Literature Review

The work of Asher (1977) and Krashen (1982) establish the research base for the common-sense notion that second language learners need ample opportunity to listen to and develop understanding of their new language. The language that they hear and understand becomes the linguistic input necessary for the process of language acquisition. Second language learners can better understand the language that they hear when contextual clues, such as actions, gestures, visuals, props, settings, and predictable routines, help make the meaning comprehensible (Echeverria, Vogt, & Short, 2004).

Teachers are advised to promote students' language development by simplifying and modifying their language in order to facilitate comprehension. Skillful teachers tune their speech modifications according to students' comprehension levels and prior knowledge. Researchers suggest that teachers should simplify less and less as students improve their understanding (Kliefgen, 1985; Snow, 1995; Yedlin, 2003, 2004).

Typically comprehension develops in advance of the ability to produce language. Therefore, students can understand more complex language than what they can produce (Asher, 1977). A message that is largely comprehensible but contains some challenging words or structures is generally considered optimal input for language acquisition. Many second language learners pass through a "silent period" during which they focus on comprehending and speak very little (Krashen, 1982). To monitor and advance students' comprehension during the period, teachers elicit and observe physical responses to instructions such as "Take out your crayons" or "Show me the lines of latitude on the map" (Asher, 1977; Krashen & Terrel, 1983). As teachers observe students’ appropriate responses, they can slowly begin to increase the complexity of their instructions and invite students to produce one-word answers, sentence completions, and short phrases.

Listening to stories, poems, and talk familiarizes ELLs with the sound system of English, preparing the way for accurate pronunciation and phonemic awareness (Verhoeven, 1999). Listening to interesting and comprehensible stories, poems, and instructional talk can also supply students with vocabulary (Hickman, Pollard-Durodola, & Vaughn, 2004) and with understanding of literary discourse conventions such as "Once upon a time" and "The End" (Elley, 1989; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). Read-alouds and other opportunities to listen to interesting and understandable oral language and texts are of critical importance to ELLs, as are opportunities to interact with peers and teachers about texts. Instructional conversations (Saunders & Goldenberg, 1998; Tharp & Gallimore, 1991) provide models of how listening to others builds academic discourse and comprehension skills.

Beginning ELLs who are not confident speaking in a group can benefit from listening to the language of their peers and experiencing academic conversation. Listening to their classmates' questions and comments in English and/or in a shared primary language can support ELLs' efforts to comprehend difficult texts. ELLs benefit from participating in and listening to conversations where explicit connections are made both between texts and the readers'; experiences and among texts (Au, 1979). Instructional conversations (Saunders & Goldenberg, 1998; Tharp & Gallimore, 1991), reciprocal teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984, 1987) and literature circles (Ruby, 2003) are among the approaches to conversation designed to help literacy learners make such connections.

Oral language is the foundation upon which literacy skills develop (Snow, 1983; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). Unlike students who come to school already proficient in English, English language learners (ELLs) depend greatly upon school for interactions that support the development of oral English skills, including academic talk (Bartolomé, 1998;Delpit, 1995; Gutiérrez, 1995; Reyes, 1992; Heath, 1982, 1985).

Many ELLs go through a "silent" or pre-production period during which they listen and observe more than they speak (Krashen, 1982). 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 (Cummins, 2001; Tabors, 1997) or in settings where they feel self-conscious and insecure (Krashen & Terrel, 1983). Small-group work, work with a partner, and one-on-one conferences or conversations with the teacher (Yedlin, 2003) may help ELLs feel more at ease speaking.

While ELLs acquire the language of socialization and daily life from social interaction with other students and adults (Tabors, 1997), they also require explicit instruction and modeling of the more formal language used in academic settings to talk about reading and writing (Bartolomé, 1998), as well as explicit instruction and feedback on language forms and usage (Fillmore & Snow, 2000).

