Oral communication is a key part of English curriculum but it is often neglected within the English classroom. Yes, there is plenty of talk–but are students able to earn marks for the quality, free-flowing discussions that happen in that space? Are they able to enrich their ability to contribute to discussion in ways they are conscious of and can apply deliberately?

It can feel hard to evaluate oral communication beyond rehearsed, formal presentations. However, teaching and assessing more authentic oral production must be the core of this strand because this will form the bulk of the kind of oral communication students will do in post-secondary education and the world of work. Here are some strategies and resources.


Implementing Roundtables as A Core Oral Communication Strand Performance Task

Kulsoom Anwer Shaikh, Centre Table Education

Philosophy Roundtables support movement toward the evaluation of more authentic oral production, and away from the stilted, cue card supported/Powerpoint presentation style that has traditionally constituted so much of English oral evaluation. 

The roundtable concept is reflected in workplace meetings, televised panel discussions, political debates etc.

I learned about Roundtables from my mentor, Rachel Cooke, about 10 years ago and they have become a mainstay of how I assess and evaluate oral production skills.

Structure Engaging in rich, authentic discussion is a skill that must be built, not in a unit of a few consecutive weeks, but instead in an incremental, ongoing manner.  For this reason, this is one unit that is spread out over the whole course—once a week on Wednesdays.  The consistency of day is purposeful.  We want students to anticipate and expect this unit in each course—these skills are built not only over the course, but over their four years of English education.  Roundtables also prepare students for better book club discussions.

Roundtables are about 20 minutes long in grade 9 and 10.  They are 30 minutes long in grades 11 and 12.

Assessment Initially, roundtables should be formative and all feedback should be descriptive and generalized.

After students become comfortable with the format, you can start offering individualized feedback. You can choose to focus on 5-6 students in a particular roundtable, to make this manageable.  You can inform them that you will be assessing them the day before so they have time to prepare for contributions.

This feedback can take the form of:

  • jot notes
  • oral conferencing
  • a highlighted rubric

You could try a resource adapted from an assessment tool to evaluate book club discussions: Observation Guide for Roundtable Discussions. This can be used for a handful of students each roundtable so each student benefits from assessment that they can respond to at the next roundtable.

Students are also asked to write meta-cognitive reflections on the discussion and their role in it in their journals each week.  This can also be assessed over time.

Ultimately, the formative feedback will fuel the growth that you can then evaluate using any/all of the feedback forms listed above that you prefer.

The ultimate goal for this unit is for students to be able to facilitate their own mini roundtables during the Culminating Activity, wherein they pose the opening question and then prompt and manage the resulting discussion.

Encouraging Reluctant Speakers Students who are reluctant to speak should be encouraged with questions and one-on-one check-ins regarding well-being and anxiety. Weight should be given to when they do speak, even if it may be considerably less frequently than some of their peers.

Another way to help struggling students, or students who simply need to diversify the kinds of oral contributions they are making, is to issue them an role card.  These cards allow you to track particular students and emphasize/make manageable a particular kind of contribution.  A student who has trouble thinking of what to say might benefit from this tool to focus their thinking and efforts.

These cards can be assigned the day before—or they can be a tool that students can receive at the beginning of roundtable.  A laminated set can be created using this link: Role Cards

Content In course teams, you might prepare a core of at least 10 roundtables with common topics (Roundtable Roster).  Material to spark discussion should usually be a media piece, as this is also a unit that engages the Media Studies curriculum strand, specifically Media – Textual Analysis. Thoughtful YouTube videos, TED talks excerpts, short films, twitter threads etc. are good media/oral resources. 

In addition to these 10, each classroom teacher can include a few more that are tied to topical issues or current events that arise. Usually, a link to this media text is shared with students the day before the roundtable so students who wish to review and prepare contributions may do so. This is helpful particularly for students who find it difficult to talk on the spot. Then on the day of the roundtable, the media text should be played directly before the discussion.

Here Roundtable Rosters of topics, contents and links for grade 9 is linked here.

Role of the Teacher as Facilitator The role of the teacher is to set the opening question(s), manage cross-talk and offer prompting questions to encourage thoughtful discussion.  The teacher can participate at times to model substantive contributions.

See below resources to help you introduce roundtables to your (senior) students. The Exchange Structure Analysis Grid breaks down types of contributions to discussion, helping students recognize the different kinds of talk. (Younger students can use Reading and Writing strategies as ways to structure their contributions). As an introduction, you might show them a clip of a roundtable style discussion and pause the video periodically to ask them which roles they identified speakers using. Here is one I like to use excerpts of:

Using the ESA Grid found at the link below, students can identify which speakers contribute and maintain discussion using specific types of contribution: Exchange Structure Analysis Grid: Types of Contributions to Discussion

Book Club – Oral Observation

While a more comprehensive overview of Book Clubs as a curriculum unit and strategy is posted on its own section, find below a observation guide that allows the teacher to assess and evaluate Book Club discussions.