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English Language Learners and Oral Language

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By Janet McQueen

Oral language

In her Week 6 Literacy Online Weekly Update Sue Bridges challenged us about how we teach oral language. Sue outlined why oral language is important and stressed that oral language should be explicitly taught at all levels of the New Zealand Education system.  I would encourage you all to read her update

Sue said teachers should consider whether the planned learning experience offers the opportunity to i) apply/practise existing speaking and listening skills, or ii) deliberate acts of teaching of newly-introduced/developing oral skills. We need to integrate this across the curriculum in authentic contexts. Sue encourages the use of explicit modelling of oral language skills prior to students performing tasks, followed by ample time to practice the skill and the provision of teacher feedback and feedforward to the student’s, on their use of the skill.

Sue “observed that for many older primary school children, speaking and listening skills are assumed to have been previously established, and now can be merely called upon. The oral language element is often covered in regular news sharing and a few weeks of ‘speeches’. And yet so much about appropriate use of register, pragmatics, word choice. pitch and so on can create difficulty in communication for those who are not lucky enough to just ‘pick it up’.” 

ELLs and Oral Language

Sue’s observations fit with what we know to be best practice for English language learners (ELLS).

The Introduction booklet to the English Language Learning Progressions pages 21 – 22 says, “Oral language is often as complex as written language and is sometimes more difficult to process. It challenges the learner in different ways from written language.” The following excerpts help to explain the oral language challenge for ELLs. 

An English language learner may not have an existing basis in oral language on which to build English literacy skills. There are many interrelated factors that may influence an English language learner’s proficiency in oral language, including:

• the content of their previous English language instruction (if any);

 • the teaching approaches used in previous English language instruction (if any);

• the age at which they begin (or began) learning English;

• their level of confidence in speaking English.

…. All new English language learners face significant challenges when speaking and listening to New Zealand English. At the same time as they are learning the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the new language, they’re also working to gain control over other features of oral language. They need to learn the sounds of English words, the subtle meanings conveyed by changes in tone and speed, and the differences in meaning that a change in stress can make. (For example, “refuse”, with the stress on the first syllable, is a noun that means “rubbish”, but “refuse”, with the stress on the second syllable, is a verb that means “to say no to something”.) These are called theprosodic features of a language. Prosodic features combine with non-verbal language features, such as facial expressions, to create and convey meaning, and both are culturally determined dimensions of the language. It takes time to learn the significance of the prosodic features of a new language. Some learners will need to adjust their prior learning of one variety of English (such as American English) in order to learn New Zealand English, which has its own distinct features of pronunciation and vocabulary. For example, New Zealand English includes some words from te reo Màori.”

“…When English language learners begin to speak English, their first language is likely to have a strong influence on their grammar and pronunciation (such as in stress patterns or accent).  Many factors can affect a learner’s speaking proficiency. Each time a learner speaks, what they say will be affected not only by their knowledge of the language but also by the sociocultural context, for example, whether they know the person they are speaking to. The English language learner may also need to explore and discuss the differences between non-verbal and prosodic features of their first language (such as body language and intonation) and those of English, as these features are often culturally specific. Because of the complexity of oral language production, teachers (and other listeners) often need to allow additional “wait time” to give learners a chance to initiate, respond, and interact with others. English language learners should be encouraged to continue to develop oral language skills in their first language and to use critical-thinking skills (and other oral language skills) in their first language to help them develop oral language in English. Cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) develops better when the first language develops alongside the additional language.”

As ELLs now make up about a quarter of all learners in New Zealand classrooms and their numbers continue to grow it is important that all teachers know how to explicitly teach oral language to ELLs. Recording a student’s progress on the ELLP listening and speaking matrices will help us to check that a student is making progress over time and to identify an appropriate next learning step. Our job is then to plan how we will deliberately teach the necessary skills and how we will incorporate the teaching and practice of that skill into daily curriculum learning tasks, whilst scaffolding student to success.

As Sue pointed out the job doesn’t finish at any particular year level but rather we continuously build upon the students’ knowledge as they move up the school system. It is a daily focus through all curriculum subjects through all parts of the school day.

Back in 2014 I wrote two weekly updates with some ideas and strategies on how to teach oral language which you may like to check out again:

Sept 16, 2014 Weekly Update Key Instructional Ideas to support oral language development

Sept 22, 2014 Weekly Update , Part two, Oral Language Strategies

See also this Guest post,  Oral Language: To think, shape and convey ideas by Dr Jannie van Hees, 16 October 2014 weekly update.

You will also find useful suggestions on explicit, guided and independent learning activities appropriate to r each level of language learning across different curriculum areas in the Supporting Language Learning in Primary Schools (SELLIPS) booklets.   These make a great starting point for thinking about what type of support is appropriate and how you might practically teach this in an age appropriate manner.

The English language Intensive Programme (ELIP) Years 1-6 and 7-13 will also help teachers to identify appropriate oral interaction language features that may require explicit teaching , provide models of these features and some suggested strategies for teaching them.

In response to all of this my challenge is:

1.       What strategies do you advocate? What oral language strategies do you find most successful?

2.       Do you build multiple opportunities throughout the school day into your lessons for deliberately teaching and practising oral language skills?

3.       Will there be even greater opportunities and challenges for quality oral language development in innovative /modern learning environments? What are the opportunities and challenges for ELLs? How can we personalise and manage these to give ELLs the chance to be the best communicators they each can be?

4.       What further support do teachers in your school need in order to better teach oral language to ELLS? What are the gaps? How can they be filled?

Oral language readings and links

Here are a few additional oral language readings, and links that I have recently discovered.

Using pair and group work to develop ELLs’ oral language skills, by Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney Snyder on Colorin Colarado, posted November 17, 2014

Socratic Circles and the Common Core: An Introduction (Part I), By Diane Staehr Fenner, Sydney Snyder on Colorin Colarado. (See also links to part 2 and 3.)  

Key Strategies for Developing Oral Language, by Jeff Zwiers on Teaching Channel, October 29, 2014 3:30 pm .

Why are Academic Discussions So Important for our ELLs?, by Nicole Knight on Teaching Channel October 24, 2014.

Video Series: Engaging ELLs in Academic Conversations, by Lydia Breiseth on Colorin Colarado.

18 Pronunciation Sites and Apps for Language Learners February 29, 2016 American TESOL.

Ten Pre-Listening Activities, By Hall Houston, EFL Magazine, 26/02/2016. 

Scaffolding Structures to Support Academic Conversations for English Learners, REL West, West Ed webinar, published November 2015.

Integrating pronunciation into classroom activities, by Barney Griffiths, Teaching English.

Top 10 Tips for Teaching Pronunciation in ESL classes, on Busy Teacher.

How to start academic conversations, Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford, in Educational Leadership, April 2009.

Other Links

Online Journals for English Language Teachers , Marisa R Constantinides on Listly.

What are the hardest languages to learn? by Sam Gendreau on Lingholic.

SIOP Activity: Right Away Questions, Pearson SIOP Model on You Tube.

Closing English Language Learner Gaps Early, Benjamin Heuston and Haya Shamir in Language Magazine, April 2015, examine how adaptive learning software makes the curriculum effective for English language learners worldwide.

What we talk about when we talk about best practices: Reading and writing by Debra Josephson Abrams, Multibriefs, April 30, 2015.