Over recent years, it seems that the challenges students face when having academic conversations have only gotten larger. Students struggle to have meaningful conversations, they struggle to stay on topic, they struggle to find the words to help them speak knowledgeably and precisely about the topic being discussed. While these challenges exist for a number of reasons, the reality is that these are challenges that impact us all. Whether we are teachers of Reading, Math, Science, junior high, high school, or the elementary level, we all rely on language as the vehicle for learning and measuring the impact of our teaching. And in the world of education, oral language is king. We talk, explain, lecture, discuss, read out loud, and listen each and every day. Oral language is part of the fabric of teaching.
Yet, do we actually know what oral language actually is? Well, oral language is generally made up of the following five elements:
- academic vocabulary – understanding the meaning of words (T1 – T 3)
- morphological skills – understanding the impact of word parts on word meanings (including prefixes and suffixes)
- syntax – understanding the rules of word order and grammar
- phonological skills – understanding the range of sounds
- pragmatics – understanding the social rules and nuances of conversation and communication
Instruction that works to develop students’ oral language has to begin with the recognition that students can not be sheltered and kept from critical questions with no easy answers. Rather, as teachers we have a great opportunity to layer in oral language in order for our students to access this rigorous content. While we will talk more about the strategies that increase oral language development, the following are just a few ways that you can begin to do this:
- Make time for focused and critical discussions,
- Promote meaningful and deep conversations by providing language frames to guide the communication,
- Explicitly teach students the rules of how to have conversations prior to using structures like turn and talk,
- Provide opportunities for students to engage with rich and complex texts,
- Advance students’ academic vocabularies by selecting fewer words to master more deeply with a focus on application in all areas of their language use,
- Allow time for reading aloud to students in order to provide access to more challenging texts thy may not able to access on their own
- Use content area texts to teach critical grammatical structures that
- Allow time for students to talk through their understanding before putting anything to paper.