Highlighting Global Issues through Spoken Commentaries

“If you don’t speak it, you don’t know it. If you don’t write it, you don’t own it.” These were words of wisdom told to us by Wally, a gentleman who served as a liaison and guide during mission learning service trips to Guatemala that our school participated in prior to the pandemic. It’s a mantra that resonates with me to this day; it speaks to the importance of self-reflection, but also to the importance of the different mediums of knowing and understanding knowledge. 

As an English teacher, I have shared this valuable mantra with my students at the beginning of my English 11 and 12 courses. Being able to communicate in a wide variety of ways, whether in writing or in speaking, is something that we focus on and assess in our classrooms. In an English high school classroom, most of the assessments you would expect to find are essays (in-class, take-home) and group presentations. However, with accessibility to recording technology via smartphones or laptops, recording spoken commentaries is now a viable and accessible form of assessment. Students can speak and record what they know and then upload it to a dropbox. Some students are better speakers than they are writers, and giving them a chance to speak what they know should be as valued as being able to write what they know. The assessment that I am writing about, the Individual Oral (IO), is a component of the course that I teach, IB Language and Literature. Our school delivers the International Baccalaureate (IB) program from K to 12 and has been doing so for the past half-decade now. When I first started teaching this course a few years ago, oral commentary was a form of assessment that was completely new to me. It was daunting to teach and to mark and assess because it is a ten-minute continuous spoken commentary worth 20 percent of the overall grade. It is also fairly time-consuming, and marking one commentary can take anywhere from 15 to 30 or more minutes each. Multiply that by the number of students you have, and that becomes a full day of just listening to and assessing audio commentaries. Nevertheless, as I’ve continued teaching the course, I’ve grown to value the Individual Oral as a valuable assessment, as it gives students an opportunity to demonstrate their learning beyond the traditional essay writing that you would expect in an English classroom. 

Furthermore, this particular assessment integrates a component of international-mindedness by challenging the students to frame the texts that they comment on through a global issue. Students are given agency to pick the global issue that they can draw out of the texts that they read, and this leads to interesting and insightful interpretations of the texts that they comment on. In an increasingly connected world, international-mindedness matters, and as teachers, we find creative ways to get students to think globally. This article will describe the nature of the Individual Oral, how it’s a valuable assessment format, and how it encourages and challenges students to synthesize two seemingly different texts and think at a global level. 

What Is the Individual Oral? 

The oral commentary is one of the main summative tasks that we do in IB Language and Literature. It’s a strenuous and high-stakes assignment, as it requires students to close read a text, structure an outline, and then deliver a spoken ten-minute commentary about two different texts framed by a global issue. There is a lot of preparation and work that goes into it, and it really challenges the students to refine the way they speak as they synthesize, articulate, and present their commentary.

The IO is a very prescriptive assignment, but there is a lot of flexibility in the texts that the students can choose to comment on. The first text that they pick is an extract from one of the main works that we read. For example, they may pick an extract from one of the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., or a section of one of Hamlet’s soliloquies, or a significant scene from a novel like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This extract is a maximum of 40 lines long, which can be limiting, especially if a section is lengthy. The second extract that students use is a text of their choice that isn’t literary (i.e., novels, poetry). This distinction can be confusing. For example, they cannot pick the song lyrics of an artist’s body of work, but they can pick the music video. A simplified way to think about this is that the second, non-literary extract is something that is multimedia in essence. 

Regardless of the extracts that the students pick, both need to point to a global issue of some sort. According to the IB course guide, a global issue is defined as “significant on a wide and large scale,” “transnational,” and having an “impact [that] is felt on a day to day basis.” To introduce global issues to the students, I share with them the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that were developed and introduced in 2015. These are seventeen global goals such as “No Poverty,” “Quality Education,” and “Reducing Inequality” that the leaders at the UN agreed should be achieved by 2030. These goals give students an idea of what a global issue is and what they should focus on when preparing a commentary of the two texts.

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Anthony is a teacher and the Student Life Coordinator at White Rock Christian Academy in Surrey, BC, Canada. He currently teaches IB DP (Diploma Programme) Language & Literature 11 and 12. In his spare time, he likes to play electric guitar or play pickup hoops at a local basketball court. IG: @aye.bigs