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Mining Foundational Treasures in the Early Grades

By Cathy Puett Miller

Oral language, reading aloud, and language play provide students with a strong foundation for their reading experiences, allowing them to enter the world of reading as active, enthusiastic participants.

More Resources

* The Hidden Side of Strategic Vocabulary Instruction contains more ideas for classroom conversations and strong vocabulary instruction.
* Tying Read Alouds to Standards
* Education Worlds archive of learning games offers plenty to choose from, in all subject areas, complete with instructions and the grade levels for which they are applicable.

In todays elementary classrooms, we seem in such a rush to have every child reading, and yet children still struggle. Whats missing? Valuable gems -- like oral language development, reading aloud, and playing with language in daily instruction. In fact, those three elements represent the foundation that educators can build on in the early grades; they help us keep the big picture of reading in mind; and they deserve our attention.


Schools are becoming "no talk" zones. If we only let children see and read words, while limiting their opportunity to use words, there is bound to be a disconnect. Oral language serves as a foundation for written language.

Go beyond vocabulary lists, and teacher-directed lessons. Explore and discuss new words, and help students use those words in authentic contexts. Consistently pull out key words from current or upcoming content area lessons (it only takes a few seconds). Students then make more connections between their oral language and the new world of written language they are encountering. They get excited about how words work.

Take a break from worksheets and have an in depth discussion. Encourage:

  • retelling of stories read in class;
  • student-sharing about an upcoming topic in a content area; and
  • answering questions in complete, complex sentences (i.e., during "show and tell").

Deliberately reflect (rephrase what one person understood another to say), and expand (add to students words, integrating new vocabulary with emphasis). In doing so, you act as a strong model and help students develop their own oral language. Students engaged in that way also practice listening, another key skill.

Such teaching doesnt distract from standards and curriculum. It enhances them and fits within any instructional environment.

So whats next?


Weve heard all about read-alouds, right? Could it be that we overlook the incredible connection between reading aloud and the standards we teach, and reading alouds ties to student engagement? Lucy Calkins, author of The Art of Teaching Reading, reminds us:
"In the teaching of reading, there are only a handful of things that everyone agrees are essential. Perhaps the most important of these is the fact that children need to listen to the best of childrens literature read aloud to them."

Read-alouds are the every-day commercial for reading.

  • Choose selections that leave students hungry for more.
  • Remember that reading aloud provides a model of the use of key comprehension skills in a "heres what my brain does when I read" approach.
  • Reading aloud also can aid in vocabulary growth when you interject quick conversations about new words, especially in classrooms where texts are written with controlled vocabulary. Create a climate in which children are always encouraged to ask, "What does that word mean?"


Interacting, manipulating, dissecting, and investigating the language is one of the best ways to help children understand its patterns, and the connections between the sounds we make in our oral language and the letters we see in print. That doesnt have to be a dull, academic exercise. Even as we increase our knowledge about the "science" of teaching reading, making reading and language fun and engaging is still vital, especially with young children.

Instruct so students have a chance to fall in love with reading and words. Review your standards and ask, "How can I teach this standard or rule, or have my students practice this skill, in a fun and interactive way?" Use the ideas below to get started:

  • Play with words that rhyme with students names ("Hairy Larry" or "Taylor the Sailor," orally or in writing). Older children can find multiple matches. Interject songs like The Name Game from Fran Avnis Little Ears CD. Use your name as an example. (Mine is "Cathy, Cathy, she loves to take a bath-y.") If students are readers, have them examine similar endings (making the connection to word families and spelling patterns).
  • Organize hunts for alphabet letters, rhyming or sight words, vowels or consonants, even vocabulary. A whole-group, sneaking-around-on-tip-toe, activity will engage any child. Moving away from desks also gives more active students a chance to burn off excess energy.
  • Incidentally point out rhymes, alliteration, and language patterns in words you encounter while reading aloud.

These hidden gems (oral language, reading aloud, and language play) enhance students readiness for the direct instruction and lesson plans you devise from curriculum and state standards. Whether your students are just learning about reading in kindergarten, or are missing pieces in first or second grade, these approaches are effective. When you include them, your students will have a stronger foundation for their reading experiences and be better prepared to do well on those ever-present state and local assessments. More importantly, they will enter the world of reading as active, enthusiastic participants -- and theres no greater gift you can give a student than that.