by Michelle Sharratt and Briare Wynn
Learning to read and write is a highly complex, intricate process. Imagine what this would be like if you were learning the English language at the same time as learning how to read and write. That’s what it’s like for many of the English language learners in our district.
We work in a very large and diverse school district that has full implementation of Reading Recovery. Almost half of our Reading Recovery students are at various points along the continuum of learning the English language, while also learning to read and write in English. Even though our English language learners generally achieve grade one standards in reading and writing and successfully discontinue from Reading Recovery, they still face many barriers as they take on the English language. We need to think carefully about the specific supports and ‘bridges’ needed to overcome these barriers.
Clay states that “above all, through all the detail of these early intervention procedures, teachers must remember that the child’s ultimate resource for learning to read and write is spoken language: all his new learning becomes linked in his brain with what he has already learned about the language he speaks” (Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals, Second Edition, p.24). Clay reminds us that oral language is the foundation of literacy and that it truly is a child’s first self-extending system.
By supporting the development of talk, Reading Recovery teachers can help English language learners build strong bridges to overcome some of the barriers they face when learning to read and write. The following key ideas are critical to oral language development of all children:
  • Know and observe the learner’s current oral language structures. Know what structures are already known by the learner, in order to lift a child’s language within the cusp of his/her learning.
  • Learn about their home language. Knowing the variation between a child’s home language and the English language (eg: structure, directionality, alphabet, intonation, etc.) can help you anticipate possible confusions or barriers.
  • Have true conversations throughout the entire lesson. Active participation by both teacher and student in authentic, meaningful conversation should happen throughout the entire lesson, not just before the writing component. Research has shown that children learn language through conversations with literate adults so we need to arrange for this to happen across all lesson components.
  • Reformulate and rephrase within genuine conversation. This is key to lifting a child’s oral language. Within genuine conversation, the teacher listens, takes on and reformulates, rephrases or extends the child’s ideas and language. The child then takes in the teacher’s language and continues the conversation. He may or may not take on the new language structures, but the more conversations that occur, the more possibility there is for lifting the child’s language.
  • Find shared territories to discuss. Pursue common topics that allow for a shared understanding between teacher and child in order to continue to build complexity within the conversation. Conversations about shared books and experiences allow for a common vocabulary, structure and topic.
There are many more strategies and ideas to support English language learners, (which we will be exploring in our RRCNA Conference session) however; it must be noted that oral language is the foundational cornerstone over which the rest of the structure will be laid. As Clay brilliantly reminds us, let’s all “put our ears closer, concentrate more sharply, smile more rewardingly and spend more time in genuine conversation, difficult though it is. To foster children’s language development, create opportunities for them to talk, and then talk with them (not at them)” (Becoming Literate, p. 69).

Additional resources:
Clay, M.M. (2015). Becoming Literate: The Construction of Inner Control (Rev ed). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 
Clay, M.M. (2016). Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals. Second edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.