5 Skills of Oral Language

Oral Language is not a single skill but a collection of five sub-skills:




learning and using the names of things, ideas and concepts, processes, etc.; learning to differentiate between idiomatic, local definitions and universally accepted definitions; learning to identify, use, and interpret connotative meanings of words and phrases


learning and using grammatically correct sentence structure; learning and using the rules of language use

Morphological skills

understanding word parts, roots, affixes, etc.; understanding how interactions among words affect their meaning


learning to use language effectively to accomplish a purpose; learning how to modify language as appropriate for the context, setting, and culture

Phonological skills

learning to identify and modify sounds within words

Instruction in any of these sub-skills contributes to a student’s oral language development. If you provide instruction in each area, you will help students develop strong oral language skills that will help them communicate not only when speaking and listening but also when writing and reading.

Early Oral Language Learning

Two of these sub-skills can be developed fairly early in life: phonological skills and syntax.

Phonological skills: Most people learn phonological skills at a young age, perhaps before age six or seven. Children who do not develop phonological skills are at great risk of reading difficulties later. Many of the students whom we tutored struggled with phonological skills. They needed explicit instruction and practice in identifying and manipulating sounds within words. Because the connection between phonological skills and reading ability is so strong, we insisted that tutors provide instruction in phonological skills at all grade levels. The results show that this approach was successful. I will discuss this topic more thoroughly in the chapter on phonemic awareness.

Syntax: Students learn syntax by the end of fourth or fifth grade, right? Not so in many cases. Even the most cursory examination of students’ writing reveals that many students have a weak grasp of syntax. Many adults, too, admit to difficulty with grammar. This is a big deal. Changes to the grammatical structure of a sentence can change its meaning. For example, the sentences “I have been to the movies” and “I went to the movies” mean different things. Without a good understanding of syntax, we may have difficulty communicating our ideas clearly, and we may have difficulty interpreting what other people say and write.

Life-long Oral Language Learning

The other three oral language sub-skills continue to develop throughout a person’s life: vocabulary, morphological skills, and pragmatics.

Vocabulary: We learn new words, new meanings, and new connotations as we read more and have more interactions with different types of people. We do not simply learn definitions of words. Instead, we develop our understanding of how words are used, how similar words can express various ideas, how people use different words to express the same idea, and how people interpret word usage.

For example, think about the words “orient” and “oriental.” These words mean “east” and “eastern,” respectively. Once upon a time, people from China, Japan, and other nearby countries were called “Orientals.” This is no longer appropriate. Now we say “Asian.” The terminology has changed because the interpretation of, and response to, the term “oriental” has changed. Within the context of oral language skills, learning how words are used and interpreted is the sub-skill of vocabulary.

Morphological skills: In connection with vocabulary, we develop our morphological skills to expand our understanding of how words can be modified to express different ideas. Also, we learn how to interpret changes in word order and how changes in sentence structure can affect interpretation.

For example, consider the sentences “Absolutely, this is the truth” and “This is the absolute truth.” The first sentence implies an agreement about the truth. In contrast, the second sentence implies that the “truth” is entirely correct and not subject to debate. By changing the word order, the speaker or writer has changed how the sentences are interpreted. Morphological skills help students understand these differences in interpretation.

Pragmatics: We use language to accomplish a purpose. What we say, how we say it, and whom we say it to affects whether or not we accomplish that purpose. As our pragmatics skills develop and improve, we learn the expectations for communicating in various contexts, settings, and cultures so that we can accomplish our purposes.

For example, our skill with pragmatics may determine whether we say “Give me a raise,” “I want a raise,” or “I believe I deserve a raise.” Each of these three statements communicates the same basic idea, but they may provoke very different reactions. When we use our pragmatics skills, we think about what our purpose is, who the listener or reader is, and how we might best communicate our ideas.

Most importantly, perhaps, we become better at understanding what other people mean when they speak or write, and we learn how to communicate appropriately so that we can build positive relationships with others.

This is the reason why I say that oral language skills are the most sophisticated of all the reading skills: the learning never stops.