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By Mary Ann Schouten and Taylor Bardell

A child’s oral language ability provides the foundation for learning at school. This is most apparent in the early years when children entering kindergarten demonstrate a wide range of typical and later developing oral language skills. However, difficulties with oral language are more hidden in later years when students are speaking in full sentences, have experienced the routines of school and have some familiarity with “teacher talk”- the vocabulary and directions that are part of the “language of instruction”. In fact, for some children, it is difficulties in reading and writing that are the first classroom indicators a child may have an underlying oral language difficulty. Because oral language is critical to both social and academic success (Foorman et al., 2015; Ladd et al., 2012; Rubin et al., 2012) school board speech-language pathologists are invited by educators to assess, consult and sometimes provide intervention for students with oral language difficulties. One group of children with increased risk of poorer social and academic outcomes are those with a persistent problem learning and using language impacting everyday activities known as Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) (Catts et al., 2002; Conti-Ramsden et al., 2013; Cross et al., 2019; Mok et al., 2014). DLD is 5 times more common than autism spectrum disorder and 50 times more common than hearing impairment, with approximately 2 children in every classroom of 30 meeting the criteria for diagnosis (Norbury et al., 2016). A student with DLD is also 6 times more likely to have a learning disability. It is therefore critical that educators have evidence-based strategies for supporting children who struggle with oral language skills.

Click here to read a more detailed description of oral language skills and DLD in the article “Oral Language Skills and Learning Disabilities: A Review for Educators”. 

Evidence-Based Strategies

There is a growing body of research investigating “dose” in language intervention and the findings thus far can be extended to the classroom setting. This research looks at the frequency, intensity and length of intervention required to make a significant difference in children’s language skills. It turns out that different language targets respond differently to the variables of frequency, intensity and length of intervention (Zeng et al., 2012). At this time, we are confident that asking educators to target overarching language skills such as vocabulary and narrative (story) structure through evidence-based approaches can have an important impact (Gillam et al., 2014; Throneburg et al., 2000). The evidence suggests, however, that significant changes in specific grammatical skills such as pronouns, verb tenses and word order require more targeted practice than can be provided incidentally by educators in the classroom (Smith-Lock et al., 2013).  When a child has ongoing difficulty using a variety of words and grammatical structures, hallmark features of DLD (Vissher-Bochane et al., 2016), language intervention that complements classroom instruction is a practical and effective solution.

Teachers and Speech-Language Pathologists can work together to provide robust language programming for all children including those with language disorders. Language intervention can augment classroom instruction by providing more explicit instruction and rehearsal with various forms and/or functions of language than is possible to achieve in a classroom setting. In addition, consistent strategy use between the teacher and the speech-language pathologist furthers the development of targeted language skills.

Literacy-based language intervention (also referred to as ‘literature-based language intervention’ or LBLI) is a form of language intervention that complements and informs classroom language instruction. The goal of LBLI is “not to teach these students to read. Rather, [the] goal is to improve the many aspects of language (vocabulary knowledge, grammatical acceptability, grammatical complexity, pragmatic awareness, phonological awareness, conversation, and narration) that influence the ability to participate in, and profit from, instruction in general education classrooms in both oral and print modalities” (Gillam & Ukrainetz, 2007). This is accomplished through the use of a series of children’s books, each with activities that are related to both the content and format of the stories.

In this contextualized approach to language intervention, activities and goals are embedded in appropriate and familiar contexts established through a storybook read aloud. Language skills are broken into parts that require additional practice and then the parts are brought together once again to create a whole. For example, following the story being read out loud, specific syntactic and semantic structures such as “because” and complex sentence construction are developed as discrete skills. The cohesive tie (e.g. “because”) is explicitly connected to the story elements and, in this way, contributes to the child’s verbal reasoning skills. The targeted language form is then systematically generalized into a story retelling task using strategic cueing and scaffolded language support. Vocabulary is also addressed in this whole-part-whole approach. Targeted vocabulary items are given child-friendly explanations during story reading. These are then rehearsed in familiar and novel contexts during a vocabulary task designed to deepen the child’s lexical processing. The words are also manipulated in phonological awareness tasks to help the child establish a phonological representation of the word. Finally, these words are cued through pictures or print on the student’s graphic organizer used for story retelling. The child develops oral language skills within a meaningful context without sacrificing the opportunity to rehearse discrete skills or practice generalizing the skills in a meaningful task.

