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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Does Oral Language Instruction Improve Literacy?

November 28, 2017

Teacher question

I’ve looked at your framework and am surprised that it doesn’t include oral language. I’m a kindergarten teacher and can’t imagine leaving that out. Am I misunderstanding something?

Shanahan's answer

I feel your pain.

Yes, you’re correct that my framework focuses on the teaching of phonological awareness, decoding/spelling, vocabulary, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. But not oral language.

And, like you, I agonize over that omission (if it is one).

I emphasize PA, phonics, and the rest of those literacy components as the focus of teaching because research shows that teaching those things leads to improvements in literacy. You teach kids to write better and their reading improves. You teach them to read fluently and their comprehension goes up … and so on.

I don't include oral language in my framework because there aren’t studies showing that direct and explicit teaching of oral language results in improved literacy. At least not with first-language learners. (It’s different with ELLs — teach them oral English and their English literacy improves. For those students I’m a big fan of Claude Goldenberg’s research findings that providing explicit oral English lessons to ELLs is beneficial.)

Without evidence that teaching oral language improves literacy, I’m unwilling to include it in my framework.

The reason I agonize over my choice is because so many respected experts include it in their theories of literacy development (at least for young children); see The Prevention of Reading Difficulties (1998) , for example. Also, there is extensive correlational evidence showing a close connection between young children’s oral language development and their later reading comprehension success (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008). That is, the kids who are best with language tend to learn to comprehend better than other kids (similar to the ELL finding that kids with the most proficient literacy gain the most from reading comprehension instruction).

But that doesn’t mean giving kids explicit language teaching would necessarily improve their reading significantly. The kids with the best language tend to have the most educated parents and other helpful resources. Perhaps, it is greater parenting support that matters rather than language that we're picking up on.

What we need are studies showing that explicit teaching of oral language results in some kind of improvement in literacy. Unfortunately, such studies don’t yet exist.

That’s true of studies in general, and it is true when we are discussing studies of reading to kids.

Don’t get me wrong. I read to kids daily when I taught, and I read a lot to my own children when they were growing up (and these days I read to my grandkids). But as positive as the research on reading to children is, the findings show improvements in oral language not reading. Basically, reading to kids has been found to improve their oral vocabulary, but usually these improvements have been on vocabulary measures not closely related to reading. Do those vocabulary gains transfer to reading? It’s possible, but not yet been proven.

However, just because I wouldn’t add an oral language component to my framework, doesn’t mean that I think preschool and primary grade teachers should ignore oral language. Oral language should be supported all day long in such classrooms, but within instruction — not as the focus of instruction. 


Recently, colleagues at Mathematica and I conducted a large study (more than 1000 classrooms) of preschool and primary grade teaching. We found that various activities thought to build oral language were related to oral language development and reading comprehension, but many of these activities weren’t especially common. See research report here.

Teachers talked a lot in these classrooms (the average was a whopping 13½ minutes of talk per 15-minute instructional segment) … and about 70% of this talk focused on instructional content — as opposed to just giving directions or providing behavioral management. Teachers asked a lot of questions (80% of the segments that could include questions did so), and usually teachers gave kids enough time to answer them (76% of the time they gave 3-5 seconds). And, a lot of those questions (68%) were open-ended, meaning that kids would have an opportunity to give more extended answers. With the exception of the amount of teacher talk (which seems high to me), these are positive supports to children’s language.

I wish it were all that good. Only 14% of the time were kids encouraged to speak with each other about the academic matter at hand. Two-thirds of the occasions that student interaction was part of the lesson the amount of time devoted to this was less than 4 minutes. Similarly, the various methods adults use to build kids’ language (e.g., expanding on the students’ answers, narrating their own actions or the actions of the students, encouraging open-ended questions); these kinds of things took place only about 4% of the time when they could have been used.

Given what we now know, if the goal is improved literacy, then the best way to deal with oral language is by dealing with it throughout the school day — within the teaching, not as the focus of the teaching (this is different for ELLs and for kids with serious language disorders). But apparently few teachers know how to support kids language or how to provide such supports.

Students — even in the earliest grades — need opportunities to talk through academic problems, with teachers and other students. These conversations should be extended at times. Teachers who use think-pair-shares, guided instructional conversations, and who teach kids to participate effectively in group discussions are on the side of the angels.

I would argue not for changing my framework, but for more study of language development and support. Professional development on language for all preschool and primary grade teachers would make a lot of sense to me. Does your district provide that?

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"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox