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Oral language strategies to support ELLs

Hi everyone, 

In this update I will also continue to look at supporting English language learners (ELLs) oral language by sharing some recommended teaching strategies. If you missed my last update which looked at effective instruction to develop oral language then you can read it here.

Oral Language

To help reflect on last week’s update I want to share a checklist to help ensure that the needs of second language learners are being met. It was developed by Pauline Gibbons in, Learning to learn in a second language, page 25.

In your classroom …

·         Is there a comfortable and stress-free environment?

·         Is language being used purposefully, for real learning tasks?

·         Do learning activities allow for a range of language functions?

·         Do you have language objectives in all learning areas?

·         Do these reflect the learning needs of your children?

·         Is the language you use comprehensible?

·          Does the language you use sufficiently extend and challenge children?

·         Are children being given opportunities in learning activities to use language which has been modelled?

·         Are children given opportunities to use language with different audiences- with each other, with teachers, with other adults?

·         Are children encouraged and given opportunities to work with peers in problem solving and collaborative learning situations?

·         Does the classroom organisation? (e.g. types of groupings)  give bilingual learners adequate support in all learning task?

·         Is the first language of children clearly acknowledged?

·         Are the resources to be used within the capabilities of the children?

·         Are your expectations of the learning outcomes for bilingual children sufficiently high?

·         If there is and ESOL teacher in the school, has there been consultation or joint planning of the programme?

Importance of talk

It is through talk that much learning occurs. Talk allows children to think aloud, to formulate ideas, to set up and evaluate hypotheses and to reach tentative decisions in a context that is not restricted by the more formal demands of written language.Gibbons pg. 27.

If you can set up reporting-back situations in any curriculum area or set up talk while doing activities it will encourage oral language development. Try to set up opportunities for students to practice: giving an opinion or personal response; narrating; describing people and things and describing position; giving instructions, or describing a process; giving an explanation; presenting and supporting arguments, or hypothesising.

One of the most important things that ESL learners need to be able to do is ask for clarification….when they don’t understand something, so model and practice phrases like these.

·         Excuse me; I’d like to ask something.

·         I’m sorry,

·         I don’t understand.

·         Can you repeat that?

·         I’m sorry, I didn't hear that.

·         Can you say it again, please?

·         Did you say ….?

·         Sorry for interrupting, but would you mind repeating that?

Some teaching strategies and activities to support oral language development

I am going to share some suggested activities that teachers can use in order to foster the development of both listening and speaking.  It is not an exhaustive list so please share strategies you have used and found to be successful. I would particularly like to hear about digital tools you have used.

But first In order to scaffold participation during the activities, you can use:

o   Use differentiated sentence frames for both oral and written answers.

o   Pair students with more proficient speakers to scaffold their participation.

o   Partner students who speak the same primary language for first language support as needed.

o   Differentiate wait time by becoming accustomed to allowing more wait time for beginning English speakers and those students who require more time for processing information.

A checklist for selecting communicative activities (Learning to learn in a second language, pg 41)

To decide how useful an activity may be, consider to what extent you could answeryes to the following questions.

·         Is talking necessary?

·         Is interaction necessary?

·         Are content areas of the curriculum being reinforced?

·         Is at least one child using ‘stretches’ of language?

·         Is thinking involved?

·         Is the pace right, with enough variety within a given time span?

·         Are all children in the group involved, either in speaking or in listening?

The ESOL online oral language strategies page suggests a range of strategies that teachers can use to support listening and speaking.  

Types of paired/group activities that support oral language

(From Gibbons, P. Learning to learn in a second language, pages 35-41 andScaffolding language, scaffolding learning, pages  106-112.)

1.    Problem-solving activities where groups of children must solve a problem by consensus E.g.  

Combining tasks ,

Strip stories,


Split information tasks

Reaching a consensus

Classification game – Where the group classifies a group of objects/cards and provides reasons for their classification.

  2.   Information-sharing activities where each child in the group holds part of the information required to complete the task. They take turns sharing the information. The group then decides how to interpret the information as a whole. E.g.

 Jigsaw story

Make a story – You need 4-6 pictures which retell a predictable story. Give one picture to each child, who must not show the rest of the group. Each child describes his or hers picture, and the group works out a possible order for the story.


Jig-saw listening

Combining tasks

Running Dictation

Jig-saw Pictures Four of five pictures (one for each child) which are each cut into 5 or 6 pieces, in such a way as to make clear what the adjoining piece might look like or contain. Label the back of one piece from each with a cross. Shuffle and deal the pieces to the children, ensuring that each child has one piece with a cross. This identifies which picture that child is to make. Without showing their pieces to the group, the children must reconstruct their own picture by taking turns to ask anyone in the group for the pieces they need.

