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The importance of oral language.

While teachers of both younger and older children work hard to provide their students with the best literacy experiences, oral language is often neglected in the classroom. The following articles on oral language development were selected and reviewed by Lynn Kirkland, associate professor of early childhood education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Director of the Children's Creative Learning Center, a summer enrichment program and graduate practicum site for the university.--J.A.

Oral language is crucial to a child's literacy development, including listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. While the culture of the child influences the patterns of language, the school environment can enable children to refine its use. As children enter school, they bring diverse levels of language acquisition to the learning process. Therefore, teachers face the challenge of meeting the individual needs of each language learner, as well as discerning which methods work most effectively in enhancing language development. Conflicting messages regarding methodology in oral language development have resulted in a heavy reliance on programs and "quick fixes," inhibiting the use of authentic, contextualized language experiences in classrooms.

Most recently, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has placed an overemphasis on using standardized means of testing children, while holding schools accountable for systematic progress during the year. Although NCLB emphasizes scientific research based teaching methods, many of these methods primarily promote the teaching of discrete pieces of information and a fragmented curriculum (Aldridge, 2003). The development of oral language, which ultimately affects all aspects of curriculum, has been relegated to a mere incidental byproduct of many classrooms, in order to allow time to drill children on test items. Additionally, as curriculum is pushed down into the primary grades, teachers feel the need to spend time on academic content, rather than allowing children opportunities to build language.

The journal articles chosen for this column represent current conversations in the education field regarding innovative ways to encourage practitioners to overlay curriculum, with a focus on the development of oral language.

LET'S TALK: A Different Approach to Oral Language Development. Woodward, C., Haskins, G., Schaefer, G., & Smolen, L. Young Children, 2004, 59(4), 92-95. Teachers in Buffalo, New York, were concerned over finding a two-year deficit in language among their kindergarten children. Knowing that oral language is a predictor in the literacy development of children, the teachers implemented "table talk" in their preschool and kindergarten urban classrooms. After participating in professional development regarding the development of oral language, the teachers introduced the "Let's Talk" approach to facilitate children's interactions. Using the Brigance screening test to identify children with low language skills, these children were paired with classmates who had higher language skills for 15 minutes per day. The role of each teacher was to manage the centers, which comprised boxes of carefully selected dramatic play toys, and stimulate conversation, if needed. Pre- and posttest results showed positive improvements across such survey factors as vocabulary, comprehension, information, main idea, and gesturing.

As teachers engaged in ongoing professional development designed to provide feedback about the program, they reported growth in many areas related to oral language development in all the children chosen for the project. The teachers also felt more confident in refining the planning and implementation of oral language activities in their classrooms.

Several factors seemed to contribute to the success of the Let's Talk approach to oral language development:

* Children worked together in designated pairs at the tables, with little intervention from adults.

* Manipulatives used for the table talks were rotated weekly to initiate new conversations.

* Teachers modeled literature and vocabulary related to the manipulatives each week.

* Opportunities for sharing with others were provided routinely in the classroom.

* Extensions related to the manipulatives were integrated throughout the curriculum.

This article brings a fresh perspective to dramatic play in early childhood classrooms. Teachers will find the table talk approach in this article easy to implement in their classrooms.

USING TEXT TALK AS A GATEWAY TO CULTURALLY RESPONSIVE TEACHING. Conrad, N., Gong, Y., Sipp, L., & Wright, L. Early Childhood Education Journal, 2004, 31(3), 187-192. This article describes how theory and strategy were combined to examine the potential benefits for children who find reading to be a challenge. The theoretical foundation of culturally responsive teaching was used to include children's language and background when facilitating literacy connections. Culturally responsive teaching, as posited by Neuman (1999), affects curriculum through: 1) recognition and value of the child's culture, 2) promotion of collaboration, 3) establishment of high standards and expectations of all children, and 4) appreciation of the importance of continuity between literacy found in the home and in the school.

The strategy, Text Talk (Beck & McKeown, 2001), typically used with emergent readers, uses challenging texts to develop oral language and comprehension through focused read alouds. Texts are carefully selected to represent topics that are relevant to the child's world. The authors combined Text Talk with culturally responsive teaching to facilitate the potential for engagement with challenging content language and ideas.

The authors reviewed videotapes of the sessions and found that children who participated in this intervention engaged in more thoughtful and in-depth discussions than those who participated in more literal classrooms discussions. Although illustrations are not typically used in the Text Talk strategy, they were found to be useful in discussions concerning carefully selected literature.

As practitioners, we must continue to look for innovative, more culturally sensitive ways to connect school with children's life experiences. Culturally responsive teaching through Text Talk provides an option to bridge this gap, opening the door for more opportunities for the development of oral language and comprehension in the pursuit of literacy.

HELPING YOUNG CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS DEVELOP VOCABULARY. Goldstein, P. Early Childhood Education Journal, 2004, 32(1), 39-43. Effective inclusive early childhood education classrooms focus on the role of language development in literacy. Even though many assessments used in early childhood classrooms evaluate language development, there is little evidence that these assessments are being used to drive instruction. In fact, Rowell (1998) found that only 10 percent of 67 preschool classes observed used purposeful instruction with vocabulary. Historically, many teachers have taken a more incidental approach to language development, resulting in greater literacy deficits by grade 3.

