I’ve Got My Eye on You, Oral Language Skills.

In my free time, I have been writing curriculum designed to teach beginning special education teachers what they need to know about teaching students with special needs. I am on page 600 and have 4 more sessions to write. I mean, there is a LOT that teachers need to know. I don’t know how you people do it. And I have been trying to condense it all into 16 sessions. Good times.

Recently, I finished the session on oral language and through the process, realized that oral language seems to be the slightly ignored stepchild of the English Language Arts domain. I mean, when you think of language arts, you think of reading and writing, right? But what about oral language? It is so important! It is often neglected in psychoeduational assessments as well, unless it is wrapped up in general language processing.

Oral language is not just speaking. It is a large set of skills that encompasses listening comprehension, understanding and producing complex language, vocabulary and word knowledge, grammatical knowledge, phonological skills, and so much more. Allow me to illustrate how oral language skills are necessary for comprehension by confessing something embarrassing.

I am the worst at deciphering song lyrics. My best friend, Kendra, however, should be on that game show “Don’t Forget the Lyrics.” She was always my first choice in picking teams for Songburst. And when I can’t figure out what a song is saying, I call her.

Some embarrassing examples:

1) I was singing along with Kendra to the song “One” by U2, and belted out, “Love is a tent pole, love’s a higher love!” and she said, “Um, don’t you mean that love is a temple, love’s a higher law?” Ah yes, that makes more sense.

2) I was car singing (as I do) to Sean Kingson’s new song, “Replay” and I actually sang:

Shawty’s like a melody in my head,
That I can’t keep out
Got me singing like, la la la la every day,
Like an eyeball stuck on my plate, my plate.

Scrrrreeeeech (record scratches). Wait, what? That doesn’t make sense. But that’s exactly what it sounded like to me. I knew it could not be right (because of oral language skills, of course), but no matter how many times I heard it, I still heard eyeball stuck on my plate, my plate. Good thing my radio station plays this song like la la la la every day, because I finally got it…it’s like my iPod stuck on replay, replay.” Much more romantic than my eyeball lyric.*

Wait, what was my point? Ah yes, oral language. If one has a strong vocabulary and strong grammatical and semantic knowledge (how words go together and make meaning) then you are better able to understand what you read and produce written words. Let’s take another example. If you have ever studied a foreign language, you know that having limited vocabulary can significantly impair your ability to understand what you read. If you read “Tengo que practicar Espanol. Voy a charlar con mi amiga todos los dias” and you did not know the phrase “Tengo que” or the words “charlar” and “todos,” you would read, “Something to practice Spanish. I’m going to something with my friend something the days.” Say what?

Not having solid oral language skills can also impair writing. I always sound a little bit like Tonto when I write in Spanish, and/or super limited in my knowledge, because I avoid words I don’t know. Which sentence is better?

The student is exhibiting some symptoms associated with depression.


The student is being sad.

The latter sentence is about what I could produce in Spanish, with my limited vocabulary and oral language skills. I love nuance, and it just doesn’t work well without strong oral language skills. The same is true for our students who come with limited “academic” vocabulary or limited English.

So how can we promote oral language in the classroom and at home to give students the building blocks for reading and writing? I’m glad you asked. Here are a few strategies that span the grades; Some can be modified to be easier or harder, depending on what you teach. Some are from the New Teacher Project, some are classics, and I hope you can offer some more as well!

A Few Strategies for Building Oral Language Skills

1) Show and Tell. A classic for elementary students! Students bring an item from home that they want to talk about and there is a precious question and answer session that ensues.

2) Daily Oral Language (D.O.L.) Traditionally, this is an activity where each day, there is a prompt written on the board for students, such as a sentence written with incorrect grammar for students to correct individually. I prefer to have the students create grammatically correct sentences in small groups (like their tables or with a partner). For example, you could give the words “Since” “Robert” and “party” and have the students come up with a grammatically correct sentence and discuss as a whole group. Another example is to pre-teach a vocabulary word that you will use that day or in the next lesson. Show the vocabulary word and have students talk about its meaning together in a small group and have them draw a group picture representing that word. Share out with the large group. You can have kids draw the vocabulary word on a post-it and then stick it on the board next to the word.

3) Dramatic Vocabulary. This one is from my good friend, Beth, who taught 9th grade English. I think middle school kids could do it too. It’s kind of like vocabulary charades. The students get in a circle and the teacher has a set of cards with that week’s vocabulary words on them (the students can make these cards in groups before the activity for added learning). The teacher pulls a card and gives it to one student, who must act out the vocabulary word for the other students to guess. After it is correctly guessed, the students say, spell, and write the definition of the word together on the board.

4) Word Wall. Also a classic! I think it is used mostly in elementary and middle school, but I can see its value in secondary classrooms with added elements, such as grouping by prefix, suffix, roots, etc. Basically, it is a wall of words that are frequently used in the classroom that are posted for easy reference. Teachers, feel free to comment on how you elaborate on the classic Word Wall.

5) Debates and “Take A Stand” activities. You can start out by providing a prompt for a related lesson, such as “Every student should wear uniforms to school” for a lesson on persuasive writing. Place a line of masking tape in your classroom that ranges from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” with “not sure” in the middle. Have students “take a stand” on where they fall on the continuum. Then, group the students to form teams for a debate on the issue (“not sure” kids can be equally divided or be their own group). From there, you can provide reading materials for the students to support their argument, or begin a research project for students to find their own material for a debate.

