The Top Two Strategies for Teaching Oral Language Development

The Number One Strategy: Discussion

Remember, the definition of oral language development is learning how language is used in a particular event, setting, context, or culture. People do this by experiencing a wide variety of language uses, analyzing how people communicate, identifying patterns, relating language usage to results, and testing assumptions about communicating.

The number one strategy for helping students develop their oral language skills is discussion. Discussion is not about responding to questions with the “right” answer. Discussion is

  • sharing one’s own ideas,
  • asking questions,
  • agreeing and disagreeing,
  • explaining and defending a position,
  • contributing more information, and
  • expanding on others’ ideas.

In the context of reading, we discuss language use, whether the author’s or the characters’. Your job, as the teacher, is to ask open-ended questions that provoke and permit discussion about the language. For example, if two characters, Bob and Tom, are having a disagreement, you could ask the following questions for discussion.

  1. Do Bob and Tom seem to be agreeing or disagreeing? What are they disagreeing about? (Setting the stage for the discussion of language use)
  2. How do you know that they are disagreeing? What did Bob say that makes you think he disagrees with Tom?
  3. Are they talking nicely or meanly (e.g., is the disagreement respectful, hostile, friendly, derogatory, angry, sarcastic)? What makes you think that?
  4. What is another way they could talk to each other and what other words might they use?
  5. Thinking about the actual words used, how did Tom react when Bob disagreed? Was that the reaction Bob wanted? If not, how else might Bob have expressed his disagreement?
  6. What would be the difference between saying “You’re wrong,” “I think you’re wrong,” “I don’t agree,” “Bob, that is not true,” and “That’s stupid”? How might these different ways get different reactions from Tom? How does the message change with these different ways?
  7. Tom could say “You ARE wrong” or “YOU are wrong”? How does the emphasis change the meaning?
  8. If their relationship were different, such as a boss and an employee or as two friends, how might they talk differently?
  9. What are some ways you expressed disagreement and what kind of response did you get? How might you have expressed disagreement differently?

As you can see, discussion goes far beyond simple recall. Instead, the questions need to reflect all the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, Depth of Knowledge, or similar systems for categorizing interactions with text. If you limit the questions to the simplest levels or superficial who, what, when, and where types of questions, you are not helping students understand or analyze the text; you are only testing their recall. There will be no reason for discussion.

I will address question types more thoroughly in the chapter on comprehension. Regarding oral language skills, the central theme of the discussion questions is how the author or characters are using, or could use, language. Overall, we use discussion to help students be aware of the interaction among language, message, and purpose.

Integrating Oral Language Development and Comprehension through Discussion

One great advantage to using discussion is that it integrates easily with the number one strategy for developing comprehension, which is also discussion! With the right discussion questions, you can address oral language and comprehension at the same time. In fact, you can not fully address comprehension without addressing oral language: understanding language use leads to understanding the text.

The Number Two Strategy: Explicit Instruction

You can explicitly teach students language patterns to use, and you can tell them how those patterns are interpreted. Examples include the following.

  • Remember to say “Please.”
  • Call him “Mr. Wilson,” not “bro.”
  • Saying “I ain’t got no” is incorrect. Say “I don’t have” instead.
  • If you call people “stupid,” they won’t like you.
  • When you get to the bank, tell the clerk, “I would like to open an account. Is there someone who can assist me?”
  • Don’t be offended if they call you “son.” That’s just how they talk here.
  • Make sure to use correct grammar and avoid contractions.

When you provide explicit instruction in language use, you provide the patterns to use in various events, settings, contexts, and cultures. For many students, especially those with limited exposure to language use outside of a familiar context (family, friends, local community), explicit instruction can be useful.

Using Explicit Instruction to Enhance Reading Comprehension

Once students have a grasp of the language “rules” for a particular event, setting, context, or culture, you can ask students to analyze text to see the degree to which those rules have been applied by the author or characters. Students can use their understanding of language usage to analyze and evaluate the content, such as the author’s credibility or a character’s personality or background.

For example, you can have the students write a response to a prompt, such as

  • “Does the author use correct grammar? How does that affect your confidence in the author’s knowledge of the topic?”; or
  • “Did the character speak appropriately to his uncle?”

After students write their responses, they should share their responses and discuss each others’ responses to hear various interpretations and strengthen or modify their own understanding.

Which, of course, brings us right back to discussion. Engaging students in discussion after they write a reflection is a good strategy for helping students strengthen their oral language skills. The writing exercise helps them reflect on the text and their own understanding, and it prepares them to participate meaningfully in discussion.

The one thing you absolutely do not want to do is collect their responses, grade them, and move on to the next topic. If their responses are not particularly complete or if their ideas are not defensible, students need the opportunity to develop a better analysis and interpretation. Otherwise, they will have learned nothing other than the fact that they got it wrong. On the other hand, if you provide feedback or engage students in follow-up discussion, they have the opportunity to expand their understanding and improve their own skills.