Oral Expression: Grade It

by Kyle Redford; from Education Week

The other day, my daughter complained that her 89.5 average in history class left her short of an A for the grading period. When I probed further, I discovered that her teacher does not assign a grade for oral contributions in class. Intelligent observations, connections, ideas, or questions in history that were delivered orally would not inform her grade.

That got me thinking about blind spots in my own practice. I rarely assign a point value to anything short of a formal oral presentation. Even more striking, I rarely invite a student who struggled to express his full understanding on a written test to retake the assessment orally, even though that would help determine whether his poor score was due to deficient writing skills or poor comprehension.

Why? Assigning concrete values to conversation is less tidy and more challenging than assessing written work. Facilitating a conversation, while simultaneously evaluating it, is challenging. Discussions are live, fluid, and messy, while grading papers is private, self-paced, and amenable to reflection and review. My students’ comments don’t usually fit neatly into pre-established rubrics, and even when they do, deciding how to value them while attending to the conversation is often difficult. At some point, I had concluded that assigning a point value to class discussion unfairly penalizes introverts.

A Bias Against Oral Expression?

However, the more I reflected on my unintentional undervaluing of oral expression, the faultier it seemed. I started to wonder if this oral/written disconnect in grading was unique to my teaching. I checked in with my colleagues; I wasn’t alone. A general dismissal of oral expression of knowledge was common. Most teachers agreed that they not only valued written over oral expression when it came to grading, but many admitted they rarely assigned concrete value to oral expression.

Teachers can value both oral and written expression, and we should. It must be frustrating for a student to deeply understand a concept and yet be unable to effectively translate ideas into written words. It must be even more frustrating when the teacher recognizes the student’s exceptional oral understanding, but only with passing compliments. Intentionally or not, teachers communicate what really matters through their grading systems. When teachers don’t attribute a measurable value to oral knowledge, the implication is that understanding is not meaningful unless it is expressed in writing.

Much of what students are asked to do once they leave school hinges on their ability to express themselves in conversations. Shouldn’t we give them credit for developing and deploying that skill in school? Teachers often treat oral skills as soft-skills. Assigning value to oral expression of knowledge may be more difficult, but it is worth finding a way to give it the respect it deserves.

Kyle Redford teaches at Marin Country Day School (San Francisco CA). She is also education editor for the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

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