Oral Language & Language Development Comprehensive Literacy

Oral language is a complex system that connects sounds to meanings. It is used to make connections with other people and make sense of our experiences in everyday situations.

As humans, we are born with the innate ability to communicate and interact socially but learning to talk requires time for development. Unlike other aspects of development, language acquisition is not predictable but almost all children learn the rules of their language at an early age through use and practice in daily situations.

Linguistics often describe oral language in terms of four systems that function together: semantics, syntax, phonology and pragmatics.

  • Semantics: the meanings that are expressed in language or code; consists mainly of vocabulary
  • Syntax: the way language is organized, the way words are strung together to create meaning; the basic unit of syntax is the sentence
  • Phonology: the sound system used in language; consists of smaller units of sound called phonemes
  • Pragmatics: the social aspect of language in use in context; language varies according to our purposes and audience in addition to a variety of social and environmental factors
Oral language and language development is essential to student literacy development.
The purpose of learning to read and write is to enable communication from a distance, but the language that facilitates reading begins as face-to-face communication. - Rollanda E. O’Connor

Almost all classroom-based learning relies on oral language and the development of the associated skill can enhance student learning. The development of oral language can improve listening comprehension, expressive language, vocabulary, phonological knowledge, grammatical knowledge, social language skills, using language to learn and communicate effectively, storage and retrieval of information in and from long-term memory, and perception and attention to spoken language.

As students develop their oral language skills, this has a direct and positive affect on their literacy development. Oral language is important to student literacy development because as students develop language they learn to follow the rules of pronunciation and grammar, and the understanding the meaning of words and phrases in different contexts. These fundamental skills can then be transferred to reading and writing which use the same skills as a learning base. Teachers need to provide rich opportunities for students to communicate in the classroom to help promote successful readers and writers.

Teacher Strategies

Oral Language Role Models

Parents, caregivers, teachers and guardians are the main role models in oral language development. Adults model oral language through conversation, questions, listening, and responding.

Teachers can model these oral language skills through class discussions, community circles, shared readings and other activities that promote orally sharing ones ideas and prompting further discussion.

Language Development Among Peers

Peer learning is an important part of language development. Teachers can promote and encourage talk within the classroom by planning activities that allow students to interact with each other where they can both contribute to the discussion and listen to each other in supportive environment. This can be included in lessons and activity centres throughout the classroom.

Every child's language is a valid system for communication and warrants respect. It reflects the not only the child's identity, values and experiences but those of their family and community.

Literacy Instructional Approaches & Oral Development

Through literacy instruction, both teachers and children have the opportunity to promote and develop oral language skills in multiple ways. Read alouds, shared readings, guided readings, and independent reading provide many opportunities to generate discussion, ask questions and practice listening skills.

Read alouds allow teachers to model language systems while students have the opportunity to hear rich language and complex language structures.

Shared reading supports the transition from teacher modelling to student participation within a group environment. Students practice speaking aloud and making connections between the language systems.

Guided reading encourages more independence from the students with some teacher prompts in discussions before and after reading.

Independent reading encourages student independence where the discussions are entirely student-led with teacher monitoring to help students elaborate on their thinking.

Continuing Oral Language Development

As children come to understand written language, continue to encourage oral interaction within the classroom. In the primary grade, students can keep developing their oral abilities and skills by consulting with each other, raising questions, and providing information in a variety of situations.

Oral language isn't just a strand within the Language Arts curriculum. Every area of the curriculum is enhanced through language as students share their findings, solutions and ask questions. Teachers can incorporate oral language opportunities with purpose through group discussions, problem-solving challenges, drama activities, and oral presentations within their daily lessons.

Resources for Teachers

The 'Balanced Literacy Diet' website provides teachers with some great lesson ideas and activities that can be used to develop oral language within the classroom. The lesson plans, or 'literacy recipes', can be accessed by both topic and grade level.

Hosted by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto

"1.1 The Importance of Oral Language." Victoria State Government: Education and Training, 28 Sept. 2013, www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/support/Pages/lspmod11intro4.aspx. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Bainbridge, Joyce, and Rachel Heydon. "Language Development and Oracy." Constructing Meaning: Teaching the Language Arts K - 8. 5th ed., Toronto: Nelson Education Ltd., 2013. 126-162. Print.

Genishi, Celia. "Young Children's Oral Language Development." Reading Rockets, 1998, www.readingrockets.org/article/young-childrens-oral-language-development. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

"Oral Language." The Balanced Literacy Diet. Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, University of Toronto, 2016, www.oise.utoronto.ca/balancedliteracydiet/Oral_Language_ELL.html. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.



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