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Why the Four Language Domains Matter for All Students

four Language domains

A few months ago, I was giving a presentation about my most recent book and brought up the four domains of language: reading, writing, speaking and listening. After I was finished, a teacher came up to me. “I’ve been in the classroom for over 20 years,” she said, “and I’ve never heard about the language domains until today.” 

Her experience is all too common because when it comes to the language domains, most educators still reference them solely in the context of teaching English language learners. Given that the domains describe the “how” of learning by specifying the way that learners will achieve the daily learning goal (will they talk? write?), the benefits of applying this “how” to all learners holds incredible value regardless of English language proficiency, particularly in a day and age when kids are communicating less and less effectively with both adults and one another.


Just as the language domains have significance for a large group of students, literacy also plays an enormous role in student success across content areas. Most people think about reading fiction when they hear the word “literacy,” but that’s just one kind of text that kids read in school. Nonfiction informational text has a huge presence in so many different subjects: science, social studies, art, physical education, fine arts, and math. When students look at a science textbook chapter about life cycles, read about how to do a proper lunge in P.E. class, or discuss an article about current events, they are reading an informational text. If they do not build skills within the reading language domain, their ability to communicate can become more limited. When teachers celebrate the potential of anything written on a page that students can learn from (magazine tidbits and short paragraphs or sentences also count), they increase capacity in not just reading, but in the other domains as well. 


While some students can feel uncomfortable sharing their ideas aloud, writing provides another important avenue for student expression through language production. Nothing will stop a conversation in its tracks as quickly as, “Any questions?” To avoid that problem, consider asking for a written response first. For example, if the class is learning about a new concept, first have students write any questions they might have on a sheet of paper. Then, do a “warm call” by pre-alerting students that some people will be asked to share their questions after a little time to gather their thoughts has been provided. It might even be helpful to offer options like “phone a friend” if any kids feel self-conscious sharing, but for the most part, students who have time to get their ideas together will produce far more language not just in the domain of writing, but also speaking.


More and more, students have become less accustomed to engaging in verbal conversations when they have the option to use abbreviated forms of communication via social media or texting. Furthermore, carrying on a casual conversation is very different than using academic language in class, and all students can struggle to express their ideas effectively without some support. To build capacity for the language domain of speaking, it helps to integrate a specific plan for student discourse directly into lesson design. Suppose that students are taking on a new challenge. Instead of hoping that they share their struggles or successes with a whole group (which can be intimidating), ask them to talk to a learning partner or simply to cross the room and find a new person to converse with. It may also help to provide a scaffold, like a handout with some question examples or stems. That way, kids can engage with classmates in a guided, focused way that allows them to talk to one another.


Contrary to what many people presume, listening is not defined as time spent not speaking. In other words, listening is an active skill, not a state of being. There are very few people (adults or children) who do not need to grow in this language domain. With that in mind, teaching students how to value what others say through active listening is an important part of increasing their overall understanding of the world around them. Suppose that students are having a conversation, and a teacher is concerned that not everyone is tuned into what is happening. In this case, it makes sense to ask everyone to pause and concentrate with a directive like, “Let’s think about the last three things a classmate said. Take a moment to paraphrase what you think they were saying, and what important ideas their words expressed.” At that point, the teacher might opt for a verbal share out, or a written one. Either way, the idea behind an exercise like this is to make sure that we are not only hearing one another – we are also listening.

More than ever before, all students need help shoring up their communication skills. When we consciously build supportive structures into the domains of reading, writing, speaking and listening, we increase both access and opportunity for everyone. As an added benefit, students who produce more language also show heightened levels of engagement and success. Even better, a more intentional incorporation of the language domains into instruction should elevate already existing curriculum content and lessons, rather than being “just one more thing” that feels like an added burden. Instead, the four domains of language are a powerful tool that brings our students much closer to their goals.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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