The Importance of Oral Language
Oral language is a crucial part of everyday interactions in a child’s life. Oral language encompasses a variety of skills across five main areas: phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and vocabulary.
To learn more about oral language skills, click here to access the LD@school article Oral Language Skills and Learning Disabilities: A Review for Educators.
The importance of oral language skills to early literacy is briefly described in the Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read report, where it was highlighted that,
“A comprehensive approach to early literacy recognizes that instruction that focuses on word-reading skills, oral language development, vocabulary and knowledge development, and writing are all important components of literacy.” (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2022, p. 5)
So how do oral language skills relate to literacy, what does this mean for the classroom and how can you support oral language skills in the classroom?
The Science of Reading
Firstly, it is important to understand influential theories of reading comprehension and instruction often collectively referred to as ‘The Science of Reading’. We now know that reading instruction requires a comprehensive approach focusing both on code- and meaning-based skills and knowledge. Systematic phonics instruction involving the explicit teaching of sound-symbol connections is needed in the early years of learning to decode (segmenting and blending sounds together) to read individual words (National Reading Panel, 2000; Rose, 2006; Rowe, 2005). But phonics alone is not enough. Students also need access to a print-rich environment, where learning goes beyond the word-level, and focuses on word and sentence meaning through rich discussions. This complementary approach to reading instruction is further highlighted in influential theories of reading instruction such as the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope.
The Simple View of Reading
The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990) proposes that reading comprehension is a result of the product of decoding and language comprehension. Decoding refers to word recognition abilities, where skilled decoders are those who can read isolated words quickly and accurately. Language comprehension refers to how the meaning of strings of words are understood (e.g., sentences and conversations). Decoded messages are processed for comprehension the same way whether information is read or heard (Catts, 2009; Scarborough, 2001).
In this way, both skills are necessary in order to understand what you have read. One way to think of this is to consider reading in a foreign language (e.g., “Dov’è il bagno?”). Although you can decode and sound out the words (here in Italian: Doh-veh eel bahn-yoh?), you may not have the language comprehension needed in order to understand what you have read (“Where is the bathroom?”).
Even if a child has strong word decoding abilities, if they do not understand the meaning of the text they have read, reading comprehension will not happen. In the early stages of learning to read, reading comprehension is highly affected by decoding abilities, while later on language comprehension plays a more significant role (Gough et al., 1996; LAARC, 2015).
Scarborough’s Reading Rope
Scarborough’s Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001) extends the Simple View of Reading, breaking decoding or word recognition and language comprehension into multiple components. The idea of the reading rope is that each strand represents a separate skill that together allow for proficient reading. When any one strand is not acquired fluently, the rope is weakened resulting in weaker reading comprehension.
Children with reading comprehension challenges may have weak decoding skills (e.g., dyslexia), weak oral language skills (e.g., developmental language disorder [DLD]), or may have challenges in both language comprehension and decoding.
Some children will have weak oral language skills even though they don’t meet the criteria for DLD. When it comes to reading, these children may be considered “poor comprehenders”, that is, they struggle with understanding what they have read.
Signs a child may be a “poor comprehender”:
- Difficulty following new directions
- Challenges with understanding grammatically complex sentences
- Challenges understanding jokes, analogies, inferences
- Difficulty answering questions after reading a passage and when a passage is read to them
Adapted from Catts et al., 2006
These difficulties relate to the five strands of language comprehension in Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001):
- Background knowledge: facts, concepts, and beliefs that an individual has, which aid in interpreting and understanding text
- Vocabulary Knowledge: breadth and depth of knowledge of the meaning of words (i.e., knowing words in spoken form)
- Language Structures: how sentences are constructed (i.e., syntax), and how words and phrases are related (i.e., semantics)
- Verbal Reasoning: ability to make inferences, and understand metaphors, similes, and idioms
- Literacy Knowledge: print concepts (e.g., what direction you read the text), and how text is organized for specific purposes (e.g., for different genres)
How can these language comprehension skills be supported in the classroom? The following section provides strategies for how to support each strand of language comprehension in the classroom.
Supporting Oral Language in the Classroom
Relevant strategies are mentioned briefly in the following section. See the Educator Toolkit for more detailed descriptions including the type of activity (teacher or child-directed), when that activity can be used (before, during, or after reading), and examples for younger and older students. Specific activities and templates are provided.
* Note that many of the activities described support multiple strains in the language comprehension branch of Scarborough’s Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001)
Supporting Background Knowledge & Vocabulary
Background knowledge has been found to be one of the best predictors of reading comprehension abilities (Hirsch, 2006; Smith et al., 2021; Willingham, 2006). Having previous information about a topic you are reading, is important, as without it you will not understand what you read. For example, think of the passage below:
“England’s openers laboured 34 balls before scoring their first boundary as Strauss cracked two fours through the leg side. Cook made a patient start before motoring past his skipper”
While you are able to read and understand the individual words, without the background knowledge and necessary vocabulary you may not understand that this passage is about cricket. Similarly, vocabulary has been found to be predictive of later reading success (Morgan et al., 2015; Sparks et al., 2014). Children with lower vocabularies over time may face a higher risk of reading failure (Hindman et al., 2016; Hoff, 2003; Huttenlocher et al., 1991). As lower background and vocabulary knowledge can affect future reading success it is critical to provide support early.
