What Challenges do ELL and Title I Students Face in the Development of Oral Language?

Vocabulary is frequently thought to be the main component of oral language. However, in the broadest definition, oral language consists of phonology, grammar, morphology, vocabulary, discourse, and pragmatics. The acquisition of these skills often begins at a young age, before students begin focusing on print-based concepts such as sound-symbol correspondence and decoding. 

We expect children to arrive as kindergarteners with basic reading skills. Research has shown that oral language—the foundations of which are developed by age 4—has a profound impact on children’s preparedness for kindergarten and on their success throughout their academic career. Because these skills are often developed early in life, children with limited oral language ability at the time they enter kindergarten are typically at a distinct disadvantage (Fielding et al., 2007). 

Children enter school with a wide range of background knowledge and oral language ability, attributable in part to factors such as their experiences at home and their socioeconomic status (SES). Unfortunately, the resulting gap in academic ability tends to persist or grow throughout their school experience (Fielding et al., 2007; Juel, Biancarosa, Coker & Deffes, 2003).

Certain populations—including students in Title I and ELL subgroups—typically face a number of challenges with regard to oral language development (Francis, Rivera, Lesaux, Kieffer, & Rivera, 2006; Hart & Risley, 1995; NICHD, 2005; Snow, Porche, Tabors, & Harris, 2007). These challenges include:

  • Amount of exposure to language 
    Hart and Risley (1995) found a wide disparity in the quantity of words (sum of unique words and gross sum of all words) as well as the quality of language to which children were exposed. Children of low SES were exposed to short imperatives and typically negative words such as “No… Stop that.” In contrast, children from high SES families tended to be exposed to a greater quantity and quality of words. Their interactions included descriptive language, expansive narrations, and positive reinforcement for communication.


  • Exposure to print 
    Children in a print-rich environment benefit from early exposure to reading and print concepts such as familiarity with letters and sounds, as well as exposure to the conventions of printed words (e.g., reading left to right on a page and front to back in a book).   

  • English not spoken in the home 
    Children in homes where English is not spoken often lack exposure to critical oral language skills such as English vocabulary, grammar, pragmatics, and discourse. Without such skills being modeled and reinforced in the home, these students enter school already significantly behind their peers (Biemiller, 1998).  


  • Background experiences 
    Children in low SES homes often lack the opportunity to expand their background experiences and knowledge compared to their peers in other subgroups. These can be based on exposure in books, conversation, or first-hand experiences.


  • Parents’ level of education 
    Research has shown that there is a strong relationship between a parent’s education level—in particular, the mother’s education—and a child’s oral language skills or vocabulary upon entering school (NICHD, 2005).


  • Transitions and disruptions in the student’s home life 
    Student mobility rate within Title I and ELL subgroups is often among the highest within a given district. Such changes impact a student’s achievement level throughout school (Snow et al., 2007).


The academic gap associated with SES and the significant relationship between SES and reading achievement have been well documented in research (Cain & Oakhill, 2007; Hart & Risley, 1995; Snipes, Horwitz, Soga, & Casserly, 2008; Snow, Porche, Tablors, & Harris, 2007). Similarly, “many related factors influence ELLs’ academic outcomes, including educational history, cultural and social background, length of exposure to the English language, and access to appropriate and effective instruction to support second language development” (Francis et al., 2006, p.6). So, the question facing educators is: How can educators overcome the challenges of developing strong oral language skills, particularly in student populations where risk factors and obstacles are significant?

To learn more about oral language, including the role oral language plays in reading and how teachers can address this critical skill in the classroom, click below to download the Lexia oral language white paper.

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Featured White Paper:

The Critical Role of Oral Language in Reading Instruction and Assessment

Oral language has a profound impact on children’s preparedness for kindergarten and on their success throughout their academic career. Read the white paper by Dr. Liz Brooke, Lexia's Chief Education Officer, to learn about the critical role of oral language in reading instruction and assessment, including the implications for teachers with Title I and English Learner students.

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