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Literacy Matters

Developing Oral Language Comprehension: Why and How

March 28, 2024

by: MaryKate DeSantis

6 mins


As a practitioner early in my career, I always felt time was my biggest enemy. Everyday felt like a battle against the clock to fit in all the components of instruction. This pressure exhausted me, so I turned to my greatest support: research. My experiences, professional learning, and reflection, paired with ongoing reading of evolving scientific studies, taught me how to be a teacher of language.   

Instead of rushing to include every routine on a curriculum checklist, I began to rely less on a manual and followed the research. This led me to focus all my energy on the four language competencies: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Whether I was working with an entire classroom of middle school students or a first-grade intervention group, my lesson objectives aimed to activate all four of these components of language. When this was done well (and trust me, there were many lessons it was not) I no longer felt the pressure of time.   

Language & Word Learning: Students Need Both 

There is a sense of urgency to teach students how to read. As a reading specialist, I was so hyper-focused on progress in word reading. I knew I was delivering evidence-based instruction, yet I quickly noticed students progressed into proficient word readers, but their scores and progress in “reading” remained stagnant. 

Of course, we need to keep developing word reading—a child’s ability to turn print into speech (inner speech, if reading silently). But, we also need to explicitly teach and have students practice language comprehension—the ability to understand the language created by that speech. After all, “decades of research confirm[s] that listening comprehension outpaces reading comprehension from early childhood through at least middle school” (Fisher and Frey, 2014).  

Stimulate Multiple Modalities Across the Day 

Explicit instruction in language stimulation is the bridge to all learning, yet how educators teach children language often remains the job of SLPs or teachers of English Language Learners. “Unfortunately, when curricula do[es] include language comprehension instruction, that ‘instruction’ is often limited to testing comprehension instead of teaching comprehension” (Bridges et al., 2023). In thinking about measuring a child’s understanding of language, teachers are blinded to a child’s full learning profile if their only measure relies on texts placed in front of children. This inherently measures word reading. So, asking comprehension questions to a student struggling with decoding does not necessarily give us an understanding of their language comprehension.  

Conversely, a student who excels in word reading may struggle with language comprehension, and this leaves many teachers puzzled at a lack of measured progress. Instead of one or the other, let’s think about building comprehension as an integrated process in which students rely on multiple modalities of language throughout the day. In so doing, all students will have opportunities for language development, practice with communication skills, and development of literacy skills.    

Four Key Strategies to Teach  

Here are some evidence-based strategies (Hogan et al., 2011) for language comprehension to implement and weave into daily practice.  

Comprehension Monitoring: strategies that bring awareness to understanding language.  

Why: Early in my teaching career, phrases such as “read this again,” “use context clues,” or “turn to your neighbor and summarize the main idea” were common in my classroom. I might as well have asked my students to do jumping jacks as neither of these “supportive” strategies facilitate oral language comprehension.   

How: Explicitly model comprehension monitoring strategies out loud by stating the “what” (skill) and the “how” (strategy). This helps create a normed process through examples before application.   

Example 1: “I am going to pause after this paragraph and think about the main idea. When I think about the main idea, I know that means I am looking for important information the author wants me to know. I think the title of the paragraph and the bolded words are helpful ways for me to find the main idea.”   

Example 2: “I noticed that I must have missed a step when trying to solve this equation because the sum should be larger than both variables. So, I am going to go back to the first step using order of operations.”   

By describing my process to learners, students activate their listening comprehension to follow along prior to collaborative application or use of self-talk when they approach a task. This explicit teaching and thinking aloud creates a process for students. It also builds a “language toolbox” to navigate academic language, which helps them make sense of a task.   

Noticing Text Structure: recognizing relationships and characteristics of various text types can help students more easily access and construct meaning.   

Why: The shift between narrative and expository texts is drastic in terms of language. In the classroom, I was always much more comfortable teaching with narrative texts because no matter the age, we all love stories. In contrast, the complexity of language and vocabulary in expository texts can be very challenging for students, which made teaching these texts challenging. Once again, I turned to research to improve my practice. Evidence-based strategies guided me outside my comfort zone right along with my students. I encouraged students to become word spies and detectives, by engaging them with content they could relate to with a text, eliminating a major barrier for some students, to prime their learning for language patterns they would see within a text structure.   