Expert Stay and Stray activity - Students first work in a small group on an assignment or topic. Say, for example, students are recording the steps for solving a word problem E.g. In math on a large poster. Students in the group number off: 1, 2, 3, 4. The teacher calls a number. For example, the teacher may call #4. #4 in the group will take his or her group’s poster and share with another group. #4 stays with his/her new group and the teacher calls another number- #1, for example. #1 in #4’s new group will need to take the poster that #4 just shared with the group, to another group in the room to share. This encourages students to listen carefully in order to be ready to share. If you have newcomers in the room, you may want to pair that student with a more proficient English speaker. The newcomer could point to the steps on the poster as his partner shares with the group verbally. (Echevarria, Vogt, and Short, 2013, p.158).

 3.    Rank-ordering activities where children consider priorities for ordering information. Final ranking involves reaching a consensus. E.g.

Desert island rank ordering game where students decide on the most essential items to have if shipwrecked. 

 4.   Enquiry and elimination activities where children need to elicit information from one of their group through questioning and then eliminate irrelevant information in order to solve the problem. E.g.

Guess the animal - Each person chooses an animal and the group solve which animal it is by asking yes/no questions


Ask and Answer

 5.     Barrier Games where the barrier may be physical e.g. a book hiding their work or a piece of cardboard between them etc, or the students may sit back-to-back. Child A has a complete set of information which child B needs in order to complete the task. Or child A may give the relevant information to child B. E.g.

Describe and drawYou need 2 sheets of paper and pencils. A describes to B what he or she has drawn. B reproduces the drawing according to A’s description.  

Describe and arrange- You need two identical set of pictures. A describes to B how to arrange them on a grid.

Spot the difference - You need 2 pictures which are identical accept for a number of minor changes. The task is for the children to find the differences between their two pictures. They may ask questions or describe their own picture.

Map game- You need two identical maps. A directs B from an agreed starting point to a destination on a map which is unknown to B. Or they have two maps the same but they each have different information missing. They then need to work out what is missing from their own map by sharing information.  

Split /Shared Dictation

Collaborative crossword puzzle

6.     Information Transfer or Matrix activities- A matrix is a way of organising information. Any activity which involves transferring or interpreting information from one form (such as a matrix) to another (such as a piece of written text).

Listening dictation 

Questionnaires- to find out information from other class members.

One-way listening - listening to fill in missing information

Hands-Up (Give the students a set of questions based on a listening text. As they hear the piece of information that provides the answer, they raise their hands. AlsoListen-up.

Graphic organisers

 7.     Role-plays, YV talk shows, podcasts, etc -It is good to incorporate movement and games whenever possible e.g.

  Say It,

Hot seat – Seat children in a circle, with one chair in the middle designated the “hot seat.” The person in the hot seat portrays one character from a book. That has been shared by the group. The other students ask him or her questions to find out more about the character’s life.

 Individual listening/speaking  activities

       i.     Listening dictation or following directions or Listening to picturesby drawing or writing what you are asked to do in the specific place described.

      ii.    Information extraction Task: Listening for FactsStudents listen to any documentary programme or video that presents a number of facts and figures. Prepare a sheet in chronological order corresponding to the facts as they are presented. Students must transfer the information as they listen.  Can get them to predict answers first. Also Viewing Guides.

    iii.     Information extraction task 2: Listening for opinionsStudents listen to a recording of a debate. They make notes summarising only one point of view.

     iv.     Verb stories although these could also be developed in pairs.

       v.     Picture Dictation – Students have a number of jumbled pictures that tell a story. Read a text that tells the story in its correct sequence. Students put the pictures in order as you read the text. This idea can be extended into a skills flow.

     vi.    Oral cloze – Give students a cloze exercise with random or focused deletions. Read the complete text to the students, who fill in the facts.


1.       Are you incorporating a range/variety of oral language collaborative tasks?

2.       Are you scaffolding the language needed to complete the task?

3.       As you plan your next sequence of lessons check the tasks you intend to use against the communicative task checklist.

4.       Have I become stuck –just using the same strategies over and over again? What new strategy would be suitable to try out with my class? 

I hope you have found something that is practical to you. I would love feedback on how helpful you are finding this oral language series. There will be no updates over the holidays but I hope to start term 4 with a guest post on oral language from Dr. Jannie van Hees who has specialised in this area. 
Kind regards