Building on Students' Current Language Skills

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Smart teachers understand they can improve a student's literacy by building on their current language skills. This lesson explains why this matters and offers ways to promote student language and literacy development.

What are Language Skills?

Some terms in education are direct and easy to understand--comprehension means to understand what is read, and decoding is to use letter sounds to read a word. Sometimes, though, terms can be vague and broad. Take language skills, for example. Most directly, language skills are used to communicate with one another. Language skills in education, however, are often defined in four categories--listening, speaking, reading and writing. Students use language skills in school to read, write and communicate their thoughts with one another.

Effective teachers understand the importance of building strong language skills. They know a student uses language skills to grow important literacy skills, like reading and writing. When designing lessons, teachers need to plan instruction that builds on a student's prior knowledge, or what they already know and understand. How do they do this? Let's take a look.

Determining Language Skills

In order for a teacher to design unique and individual instruction based on a student's current skills, those skills must first be determined. Teachers assess student knowledge and understanding in two ways--formal and informal assessments.

Formal assessments, or things like tests and quizzes, use specific data to give teachers an understanding of how a student is performing on a specific skill. For example, teachers can give students a sight word vocabulary test to determine their working level. They can also use informal assessments, or those that rely more on observations and notes, to guide instruction. When a teacher reads with a student, for example, it may be noticed that the student struggles with decoding complex words. Though no formal assessment is given, the teacher gains this knowledge by watching the student at work.

It is important for educators to determine a student's current level of understanding in language development before designing instruction. This way, students will learn skills specific to their needs. These differentiation techniques mean each student is learning on his or her own level. If a student has a high vocabulary, it won't be necessary to spend time practicing sight words. Other students may need to spend more time with this skill.

The Importance of Language Development

At the core of language development is understanding and using vocabulary words. Some students come with a large working vocabulary, while other students have had very limited exposure to words. When they encounter words in text, students who have lower vocabulary awareness can struggle to read the word--not only are they unable to recognize the word in print, they have little context to apply other strategies to understand.

Let's say David comes from a background with little exposure to language. His working vocabulary is limited. While reading a book about medieval England, he comes across the word jester. He may have the decoding skills to read the word, but he will likely be unable to understand what it means, even when using surrounding clues. This limits his ability to understand what he reads.

Teachers can increase student language skills by building on what they already know. They can provide clear and explicit instruction in language to increase student understanding in all four strands--reading, writing, speaking and listening. If the class later has a conversation about court jesters, the student who has been pre-taught this vocabulary term can take part in the discussion and maybe even respond to learning in writing.

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