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Developing Language Skills at the Word, Sentence & Discourse Levels

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

Your language learners can only develop their communicative skills if you guide them through the word, sentence, and discourse levels. This lesson discusses how you can work with your students throughout each of these levels.

Purpose of Learning a Language

Do you know what words you said first when you were a child? Do your parents tell you what type of phrases you would come up with as a toddler? This natural process of learning to talk as a child is similar to the process you see in your language learners. First, they can only say words or phrases. Then they move on to being able to talk in sentences and have conversations, which brings up the communicative essence of language. This means the ultimate goal of learning a language is to have the tool we use in daily life to relate to others. For this reason, you want to develop your students' communicative skills. These are the set of abilities that allow people to use language to appropriately respond in a wide range of situations. Let's see how you can guide your students through three levels of language that are word, sentence, and discourse.

Word Level

Particularly if you have students who are at the beginning level, you will notice that, sometimes, they tend to use single words to try to communicate an idea. Sometimes, your students who are at higher proficiency levels do not have the vocabulary they need to speak about a specific topic. This means that your students need to work on their word level. This is the most basic tool that language learners acquire. To illustrate, let's meet Fatima, a student from Kuwait. Fatima is a beginner, and this means that sometimes she uses those words she knows (e.g. 'need eraser'). Also, when Fatima gets ready to write a composition about her daily routine, she realizes she does not know some words she needs (such as alarm clock or toothbrush). To improve this, Fatima's teacher often designs lessons with the objective of expanding students' vocabulary for a range of topics. However, Fatima's teacher is careful to expand the vocabulary that is appropriate to her students' grade level.

Sentence Level

Just like a child begins to form sentences by imitation, language learners begin to form sentences once they have the appropriate components from their teacher. This is the sentence level of language, which is the stage in which a person can form a complete sentence to convey an idea. For instance, Fatima learns from her teacher about the personal pronouns, verb tenses, and predicates that make a complete sentence. Now, Fatima can say things like 'I need an eraser.' and, progressively, Fatima can even form compound sentences such as 'I use an alarm clock because I have difficulty waking up on my own.' Your language learners need the guidance in order to form sentences and, to guide them to this level, you can give them activities and tasks that require them to form sentences to participate.

Discourse Level

Let's imagine what would happen if we only teach our language learners about grammar, sentence structure, or spelling of words. The minute they go out in the real world, they might not be able to communicate effectively with others. For this reason, it is very important that language learning teachers focus on developing the discourse level. This is the stage of language that people use to deliver a whole range of ideas in an organized manner, whether the choice is writing or speaking.

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