When supporting background knowledge and vocabulary some useful techniques include:
- Pre-teach words & concepts students need before reading or listening to a text (Stahl, 2004)
- Explicitly teaching words with related meanings facilitates a deeper understanding and connection
- Create student-friendly definitions, there are multiple resources you can use with your students to capture the meaning of words. This could include using pictures and other multimedia sources, like online dictionaries including:
- Connect spoken and written forms of words, providing definitions orally and written to support reading comprehension (Berninger, 2000; Schmitt & Tambyraia, 2015)
- Repeat, contrast and compare
- Students struggling to learn language need 36 repetitions of a word to learn it (Storkel et al., 2017)
- Even if most students in the class seem to understand a word, we need to keep repeating the word for those students who need more repetitions to learn it
Semantic organizers (see examples in Educator Toolkit for examples and templates) can be used before, during or after reading to support a deeper understanding of definitions, related meanings, and relationships with other concepts as well as:
- Build on and activate background knowledge, while expanding vocabulary
- Encourage discussion and brainstorming of attributes of words
- Visually connect words, grouping related concepts together
- Improve vocabulary and categorization skills
- Build understanding of relationships between new words and existing concepts
- Provide an overview of key vocabulary and concepts related to learning or reading
Supporting Language Structures
“The ability to use and understand academic language is a prerequisite for school success”
(Scheele et al., 2012)
Academic talk poses a challenge for many children as it is very different from everyday conversation. Academic talk can be challenging for the following reasons:
- The conversation is controlled by the teacher; academic vocabulary; morphologically complex words and syntax such as passive sentences; inferential language (Van Kleeck, 2014)
- The words and sentence structures are more closely related to written language than everyday conversations (Van Kleeck & Schwarz, 2011)
- The rules of academic talk are not explicitly taught but are essential to school success (Mercer, 1995; Stubbs, 1976; Westby, 2007)
Providing students with explicit models of academic talk, and modelling conversation structure (e.g., through talk moves, see Educator Toolkit) is one way to support children with this more complex language structure. Conversations about academic talk can begin as early as preschool. Talk moves can also change the classroom dynamic from a question and answer format, where students raise their hands to engage in the discussion, to an academic conversation where students are engaged and cooperatively learning. Cooperative learning, where students work together to learn strategies, has been found to be effective at improving comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000).
Supporting Verbal Reasoning
An important part of reading comprehension is building a mental representation of what the text is about or the situation model. In order to understand a text more deeply students must be able to infer information that may not be explicitly stated. This ability to make inferences requires students to use background knowledge to fill in the gaps. Inference abilities have been found to be predictive of reading comprehension abilities (Cain et al., 2004; Kendeou et al., 2008).
Inference instruction has been shown to be effective when it includes:
- Identifying clues, keywords, or phrases to answer post-reading inferential questions
- Building/activating prior knowledge related to topics in the text
- Teaching and practicing how to integrate background knowledge with information in the text
- Practicing answering and generating questions to identify gaps in the text (e.g., “who”, “where”, “why”) and confirm inferences
Comprehension monitoring is where students learn how to be more aware or conscious of their understanding during reading and learn fix-up strategies to deal with problems when they arise. This includes introducing students to strategies to help them determine:
- Whether they understand what they have read or heard
- How to check if their situation model matches what they are reading/hearing
- How to repair/recheck and make adjustments when they don’t understand the text/discussion
Supporting Literacy Knowledge
If a child has a poor understanding of text structure, understanding oral or written narratives may be difficult. Story structure training where students learn to ask and answer who, what, where, when and why questions about plot, mapping out timelines, characters, and event information has been found to support reading comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000). Reading comprehension can also be supported by explicit instruction in the structure of expository (or informational) text including cause/effect, problem/solution, compare/contrast, and sequence (Bogaerds-Hazenberg et al., 2021; Hebert et al., 2016; Meyer & Ray, 2011; Pyle et al., 2017). Click here to view and download the Educator Toolkit, which includes graphic organizer templates that can help students visually summarize the information included in expository texts.
Use the Choosing Reading Strategies to Support Oral Language Development chart to choose the appropriate activity to support the development of oral language skills during reading exercises.
Oral language is an important skill, foundational to reading which is crucial for reading comprehension. Scarborough’s Reading Rope breaks this language comprehension into: background and vocabulary knowledge, language structure, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. There are a number of strategies that can be used to support each language comprehension strand of Scarborough’s Reading Rope (see Educator Toolkit). The majority of these strategies can be used with students starting in early elementary school to help build oral language skills. By using these strategies educators can support their students to excel and become fluent communicators and readers, helping them succeed academically.
About the Authors
Lisa Archibald is a Professor and Director of the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Western University. Lisa studies the links between memory and language processes in individuals with communication disorders. In particular, she is interested in working memory and language learning deficits in children. Recently, she has focused on SLP-educator school-based collaborations and has been part of an international team of researchers and stakeholders considering terminology and profile for children with an unexplained, persistent language disorder now known as developmental language disorder (DLD).
Lisa is a member of the international organizing committee for Raising Awareness of Developmental Language Disorder (RADLD.org) and a founding member of DLDandMe.org. Prior to her research career, Lisa worked as a clinical Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) for over 15 years providing services to children and adults, in schools, hospitals, and other facilities.
You can follow Lisa on Twitter at @larchiba6.
Caitlin Coughler is a research associate and instructor in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and a recent graduate of the combined MClSc/Ph.D. program in Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Western Ontario. Her research has focused on understanding the interaction between speech, language, and auditory processing in children with communication disorders and typically developing adults. Recently, her research has focused on using practice-based research to examine and evaluate a narrative retell assessment tool used in schools. She previously completed a research MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Donders Graduate School at Radboud University Nijmegen and a BA in Linguistic Cognitive Sciences at McMaster University.
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