The Importance of Emphasizing Oral Language with English Learners
No one knows the intricacies of the English language better than a student who is learning it for the first time. English Learners, or ELs, need support in mastering all aspects of the language. While educators may be inclined to focus on academic language or written expression, ELs also need critical language skills to participate in conversations, ask questions, and share their own unique perspectives. For these reasons (and many more), oral language is a critically important area of learning for ELs.
According to Dr. Elizabeth Brooke, oral language includes mastery of phonology, grammar, morphology, vocabulary, discourse, and pragmatics. Each of these areas presents a different challenge for ELs. Some may struggle with pragmatics, or social use of the language, which includes cultural norms about conversational turn-taking or dynamics of a group discussion. Others may have difficulty with the more technical aspects of English, such as developing an expressive vocabulary, mastering morphology, or learning the rules of grammar.
How can we help ELs learn listening and speaking skills? As all educators know, the answer is as individual as the student. While some ELs may have already been fluent in another language (or two!) before they began learning English, others may have spent more of their lives learning English than any other language. Some ELs will require help with all aspects of oral language, while others may only need help in one or two areas. As you’re assessing the level of support your EL students need, consider whether they need more general exposure to the English language, extra support to comprehend specific academic language, or help using English to communicate in their own unique voice.
Exposure to English
According to Dr. Brooke’s "The Critical Role of Oral Language in Reading Instruction and Assessment" white paper, one significant risk factor for ELs is the lack of exposure to English in their homes. If students are only hearing English stories, conversations, and vocabulary at school, they have less background knowledge of the language than peers who hear English spoken in all areas of their lives. For this reason, it’s important to make sure that ELs have plenty of exposure to oral language in the classroom, as well as opportunities to practice.
These suggestions can help create a language-rich environment at school:
Teach strategies for analyzing. Directly explain how sentences and stories are constructed and how to use this knowledge to break down oral information. ELs who are familiar with the grammar rules and conventions of another language will especially need support when learning to navigate these unfamiliar components of English.
Use peer models. Mix up groups to include students with high vocabulary skills and those who still need significant opportunities to develop English language skills. When ELs hear their peers’ pronunciation, intonation, and cadence, they increase their own understanding of how English words sound aloud.
Include drama. Incorporating plays, skits, and dramatic readings into instruction time allows students to hear the context and expression of unfamiliar words.
Mastering academic vocabulary
Even for students who have a working knowledge of basic English vocabulary, schoolwork can continue to present additional hurdles due to academic language. Learning content-specific words, such as the names for parts of a cell in biology or the names of theorems in algebra, is critical to academic success, especially as students continue to middle and high school. Additionally, comprehending words such as analyze, deduce, contrast, and defend is an essential part of understanding oral directions. As Dr. Lindsey Moses Guccione stated in her article on Oral Language Development and ELs, “Students hear and use their social language in various settings from home, community, and school, but academic language is often only used in the school setting.” Staying conscious of the limited opportunities for students to acquire and master this specialized vocabulary means that we must also offer more focused instruction and support.
The following strategies can help students learn content-specific language:
Directly teach multiple meanings of each word. The word debate could indicate a structured argument between two groups supporting opposing opinions, personally questioning and considering a response before speaking, or an informal discussion sharing multiple points of view. Explaining variations of meaning and context can prevent confusion for ELs.
Use illustrations and technological supports. Using pictures and diagrams when discussing new concepts can help students form a more complete understanding of English vocabulary. Technological supports, such as text-to-speech software, can help students hear how words are pronounced.
Being culturally responsive and relevant
A prerequisite for oral language development in the classroom is creating a classroom space where students feel safe and comfortable taking risks with their language. This is important because risk-taking is crucial to language development. While many of our language concerns for ELs center on their ability to comprehend and complete academic work, ELs also need emotional and social support to become fluent. Students who aren’t confident in their ability to express themselves may stay quiet during class discussions or shy away from starting conversations with their peers. While we do want students to use English to understand their classwork, we also want students to feel comfortable using English to express themselves and connect with others.
During a presentation for the 2009 National Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English-Language Learners (CREATE) Conference, Aida Walqui shared her experience finding her “personal voice” as an EL. After moving from Peru to the United States as a young adult, she felt like a “fake” speaking English instead of Spanish. Says Walqui, “I sounded more like a 7-year-old, and I was in college.”
Ms. Walqui’s experience echoes that of many EL students. Beyond purely academic tasks, such as reading a text or asking relevant comprehension questions, ELs need the oral language skills to share their experiences, offer opinions, and have meaningful conversations with their peers. We can encourage these personal connections through a variety of strategies:
Encourage conversations in partners and small groups. Before reading a new text or holding a larger class discussion, ask students to “pair and share” to discuss their thoughts. This strategy gives ELs an additional opportunity to practice sharing their opinions aloud while also allowing students to form one-on-one relationships with their classmates.
Create a low-risk environment. Particularly when students feel self-conscious about their verbal skills, they might be more focused on avoiding criticism or embarrassment than they are on sharing their thoughts and listening to others. Educators can help by establishing a classroom culture of patience, mutual respect, and reflective listening.
Honor each student’s unique experience and voice. ELs may have different cultural experiences than their peers. Ensure that they have opportunities to talk about traditions and values that are important in their lives. Using English to authentically express their own unique perspective is the ultimate goal of oral fluency.
Whether ELs are learning the building blocks of English communication or simply need extra practice in a few key areas, all students can benefit from developing their oral language skills. Through building a language-rich environment, providing extra support for content-specific vocabulary, and empowering students to make personal connections with their new language, educators can help ELs achieve oral language fluency. Supporting ELs at every stage of oral language instruction emphasizes that we value their thoughts, opinions, and ideas—and we want to hear them!