As educators, we don’t expect children entering kindergarten to be able to add or subtract digits or understand basic science principles and concepts. Yet, there is an expectation that these young students will be ready to demonstrate basic pre-reading skills, including rudimentary speaking and listening abilities. Also known as oral language skills, these form the crucial platform on which literacy—the gateway skills—is built. Yet the truth is, before the first bell rings, we know that many young learners are entering our schools with a wide disparity of skills and background knowledge.
These students face the daunting challenge of having to learn twice as fast as their on-level peers. Typically, these high-risk students begin their schooling one-to-three years behind grade level, and if not addressed early, these gaps will persistent or grow throughout their academic experience. Only when we accelerate learning, through both teacher-led and technology-driven personalized instruction, can we change the trajectory for these students and break the cycle that exists for them.
So as we enter the exciting back-to-school season, here is a list of strategies that we used at Burleson Elementary that can build those all-important oral language skills.
- More IS More. Provide a rich context for language-centered learning; not just more instructional time and smaller instructional groups, but instruction that is precisely targeted at the right level, provides clearer and more detailed explanations (explicit instruction), corrective feedback, guided practice, and systematic instruction.
- Listen Up. Build auditory memory though dramatic play, games, poetry, rhymes, and songs. Also, genuinely listen to students while modeling good listening skills, eye contact, conversational turn-taking, and effective questioning.
- Picture This. Research emphasizes the importance of teaching strategies for analyzing text and honing the process of comprehension. Techniques such as visualizing a story in one’s mind while listening or reading can be extremely powerful for students who struggle with basic comprehension skills.
- Practice Makes Perfect. Use a web-based reading curriculum – we chose Lexia Reading Core5 – where students can practice and learn foundational reading skills at their own pace and receive additional levels of scaffolding and explicit instruction. For example, in order to narrow individual learning gaps, students can use the online curriculum to review spelling rules before they have teacher-led instruction. Students can also extend their individual learning with independent, paper-based practice activities.
- Think Outside the Computer Lab. At Burleson, we used a reading lab to provide student access to computers and encouraged heterogeneous groups so that students with lower vocabulary skills and limited background knowledge could benefit from hearing the discussions of their peers. We also added school-to-home access as well as before- and after-school sessions, depending on the needs of our students.
The key to oral language instruction is to cultivate an early and intensive focus on those skills before students are expected to read independently. Once we have addressed those basic requirements, we can meet the imperative of having all students read at grade level and succeed in all other subject areas.
Pamela Howard is the Assistant Superintendent of Special Education and former Principal of Burleson Elementary in the El Paso (Tex.) Independent School District.