The Importance of Oral Language for ELL Students in Reading and Writing

As a special education teacher, I often see firsthand the critical role that oral language plays in the development of reading and writing skills, particularly for English Language Learner (ELL) students. Oral language, which encompasses listening and speaking skills, is foundational for literacy development. For ELL students, who are navigating the challenges of acquiring a new language, a strong base in oral language is essential for their success in reading and writing.

Understanding Oral Language

Oral language involves the ability to comprehend and produce spoken language. It includes phonology (the sounds of language), vocabulary (words and their meanings), syntax (sentence structure), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (social language use). In essence, oral language is the bedrock upon which literacy is built. Without a firm grasp of oral language, students can struggle with decoding words, understanding texts, and expressing themselves in writing.
Scarborough's Rope
Scarborough's Rope

Oral Language and Scarborough’s Rope

Oral language is integral to Scarborough's Reading Rope, which intertwines language comprehension and word recognition strands for skilled reading. For non-English speakers, strong oral language skills support vocabulary development, syntax understanding, and listening comprehension, all critical for language comprehension. These skills enable ELL students to decode and make sense of written text in English. By enhancing phonological awareness and verbal interaction, educators can strengthen the oral language strand, thereby supporting ELL students in weaving together the elements necessary for proficient reading in English. This holistic approach is essential for their reading success.

The Link Between Oral Language and Literacy

Research consistently shows that oral language proficiency is a strong predictor of later reading comprehension and writing ability. For ELL students, developing oral language skills in English is particularly important. Here's why:
  • Phonological Awareness: ELL students need to become familiar with the sounds of English. Phonological awareness, which includes recognizing and manipulating sounds, is crucial for decoding words during reading. If a student cannot hear and produce the sounds in a word, reading that word becomes significantly more challenging.
  • Vocabulary Development: A robust vocabulary is essential for understanding and producing both spoken and written language. Oral language activities, such as storytelling and discussions, expose ELL students to new words and phrases in context, helping them to build their vocabulary. This, in turn, aids in reading comprehension and the ability to express ideas in writing.
  • Syntax and Grammar: Understanding the structure of English sentences is crucial for both reading and writing. Through oral language practice, ELL students learn how words and phrases are organized in English. This knowledge helps them decode complex sentences while reading and construct grammatically correct sentences when writing.
  • Listening Comprehension: Listening to spoken English helps ELL students develop an ear for the language, including intonation, rhythm, and stress patterns. Listening comprehension is directly related to reading comprehension; students who can understand spoken language are better equipped to understand written texts.
  • Cultural and Pragmatic Understanding: Oral language also involves understanding the social use of language, which includes cultural nuances and pragmatic rules. This understanding helps ELL students navigate different contexts, which is important for both reading (e.g., understanding characters’ intentions in a story) and writing (e.g., knowing how to address different audiences)

Strategies to Support Oral Language Development

Given its importance, it’s essential to incorporate strategies that promote oral language development in ELL students. Here are some effective approaches:
  • Interactive Read-Alouds: Reading books aloud to students and engaging them in discussions about the story helps build vocabulary and comprehension skills. Ask open-ended questions that encourage students to think and talk about the text.
  • Language-Rich Environments: Create a classroom environment that is rich in oral language opportunities. Label objects in the classroom, use word walls, and provide ample opportunities for students to engage in conversations, both with peers and adults.
  • Explicit Vocabulary Instruction: Teach new words explicitly, using visuals, gestures, and examples to reinforce understanding. Encourage students to use new vocabulary in their speech and writing.
  • Oral Language Activities: Incorporate activities such as storytelling, role-playing, and group discussions. These activities not only make learning fun but also provide meaningful contexts for using language.
  • Peer Interactions: Pair ELL students with peers who are proficient in English. Peer interactions can provide models of fluent speech and offer opportunities for ELL students to practice speaking in a less formal, more supportive environment.
  • Scaffolded Support: Provide scaffolded support by modeling correct language use, offering sentence starters, and gradually increasing the complexity of language tasks as students become more proficient.

Current Research

Current research underscores the importance of oral language and vocabulary development in second language learners, aligning closely with the principles outlined in Scarborough's Reading Rope. This framework, introduced by Hollis Scarborough, integrates multiple strands of literacy skills essential for proficient reading, categorized into two main areas: word recognition and language comprehension​ (Really Great Reading)​​ (Landmark Outreach)​.

For second language learners, the upper strands of the Reading Rope, which include background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge, are particularly crucial. These elements contribute significantly to language comprehension, one of the two main components necessary for skilled reading​ (Prentice Blog)​​ (Amplify)​.

Research emphasizes that robust vocabulary and oral language skills enable learners to decode and understand new words more effectively, which is particularly beneficial for second language learners. As these learners often need to build both their vocabulary and understanding of language structures, a focus on these areas helps improve overall reading comprehension and fluency​ (Landmark Outreach)​​ (Amplify)​.

Moreover, evidence from the field of the Science of Reading supports the integration of vocabulary and oral language instruction into literacy education. This approach helps second language learners develop the necessary skills to decode text and comprehend its meaning simultaneously, which is essential for reading proficiency​ (Amplify)​.

The current research aligns with Scarborough's Reading Rope in highlighting the integral role of oral language and vocabulary development in the reading proficiency of second language learners. Educators are encouraged to incorporate these components into their teaching strategies to support the holistic development of reading skills in these students.

Oral language is a critical component of literacy development, especially for ELL students. It serves as the foundation upon which reading and writing skills are built. By focusing on oral language development, educators can help ELL students achieve greater success in their literacy journey. As a special education teacher, I am committed to implementing strategies that support the oral language needs of ELL students, recognizing that these skills are key to unlocking their full academic potential. Through intentional and thoughtful instruction, we can empower our ELL students to become confident, competent readers and writers.


Jooda, B. (2023, June 29). The Reading Rope: Breaking it all down . Amplify.

Navigating Literacy Excellence: Unveiling the Significance of Scarborough’s Reading Rope. (n.d.). Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

Really Great Reading. (2015). Scarborough’s Reading Rope | Really Great Reading.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope. (2022, October 14). Landmark Outreach.

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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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