Reading is based in language, so it may not be surprising that kindergarteners with strong oral language ability tend to develop reading skills more readily and are more accomplished readers in later grades (Roth et al., 2002). Even in fourth grade, students demonstrate better capabilities at recognizing words in print when they have oral familiarity with them (Mitchell & Brady, 2013). Although many animals use a system of sounds to communicate, the breadth and complexity of language is uniquely human (Beecher, 2021). Children must be able to perceive, understand, and produce not only words, but also the ways those words can be used in phrases and sentences. This includes different forms of words (e.g., singular and plural nouns, adjectival and adverbial forms, verb cases and tenses, etc.), multiple meanings of words, and the order in which words can and cannot appear to convey an intended message. In addition, children must understand how to modify their language to fit a social situation. Thus, competence with language takes time to develop and lots of experiences where children can test and refine their understanding (Bybee, 2010).
Teachers can leverage the time that children spend in school to support the language learning of all students. However, this may be particularly important for students who have less linguistic knowledge than their peers or who have language difficulties (Komesidou & Hogan, 2020). Fortunately, language can be taught both implicitly and explicitly throughout the day if teachers take three basic steps.
1. Speak in Complete Sentences
In typical conversations, it is not necessary—and often not natural—to speak in complete sentences. Because conversations occur in a shared context, not all referents need to be named. For example, consider this conversation between two people standing in a library:
Marcus: Where did you put it?
Chang: On that shelf.
Marcus did not have to identify the “it” as a book or provide the title of that book because the context was sufficient for Chang to understand the target of Marcus’s question. Likewise, Chang did not have to reply in a complete sentence. He merely needed to indicate the location where he placed the book, and he likely gestured to the shelf while responding. If this same scenario occurred in a classroom where Marcus was the teacher, he could offer implicit language learning by guiding the conversation as follows:
Marcus: Where did you put the book of poems you were reading?
Chang: On that shelf.
Marcus: I see that you did put the poetry book on this shelf, thank you!
Speaking in complete sentences models different ways that language can be used to communicate the message. Marcus used an interrogative and a declarative sentence, which require words to go in different orders (“did you put” vs. “you did put”). He also modeled different word forms by referring to the “book of poems” and “poetry book” in the two sentences. When these interactions occur naturally across each day in school, Chang will become more familiar with the words and sentence structures that he eventually will encounter when reading. In addition, teachers who are conscientious about using more concrete, explicit, and accurate language can improve the comprehension of students with oral language difficulties (Hollo & Wehby, 2017).
2. Maintain a Topic
Although some of the interactions that occur during school involve short conversations, teachers can build opportunities for students to participate in talking more extensively about an interesting topic. This can be done during small-group or circle time when teachers ask students open-ended questions about the topic (Justice et al., 2018), but conversations also can occur between peers during dramatic play activities with adult support (Roskos & Christie, 2013). Rather than merely providing costumes and props for children to play an adult role, structured dramatic play presents a scenario that requires students to make choices or decisions. The following examples suggest how teachers might offer students direction to have more meaningful dramatic play that will encourage a wider range of language use.
- Helicopter Pilots: Someone’s pet dog got lost on a mountain [or in a desert or field, depending on the terrain that would be familiar to students]. You have to rescue the dog. Think about how you will find the dog and how you will bring it to a safe location where its family can meet you.
- Construction Workers: You need to build a new bridge over the river [or a lake, bay, or highway]. Think about how you want the bridge to look and what you will need to build it. The people who will use the bridge will want you to make sure it is safe and strong.
- Paleontologists: You found a new site where dinosaur bones are buried. Think about the kind of dinosaur you found and what you will have to do to uncover all the bones without breaking them or missing any. The museum where you will take the dinosaur bones will want your help putting them together again!
These kinds of structured activities involve a form of child storytelling, which can foster understanding of narratives (Nicolopoulou et al., 2015). Participating with peers in acting out their story, increases the amount of time that children spend talking as they both use and hear advanced language. The peers have to practice taking turns talking, and they have to sustain the topic in their conversation until bringing it to a logical conclusion.
