The Importance of Oral Language Discussions

Research shows that children’s discussion skills and vocabulary knowledge are incredibly important factors in reading development: the ‘thinking and talking’ in a discussion is where the learning happens. Oral language discussions develop vocabulary, critical thinking skills, and students reading comprehension. Learn more about the importance of oral language discussions below.

Oral vocabulary is key to reading comprehension

Reading was traditionally seen as made up of decoding new words and making meaning, but more recent research has shown that vocabulary knowledge is crucial to comprehension. As experienced readers start to meet more complex words in their reading, their vocabulary knowledge becomes even more critical. Interesting words are discovered, discussed, modeled, and explained during discussions. An increased vocabulary also supports better spelling and helps learners to decode larger, unknown words.

Recent research has modified the model of decoding + comprehension = good reading to include vocabulary knowledge. The argument now is that vocabulary knowledge is vital for decoding, spelling, and comprehension (Tunmer & Chapman, 2011, cited in Dymock & Nicholson, 2012).

Vocabulary knowledge has been shown to have an impact both in decoding words and in developing text comprehension skills (Cain & Oakhill, 2007 cited in Hjetland et al, 2017). Recent research also has shown that students who have a wide oral vocabulary have more chance of making meaning from complex text (Gillon, 2017).

Discussion is the place children learn

Children learn when presented with a challenge that they cannot do on their own. Vygotsky (1978) calls this the zone of proximal learning. In reading, it is an instructional text. The teacher then challenges and supports students’ thinking and learning through what Vygotsky calls ‘cooperative or collaborative dialogue’. This questioning, thinking, listening, and talking is where the links are made to prior knowledge and where the learning happens. Children are guided to discover and make new understandings and knowledge. In reading lessons, the guided discussion is this learning place and results in new vocabulary, extended thinking, and a deeper understanding of the text.

Classroom discourse is ‘an elaborated language exchange which includes needed technical and complex words’… ‘High rates of extended discussion and discourse’ are associated with comprehension gains. There is evidence that oral language experiences are ‘high-value instructional activities’ for reading development (McNaughton, 2020, p.21).

Critical discussion develops comprehension

Once students can decode, more emphasis needs to be placed on the discussion of the text. There is strong evidence that focussed critical-thinking discussion about rich text results in improved comprehension. Teacher-led discussion of a complex text is one of the best places to expose students to interesting, technological, and specific words in a meaningful context (content-area literacy). The teacher can explain, model, and discuss the definition within the text, drawing out the author’s meaning. Research finds that collaborative discussion focussed on vocabulary and meaning is a high-value instructional activity. Collaborative discussion drives accelerated progress in reading for all students, especially Māori and Pasifika students.

A meta-analysis of research showed that for comprehension progress, the importance of decoding decreases with age, and the importance of discussion skills increases (García and Cain, 2014, cited in Hjetland et al, 2017). Studies have demonstrated that higher‐order oral language skills and inference skills explain variance in reading comprehension (Oakhill & Cain, 2012, cited in Hjetland et al, 2017). Shifting the pedagogy from decoding words to a complex discussion focussed on understanding has been shown to accelerate reading comprehension progress (McNaughton, S. & Lai, M. (2012).

Resources that feature discussion questions

Many of our product ranges feature discussion questions to develop vocabulary, critical thinking skills, and students reading comprehension.


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A thrilling list of references for your reading pleasure.

Dymock, S. & Nicholson, T. 2012. Teaching Reading Comprehension. The What, The How, The Why, Wellington: NZCER Press

García J. & Cain, K. 2014. Decoding and Reading Comprehension: A Meta-Analysis to Identify Which Reader and Assessment Characteristics Influence the Strength of the Relationship in English: Review of Educational Research Volume 84 Issue 1, March 2014 : New York: Sage Journals.

Gillon G. T. (2017) Phonological Awareness: From Research to Practice.(2nd ed.). Guilford Publications. University of Canterbury Book Shop: Christchurch

Hjetland, H.N., Brinchmann, E.I., Scherer, R. and Melby‐Lervåg, M. (2017), Preschool predictors of later reading comprehension ability: a systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 13: 1-155. Wiley 2019: Oslo

Jesson, R., McNaughton, S., Rosedale, N., Zhu, T. & Cockle, V. (2018). A mixed-methods study to identify effective practices in the teaching of writing in a digital learning environment in low income schools. Computers and Education, 119 (April), 14-30.

Kim, M.Y., & Wilkinson, I. A. (2019). What is dialogic teaching? Constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing a pedagogy of classroom talk. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 21, 70-86.

McLeod, S. A. (2019). What Is the zone of proximal development? Simply psychology.

McNaughton, S. & Lai, M. (2012). Testing the effectiveness of an intervention model based on data use: a replication series across clusters of schools. School Effectiveness and School Improvement. 23(2), 203-228.

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