Oral Language Development

One of the most challenging things to do is build students’ oral language. It’s tough finding ways to build the skill into an already packed day. However, oral language skills impact student’s academic learning throughout their day, finding ways to add it without giving up something else is hard. As a special education teacher I spend a couple of minutes before starting group building these skills. I hope these suggestions help you find ways to build oral language into your day. At the start of each year, I use Total Physical Response with all my students as I build routines and expectations. This is something I pass on to parents because they too can use TPR to build oral language and its easy.

At the beginning of the school year, students need to know key phrases and expressions that they can use to communicate with teachers and students during the school day. Being able to communicate effectively with others is key for learning to take place. With some work, students can develop the type of everyday communication skills that facilitate learning. This strategy called Total Physical Response to help students in these early stages of language development.

Learning key phrases through Total Physical Response

Total Physical Response (TPR) activities greatly multiply the language input and output that can be handled by beginning English language learners (ELLs). TPR activities elicit whole-body responses when new words or phrases are introduced. Teachers can develop quick scripts that provide ELLs and other students with the vocabulary and/or classroom behaviors related to everyday situations. For example, "Take out your math book. Put it on your desk. Put it on your head. Put it under the chair. Hold it in your left hand."

You will see them  talk sooner when they are learning by doing. TPR activities help students adjust to school and understand the behaviors required and the instructions they will hear. This will help them in mainstream classrooms, in the halls, during lunchtime, during fire drills, on field trips, and in everyday life activities.

Strategies: How to use Total Physical Response

There are seven steps for the TPR instructional process:
1. Introduction
The teacher introduces a situation in which students follow a set of commands using actions. Usually props such as pictures or real objects accompany the actions. Some actions may be real while others are pretend.

2. Demonstration
The teacher demonstrates or asks a student to demonstrate this series of actions. The other students are expected to pay careful attention. At first, students are not expected to talk or repeat the commands. But soon they will want to join in because the commands are easy to follow and the language is clear and comprehensible. For example, the teacher gives a command such as "Take out a piece of bread" and the students say the sentence and do the action. "Now, spread peanut butter on it", and so on until a make-believe sandwich is made and eaten.

3. Group action
Next, the class acts out the series while the teacher gives the commands. Usually, this step is repeated several times so that students internalize the series thoroughly before they will be asked to produce it.

4. Written copy
Write the series on the chalkboard or chart paper so that students can make connections between oral and written words while they read and copy (or even substitute ingredients of their choice).

5. Oral repetitions and questions
After students have made a written copy, they repeat each line after the teacher, taking care with difficult words. They ask questions for clarification, and the teacher points out grammatical features such as "Yesterday we ate half a sandwich. Today we will eat a whole sandwich. Did you notice the difference between ate and eat? Yesterday we spread grape jelly, today we will spread orange jelly. Did you notice that the verb spread didn't change? Let's say the words soap and soup. Let's say the words cheap and sheep."

6. Student demonstration
Students can also take turns playing the roles of the reader of the series and the performer of the actions. Meanwhile, the teacher can check on individual students for comprehension and oral production.

7. Other activities

  • Use pictures from magazines, the Internet, pictures books. And have students talk about them. Let them take the lead. 
  • Before reading a children's story, select some action words and ask the students to perform these actions as you encounter them in the pages. List them on the chalkboard.
  • After reading the story, ask children to summarize the story by acting out the words you have demonstrated.
  • After reading the story, ask the children to select some words or phrases that they would like to turn into actions.
Building oral language skills is easy and something that can be done on the road while on vacation. Have a great week.


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Welcome to my all thing special education blog. I empower busy elementary special education teachers to use best practice strategies to achieve a data and evidence driven classroom community by sharing easy to use, engaging, unique approaches to small group reading and math. Thanks for Hopping By.

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