Benefits of LBLI

There are numerous benefits to employing an LBLI framework when targeting oral language skills. Not only can activities based on narratives support the development of specific language skills such as syntactic rules and vocabulary knowledge, but they also provide repeated exposures to the concepts of books, print, and reading (Teale, 1984). Furthermore, the activities can be used to teach literate styles of language use, such as relating personal experiences and describing or explaining stories (Gerbers, 1990; Hoggan & Strong, 1994). LBLI interventions also familiarize children with literary conventions, which has been shown to help children better understand and remember new stories. (Teale, 1984). By integrating the activities into children’s stories, language intervention occurs in authentic literary environments rather than through discrete skill instruction and disjointed games (Gillam & Ukrainetz, 2007). Stories can also be chosen to align with the curriculum beyond language and literacy. For example, a story about the lifecycle of a frog could be chosen to coincide with a science unit on the same topic. Activities that accompany the story could address goals in both areas, benefitting the child’s literacy, language and scientific skills.

LITES: An LBLI Program currently used in practice

To provide examples of the kinds of activities and stories that can be used to target oral language skills, we will reference an LBLI program currently in use in the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) called Language Intervention Through Engaging Stories (LITES). Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) from the UGDSB developed LITES in order to provide support for children in kindergarten through grade two who have difficulty with oral language skills. Following the model provided by Gillam et al. (ASHA, 2007), the SLP team chose language skills to focus on, researched evidence-based activities to target these skills, and selected stories based on their narrative structure. In the UGDSB, LITES is administered to small groups of children outside of the classroom by Communicative Disorders Assistants, supervised by Speech-Language Pathologists. However, many of the activities used in LITES could be adapted to target oral language skills by educators within whole group or small group classroom instruction. All of the goals for LITES are tied to curriculum expectations in kindergarten through Grade 2.

Overview of LITES

 The LITES program is divided into four stages: 1) Language foundations, 2) Narrative Foundations, 3) Advanced Narratives, and 4) Language for Higher Order Thinking. In each

stage, a variety of activities are used that target the following skills at increasing levels of difficulty: vocabulary, oral narration, language structure (grammar and syntax), verbal reasoning, comprehension, phonological awareness.

In Stage 1: Language Foundations, the goal is for children to develop early communication skills. Picture books used in this stage have tier 1 vocabulary (everyday words that would be familiar to most students) and simple temporal sequences, such as ‘The Very Busy Spider’ by Eric Carle and ‘Dear Zoo’ by Rod Campbell.

In Stage 2: Narrative Foundations, basic story structure is introduced, as well as the beginnings of complex language. Books with a simple plot, some complex sentences, and tier 2 vocabulary (high-frequency words found across many subjects, likely to be learned in an academic setting) are used, including books from the ‘Farmyard Tales’ series by Heather Amery.

In Stage 3: Advanced Narratives, the goal is for children to develop a more thorough understanding of story structure and more complex communication skills. Books such as ‘Russell the Sheep’ by Rob Scotton and ‘The Gruffalo’ by Julia Donaldson are used because they include more advanced plots in addition to complex sentences and tier 2 vocabulary.

Finally, in Stage 4: Language for Higher Order Thinking, simple chapter books with complex plots and vocabulary are introduced. Books from the ‘Magic Tree House’ series are used because they all have repeat characters, similar plot lines, and use tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary (more low-frequency words that are domain-specific). 

High leverage Strategies Used in LITES

A number of high leverage strategies are used in all stages of the LITES program to target oral language skills that can be adapted for classroom instruction. These include:

Repeated Interactive Read Alouds

An interactive read-aloud involves reading in a way that actively engages children and does not limit the educator to only reading the words on the page. Reading “with” rather than “to” children results in improvements in comprehension (Van den Broek, 2001), vocabulary, (Hargrave & Sénéchal, 2000), and concept development (Wasik & Bond, 2001). Throughout the reading, educators may prompt children to make connections with the story by making open-ended statements like “I wonder what will happen next” or “This part reminds me of a time when I was…”. These open-ended statements also allow for more detailed responses rather than simple yes/no questions.

Sometimes children may find it difficult to make connections and participate in meaningful discussions when hearing a story for the first time. Reading books multiple times allows them to become familiar with the narrative and begin to make deeper connections with it. Re-reading a book also creates opportunities for the educator to intentionally introduce new learning within a familiar context.  For example, the first reading provides an opportunity to make predictions and personal connections with characters, while in the second reading, the educator may decide to focus on new and interesting vocabulary introduced in the text. A third reading may include a focus on story elements with some review of the content discussed during previous read-aloud discussions. McGee and Schickedanz (2007) provide early years educators additional information on the repeated read aloud technique for building comprehension and vocabulary in preschool and kindergarten.

