Oral Language Play and Learning

By Hill, Susan | Practically Primary, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Oral Language Play and Learning


Hill, Susan, Practically Primary


Oral language and written language are different linguistic modes and both are important in their own right. This article briefly describes oral language from linguistic, social interactionist and cognitive development viewpoints as each view highlights different aspects of oral language. An example of a play based developed oral language program is provided as a way of illustrating how play is multidimensional in the way it contributes to oral language.

Oral language is one mode of meaning making alongside visual, auditory, gestural and spatial forms of communication. Oral language is central to learning yet it is often undervalued in written cultures because written language is the primary means of access to power and privilege. Spoken language is important in its own right and especially in school as it is central to teaching and learning.

From a linguistic viewpoint Halliday (1985) writes that spoken language in all its many forms is as highly structured and organised as written language. Oral and written language are both important but each provides different ways of knowing. Oral language functions allow students to think and access knowledge in different ways. There are many ways spoken language is used to express meaning, for example to problem solve, hypothesise, imagine and inform (Halliday, 1975).

Oral language is closely related to thinking and understanding. From a social interactionist view point Vygotsky's (1978) view of how the individual learns through interactions with others is also important for spoken language. Higher forms of cognitive functioning are mediated by culturally derived artifacts such as signs and symbols for example in spoken and written language. Private speech, or thinking and talking out loud, is used for planning, memorising and regulating behaviour.

Alongside linguistic and social interactionist views of oral language there is an increasing body of research from cognitive and developmental psychology which examines the elements of oral language and their relationships to later literacy learning. Phonology, vocabulary, syntax, discourse, and pragmatics are aspects of oral language that children need to have control over prior to starting the beginning to read process (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). In a review of research, the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) concluded that some aspects of oral language, such as phonological awareness have substantial correlations with decoding and vocabulary and narrative discourse relate to reading comprehension. The quest for finding which particular aspects of oral language predict literacy development has created a large body of research. However, rather than seeking one particular aspect of oral language as predictive of future literacy development, Roth, Speece and Cooper (2002) write that oral language is multidimensional in the way it contributes to early reading.

Most teachers agree that children's oral language is important for learning and with increasingly diverse groups of children attending school, oral language has become a focus for teaching. The following section reports on how teachers in a school with children from different cultural groups decided to develop an intensive oral language intervention program designed to develop oral language structures, phonology and vocabulary in rich play contexts.

Play-based oral language

The teachers decided that a play-based program would be a developmentally appropriate and intrinsically motivating approach for children in order to experiment with oral language and get immediate feedback. Play-based activities also involved sustained symbolic thinking, use of narrative and the use of oral language to inform, hypothesise and imagine. It was thought that the use of language in context would lead to purposeful talk, allow for the development of vocabulary in rich contexts and this was to be supported by authentic and relevant picture books. …

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