6) Listening Activities. For the little ones, I like the classic game “telephone” where the kids get in a circle and the teacher whispers a sentence to the first kid, and they have to whisper the sentence to the next kid. The goal is to have the sentence be in tact at the end. It never is. Hilarity ensues. For older students, teaching listening skills can be in the form of teaching good note-taking skills during lecture. Give the class a list of key phrases that they want to listen for in a lecture such as, “This is important..”, “One of the main things…” “The first thing you have to do is…, etc”, “You will need to know…” To begin, you could ring a little bell or something when you use the key phrase, then transfer that job to a student.

7) Fancy Tech Stuff I must admit, there are many many tech applications that frighten me with their newfangledness. However, I really think that we should be harnessing the students’ natural interest in tech and social media. Maybe kids across the country could Sykpe-talk to each other about an issue/project/modern day pen pal thingy, build a personal word or spelling dictionary in their iPhones/iTouches, find an App for site words (there’s an app for that!), making a classroom Podcast, etc.

8) Consult with your Speech Language Pathologist. These people know oral language and will have good suggestions for students. My SLP friend says that “written language (reading/ writing) is overlaid on oral language skills so it is very rare for a student with poor oral skills to read or write with a level of proficiency – yet we rarely focus on increasing oral skills when difficulties are noticed with written language.” Amen sister. Go consult with these people. They are fabulous.

9) You tell me! I want you to practice your oral language skills too. Meanwhile, I will work on my lyrical analysis skills. ☺

*In general, I avoid the word “eyeball”. I think it sounds gross. Perhaps I have PTSD from when I had to dissect a sheep eyeball in order to study visual perception in school. Bleh.

Sharing is caring!

Comments on I’ve Got My Eye on You, Oral Language Skills.

  1. halpey1 says:

    Wow, awesome post with lots of good information. One thing I stole from another teacher I met while getting my Master's is a modification on the Word Wall. In addition to the traditional word wall, which can get cluttered, I put 'word clouds' in the 'sky' – I print out clouds with one word on each, laminate them, put a magnetic strip on the back, and put them on the metal pieces in between the awful drop ceiling pieces. Presto – another way for kids to discover and play with the words.

    They can just 'look up in the sky' to find and spell words, but our favorite game is when they all lay on the floor and I turn the lights off, get a flashlight and illuminated words. I call on them and they shout them out. Fun times. 🙂

  2. Kelley, fake reading specialist says:

    I know my Dr. B loves me when she posts about the importance of oral language. Now if only I had written that dissertation on the relations between narrative language skills in kindergarten and reading comprehension skills in third grade. Sigh. Instead I can just say that hearing stories, making up stories and retelling stories during the preschool years does wonders for the oral language skills that underlie early reading skills. Also that when talking with your children or your students and you expand, rephrase, question, clarify, etc. on what they say you are totally making them linguistically smart while expanding very little effort:)
    Also, as introduced to me by my five year-old Starfall.com is a great website that is fun and phonic-y. My three year old cannot work it but will sit and watch the five year old for as long as he is on the site.

  3. Rebecca says:

    @halpey- I love it! I wil pay it forward and share that suggestion with my kindie teachers next week!

    @kelley- It's never too late to get that dissertation done! 😉 You know, in your spare time. I love Starfall.com too. Very cute and engaging. Much like your children. I hope to visit you all in 2010!

  4. Anonymous says:


    Just a quick request/suggestion. In your textbook, are you discussing the need for progress monitoring? I think this is a key idea for special education teachers and would strongly advocate that it appears in your textbook. I think getting the basics of determining where students are at in their learning, instructing them, assessing them, and then adjusting the instruction to meet their needs – is a key concept that warrants attention. A lot of the time, kids have gaps in their learning and will greatly benefit from RTI practices of their teachers 🙂
    Off my soapbox now.


  5. Kirsten says:

    I like this post also. I do like strategy posts so I have an arsenal of tools in my quiver.

  6. Rebecca says:


    I love your soapbox! Indeed, progress monitoring and adjusting instruction accordingly is the main focus for helping close the achievement gap for students in special education. I think we need to get away from only assessing on a yearly basis with the Woodcock Johnson and saying, "There's progress because last year he was at 4.5 grade level and now he's at 5.5." He's still behind at the same rate because a year has passed, no? Plus, what the heck can you determine about instruction from the number 5.5? Is he struggling with decoding and that slows down the comprehension? Or is the decoding fine, but the comprehension is impaired? Etc.

    Now I'm off my soapbox. Keep fighting the good RtI fight, Lainie!!!

    @Kirsten: It's my New Year's Resolution to use the word "quiver" this year. Who says a quiver has to hold arrows? Bring on the weapons of mass instruction. 😉

  7. Anonymous says:

    Dear Dr. B,

    Please also note, if one has particular concern with a students' oral language skills, your friendly school site Speech-Language Pathologist should be considered an expert and would be able to conduct in depth testing and provide specific treatment strategies for said child ;-). This same "SLP" and might also be consulted for classroom activities and strategies. Shout out to the SLP's!!

  8. Kirsten says:

    I just Xeroxed a whole 20-week set of lessons on Daily Oral Language for my daughter's 1rst grade teacher. It had an sentence with an error for every day for the children to correct. I'm not 100% sure how she intended to use it; perhaps she isn't sure either, since she had borrowed it from another teacher.

    Anyway, she might be reading your blog. 🙂 :-O

  9. Edris says:

    I'm a bilingual school psychologist on the other side of the country. The academic language skills are a big part of the problem for ELL students and why ELLs are over-represented in special education from 5th grade on up. Thanks for paying attention to this.

    You've been an inspiration for me and I've started a blog that is focused primarily on educating ELL students. Please check it out! http://bilingualschoolpsychologist.blogspot.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *