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Key Instructional Ideas to support oral language development

Hi everyone

Last week I shared the herald article NZ pupils struggling to speak, which claimed that fewer children starting school can speak in sentences.  I know that many junior class level teachers have been concerned about this for a while. Therefore I have decided to spend the next couple of updates looking at how teachers can support the development of oral language. I will share particularly in relation to English language learners (ELLs) but I do believe that these approaches and strategies work well for all students.

Oral Language an Introduction

Oral language is a key to learning as it is also important for the development of reading and writing. There is truth in that oft quoted ‘reading and writing floats on a sea of talk” (John Britton) statement. Language, cognition, and reading are intimately related. Research shows that as you acquire new language you also develop new concepts.  Therefore language proficiency is a precursor for effective reading comprehension.

I don’t have all the answers but I will share a few ideas which I have mainly gathered from two sources:

  1. Enchevarria, Vogt & Short. 2013. Making content comprehensible for English learners – The SIOP model, (4th edition).New Jersey, Pearson.
  2. Gibbons, P. 2002. Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching second language learners in the mainstream classroom. Portsmouth, Heinemann.

If you want to explore this topic further I would also recommend the following text particularly as it is based upon New Zealand research.  Unfortunately I haven’t read it.

   3. Van Hees, J. 2007. Expanding oral language in the classroom. Wellington, NZCER Press.

It gives a rationale for particular oral language pedagogical priorities and offers teachers a range of practical, explicit ways to implement these.

Today I will begin by examining some of the key instructional ideas and next week I will suggest some useful teaching strategies.  

Key Instructional Ideas  to support oral language development

I believe that as teachers we need to provide many opportunities for students to use and practice speaking and listening at the same time as they are learning concepts in different learning areas.  This enables students to gain academic language and vocabulary at the same time as they develop their own language skills. I also think that it is important for teachers to model language and to scaffold learning. The 4 main ideas below should be used in conjunction with the 7 ESOL principles.  They are 4 of the 16 components that make up the SIOP protocol model of teaching.

1.       Build opportunities for interaction and discussion between teacher/student and among students groups, which encourage elaborated responses about lesson concepts.

  • It is important to balance linguistic turn taking between the teacher and students, and among students. Allow for a range of collaborative discussions; one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led, with diverse partners.
  • Encourage students to elaborate their responses rather than accepting yes/no and one word answers, even from the youngest learners. Use techniques such as asking students to expand their answers by saying, “Tell me more about that”; and by asking direct questions to prompt more language use such as, “What do you mean by …” or “What else….” Another technique is to provide further information through questions such as “How do you know?” “Why is that important?” “What does that remind you of?”
  • Let the students have time to express their thoughts, provide extra wait time.
  • Use techniques such as offering restatements to scaffold replies: “in other words… is that accurate?” and frequently pausing to let students process the language and formulate their responses. If an English learner is obviously unsure about what to say, teachers call on other students to extend the response e.g. “Vesna said ….. can you add to that?”
  • It is in talking about texts, which provides opportunities for using language to learn language and concepts.
    • The teacher begins by introducing the class to a theme or idea related to the text,
    • Then relate the theme to the students’ background experiences.
    • Next the teacher shows the text to be read and asks prediction questions.
    • As the text is read, the teacher “chunks” the text into sections to provide maximum opportunity for discussion, constantly relating the theme and background experience to text-based discussion.
    • Students are then asked to support their comments with evidence from the text.
  • Plan instruction so that students have opportunities to work with one another on academic tasks, using English to communicate. Through meaningful communications students can practice speaking and making themselves understood. E.g. use literature circles, think-pair-share, jigsaw reading/listening, debates, and hands-on practical tasks such as science experiments, cooking etc.

 2.       Grouping configurations support language and content objectives of the lesson.

To maximise achievement, a balance of teacher presentation and productive group work by students is necessary for engaging learners.

  • Varying grouping configurations- by moving from whole class to small group, whole class to partners, and to small group to individual assignments- provides students with opportunities to learn new information, discuss it, and process it. Try to use small group instruction rather than whole class instruction and mixed- ability groupings. However there are times when grouping by language ability are useful for a particular lesson.

 3.       Sufficient wait time for student responses consistently provided.

Wait time is the length of time a teacher pauses between asking a question and soliciting a response. Typically teachers wait 1 second for a student to begin to respond before they either rephrase, repeats, or ask a different question.

Wait time varies by culture: it is appropriate in some cultures to let seconds, even minutes lag between utterances, while in other cultures utterances can overlap one another. Imagine the impact of wait time on English language learners who are processing ideas in a new language and need additional time to formulate the phrasings of their thoughts. Teachers should allow students to express their thoughts fully without interruption. Don’t feel the need to fill the silence. Teachers do need to strike a balance between providing sufficient wait time and moving a lesson along.

 4.       Provide ample opportunity for students to clarify key concepts in their first language (L1) as needed with an Aide, peer or L1 text. 

Best practice indicates that English language learners benefit from opportunities to clarify concepts in their first language. Academic skills taught in a child’s first language transfer to the second language.  Students should have access to web sites offering translation capabilities, bilingual dictionaries in book or computer programme formats.

Next week we will examine some useful oral language strategies. In the meantime please grab the opportunity to share your favourites as well as digital approaches you have used with success.

To get you started here is digital story on the use of photostory. It is located on the TKI elearning leadership website.  The video is of Irongate School teacher, Marion Croad, who describes the improvements in her New Entrant students' written and oral language as a result of using Photostory. The majority of the students are Māori and Pacific Islanders with English as a second language. Using a tuakana-teina approach, students worked alongside a Year 5/6 buddy who supported them with their learning. She found the students' oral language improved – both enunciation and sentence structure. Using the storyboard to plan their story sequence led to a development in the number of sentences written. Thanks Breda for alerting me to this resource.

Due to the length of this post I will do a round-up from ours and the other communities tomorrow.

I look forward to reading your oral language suggestions.


Kind regards




  • David Zehms

    Hi Janet,

    Thanks so much for sharing this.  I just used that Britton quote "reading and writing floats on a sea of talk" yesterday in a presentation.  I am going to give a number of these ideas a go and see how much they will improve our discussions/their learning/etc.

    I am also going to share this with some of the classroom teachers at our school.  I think they each might find something that they can give a go to help their ESOL students have a better experience.



  • Janet McQueen

    Hi David

    Thanks for your response David I am pleased that you found this post  helpful.  I would be interested in hearing how you find these ideas work. I have posted my follow-up blog today which looks at oral language startegies. If you are trying a new startegy remember that it doesn't always go the best the first time you use it. Like anything the startegy itself also needs to be scaffolded. Just take one or two at a time and once they are learnt add another one etc. But I am sure you are well aware of this. 

    One of the things I like best about using collaborative approaches is how much more motivating it is for most students. 

    I look forward to you sharing more of your journey.