Example: pre-story discussion:

Vocabulary Instruction Using ‘The Super 6’

Vocabulary instruction should be intentional, explicit and relevant. Using books to introduce new vocabulary is an effective technique as stories provide a context for new word learning. Prior to reading aloud, the educator selects 3-4 unfamiliar words from the story that will be targeted for instruction. Each word chosen meets the following criteria:

  • The children already understand the general concept expressed by the word
  • The word is useful as the children will come across it in other contexts

During the read-aloud, the educator reads the unfamiliar word and defines it using simple words. After the read aloud, the educator returns to the page in the story where the unfamiliar word was introduced and follows the 6 steps:

  1. Say: the word in the context of the story
  2. Explain: what it means using simple words
  3. Example: is given from the children’s or adult’s experience
  4. Repeat: the word after the educator
  5. Personalize: the word by thinking of a personal connection to the word and sharing with a peer
  6. Interact: with the word through a multi-sensory, kinaesthetic  or concept development activity

The Super Six” is an instructional technique based on the work of Beck, McKeown and Kukan (2002) and the six-step process for building academic vocabulary by Marzano (2004).

Example: The Super 6

Highlighting Story Elements

Throughout the story read aloud, the educator can also highlight key story elements such as the characters, setting, problem, and solution. In doing this, educators are helping children develop a better understanding of the story and how it is organized and also understand that all stories include these kinds of elements. This can be also helpful to children as they tell and begin to write their own stories.

Example: highlighting story elements during a read-aloud

Teaching Children to Draw Pictographs

It is critical that children are able to construct appropriate narratives, or accounts of “what happened”, to both their social and academic success. One way to work on narrative skills is to practise retelling familiar stories. For children who struggle with language, this can be difficult to do without additional support. Pictography, the combination of simple drawings and minimal writing, can help children in retelling stories (Ukrainetz, 1998). After reading a story aloud, the educator asks children to create a simple line drawing of each element in the story.  These pictographs of what happened in the story serve as a reference point for oral and written story retelling. Children are able to participate in story retells independently, but do not have to rely on oral or written language skills alone. Educators can use these pictographic representations to discuss the timelines we see in narratives (i.e. introduction of characters, problem, solution, ending).

Example: Drawing Pictographs

Using Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are visual tools that can support students in organizing information. To be useful, the visuals must be meaningful. In the LITES program, students are introduced to story elements using simple images. These images are placed in the storybook at essential parts in the story where the story element is most evident. These images are also used to create a graphic organizer by placing them left to right across the length of a page.  In preparation for oral retelling, the students draw pictographs under each story element. The educator prompts use of targeted vocabulary and cohesive ties by modelling or writing the words on the graphic organizer beside the appropriate story element. Students use the completed graphic organizer to retell the story or as a planning tool for writing the story.

building oral language skills

Click here to view the Example Story Map for "The Runaway Tractor"

building oral language skills

Click here to view and download the Story Map Template

Developing Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is a necessary skill for learning to read and write. During the Kindergarten and primary school years, educators use whole class and small group instruction to build students' awareness of rhyme and the syllables and sounds in spoken words.

Read-alouds provide an opportunity for educators to address a variety of phonological awareness skills. During whole-group instruction, educators can tap into different levels of phonological awareness thereby creating multiple entry points for student engagement. During small group instruction, the educator may intentionally select books that are well-suited to developing a particular targeted skill.

Example: Phonological Awareness activity

The first iteration of the LITES program, then simply referred to as “LBLI” was in 2007. Since that time, the program has been expanded and refined based on a) the needs of students referred by educators b) feedback by the Communicative Disorder Assistants implementing the program c) research on evidence-based practices and d) the COVID-19 global pandemic which necessitated a virtual therapy version of LITES. Currently, the Upper Grand District School Board is engaged in research with Dr. Lisa Archibald of the Unversity of Western Ontario. Together, we are investigating the efficacy of LITES as a small-group intervention for children with language disorders. In the meantime, performance measures included in the lesson plans provide promising data on the impact of our program on children’s language outcomes. Parent and Teacher reports have also provided positive outcomes of intervention including but not limited to improvements in social skills, increased classroom participation and strategy use.


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About the Authors:

Mary Ann Schouten is a Speech-Language Pathologist and Supervisor of Communication, Language and Speech Services in the Upper Grand District School Board.  Mary Ann’s passion for oral language facilitation and emergent literacy instruction has led to the development of LITES: Language Intervention and Engaging Stories. She is deeply grateful to her team of school-based clinicians for bringing research to practice in the most creative ways

Taylor Bardell is a graduate student in MClSc program in Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Western Ontario. She is supervised by Dr. Lisa Archibald. Her research focuses on using practice-based research to examine and evaluate language intervention programs in schools. She graduated from Queen's University with a BSc in Psychology.