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Exploring A Practical Guide to Teaching ESL Literacy: A Focus on Oral Language

  • Practical Guide Oral Language

Bow Valley College’s new resource on ESL literacy, A Practical Guide to Teaching ESL Literacy, incorporates theory, applied research, and practical ideas for the classroom. It is designed to support instructors who are teaching ESL literacy learners, answering the who, what, why, and how of ESL literacy instruction.

One particular feature of this resource is a chapter on building oral language for ESL literacy learners. There are two reasons why the development of oral language is very important:

  1. Oral language supports settlement
    Oral language is very important for settlement. The development of oral language helps learners to address issues including housing, education, healthcare, shopping, banking, and employment. It lets learners develop autonomy in their new home, access resources, and advocate for themselves and their families. The development of oral language also helps to break down the isolation that many ESL literacy learners feel.
  2. Oral language is necessary for the development of literacy skills
    Oral language is also critical to the development of literacy skills. ESL literacy learners are developing literacy skills for the first time, in a language they are still very much in the process of learning. This is not an easy task and it is simply not possible to develop literacy – to actually build the pathways in your brain that transform it into a literate mind – in a language that you do not understand. Thomas G. Sticht and James H. James (1984) call the level of oral language that a person has before developing literacy their “reading potential.” To put this into perspective, consider children who are native speakers of English. When these children begin kindergarten and start their formal literacy education, they already have on average a vocabulary of 5,000 – 7,000 words (Lems, Miller, & Soro, 2010). This is a strong reading potential. We are asking ESL literacy learners to develop the same literacy skills but their starting point with English is far different.

The development of oral language is critically important, but this development needs to be approached with the understanding that ESL literacy learners will not learn oral language in the same way as non-literacy learners. Often, instruction of oral language is based on the assumption that the learners know how to read. Learners may be asked to read dialogues aloud, to use word lists or glossaries to help learn new vocabulary, or to demonstrate their listening comprehension by reading questions and responding in writing. Learners may also be expected to absorb abstract grammatical rules and patterns and apply them in their speech. These approaches usually do not work well with ESL literacy learners.

Effective instruction in oral language for ESL literacy is purely oral and builds on their strengths as learners. A Practical Guide to Teaching ESL Literacy explores approaches to teaching oral language skills to ESL literacy learners. It includes:

  • Total Physical Response (TPR)
  • Building routine language
  • Working with pictures and realia
  • Singing and chanting
  • Dialogues, interviews, and sharing
  • Sounds: Building pronunciation and phonological awareness
  • Discussions
  • Task-Based Language Teaching
  • Learning vocabulary from reading
  • Every day and academic language

For further information on these approaches and ideas for activities, you can see A Practical Guide on the School of Global Access website.


Bow Valley College. (2018). A practical guide to teaching ESL literacy. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Lems, K., Miller, L., & Soro, T. (2010). Teaching reading to English language learners. New York: Guildford.

Sticht, T.G., & James, J.H. (1984). Listening and reading. In P.D. Pearson (Ed.), Handbook of reading research (293-317). New York: Routledge.