEALL260)
  • Interact and respond appropriately verbally and non-verbally in simple conversations with teacher or peers (VCEALC241)
  • Participate in extended conversations with reliance on other speakers to scaffold, interpret, clarify or elaborate (VCEALC243)
  • Demonstrate active listening skills, attending to tone, intonation and body language (VCEALC240)

Level B2

  • Use, in speech, vocabulary and structures learnt from spoken and written texts (VCEALL341)
  • Initiate and maintain short, structured social interactions with increasing fluency (VCEALC322)
  • Comprehend social English in most familiar contexts, and use conversation partners to support understanding (VCEALC324)
  • Demonstrate independence in extended conversations (VCEALC321)

Level B3

  • Employ a range of vocabulary to convey shades of meaning (VCEALL421)
  • Participate in most social situations using English (VCEALC402)
  • Initiate and participate in casual exchanges and in learning contexts (VCEALC404)
  • Contribute information, express ideas and give reasons for opinions in group tasks or classroom discussions (VCEALC401)


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Wyatt-Smith, C. and Cumming, J. (2003). Curriculum literacies: expanding the domain of assessment.