How: Explicitly model patterns of language through both narrative and expository texts, using the words that undergird the text’s organization.   

(Narrative): Explicitly teach sequencing through story “grammar” or “mapping.”   

Example: “Whenever I take my dog for a walk, if he sees another dog walking towards us, he begins to tug at his leash with a slow growl. I know he does this to protect me from strangers and other dogs. I noticed something similar through this character’s actions that they want to protect their home from enemies, so this must mean that is the goal of this character. I could predict that they might use their strength to build a barrier to keep enemies away.”  

(Expository): Explicitly teach five text structures (descriptive, compare/contrast, sequence, cause and effect, problem and solution) and how to identify each structure through key words, organization of text, guiding questions that prompt specific language use, practice with writing, etc.   

Example: “If I am baking cupcakes, I need to make sure I follow the recipe so that I don’t miss any steps. So first I would…thennextfinally. It is important to follow the right sequence so that my cupcakes taste delicious!”  

Inferencing: I Read, I Know & So: combining given information with known information to conclude new information.  

Why: As soon as I saw the “lights” turn on for students as they developed their inferencing skills, it changed how they engaged with challenging language. Not to mention, using the phrase “I read, I know, and so…” was always accompanied by gestures or dance moves that would quickly elicit a mini dance party. But that dance party led to students putting together the missing pieces needed to make meaning through inference.   

How: Explicitly model the process of making an inference by showing the “what” (skill) and the “how” (strategy).  

Example: I read that the character’s nose became ‘rosy,’ and puffs of air could be seen as he walked into the distance, I know that when temperatures are cold I can see my breath outside and my face can get red, and so, he must be walking in freezing weather or may not have the appropriate attire to keep him warm. Even though the text doesn’t tell me anything about the weather, I am able to infer by using what I read and what I already know.”  

Integration of Vocabulary: opportunities to practice with vocabulary should be integrated throughout lessons that focus on language and reading comprehension.   

Why: Shifting from the idea that I needed to cover the lists of vocabulary within a unit to weaving vocabulary exploration throughout the day, not only supported my students but made me more aware and tuned into opportunities to use key thematic vocabulary and facilitate this use.   

How: Explicitly model form (structure of the word/spelling), content (meaning), and use (related words/nonrelated words) of vocabulary can be both a foci of instruction and “in the moment” practice.    

Example: “I know you learned about erosion in science class earlier this year. Let’s repeat that word, ‘erosion.” Well, now we just read the sentence, “The erosion of trust could be seen in their body language as they spoke.” If I read further, the characters are not making eye contact with one another. In science, erosion means the process in which rocks are gradually worn away by natural elements. Within this sentence, erosion of trust would NOT mean that trust is strong if the characters are not even looking at each other. It would mean the trust has worn away.”  

Explicit modeling and practice of strategies such as these within a print-rich, talk-rich environment with a balance of reading, writing, listening, and speaking gives our students the language development they need.  

About the Author

MaryKate DeSantis is a clinical researcher at MGH Institute of Health Professions at the Speech (SAiL) Language and Literacy Lab. MaryKate’s experiences working in a large urban district as a special educator, reading specialist, and district-wide literacy coach has shaped her passion for translational research in ensuring all children receive evidence-based instruction. She is also the founder of Left Side Strong LLC.    MaryKate DeSantis



Bridges, M. S., Curran, M., Neal, C., Piasta, S. B., Fleming, K., & Hogan, T. P. (2023). Adapting curricula for children with language comprehension deficits. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. Advance online publication.  

Let’s Know! (LARRC et al., 2018, 2022)  

Roehling, J. v., Hebert, M., Nelson, J. R., & Bohaty, J. J. (2017). Text Structure Strategies for Improving Expository Reading Comprehension. Reading Teacher, 71(1), 71–82.  


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