3. Interact With Students Around Books
One of the most commonly recommended practices for building students’ oral language is reading aloud a storybook (e.g., Wasik et al., 2016). Hearing the language in a high-quality storybook potentially could support implicit learning, but the real value of reading the book is that it provides a basis for explicit instruction in both vocabulary and comprehension. In other words, the effectiveness of a read-aloud depends on what is read and how it is read.
Choosing Books to Read Aloud
There are different types of books available for literacy instruction, so it is important to choose books aligned to the purpose of the lesson. For example, decodable readers should be used when the intent is to reinforce phonics instruction and provide opportunities for early readers to apply their phonics skills with connected text. If trying to help students learn unfamiliar concepts or practice new comprehension skills, then leveled readers may be appropriate. Both decodable and leveled readers control the language of the text, restricting it to ensure success when students are reading independently (Cheatham & Allor, 2012; Glasswell & Ford, 2011). Therefore, they are not appropriate for improving oral language, which relies on exposure to vocabulary and sentences that are just beyond the students’ current abilities.
Instead, high-quality children’s books should be used, particularly stories containing rich examples of vocabulary, sentence structures, and phraseology that are quite different from typical child-directed speech (Montag, 2019). Supportive illustrations help students understand the slightly more sophisticated language and can keep them interested in the story (Martinez & Harmon, 2012). In addition, teachers will deliver explicit vocabulary and comprehension instruction during the reading.
Explicit Instruction During the Read Aloud
Through careful pre-planning, teachers can introduce vocabulary words encountered during the reading and pose questions that stimulate students’ thinking about the text (Baker et al., 2020). Depending upon the length of the book, it is possible to pre-identify and explicitly teach students two or three new vocabulary words while reading the book. A student-friendly definition is prepared for each word, which also might include another example of applying the word in a familiar context. Alternatively, the definition might include a non-example to help students distinguish the new word from a related word they already know. The example below is from the storybook, Giraffes Can’t Dance (Andreae, 1999).
Definition: a breeze is wind that is light or gentle
Non-Example: The wind in a hurricane [or in a tornado or sandstorm, depending on children’s familiarity] would be much stronger than a breeze. The hurricane has strong gusts of wind, not the breeze that in this story that is moving the branches of the trees.
This information is then recorded on a sticky note and placed on the page where the word is encountered in the book. This serves as a reminder to provide the instruction at the appropriate time, and it decreases the pressure of conjuring a definition in the moment (Gibbs & Reed, 2020). In addition to the vocabulary instruction, comprehension questions should be prepared in advance and recorded on sticky notes to place in the book. The questions should be open-ended to require students to produce more than one-word answers and can be focused on narrative or comprehension skills. For example, students might be asked questions such as:
- Is this character the kind of person you would want as a friend? What about the character makes you think that?
- What problem does the character have? How do you think the character will solve this problem?
- Why do you think the character did that? Would the story be different if the character had done something else instead?
Such questions allow students to practice their developing knowledge of narrative elements such as characters, conflicts, and events. Specific lessons on these skills can be delivered before reading the book and planned to cumulatively review previously learned narrative elements. Ideally, the comprehension questions also will provide students opportunities to incorporate the vocabulary words from the story in their responses.
Oral language instruction is not delivered in a specified time segment of the school day. Rather it is an element that can be built into all parts of what happens while children are at school—both through implicit and explicit learning opportunities. Taken together, these types of adult guidance not only improve children’s oral language, but also their intelligence (Protzko et al., 2013). Hence, they have the potential for contributing to students’ long-term success in school and in life.
Gibbs, A. S., & Reed, D. K. (2019). Interactive reading. Iowa City, IA: Iowa Reading Research Center, University of Iowa. Available at: https://irrc-learning.org
Gibbs, A. S., & Reed, D. K. (2020). Supporting your children's and teens' home learning: Retelling a story using a graphic organizer. Iowa Reading Research Center Blog. https://iowareadingresearch.org/blog/supporting-home-learning-retelling-story
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