Oral language provides the foundation for literacy development. English language learners (ELLs) need daily opportunities to learn and practice oral English in order for their literacy skills to flourish. ELLs learn English primarily by listening to language in use around them, while using context to figure out what the spoken words mean. This language serves as the input or data that learners internalize and use to express their own meanings in their interactions with others.
It is important to consider that many ELLs go through a "silent period," during which they listen and observe more than they speak. ELLs may speak at first in single words or short phrases. They may speak fluently when using greetings and other basic phrases in routine interpersonal situations, but speak haltingly when constructing English sentences to express more complex ideas. Effective teachers are aware that ELLs who are quiet in class may be hard at work listening and comprehending. Teachers also know that ELLs may take longer to answer a question or volunteer a comment, because they need more time to process meaning and formulate an appropriate response.
ELLs' speech may be ungrammatical, reflecting their lack of experience with English word order, grammatical patterns, or word endings. Their speech may be "accented," reflecting lack of experience with English sounds, rhythms, and stress patterns. As a result, ELLs may feel self-conscious about speaking, especially in large groups. Criticism, ridicule, and public correction exacerbate these anxieties. ELLs are likely to be more comfortable speaking in small groups.
ELLs may over-use high frequency words like nice or go until they acquire a larger repertoire of more differentiated words, such as beautiful, happy, entertaining, kind, generous or leave, depart, travel, journey, race, hike, skip. While young ELLs naturally acquire the language of play and daily life from social interaction with other students and adults, ELLs require explicit instruction and modeling of the more formal language used in academic settings to talk about reading and writing. In addition, as they listen to literature that is read aloud, Ells become familiar with its language (e.g., "Once upon a time . . . " and ". . . happily ever after") and its structure (introduction of characters, setting, problem, and solution), which are important prerequisites for reading.
With time and lots of opportunities to listen, observe, participate, and interact, ELLs progress in understanding and are able to produce language that is increasingly complete, complex, and grammatical. This is similar to the natural way that most young children learn the languages spoken by their families at home – in the context of activities and relationships.
In some cultures, discussion and story telling are filled with personal anecdotes that are implicitly rather than explicitly connected to the topic. Teachers may sometimes perceive such narratives as rambling or confused. Effective teachers strive to understand such cultural differences and respect them, while at the same time helping children add more sequential and topic centered styles to their repertoire.
Conferences about writing and other opportunities for one-on-one conversations with a teacher provide great support for the development of topic-centered narrative styles for use in academic contexts. In addition, use of their native language can provide ELLs with much-needed clarification, explanation, and self-expression as they go through the difficult process of learning to speak, read, and write in English.