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Four activities for teaching oral language skills

Research has demonstrated that a child’s oral language skill level is an important predictor of their reading comprehension and writing skills.
Oral Language Activities

What is oral language?

The term “oral language” encompasses five main areas: phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. 

  • Phonology – the organisation of speech sounds in languages.
  • Morphology – refers to morphemes, a meaningful unit of a language that cannot be further divided (eg, in, come, -ing)
  • Semantics – refers to the meaning of words and phrases, including vocabulary knowledge.
  • Syntax – rules used to organise and combine words into correct sentences.
  • Pragmatics – the skill of adapting language in social settings.

How does oral language impact literacy development?

Explaining the link between oral language and literacy development, Sandy Smith, author of Say, Read, Succeed says:

‘Good readers have great phonemic awareness and can effectively sound words out. They also have great sentence production skills and can apply this knowledge when listening for their own reading errors then self-correct appropriately. These same skills help with writing too.’

Research has demonstrated that a child’s oral language skill level is an important predictor of their reading comprehension and writing skills (Konza, 2016), (Lervag et al, 2018), (Oxley & de Cat, 2021).

Furthermore, oral language helps children build relationships. Jenny Pyatt explains in Let’s Talk – Book 2, that ‘successfully using words in sentences enables students to communicate with their classmates and teachers’.

Strong oral language skills grants a child greater agency. Pyatt adds, ‘Students who have diverse vocabulary can use their words in exciting ways. They can question, reason, argue and solve problems.’

Activity 1: What makes a good speech?

Students have five minutes to question the person next to them about their life.

Students then stand up one at a time in small groups and introduce the person next to them.

Discuss afterwards, as a class, which speeches were more interesting and why. Did the speaker give an example, use humour, or suchlike?

Talk it Up Book 1 by Maria Gill, includes lots of activities suitable for primary students that will help them to write and present different styles of oral language.

Activity 2: The rhyming bag

In Oral Language for the Junior Classroom, Jenny Pyatt shares this activity:

Print a label with the words ‘Can you guess what’s in this bag? It rhymes with __________.’ onto card and laminate it.

Oral language activity

Stick the label onto a large, reusable bag.

Children take turns to take home the bag and find an object to put in it. They also take home a marker pen to complete the label with a word that rhymes with the object they have found.    

When the child brings the bag back to school, the rest of the class tries to work out what is inside the bag, using the rhyming clue.

Activity 3: What if stories

Here is an activity that draws on the imagination to encourage students to use expressive oral language.

As a class, discuss some “what if” questions such as: What if everything in the world was purple?

What if everything you touched turned to gold? What if all people had four legs?            

Ask the children to suggest some “what if” ideas of their own.

Use this activity to spark some impromptu speeches.

Speaking in Sentences Book 4 by Jenny Pyatt offers loads of great activities that help middle to upper primary students practice the standard components of any oral language programme.

Activity 4: Storytelling clues

Storyteller and early childhood educator Mary Jo Huff has written several books on the important role that storytelling can play in primary students’ oral language and literacy development. In Story Play Book 1 she suggests leaving clues around the classroom to prompt discussions between students.

Use magazines, old books or clipart to find pictures that represent elements of the day’s story. For instance, if your story will be “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, then a picture of blonde hair would be a good story clue.   

Hang the pictures in various places on the classroom walls.

Listen to the children and notice if they comment on the pictures and if they engage each other or adults in conversation about the pictures. Notice if they ask questions about the pictures and seek out more information.

Ask the children questions to encourage them to continue to explore what the pictures might mean and why they are on display. You might say, “Yes, that is a picture of a stack of sticks. Can you think of any other time you’ve seen or heard of a stack of sticks?”

Provide more clues, either visually or verbally, to children who need them but avoid directly mentioning the story. The idea is to get the children thinking, exploring and engaging each other in conversation.

When you are ready and you think the children are ready, tell or read the story.

These language development activities encourage primary students to expand their vocabulary and challenges them to use spoken language to express their opinions and ideas. You can find more free resources like this one in the freebies section of our website. Equally, the texts listed below have tonnes of information and games to aid lesson planning. 

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