The author of this article recommends embedded learning opportunities (ELO) to enhance the potential for language learning through purposeful experiences. The specific techniques used in ELO are self-talk, parallel talk, expansion, and elaboration. These techniques are infused into the learning centers of the classroom, with a target on specific vocabulary related to the experiences in the centers.

The author examined the children's language development in a quantitative and qualitative manner. Quantitative language, or the number of words a child uses, is an important predictor of literacy success. Research suggests that teachers could use targeted questions to promote the development of new language by the children who begin school with a deficit in language. In planning particular centers or activities, teachers can consider the type of vocabulary stimulated by the activity and the vocabulary children might need to interact with others appropriately during the activity. Additionally, the teacher should look at connections that could be made with the functional activities of the home and school. Finally, teachers can think about the academic and social vocabulary the child would need in the future. Even children who come to school with a large vocabulary need to have their vocabulary enhanced continually.

Qualitative language development, as represented through indepth usage in multiple contexts, focuses on the nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc., needed in a particular area of the room. The dramatic play area is an example of a context where children use language that is familiar both at home and in school. The hope is that rich language experiences can help children begin to use more sophisticated ways of speaking in all contexts.

TEACHER-CHILD CONVERSATION IN THE PRESCHOOL CLASSROOM. Massey, S. Early Childhood Education Journal, 2004, 31(4), 227-231. This article focuses on the cognitively challenging conversations that occur at critical times during the preschool day, and that provide opportunities for teachers and caregivers to model and promote oral language and literacy development. These conversations "engage children in conversations that involve explanations, personal narrative, and pretend play where children create and re-create events, analyze experiences, and share opinions and ideas" (p. 227). This is different from the traditional talk found in many classrooms, which typically is centered around procedural or management information.

Massey provides ways to incorporate the four levels of abstract language into classroom interactions. Moving from a low form of complexity, such as labeling objects, to higher level skills of reasoning related to making predictions, solving problems, and explaining concepts, children develop discourse along a continuum of complexities. These levels of language development are best incorporated through the contexts of book reading, playtime, and mealtimes.

The author encourages teachers to thoughtfully plan for rich talk related to book readings, recommending 45 minutes per day for reading aloud. The talk used should be both immediate, relating to the actual reading experience, and nonimmediate, using the illustrations of books to initiate high-level questioning. Rereading provides natural venues for these conversations. Dialogic reading allows children to retell the story (including their personal elaborations), thereby building oral language skills and, ultimately, literacy skills.

Teachers should also make themselves available to interact with children during playtime. A teacher who is stationary in the classroom is more likely to engage children in cognitively challenging conversations than one who is circulating around the room. Teachers also can promote pretend talk by modeling or providing props to retell stories. This pretend talk encourages children to make connections between their play in the classroom and at their homes. Meal/snack times are also good opportunities to introduce unfamiliar vocabulary within a relevant context. As we listen to the topics that children are conversing about, we can interject vocabulary or elaborate on children's conversations.

Massey promotes a targeted planning of rich conversation opportunities in preschool classrooms. She states that a focus on talk during the day seems to have a greater impact as a predictor of literacy success for young children than does the classroom environment.

HOW BABIES USE GESTURES TO COMMUNICATE. Honig, A. Scholastic Early Childhood Today, 2004, September, 26-28. Infants and toddlers first attempt to communicate through gestures. They express their emotional and physical needs through such gestures as holding out their arms to be picked up and tugging on adults' hair or pointing to objects in an attempt to get adults' attention.

The response of adults to children's gesturing affects children's development of verbal communication. Honig explains that seemingly simple activities that encourage children's gesturing, such as fingerplays, are important interactions between adults and babies. Adults should label the objects children need to identify to encourage association between objects and language. Modeling appropriate gestures ensures that children begin to build on interactions that will aid their social development.

Through gesturing, the toddlers' communicative world expands. Large motor games, such as ring-around-the-rosie, encourage talk among peers. Toddlers also can enjoy copycat gestures. The important point to remember is that any gesture activities planned for toddlers should be appropriate for their age and development.

A letter for parents is included in the article to promote understanding and patience with babies and toddlers as they make sense of the world. Teachers can use the letter as a model to educate parents in their classrooms about this important part of a child's language development.

HELPING CHILDREN COMMUNICATE. Seefeldt, C. Scholastic Early Childhood Today, 2004, September, 36, 39, 41. This excellent article by Carol Seefeldt is a comprehensive examination of children's language development and the roles that adults play in that journey. The variety of language used at home and school has a direct bearing on children's literacy. Because of the complexity of the language development processes, caregivers in the home and school need to be aware of ways to enhance opportunities for children to learn effective communication.

