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Mass Literacy

Oral Language

Oral language is often called a "bedrock" of reading and writing. Students' comprehension of spoken language is a defining factor for their reading comprehension — the ultimate purpose of reading — as well as for writing ability. Oral language has numerous dimensions; two that are particularly important for the development of literacy are vocabulary and syntax. There is no one set time in the literacy block for working on language. Development of language occurs throughout all three components of the literacy block and throughout the school day. Language develops through high-quality interactions between students and teachers as well as through explicit instruction.

Vocabulary: What Is This and Why Does This Matter?

Vocabulary refers to words known or used by a person or group, representing concepts or ideas and meanings mutually understood; also, all the words of a language, (Massachusetts 2017 English Language Arts and Literacy Framework, page 186 ). Vocabulary is essential for communication in any language. We cannot speak, listen, read or write proficiently if we do not know what most of the words mean. Throughout the school years, vocabulary becomes increasingly important to reading and academic achievement, and, importantly, early vocabulary knowledge predicts reading comprehension skill in later grades (Pierce et al., 2013). Further, the role of vocabulary in predicting reading outcomes is consistent, irrespective of a student's language status (Proctor et al., 2012).

Nicole Patton Terry
"We cannot afford to lose children who have the potential to contribute to our greatness. And so we owe it to them. We owe it to them to ensure that we are doing the very best that we can to set them up for success."
Nicole Patton Terry
Professor & Associate Director
Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University

What Linguistic Factors Might Impact How Students Develop Vocabulary?

When students are simultaneously learning to read in English while learning to speak and understand it, they need additional instruction and support in learning the English vocabulary they are expected to read (Goldenberg, 2021). Additionally, different pronunciation of the sounds in words may affect the ability to learn the meanings of new words, so when teaching vocabulary teachers should teach words in context and make sure that students are aware of all features of a word - its spelling, pronunciation of its individual sounds, its word parts (morphemes), multiple meanings, and related words (Keys to Literacy (2021).

Research-Based, Explicit Instruction to support Students in Developing Vocabulary

Research has repeatedly shown that explicit teaching of vocabulary is essential (National Reading Technical Assistance Center, 2010 ). Words worth an investment of instructional time are academic language words that connect to and will help students engage with important concepts and topics being studied (Lesaux & Russ Harris, 2015). To develop deep understanding of words, vocabulary instruction should allow students to hear and use new words; examine how words are used in class texts; make connections between new vocabulary words and other known words; relate words to their own experiences; and generate and answer questions that include the word (Foorman et al., 2016 ). Additionally, the use of multimedia such as visuals and sounds help students to interact with and make sense of the words they are learning (Silverman & Hynes, 2009).

Explicit vocabulary instruction uses the gradual release approach (adapted from Pearson & Gallagher, 1983)

  • Explicit Instruction The teacher defines and explains the word.
  • Modeling The teacher demonstrates using the word.
  • Guided practice Students practice using the word with teacher feedback.
  • Apply and transfer Students use the word in context of authentic reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Resources for Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

Leveraging Linguistic Assets for Multilingual Learners

English learners must have equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in all literacy instruction. The WIDA Can Do Descriptors and 2020 ELD Standards Framework highlight what language learners can do at various stages of language development and help educators plan for instruction that fosters high expectations and equity of access for ELs. For additional information, see this set of Five Instructional Practices and Instructional Strategies for Centering MLLs in Early Literacy Instruction (Instruction Partners).

Use bridging and connection strategies to honor multilingual learners' primary languages such as sharing sounds or words from the students' primary language to help them make a connection (Instruction Partners, 2021). While vocabulary instruction is important to all learners, explicit vocabulary instruction with second language learners has bigger impacts on learning than usually reported for first language students (August et al., 2008).

Supports for English Learners

Recommendation 1 from IES Practice Guide "Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School " offers detailed guidance on teaching academic vocabulary to English learners, including:

For More Information

Syntax and Grammar: What Are These and Why Do They Matter?

Syntax refers to "the way in which words are put together to form constructions such as phrases, clauses, and sentences" and grammar refers to the structure and features of a language, including its conventions (Massachusetts 2017 English Language Arts and Literacy Framework , pages 184 and 176 ).

Evidence shows that students' skill with syntax and grammar in their oral and written expression is linked to reading comprehension (Nippold, 2007). When students expand their understanding of how sentences work, they can make meaning of sentences with greater complexity, and thus have access to increasingly complex texts.

What Linguistic Factors Might Impact How Students Develop Syntax and Grammar?

Multilingualism is an asset. Speaking a language in addition to English carries academic and social benefits and helps in the development of English literacy (U.S. Department of Education: Office of English Language Acquisition, 2020 ). Teachers can encourage students to use their home language in the classroom as a bridge to success with English literacy tasks. For instance, discussing a question in the home language before attempting to write the answer in English enables a bilingual child to better convey their understanding or perspective. Reading or listening to reading aloud in any language is supportive of reading comprehension in English. Additionally, translanguaging , or using one language to make sense of another, promotes both first and second language development while honoring the home languages and identities of the students (Marrero-Colón, 2021).

