Sunday, January 7, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Oral Language

A child's oral language facility, we know, plays a major role in learning to read. As Hiebert, Pearson, Taylor, Richardson & Paris (1998) put it, "Oral language is the foundation upon which reading is built, and it continues to serve this role as children develop as readers." Unfortunately, not all children enter formal schooling with a high level of oral language facility. While all children are language learning machines, and children from all socio-economic status groups develop a remarkable facility to communicate their ideas and use language to help meet their needs, some children do not grow up in environments that encourage them to the expansive use of their remarkable linguistic abilities. While nearly all parents love their children and want the best for them, some parents view communication with children as being a matter of "talking at" their children, while other parents view communication with children as "talking with" ther children.
When children are "talked at" they may develop a transactional view of language. Talk is about communicating to me what I should and should not do and about trying to get something that I want. Children who are talked with may develop a conversational view of language. That is language is to be used for communicating all kinds of ideas in conversation with adults and other children and for speculating about things that may not yet be firmly understood. Obviously the transactional view limits oral language facility and the conversational view expands language facility. Equally obvious is that children with a more expansive oral language facility have advantages in literacy learning.

But no matter what language facility a child brings to school, we must recognize that that oral language facility, limited or expansive or in-between, is the child's greatest ally in learning to read. If the child arrives in our classroom with an expansive oral language, our job is to expand it further. If the child arrives with limited oral language, our job is to develop that oral language so that it can support literacy learning. So again, as I have said in previous posts on struggling readers, we must not think in terms of a learning deficit, but in terms of an instructional challenge that is our responsibility to meet.

How do we both expand and develop oral language in our classrooms? First of all, by recognizing that every child's language deserves respect as a valid system for communication. It reflects the identities, values, and experiences of the child's family and community. Secondly, we can employ strategies that the research has pointed to as effective. Here are a few.

Hold Conversations with Children -

Make sure your interaction with children isn't purely transactional. In a classroom bustling with young children, it is easy to fall into a pattern of transactional talk. "Tommy, please sit down." "Mary please stop talking." "Johnny, put your book away in your desk." "Who knows the answer to the question?"

Transactional talk is necessary in the classroom , of course, but children need conversational talk with an adult to expand their oral language. According to Shanahan and Lonigan (2017)

Teachers interactions that best encourage language learning include having conversations that stay on a single topic providing children opportunities to talk, encouraging analytical thinking, and giving information about the meanings of words.

So we need to make sure that our instruction is structured in such a way as to allow us to have conversations with children on an individual basis. This could mean engaging a child in a conversation about a writing project, about something they read, about something they saw, or about an experience they had outside of school. I think of these conversations as opportunities for the teacher to "lean in" to listen to the child and then respond in a way to help the child develop their conversational competence.

Provide Time for Structured Play

Children also, of course, develop their oral language through interaction with other students, so opportunities for structured play are critical to oral language development. Structured play includes such traditional early childhood activities as block play, dramatic role playing, and such play centers as a classroom kitchen and office where children both play together and talk to each other about their play. I recently enjoyed a session of play with Picasso Tiles with my four-year-old granddaughter that was full of talk and new vocabulary about shapes and sizes.

In a time where structured play in the early years seems to be less and less valued, teachers need to fight for this valuable instructional time by pointing out its effectiveness in developing oral language.

Conduct Shared Reading and Shared Writing Activities Daily

Shared readings of Big Books are a good way to engage children in conversation about a book (such as asking them to make predictions or to summarize what has been read) and to help students make the connection between oral language and print through the teacher tracking the print with her fingers as the words are read to and with the children.

Shared writing of stories or classroom news gives students the opportunity to generate language that is then shared in writing. When students then share the pen (interactive writing) to record these orally composed stories, they again make the connection between oral language and print.

Read Aloud of Challenging Books

When reading aloud to children, an activity that should happen frequently in the classroom, teachers should choose books that are of high literary quality and challenging for the children in the class. By reading challenging works, teachers can help students navigate difficult vocabulary through explanations and help the children to articulate their understanding of the story. The sophisticated language of the high quality picture book exposes the children to the rich possibilities of language and provides a contextual basis for building vocabulary.

Turn Guided Reading Sessions into Guided Talk Sessions

For children whose most important need in the early childhood classes is the development of oral language facility, the guided reading structure might be altered to be a guided talk session. In a guided talk session the focus would not be on sight words or decoding strategies or reading a short text, but on talk. I like to think of this as an expanded picture walk. A wordless book could be used, but any book with pictures that also tell the story can be used. The teacher guides the children in using their language in telling the story that is represented by the pictures. It is important that the teacher encourage the children to tell the story, not just describe the pictures, so a prompt that encourages the students to "Think about the story and talk about what is happening here" is suggested. After going through the book and talking about all the pictures, attempting to weave a story, the children might be encouraged to retell the story individually.

The oral language that children bring to school is a critical factor supporting their growing literacy ability. It is therefore also critical that teachers plan to help children expand or develop that language so that they may be successful literacy learners.

This post is the second in a series on struggling readers. You may also be interested in When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge.

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