Request a Quote

View Our Catalog

Phonics, Reading, and Me™ demonstrated Promising Evidence ESSA Level III Learn More

Teaching Tips

Six Routines for Developing Complex Language Use

April 25, 2024

by: MaryKate Desantis

6 mins


A child’s ability to listen to language, understand it, and produce it to communicate is at the heart of literacy development. However, when it comes to developing oral language in the classroom, many teachers aren’t sure which approaches are most effective. In this blog, I share six evidence-based explicit routines that can support all learners. First, a brief look at why it’s urgent we promote students’ word knowledge and use.  

Avoiding the Third Grade Dip 

As a clinical researcher, I study how language develops in children, identify risk factors early on, and determine which instructional strategies support growth. The goal is to get this research into the hands of teachers to immediately implement in the classroom. After all, we don’t need a clinical trial to know teachers are the changemakers.   

We also don’t need to look further to see that our students’ reading scores are dipping. The reasons for this are complex, but one factor is that just as children’s innate use of language shifts from simple forms, content, and use to increasingly complex language—as they enter grade three—schools neglect language comprehension. We have known for years that language comprehension skills precede and can later predict reading and writing growth, but it’s not a priority in prevailing curriculums and programs. This blind spot often comes from a misconception that if a student’s word recognition skills are strong when decoding complex language, then their language comprehension skills must also be proficient. We know from research this is not the case; our nation’s scores would tell a different story if this were true.    

Supporting Poor Comprehenders 

What myself and other researchers are finding is that it’s essential that students in grades three and up receive oral language instruction. This explicit instruction will help them significantly as they learn more complex content and read increasingly complex texts independently. After all, given that the ultimate goal of reading is to understand ideas and build knowledge. When we neglect oral comprehension, it’s like giving students a toolbox with no tools.  

Consequently, we are seeing an alarming number of children who transition from lower to upper elementary without the skills needed to understand the words they have been taught to read.  

Upper elementary is also around the time where teachers might not be as intentional in asking students language comprehension questions, and this may be why students reading seems to falter. When the time comes to take an assessment of reading comprehension, children who have trouble with word reading or language comprehension (or both) may experience limited success.   

Fortunately, researchers and practitioners are taking note—and taking action—trying to understand what exactly accounts for the struggle. “Recently, researchers have begun to more closely examine poor comprehenders, who display significant reading comprehension difficulties in spite of adequate word reading abilities” (Hogan et al., 2014).   

For classroom teachers eager to support their readers now, we have the proven tools. Following are six explicit routines teachers can integrate into their plans right away.  

Six Explicit Routines to Bolster Language  

These six practices ensure all learners are given opportunities to expand their language knowledge and use.   

1. Read Aloud and Discuss Culturally Responsive Texts. Exposure to rich, diverse and engaging texts gives students opportunities to hear complex language in a meaningful context. Our students want to be seen, heard, and identify in the pages in front of them. When we teach with books that are relevant in this way, educators can facilitate conversation instead of leading it because the students are so invested.  This reading and discussion could be within a content lesson, small group, and even practiced within social settings.  This peer talk invites students to use sophisticated language through academic discourse. It’s a boon to vocabulary building and comprehension. It’s also beneficial for multilingual learners, as they hear the words and the thinking of classmates as everyone builds understandings together.  

2. Use Simplified Language. Clear and concise word choice supports all children as they learn new skills and the academic language involved. For example, instead of asking, “How did the character determine a solution?” rephrase to, “How did the character decide a solution?” Then, explicitly teach how decide and determine are related words.  We want students to use more complex vocabulary; sometimes we need to scaffold that with simple words, though.  

3. Provide Visuals. Visuals give learners a stable resource in the classroom. This supports generation of language and retrieval creating a “language toolbox.” An easily accessible image that supports current content knowledge is particularly helpful for those with word-retrieval difficulty. So, if a student has not yet stored the semantic knowledge or vocabulary within a science unit on pollination, an accessible visual can aid both expressive and receptive language.   

4. Interleaved Practice. As students are expected to read and write texts of greater complexity, we must provide multiple opportunities for them to apply recently learned words and concepts over time. Keep revisiting form, content, use. For example, if you focused on developing content knowledge while explicitly teaching main idea and detail of the water cycle, do not assume that several units later, all students know how to identify main idea and details within new content. Revisit, review, check for understanding. This will look different for each student depending on need, but all students benefit from this.   

5. Thoughtful Scaffolds. Lean into the “you do,” within a gradual release model. Teachers often feel pressure to keep pace with curriculum, and their lessons become a monologue. We need to preserve time for students to talk and practice what we have modeled. Allow time and space for students to engage in productive struggle throughout their day. One of the most powerful reminders from, Zaretta Hammond is when she said, “Helping diverse students who are historically marginalized become more powerful learners is the endgame of equity. And, that is not going to happen if we are not making room in our curriculum and pacing guides for students to engage in the type of learning behaviors, like productive struggle and academic conversation, that grow the brain’s neural pathways” (Hammond, n.d.). All children need practice using language that has been modeled and explicitly taught.  Build in lots of opportunities for students to talk as part of learning.   

6. Monitor Progress  There is a need for additional resources that help teachers closely monitor language comprehension development; for now, the following techniques can provide informal insight.   

  • Hear from all children: Oftentimes, students with low language skills may appear to be shy or disengaged so it is important to ensure that you are listening to children talk in large discussions, small-group discussion, and making time for one-to-one conversations. This may require some uncomfortable silence, so before you throw in the safety net, pause-repeat content/question and/or scaffold to support.   
  • Model & Ask:  It is okay to offer a strategy and then check for understanding! If a student does not know what is being asked of them because they are having difficulty understanding language, provide a model or visual for clarification.   
  • No Print, Oh My! Remove what could be a potential barrier for students with word reading difficulties and focus on understanding what they understand. This can be done through a narrative listening measure such as a story retelling or questioning after a read-aloud. (This is not just practice for elementary students!)  

Whether students are engaged in a written task or asked to turn and talk with a partner, all moments within a student’s day are an opportunity for educators to be teachers of language.   


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.  

Hammond, Z. (2021). Integrating the Science of Learning and Culturally Responsive Practice. 

Hogan, T. P., Adlof, S. M., & Alonzo, C. (2014). On the importance of listening comprehension. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 16(3), 199–207.  

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.  

Related Tags