Effective speaking and listening instruction

The foundational role that oral language plays in learning to read and write has long been recognised (Dougherty, 2014; Hart and Risley, 2003; Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998).

The relationship between oral language ability and academic success has been well established (Hill, 2012; Resnick and Snow, 2009).

In order to maximise students’ literacy and learning, teachers need to have solid understandings about oral language and its potential as an educative tool.

Oral language involves expressive and receptive skills.

Expressive language encompasses the words and actions used to convey meaning, including tone, volume, pauses and inflections.

Receptive language is the understanding of language expressed by others. Expressive and receptive oral language are often referred to as ‘speaking and listening’.

The curriculum

The Victorian Curriculum F - 10 recognises the importance of oral language as a communicative process, with speaking and listening receiving prominence in the English curriculum, alongside reading, viewing and writing. Speaking and listening in the classroom serve both social and educative purposes. That is, speaking and listening is central to forming relationships, and acting as cognitive tools for learning (Vygotsky, 1978).

Acknowledging the major role speaking and listening play inside and outside of school, it stands to reason that oral language should not be left to chance, but planned for across the curriculum and explicitly taught.

The English curriculum, speaking and listening is a starting point when considering what should be taught. The other modes of the English curriculum, and other curriculum disciplines, all have knowledge, actions and skill development mediated by speaking and listening. At each level of the curriculum and across all disciplines, spoken texts are included with written and multimodal texts, to be explored, analysed and created.

The Victorian Curriculum F – 10 provides the following account of speaking and listening:

Speaking and Listening refers to the various formal and informal ways oral language is used to convey and receive meaning. It involves the development and demonstration of knowledge about the appropriate oral language for particular audiences and occasions, including body language and voice. It also involves the development of active-listening strategies and an understanding of the conventions of different spoken texts.

The curriculum presents speaking and listening as a means of addressing purpose. Linguist M.A.K. Halliday expressed purpose in terms of functions. It is useful to examine speaking and listening through Halliday’s functions of language, to see the pervasive roles of speaking and listening (see table below). Teachers can use the functions of language to audit the types of oral language interactions they are planning for their students.

​Function​Explanation of purpose
​Instrumental​Language for meeting wants and needs
​I want to read that book.
Language for controlling othersPlease give it to me.
InteractionalLanguage for forming and maintaining relationshipsShe is my best friend.
PersonalLanguage to express opinions, feelings and identityI’m a good reader.
HeuristicLanguage for learningWhat makes the wheels move?
ImaginativeLanguage to tell stories, jokes and playLet’s pretend we’re lost in the jungle.
RepresentationalLanguage to convey factsIt takes two hours to travel the distance.

The curriculum has a strong focus on the sounds and letter patterns used to create spoken language; expressing ideas and opinions; interacting with others and presenting formal oral presentations.

The curriculum recognises that speaking and listening, like writing, is used in formal and informal ways. The degree of formality used in an oral language interaction is dependent upon the subject matter to be discussed, the relationship between the participants and the way the interaction will occur (for example: face to face, phone conversation, recorded message, video etc.).

Contextualised and decontextualised speaking and listening

A speaker makes choices about degrees of formality. It is helpful to think of oral language as moving along a continuum from informal utterances to talk that is more formal and extended.  As the talk moves along the continuum to more formal structures, these more and more resemble written, literary language. Ultimately a speaker makes decisions about the appropriate register to adopt, with a mindfulness of purpose and audience.

For example, an exchange between two friends discussing a movie might be more spoken-like (see text A), while a movie review given as a presentation might be more written-like (see text B).

Text A

Sam:  Hey, I loved that movie. It was awesome. So scary yeah?
Pat: Yeah, I was shaking in my boots.

Text B

Sam: The final of the Harry Potter series has been made into a movie The Deathly Hallows. The movie’s rating suggests it is not appropriate for children under 12. A number of scenes in The Deathly Hallows could frighten young viewers.

Many speaking and listening situations, at home and school, involve the students in language set in the ‘here and now’, for example, playing a number game, engaging in a class art activity or organising the distribution of class resources.

These situations involve talk about the things that are seen and experienced by everyone present. Actions that occur in these social situations are accompanied by language. The language in these situations can be described as contextualised, that is, the language is bound to the situation or action. As such, sentences are usually brief, there is a greater use of pronouns, and less description.

A great deal of school language is decontextualised language. Decontextualised language helps the speaker tell others about people, objects, actions or ideas that are not present. Decontextualized language includes “opportunities for extended discourse in the form of explanations, personal narratives, creating imaginary worlds, and conveying information” (Raban, 2014, p. 9).

In these situations, the speaker uses language as the main resource for helping the listener make meaning. Decontextualised language is more difficult for students to use and understand. Students may need scaffolds to assist their meaning making, for example, picture clues, modelling of language structures and opportunities to recycle language.

Decontextualised language is the language of learning and reflection. Teachers can help students move towards decontextualised language, by providing experiences which are later recounted, described and reflected upon.

For information on Speaking and listening and EAL/D students, see: Speaking and listening and EAL/D students

Links to the Victorian Curriculum - English

  • Listen to and respond orally to texts and to the communication of others in informal and structured classroom situations using interaction skills, including listening, while others speak (VCELY174)
  • Understand that spoken, visual and written forms of language are different modes of communication with different features and their use varies according to the audience, purpose, context and cultural background (VCELA234)
  • Understand that successful cooperation with others depends on shared use of social conventions, including turn-taking patterns, and forms of address that vary according to the degree of formality in social situations (VCELA271)
  • Understand how texts vary in purpose, structure and topic as well as the degree of formality (VCELA309)
  • Understand that strategies for interaction become more complex and demanding as levels of formality and social distance increase (VCELA363)

Links to the Victorian Curriculum - English as an Additional Language (EAL) 

See the Communication and Cultural and Plurilingual Awareness strands under Speaking and Listening in the EAL curriculum


Dougherty, C. (2014). Starting off strong: the importance of early learning, American Educator. 18 (2), 14-18.

Halliday, M.A.K (2007). Language and Education: Volume 9. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Hart, B. & Risley, T. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap. American Educator. 27 (1), 4-9.

Jones, P. (1996). Talking to Learn. Newton. PETAA.

Raban, B. (2014). Talk to think, learn, and teach. Journal of Reading Recovery. Spring, 2014

Resnick, L.B., & Snow, C.E. (2009). Speaking and listening for preschool through third grade. Newark, DE: New Standards, International Reading Association.

Snow, C.E., Burn, M. S. & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington DC: National Academics Press