Oral Language Development and ELLs: 5 Challenges and Solutions

Comprehension and English Language Learners: 25 Oral Reading Strategies That Cross Proficiency Levels

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Dr. Lindsey Moses Guccione shares five key challenges related to the oral language development of ELLs, as well as tips for addressing each of the challenges.

Dr. Moses Guccione is the co-author of Comprehension and English Language Learners: 25 Oral Reading Strategies That Cross Proficiency Levels (Heinemann, 2009).

Getting Started

As a former elementary teacher in a bilingual school, I developed a love and passion for finding effective ways to support oral language and oral reading development of emerging English language learners (ELLs). I discovered this passion when I began my first year of teaching in a second-grade classroom, where I encountered a handful of challenges related to my students' oral language development.

Many students were transitioning from a classroom with Spanish instruction into my classroom with instruction provided in English. I had students ranging from monolingual English speakers to students who had just recently moved to the U.S. from a Spanish-speaking country. The range of language proficiency levels crossed the entire spectrum. Having minimal experience with this range of diverse students and needs, I began reading, researching, and implementing new instructional ideas into my classroom. With each challenge I encountered, I gained new information about my students and their parents. I also began learning more about my own methods of instruction, and I learned a great deal each year about new challenges and successes.

Currently, I am fortunate to work with many teachers who have the opportunity to impact the lives of children and families who speak more than one language. As I work with these teachers and families, I have found five common and reoccurring challenges that they seem to face in the area of oral language development that parallel my own experiences. I detail these challenges and questions below, as well as suggestions for addressing each challenges based on strategies I used in my classroom.

Questions and Classroom Scenarios

1. What do I do if they don't know ANY English?

Understanding the characteristics of language learners at different proficiency levels helps to think about how we can best support students in their oral language and reading development. Below is a chart that gives a description of the first two levels of language proficiency as well as implications for using oral reading. This is a nice place to start when thinking about how to interact with and support our Starting and Emerging English speakers.

Levels of Language Proficiency Description Implications For Using Oral Reading
Level 1: Starting Students are in a silent period in which they listen, but do not speak in English. They may respond using nonverbal cues in attempt to communicate basic needs. The teacher and other more advanced students should model oral reading. Students in the silent period should not be forced to speak, but should be given the opportunity to participate in a group activity where they won't be singled out.
Level 2: Emerging Students are beginning to understand more oral language. They respond using one- or two-word phrases and start to produce simple sentences for basic social interactions and to meet basic needs. Teacher and students should continue to model oral reading. Students should be encouraged to begin taking risks with simple, rehearsed oral reading in non-threatening situations.

Opitz & Guccione (2009). Comprehension and English Language Learners: 25 Oral Reading Strategies that Cross Proficiency Levels.

2. How do I provide instruction and support for the ELLs without holding back the students who are fluent in English?

Differentiation is the key to effective instruction for all students. Students of varying proficiency levels can learn the same content when the teacher provides a wide range of learning opportunities for students with different academic and linguistic needs. Three key strategies for this approach include differentiating or modifying the texts, creating grouping structures, and targeting the amount and nature of support based on students' needs (Opitz & Ford, 2008).

  • Modifying the text: Teachers can differentiate the text by selecting various levels of text difficulty on similar content, or they can also divide the text up into smaller portions appropriate for certain groups/individuals for a jigsaw activity. Another idea is to summarize text that might be too difficult and provide ways to make the text more accessible (such as vocabulary support, visual support, connecting to background knowledge, etc.).
  • Creating grouping structures that set students up for success: While some grouping structures can be established according to language or literacy skill levels and needs, it is also important to think about providing students exposure to interact with peers who demonstrate a wide range of different language and literacy skills. Additionally, teachers can improve engagement and motivation by creating choice/interest groups where students gather, read, discuss and work together on topics of common interest.
  • Targeting the amount and nature of student support: It is important to think about scaffolding the experience and using comprehensible input to make it accessible for all students. Comprehensible input means that students should be able to understand the gist of what is being said or presented. There are many ways to do this, such as selecting key vocabulary, using context or visual cues, building background knowledge, building on experiences the students have had, using consistent language, and providing images or visual representations to support vocabulary and content. Teachers can support their students by embedding comprehensible input into their whole-group instruction, but this also becomes particularly effective when used in the different grouping structures. Teachers can also modify the amount of support and interaction between teachers and students depending on their individual and group needs.

3. This student knows English — I hear him talking to his friends and on the playground. He just doesn't want to try in class.

I have heard many teachers discussing variations of this same idea. However, I would caution teachers and parents about jumping to this conclusion. Academic language (or the language specifically related to school and/or academic content) can be complicated to acquire. Students often first develop social language and demonstrate near proficiency or proficiency in English in social settings. A student may be demonstrating sophisticated use of social language, but they may have difficulty using language in more formal settings such as school.