Skillful second language teachers create verbal scaffolds and participation structures that support and extend language performance beyond what ELLs are able to produce independently (Chaudron, 1988; Ellis, 1994; Yedlin 2003, 2004). Goldenberg (1993) and Ellis (1994) suggest that participation in such collaborative discourse extends and develops second language learners' communication skills. Culturally relevant texts, multicultural literature, and acknowledgement of culturally diverse experiences all promote increased comprehension and engagement (Au, 1998, 1993; Barrera, 1992; Harris, 1994; Conant et al., 2001; Gonzalez, Huerta-Macias, & Tinajero, 1998).

Skillful teachers ask ELLs clarifying questions to elicit more complex language from them (Yedlin, 2003, 2004). Researchers have also noticed that the speech patterns of effective second language teachers contain a high frequency of utterances that serve to extend, expand, and or paraphrase learner utterances (Chaudron, 1988; Ellis, 1994). Such utterances provide students with good language models for more effectively expressing their ideas.

During daily sharing time and class discussions, ELLs’ contributions may be influenced by the narrative and conversational styles of their home communities as well as by their limited English proficiency (McCabe & Bliss, 2003). Researchers caution teachers not to confuse cross-cultural differences in style with cognitive deficit (Cazden, 2001; Delpit, 1995, Michaels, 1981). Teachers are advised to use print media, multicultural literature, and recordings to draw students' attention to diverse organizational patterns and to analyze the ways in which these differ (Adger, 1997). Activities such as situational role-playing can raise issues such as how to speak effectively in different roles and settings (e.g., talking with cousins at home or a college admissions interview) (Cazden, 2001; Heath, 1996; Gutiérrez, 1999).

Research shows that ELLs benefit from explicit instruction and modeling of how to participate in text-based discussions. Instructional conversations (IC) (Saunders & Goldenberg, 1998; Tharp & Gallimore, 1991) constitute one approach to structuring topic-centered and book-centered interactions. Through professional development, teachers learn how to promote discussion in which students explicitly build upon each other's contributions, ask for and provide clarifications, use complex language to express themselves, and provide text-based evidence for their opinions.

To help students meet the expectations for academic talk, Bartolomé (1998) advocates for assignments such as oral reports and formal presentations that have specific guidelines for academic talk; this sets these assignments apart from daily informal conversations. Literature circles are another discussion format with specified participant roles such as summarizer, questioner, and connector. Ruby (2003) and Heyden (2003) report on how ELL students can learn academic participation norms and develop oral language skills through the carefully scaffolded participation in literature circles.

Harris-Wright (1999) describes "bi-dialectical" programs where young speakers of African American vernacular English are taught strategies for helping make their oral and written narratives more understandable to listeners and readers from outside their communities. Such strategies include considering and supplying background information that their listeners may lack and organizing their accounts of events chronologically.


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Asher, J. (1977). Learning another language through actions. Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks Productions.

Au, K. H. (1979). Using the experience-text-relationship method with minority children. The Reading Teacher, 32, 677-679.

Au, K. H. (1993). Literacy instruction in multicultural settings. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Au, K. H. (1998). Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research, 20, 297-319.

Barrera, R. B. (1992). The cultural gap in literature-based literacy instruction. Education and Urban Society, 24, 227-243.

Bartolomé, L. I. (1998). The misteaching of academic discourses: The politics of language in the classroom. Boulder: Westview Press.

 Cazden, C. (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann.

Chaudron, C. (1988). Second language classrooms: Research on teaching and learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Conant, F., Rosebery, A., Warren, B., & Hudicourt-Barnes, J. (2001). The sound of drums. In E. McIntyre, A. Rosebery & N. Gonzalez (Eds.), Building bridges: Linking home and school (pp. 51-60). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cummins, J. (2001). Language, power and pedagogy. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.

Dickinson, D., & Tabors, P. (2001). Beginning literacy with language. Baltimore: Paul E. Brookes.

Echeverria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2004). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP model. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Elley, W. (1989). Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories. Reading Research Quarterly, 24(2), 174-187.

Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Fillmore, L. W., & Snow, C. E. (2000). What teachers need to know about language. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

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Gonzalez, M. L., Huerta-Macias, A., & Tinajero, J. V., (Eds.) (1998). Educating Latino students: A guide to successful practice. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing Company.

Gutiérrez, K. (1995). Unpackaging academic discourse. Discourse Processes, 19(1), 21-38.

Gutiérrez, K., Baquedano-Lopez, P., & Tejeda, C. (1999). Rethinking diversity: Hybridity and hybrid language practices in the third space. Mind, Culture, & Activity: An International Journal, 6(4), 286-303.

Harris, V. J. (1994). Multiculturalism and children’s literature. In F. Lehr & J. Osborn (Eds.), Reading, language, and literacy: Instruction for the twenty-first century (pp. 201-214). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Harris-Wright, K. (1999). Enhancing bidialectalism in urban African American students. In Adger, C. T., Christian, D. & Taylor, O. (Eds.), Making the connection: Language and academic achievement among African American students. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers.

Heath, S. B. (1982). Questioning at home and at school: A comparative study. In G. Spindler (Ed.), Doing the ethnography of schooling (pp. 103-131). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Heath, S. B. (1985). Literacy or literate skills? Considerations for ESL/EFL learners. In Larson, L., Judd, E. L., & Messerschmidt, D. S. (Eds.), On TESOL ’84: A Brave New World for TESOL. Washington, DC: TESOL.

Heath, S. B. (1996). Ways with words. Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Heyden, R. (2003). Literature circles as a differentiated instructional strategy for including ESL students in mainstream classrooms. Canadian Modern Language Review, 59(3), 463-475.

Hickman, P., Pollard-Durodola, S., Vaughn, S. (2004). Storyboook reading: Improving vocabulary and comprehension for English language learners. The Reading Teacher, 57(8), 720-30.

Kliefgen, J. (1985). Skilled variation in a kindergarten teacher’s use of foreigner talk. In S. Gass & C. Madden (Eds.), Input in second language acquisition. New York: Newbury House.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practices in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, S., & Terrel, T. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. Hayward, CA: The Alemany Press.

McCabe, A., & Bliss, L. S. (2003). Patterns of narrative discourse: A multicultural, life span approach. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Michaels, S. (1981). "Sharing time": Children's narrative styles and differential access to literacy. Language and Society, 10, 423-442.

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Palinscar, A., & Brown. A. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2), 117-175.

Palinscar, A., & Brown, A. (1987). Can student discussion boost comprehension? Instructor, 96(5).

Reyes, M. (1992). Challenging venerable assumptions: Literacy instruction for linguistically different students. Harvard Educational Review, 62(4), 427-446.

Ruby, J. (2003). Fostering multilayered literacy through literature circles. TESOL Journal, 12(3), 47-48.

Saunders, W., & Goldenberg, C. (1998). The effects of instructional conversations and literature logs on the story comprehension and thematic understanding of English proficient and limited English proficient students. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence.

Snow, C. E. (1983). Literacy and language: Relationships during the pre-school years. Harvard Educational Review, 53, 165-189.

Snow, C. E. (1995). Issues in the study of input: Fine-tuning, universality, individual and developmental differences, and necessary causes. In B. MacWhinney & P. Fletcher (Eds.), Handbook of Child Language. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, S., (Eds). (1998). Preventing reading failure in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Tabors, P. O. (1997). One child, two languages. Baltimore: Brookes.

Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (1991). The instructional conversation: Teaching and learning in social activity. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence, NCRCDSLL Research Reports.

Verhoeven, L. (1999). Second language reading. In D. Wagner, R. L. Venezky, & B. Street (Eds.), Literacy: An international handbook. Boulder: Westview Press.

Yedlin, J. (2003). Teacher talk and writing development in an urban, English-as-a-second-language, first-grade classroom. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Yedlin, J. (2004, January/February). Teacher talk: Enabling ELLs to "grab on" and climb high. Perspectives. Available: