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Say What?

February 22, 2017

The Case for Oral Language Development

I had a friend outside of the education profession recently ask me how much time in schools is dedicated to students learning to say new words and what those words mean. I replied, “All day every day, every subject area.” This is not a completely true statement, but perhaps it should be. Being able to communicate through speaking and listening is the earliest link to literacy development that we have as humans. I find in classrooms that oral language is something that can be developed haphazardly or very intentionally. Oral language instruction should be on the intentional end of the spectrum in every classroom!

Why should you be intentional about fostering oral language in your students?

Many times oral language is something that is reinforced and expected only during the early years of education. Why? This is because our youngest learners cannot read yet (at least not very well) so they have to learn primarily through speaking and listening. Plus the little ones have the most to learn when it comes to acquiring a good command of any language. Nevertheless, the reality is that ALL students in every grade level Pre-K through college need to be engaged in using new words daily and in all subject areas. Tenspire’s recent math post called for adding literacy to the math block- and oral language instruction is a wonderful method for doing just that. My first graders may not have known how to read or spell commutative property- but they sure knew what it was and how to say it!

Getting Students to Own New Words

A good rule of thumb is that oral language vocabulary words are typically ones that students cannot decode on their own yet. Even when students can read the word, they will not “own” the new vocabulary until they can transfer it themselves into conversations and eventually into their writing. Comprehension of a new word begins when students understand what is being said to them, known as receptive language. The tough hurdle you have to cross is getting the students to correctly use the words you introduce, which is known as expressive language. The two most important factors in students actually being able to fully absorb new words that you introduce are: repetition and use in meaningful contexts.

Aim high when introducing new words to students.

Give them the actual terms for more advanced learning and scaffold up as needed to support their learning. They can handle it! Sometimes it is the teachers who limit students’ knowledge building by adopting the mindset that their students cannot “handle” complex words yet. Remember that even as adults we are lifelong learners of our first language. Take opportunities to model this to your students by looking up words in front of them, getting excited about new vocabulary, etc. I find that basal textbooks are getting better at giving teachers ideas for oral language vocabulary words to use with their students, but this is typically just a jumping off point. Take it to the next level with your students’ lexicon because the sky’s the limit. I mean the atmosphere is the limit.

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