Much of the academic language required to be successful in school — everything from instructions to expectations to content-specific vocabulary — requires assistance in acquiring. 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. These students need specific instruction and support surrounding their language development in this area.

The same children who appear to be functioning at a high level of English proficiency in social settings may actually be functioning at a beginning stage in other settings, depending on how they are called on to use language. The students need to feel safe and in a low-anxiety environment in order to begin to feel comfortable taking risks with their oral language. When they have less exposure and instruction related to academic language, this can often cause students to feel intimidated and less likely to be willing to share in class.

One idea for reducing anxiety and encouraging students to experiment with language might include allowing students to read, practice, and discuss their responses in partners and small groups before sharing out to the entire group. This allows students an opportunity to hear language modeled by peers, practice what they want to say, and possibly revise their original thought and/or language before sharing it in a public way. As students find more success with their language production and classroom participation, they will be more likely to share and take risks, and in turn continue building their confidence.

4. How is the child ever going to learn English if they don't speak it at home?

It is important to celebrate being bilingual and biliterate. Research has shown that development of a students' first language can facilitate development in the second language (Genessee, Geva, Dressler, and Kamil, 2007). Understanding this helps parents, teachers, and children to encourage the use and development of the students' home language while they are at home. All of the home literacy activities that we recommend for English speakers, such as reading aloud, making lists, discussing books, reading environmental print, etc., should also be encouraged for the English language learners in their home language. Students can begin to use more English as they feel comfortable in different settings, but it is important to note that speaking two languages will not hinder their English development.

Another important idea to remember is that we want to invite parents to feel confident in their interactions with their children regardless of their English proficiency level. As they begin to read or retell stories and discuss them at home, they are developing vital oral language and comprehension skills, and these skills will transfer over into their school language.

5. What kinds of activities should I be doing to help the student develop their oral language and oral reading?

McCauley and McCauley (1992) report four factors as necessary for acquiring a second language: a low-anxiety environment, repeated practice, comprehensible input, and drama. These are all important components of setting children up for success and language development.

  • A low-anxiety environment includes a setting where students feel nurtured and supported by their teacher and peers, and in turn, they feel safe to take risks without the fear of being laughed at or made fun of.
  • Repeated practice is just like what it sounds! Students need repeated practice hearing and using a new language. They need multiple opportunities to comprehend and express their ideas in a new language. Like with anything new that we learn, practice helps us get better.
  • Comprehensible input, as explained above, means finding different ways to make what is being said comprehensible and easier to understand. Things to consider with comprehensible input might include using speech that is appropriate for students' language proficiency, providing a clear, step-by-step explanation of tasks, and using a variety of techniques to support their understanding.
  • Drama, or a sense of excitement and engagement, can be found in activities like Reader's Theatre, dramatic play, puppetry, narrating wordless picture books, etc. All of these activities also have the other three factors embedded within them. These activities assist in the development of oral language in addition to introducing students to oral reading and rich literacy experiences and responses in a classroom setting.

Closing Thoughts

As you can see from these questions and examples, there are a lot of different approaches to helping ELLs build their oral language development skills, and you may have to try different activities until you find what works for your students. The most important thing, however, is to build your students' confidence while giving them new words and phrases to practice. Don't be afraid to try something new — and most of all, don't be afraid to have fun doing it!

About the Author

Dr. Lindsey Moses Guccione is a coauthor ofComprehension and English Language Learners: 25 Oral Reading Strategies that Cross Proficiency Levels. She is an assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado and teaches courses in Early Childhood Education, Literacy, and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education. She is a former elementary teacher of English language learners and is currently researching how ELLs make sense of texts.

References

McCauley, J.K. & McCauley, D.S. (1992). Using choral reading to promote language learning for ESL students. The Reading Teacher, 45, 526-533.

Opitz, M.F. & Guccione, L.M. (2009). Comprehension and English language learners: 25 oral reading strategies that cross proficiency levels. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Opitz, M. & M. Ford (2008). Do-able Differentiation: Varying Groups, Texts, and Supports to Reach Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Genesee, F., Geva, E., Dressler, C., & Kamil, M. L. (2008). Cross-linguistic relationships in second-language learners. In D. August & T, Shanahan (Eds.), Developing reading and writing in second-language learners: Lessons from the Report of the national literacy panel on language-minority children and youth. (pp.61-93)., New York, USA: Routledge.

Reprints

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Comments

This is a fantastic article, and has suggestions that I will put to use immediately in my ESOL instruction. Thank you!

Perfect, I find the article
Fo me it's a new approach to Oral Language Development.

Great ideas! It is important to remember that ELL students can be proficient in social settings while their academic language is only in the beginning stages.

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This is a phenomenal article and reflects all the aspects I am learning in my intercultural communication class! I would like to teach ELL students in the future and you have provided wonderful ideas! Thank you!

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