The PB&J of ELA: Oral Language and Literacy

Written by Kia Myrick McDaniel, Consultant on English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and Supervisor of a large urban district

                     An often overlooked area connected to studentsí literacy is oral language development. As more educators begin to work with students who are recent arrivals to the United States, there must be an intentional focus on oral language development when designing lessons and during daily instruction for students learning English as their second language. Oral language and literacy go hand in hand. While students are exposed to the four domains of language upon entering school, curriculum and classroom instruction often focus solely on improving studentsí ability to read and write. Providing multiple opportunities for students to use language orally in a variety of instructional situations is the first step in literacy instruction particularly for those learning to master social, academic and content language at the same time.


1. Monitoring Oral Proficiency

Observing students during informal conversations or cooperative groups allows educators to monitor the oral proficiency level of students as well as determine their strengths and weaknesses. Oral proficiency indicators include comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. Monitoring language use also allows teachers to decipher which language structures they should model and/or directly teach to students. Some students may struggle with vocabulary, while others need additional support in learning the structure of the English lanugage. Both teachers and fellow students can serve as language models for beginner ELLs by helping to facilitate acquisition through feedback. This isnít a scripted set of rules that is given to the student, but tips that are provided through conversation on how to appropriately use language. During the beginning stages students should be given key words or phrases that can be used to communicate key content or messages. Even though students may have limited expressive language, they will be able to increase their participation with prompts. After hearing the language and vocabulary multiple times, students will begin to associate familiar language patterns with particular routines or content. Eventually, ELLs begin to use these structures to create novel utterances. Role playing also provides an opportunity to practice language structures that they might not use spontaneously in conversation.

2. Practicing and Listening

Another technique to encourage oral language development is allowing students to hear themselves and focus on the language they use. Ana, a high school student who recently arrived to the United States has been able to use this technique to improve both her pronunciation and communication skills. When students are able to record and listen to themselves, it encourages reflection on their pronunciation, the vocabulary used and how it connects to the situation or question posed. Ana frequently identified changes she would like to make in her speech and communication, which has positively impacted her ability to use language correctly and appropriately to accomplish communication goals.

3. A Holistic View to Oral Language

Studentsí oral language performance in both English and their native language have important consequences for their reading development and achievement. As much as possible, students should be encouraged to speak in their native language at home and if possible, should be provided with bilingual resources and texts in their native language. Supporting the native langauge through translations will assist a student in developing a second language, not hinder them.

4. Communication and Language Structure

With the onset of 21st century college and career ready standards there is a renewed focus on oral language developmentt for all students, not just English language learners. The language focus for a beginner student must initially be on meaning followed by structure. Determine first if you can understand the message that a student is trying to convey. The next step is to provide them with the tools they need to use the proper American English structure. As students increase their communicative competence they are more prepared to tackle the subject matter presented to them as they embark on their educational journey in American schools.


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