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Don’t Forget about the Talk! Boosting Oral Language in Small-Group Reading

This is a guest post by Shannon Croston. 

As a literacy coach in an international school, where almost all of our students are learning English as a second (or third!) language, I often hear this question: How do I foster students’ language development alongside their reading development?

Are you wondering the same thing? Here is one way to do it.

PASS

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Picture Warm-Up

Start your guided reading or small-group reading lesson with a short, student-led conversation about a picture. Think about the words in the book or text they will be reading that may be new to students or may be somewhat unfamiliar. Vincent Ventura suggests finding a picture that can evoke an emotion or reaction that will give your students the opportunity to use that vocabulary before they jump into the book. It is this emotion or reaction that will start the conversation. Reveal the picture in a dramatic way and then get out of the way. This is a student-to-student talk; no teacher involvement! You may even choose to stand behind the students so they will look and talk to one another. The goal is for them to use whatever words they have independently and to feel confident expressing themselves.

Younger children love funny animal pictures and older students tend to be motivated by surprising action shots. This could be a picture from the book, or just an image you found online that references words you know students will encounter when reading.

Use the students’ ideas to segue into your book introduction. Since your students were just engaged in talking about the ideas in the book, they will be ready to learn new key vocabulary. They will be motivated to use these new words because the words stem from their own conversation.

Ask questions

As you begin your small-group reading lesson, be conscious of your own language. Push yourself to ask questions instead of instructing as much as possible. Who’s Doing the Work suggests instead of guiding students to do a picture walk before reading, ask them, “What can we do to get ready to read this book?” When a student gets stuck on a word, don’t tell them what strategy to use. Ask them, “What can you do to try to solve that word?” Give students as much opportunity to do the talking and thinking as possible. Be a facilitator and depend on asking questions so that students can practice explaining their thinking and using language to think through the process.

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Shared Writing

The next step in boosting oral language during small group reading comes after the reading. Ask comprehension questions that explicitly set students up to use new vocabulary from the book. Always allow students to answer in turn-and-talk partnerships so that every student can answer every question, thereby significantly raising the amount of language used compared to answering one question and listening to others.

Solidify this language practice by turning the comprehension discussion after reading into a shared writing experience. Have each student choose one idea or thought about the book. Before sharing with the group, allow students to say their idea in a complete sentence to their partner to rehearse, which is important for language learners. Encourage students to use the new vocabulary words and share as detailed a sentence as they can.

As each student shares their sentence out loud, you may choose to take a quick moment to talk about different ways to express an idea in English. For example, if a student shares “The house of the boy is big” you can introduce possessives in English and offer the suggestion “The boy’s house is big.” It is important that you are not correcting students, but rather guiding them to other possibilities for sentence structures to express the same idea. If students feel that you are correcting them, it will seriously inhibit them from taking risks and trying to use more complicated vocabulary and sentences. Allow the students to choose if or how they would like to reword or lengthen their sentences, and then write the student’s sentence onto a piece of chart paper. Doing the writing of the sentences for the students provides a scaffold for all of their attention to be focused on the language.

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Shared Reading

What about fluency? The text, or sentences, created by the students during the share writing on chart paper can be an excellent source for shared reading. You can end the lesson, or begin the next day’s lesson, with a choral read and rereading opportunities. Students are invested in this text because it was created with their ideas. If you guided an effective language discussion as students created their sentences, the resulting text should be just outside of the students’ productive language parameters. This group read will take only a few short minutes but will have a big impact.

PASS fits into a balanced literacy classroom and can be used in pieces or in its entirety. Supporting students’ language development is key to English learners’ success during reading instruction.

Shannon Croston works with P–5 teachers as a literacy coach at the American School of Guatemala. She draws on 11 years of teaching experience in Georgia, Connecticut, and Washington, now focusing on English learners in an international setting.