9 Strategies to Build Oral Language

Oral language is not just speaking. It is a large set of skills that encompasses listening comprehension, understanding and   producing complex language, vocabulary and word knowledge, grammatical knowledge, phonological skills, and so much more.

Why should I worry about it?

Unlike mathematics or science, reading is the only academic area in which we expect children to arrive as kindergartners with a basic skill level. Research has shown that oral language—the foundations of which are developed by age four—has a profound impact on children’s preparedness for kindergarten and on their success throughout their academic career. Children typically enter school with a wide range of background knowledge and oral language ability, attributable in part to factors such as children’s experiences in the home and their socioeconomic status.

Strong oral language makes for strong vocabulary and strong grammatical and semantic knowledge (how words go together and make meaning) then you are better able to understand what you read and produce written words. Let’s take another example. If you have ever studied a foreign language, you know that having limited vocabulary can significantly impair your ability to understand what you read.

How can we promote oral language in the classroom and at home to give students the building blocks for reading and writing? I’m glad you asked. Here are a few strategies that span the grades--Some can be modified to be easier or harder, depending on what you teach.

1) Show and Tell

A classic for elementary students! Students bring an item from home that they want to talk about and there is a precious question and answer session that ensues.

2) Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) 

Traditionally, this is an activity where each day, there is a prompt written on the board for students, such as a sentence written with incorrect grammar for students to correct individually. I prefer to have the students create grammatically correct sentences in small groups (like their tables or with a partner). For example, you could give the words “Since” “Robert” and “party” and have the students come up with a grammatically correct sentence and discuss as a whole group. Another example is to pre-teach a vocabulary word that you will use that day or in the next lesson. Show the vocabulary word and have students talk about its meaning together in a small group and have them draw a group picture representing that word. Share out with the large group. You can have kids draw the vocabulary word on a post-it and then stick it on the board next to the word.

3) Dramatic Vocabulary It’s kind of like vocabulary charades. The students get in a circle and the teacher has a set of cards with that week’s vocabulary words on them (the students can make these cards in groups before the activity for added learning). The teacher pulls a card and gives it to one student, who must act out the vocabulary word for the other students to guess. After it is correctly guessed, the students say, spell, and write the definition of the word together on the board.

4) Word Wall 

 Also a classic! I think it is used mostly in elementary and middle school, but I can see its value in secondary classrooms with added elements, such as grouping by prefix, suffix, roots, etc. Basically, it is a wall of words that are frequently used in the classroom that are posted for easy reference. Teachers, feel free to comment on how you elaborate on the classic Word Wall. I like to add pictures-even better get students to do them.

5) Listening Activities

For the little ones, I like the classic game “telephone” where the kids get in a circle and the teacher whispers a sentence to the first kid, and they have to whisper the sentence to the next kid. The goal is to have the sentence be in tact at the end. It never is. Hilarity ensues. For older students, teaching listening skills can be in the form of teaching good note-taking skills during lecture. Give the class a list of key phrases that they want to listen for in a lecture such as, “This is important..”, “One of the main things…” “The first thing you have to do is…, etc”, “You will need to know…” To begin, you could ring a little bell or something when you use the key phrase, then transfer that job to a student. I love to do “Story Hour” and then talk about the picture book or link it to instruction.

The more we learn about the relationships between written and oral language, reading fluency has the potential to provide substantial benefit in skill areas related to comprehension, pragmatics, vocabulary, and overall academic success researched based, easy-to-implement strategies help build both oral reading and reading vocabulary tasks by supporting the development of smooth and accurate oral reading. Reading fluency can easily be targeted concurrently with other goals related to oral and written communication and can be linked to the core classroom curriculum without a great deal of extra effort. 

6) Repeated Oral Reading

As discussed in the accompanying article, repeated oral reading is a well-documented method of increasing reading fluency. Using text that is part of the child’s classroom curriculum for repeated oral reading is a relatively effortless way to connect clinical intervention to the classroom setting. Multiple readings of a passage prior to its introduction in the classroom can facilitate better overall comprehension of the topic; this understanding may facilitate more active participation in the classroom. Making prior arrangements with the classroom teacher to introduce a specific passage that your student will be responsible for reading aloud in class is an ideal way to enhance skill development and bolster confidence.

Another way to implement repeated oral reading is through the use of progressive stories. By their very nature, progressive stories have repeated readings of the same material built into the text. The story begins with a sentence or two (“This is the house that Jack built”) with new information added on each new page (“This is the door on the house that Jack built”). The story becomes more and more complex as it unfolds, but the child reads only a little bit more “new” material on each new page. Typically, progressive stories also provide many natural opportunities to practice phrasing and expression—which also contribute to reading fluency—as the story builds and the child becomes more and more familiar with the text structure.

7) Model Fluent Reading

The accompanying article suggests that children need many opportunities to hear fluent reading to facilitate their own reading fluency. Echo reading is an effective method of modeling and facilitating reading fluency, even for very young children. When using this strategy, the adult reads a short passage and then invites the child to “say what I say” or “copy me”. In this way, the adult models fluent reading and then provides the child with an opportunity for immediate practice. Because echo reading does not require children to actually decode the words, they are free to concentrate on how fluent reading feels and sounds. The earlier children have the opportunity to practice reading fluency, the more apt they are to be fluent once they begin to decode words independently. Older children can also benefit by participating in echo reading; choose books that are appropriate for their age/developmental level and interests.

8) Sentence Stress

Use of inappropriate prosody by stressing the wrong word in a sentence can substantially change the meaning of a reading passage. For example, the placement of vocal stress in the sentence “They are riding horses” determines whether “riding” is a verb or an adjective. Practicing sentence stress in conjunction with intervention for articulation, language, fluency, or voice may be accomplished through a variety of exercises, such as the one outlined below. The student reads (or models after you read) a sentence such as “I am walking to the store.”
The student then re-reads the sentence in response to the following questions:

“Where are you walking?”
(“I am walking to the store.”)
“Who is walking to the store?”
(“I am walking to the store.”)
“How are you getting to the store?”
(“I am walking to the store.”)

*Note that this strategy has a built-in component of repeated oral readings. The student has a chance to read the sentence numerous times. As the sentence becomes more familiar, the student is able to devote more attention to the meanings expressed rather than merely to decoding the words.

9) Poetry, Songs, and Chants

Poetry can help readers develop a broad range of fluency skills and provide concentrated practice with rhythm, cadence, expression, and prosody. You can use poetry written by others or help children write their own poetic masterpieces. Similarly, songs and chants—particularly those that call for physical participation—are an excellent way to develop the rhythm and cadence of fluent reading. Poetry, songs, and chants can also be read in groups (choral reading) or pairs (duet reading). Acting out books and stories can provide additional opportunities to translate written language to fluent oral delivery.

I have had some great reading growth with these ideas. I'd love to hear how they work with your students. With strong oral language skills comes building vocabulary skills that make reading easier. 


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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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