In school, teachers facilitate language development opportunities through environments that provide safety and security so that children feel enabled to explore with language. Children feel valued when their expressions are acknowledged in a respectful manner. Teachers can enhance the development of language by elaborating on children's stories, rather than correcting them. The diversity of languages and dialects brought to the classroom by children and teachers enhances such opportunities. Seefeldt includes ideas for teachers to use when working with children who are English language learners.

A well-planned environment provides children access to materials needed for exploration and talk with peers about their ideas. Within these social interactions, children negotiate their understandings of the world and their role in it. In this article, the reader can find examples of appropriate materials for centers in the classroom that enhance children's language development. When teachers plan centers around a common topic, children are more likely to make connections with their world and construct associated language.

The teacher's role in the classroom is to model language, elaborating on children's expressions when appropriate. Validation of children's ideas encourages them to become risk takers as they navigate the schooling process. Acknowledging both the positive and negative emotions of children helps them to develop the language they need when interacting with peers. This provides a foundation for compromise and negotiation as children mature. Even seemingly insignificant nonverbal signals, changes in voice tones, and facial expressions cue children about appropriate social interactions.

Parents' roles in children's language develop is crucial. Seefeldt includes suggestions for parents to help build communication skills in the home through reading, language games, listening, and storytelling. As parents begin to learn to understand the development of their child, they build more effective communication skills.

When we consider the complex process of language development, it is understandable that teachers, parents, and children feel ambiguous about how it occurs. This article provides a resource for all levels of caregivers to help children become successful language learners, and ultimately literacy learners.

WORKING WITH FAMILIES AS PARTNERS IN EARLY LITERACY. Strickland, D. The Reading Teacher, 2004, 58(1), 86-88. The role of parents in children's literacy development is critical. Quality early childhood programs recognize the importance of educating parents so they can scaffold their children's literacy development in the home. Strickland emphasizes the interrelatedness of oral language and literacy and the role parents play in facilitating that process.

Children's early knowledge about speaking and listening contributes to the development of their reading and writing. Since language and literacy develop together, parents can engage children in chants, songs, and rhymes to facilitate the phonological awareness needed for success with early reading skills. If this language and literacy development is impeded, school achievement lags, initially and throughout the primary grades. Additionally, the experiences parents provide for children should be contextual in nature, rather than provided in isolation. Typically, parents need to be informed about this point; as they perform the everyday functional literacy tasks, they also can provide the modeling needed to facilitate language development.

Language develops differently for children who come from homes that are language-poor. Hart and Risely (1995) found that not only are these children exposed to different kinds of words in their homes, but the words are fewer in number and typically used in a more punitive manner. Therefore, the amount of vocabulary a child constructs is greatly affected by this lack of discourse in the home. Consequently, Strickland provides key implications for parents and educators to recognize in order to provide quality experiences for children in oral language and print activities.

A FRAMEWORK AND SUGGESTED GUIDELINES FOR PREKINDERGARTEN CONTENT STANDARDS. Schickedanz, J. The Reading Teacher, 2004, 58(1), 95-97. Have we put the proverbial "cart before the horse" with regard to content standards for preschoolers? As part of the Distinguished Educator series on "The Role of Literacy in Early Childhood Education," Schickedanz suggests that the content standards for preschools should reflect our knowledge of the research related to language and literacy development. With the pressure placed on schools to meet specific benchmarks with the No Child Left Behind legislation, educators are becoming more concerned about what our preschools are teaching. The results of this concern have been an overemphasis on literacy skills and a lack of emphasis on oral language skills. Schickedanz warns that such a view of literacy learning will not serve children well. Although some educators believe that oral language does not directly affect literacy skills (Snow, 2002; Storch & Whitehurst, 2002), poor language skills do tend to affect reading achievement in the primary years (Hart & Risley, 1995).

In consideration of this shift in thinking, the author proposes a more balanced look at content standards for preschools that would include language and literacy. The article concludes with a proposed example of prekindergarten content standards that states could consider. Administrators will find this table very helpful in redefining and evaluating the content of preschool and early childhood curriculums.


Aldridge, J. (2003). Rethinking the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Childhood Education, 80, 45-47.

Beck, I., & McKeown, M. (2001). Text talk: Capturing the benefits of read-aloud experiences for young children. The Reading Teacher, 55(1), 10-20.

Hart, T., & Risely, B. (1995). Meaningful differences in the early experience of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.

Neuman, S. (1999). Creating continuity in early literacy: Linking home and school with a culturally responsive approach. In L. B. Gambrell, L. M. Morrow, S. B. Neuman, & M. Pressley (Eds.), Best practices in literacy instruction (pp. 258-270). New York: The Guilford Press.

Rowell, E. (1998). A letter a week, a story a day, and some missed opportunities along the way: A study of literacy in prekindergarten classes. Child Study Journal, 28, 201-211.

Snow, C. (2002). Ensuring reading success for African American children. In B. Bowman (Ed.), Love to read (pp. 17-30). Washington, DC: National Black Child Development Institute.

Storch, S., & Whitehurst, G. (2002). Oral language and code-related precursors to reading: Evidence from a longitudinal structural model. Developmental Psychology, 38, 934-947.
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Title Annotation:Among The Periodicals
Author:Aldridge, Jerry
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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