Norms and preferences for using language differ across cultures; many children, regardless of home language, have impressive abilities to creatively use, play with, and manipulate language. These abilities may differ from the academic language abilities that are expected and developed in school (Meier, 2008). Still, children's linguistic abilities can be appreciated and developed in contexts such as discussions of a shared text, or interactions around an art, science, or dramatic play experience. All of these are opportunities for extended discourse in which students can use language to express their own ideas and perspectives. Peers and adults can engage in that discourse to affirm students' perspectives while supporting language development.

Knowledge of word and sentence level differences between English dialect variations is important for teachers as several dialect features are normed against mainstream forms of English and are criticized and/or marked as grammatical errors… and when occurrences such as these happen, explicit instruction that still respects the child's home language can draw students' attention to the differences between informal dialect and more standard or mainstream forms of English (Gatlin-Nash et al., 2020).

Research-Based Instruction to Support Extended Discourse

When planning instruction around syntax, it might be helpful to consider how syntax development is supported through opportunities for extended discourse. Extended discourse is a type of spoken interaction that promotes language development. Extended discourse strategies support children to participate in longer — or extended — conversations. These extended conversations give teachers the opportunity to elicit, model, and affirm student language production; they give students the opportunity to practice increasingly complex language in an authentic context. Extended discourse in the classroom leads to growth in vocabulary, syntax, and grammar — all components of oral language that undergird reading comprehension (Dickinson et al., 2019). Play or child-directed time in the classroom presents the ideal opportunity for extended discourse and intentional interactions that support oral language development.

Research-Based, Explicit Instruction to Support Narrative Language Skills

Narrative language is the language required to relay a set of events. Recounting an event in one's personal life or explaining the life cycle of an animal–both these tasks require narrative language to relay the events clearly. Narrative language skills "include the ability to organize information in a logical sequence, as well as connect that information using appropriate complex grammatical structures" (Foorman et al., 2016 ). Narrative language skills can be actively taught and practiced, strengthening students' ability to both create and understand sequences of events in oral language.

Supports for English Learners
For More Information

Sources of Information for Educators: Oral Language

August, D., Beck, I. L., Calderón, M., Francis, D. J., Lesaux, N. K., Shanahan, T., Erickson, F., & Siegel, L. S. (2008). Instruction and professional development. 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. 131–250). New York: Routledge.

Cassano, C. (2019). Materials prepared for Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Early Grades Literacy Grant.

Dickinson, D.K., Hofer, K.G. & Rivera, B.L. (2019). The Developing Language Foundation for Reading Comprehension: Vocabulary, Complex Syntax and Extended Discourse from Preschool to Grade One. In Veneziano, E., & Nicolopoulou, A. (Eds). Narrative, literacy and other skills: Studies in interventions. John Benjamin

Foorman, B., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Furgeson, J., Hayes, L., Henke, J., Justice, L., Keating, B., Lewis, W., Sattar, S., Streke, A., Wagner, R., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website.

Gatlin-Nash, B., Johnson, L., & Lee-James, R. (2020). Linguistic differences and learning to read for non-mainstream dialect speakers. Perspectives, 46 (3). International Dyslexia Association.

Goldenberg, C. (2020) Reading wars, reading science, and English learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1) pp. S131–S144

Keys to Literacy (2021). Culturally responsive literacy instruction: a white paper by Keys to Literacy. Rowley, MA: Keys to Literacy.

Lesaux, N. and Russ Harris, J. (2015). Cultivating knowledge, building language. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., Faller, S. E., & Kelley, J. G. (2010). The effectiveness and ease of implementation of an academic vocabulary intervention for linguistically diverse students in urban middle schools. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(2), 196–228. doi:10.1598/ RRQ.45.2.3

Marrero-Colón, M.B. (2021). CAL commentary: translanguaging: theory, concept, practice, stance… or all of the above? Center for Applied Linguistics.

Nippold, Marilyn. (2006). Language development in school-age children, adolescents, and adults. Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics. 10.1016/B0-08-044854-2/00852-X.Pearson, P. D. & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The Instruction of Reading Comprehension, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 1983, pp. 317-344.

Pierce, M., Wechsler-Zimring, A., Noam, G., Wolf, M., & Katzir, T. (2013). Behavioral problems and reading difficulties among language minority and monolingual urban elementary school students, Reading Psychology, 34:2, 182–205.

Proctor, C.P., Silverman, R.D., Harring, J.R. et al. The role of vocabulary depth in predicting reading comprehension among English monolingual and Spanish-English bilingual children in elementary school. Read Writ 25, 1635–1664 (2012).

Silverman, R., & Hines, S. (2009). The effects of multimedia-enhanced instruction on the vocabulary of English-language learners and non-English-language learners in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology. 101. 305–314. 10.1037/a0014217.

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Last Updated: September 12, 2022

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