Say Hello: Using Books to Support Oral Language in Diverse Learners

by Sherry Sanden


A little disclaimer: In my 17 years of teaching in early childhood classrooms, in a variety of Head Start, child care, and primary-grade classrooms, I never once had a student whose birth language was not English. And I am monolingual; I speak only English. That is the background from which I, as a teacher educator, approach my pre-service teachers, who will encounter a very different world of teaching than the one I entered. Most of them will have one or several dual language learners in their early childhood classrooms, probably every year of their career. So I recognize the concern in the faces of many of my mostly white, mostly monolingual, mostly female teacher candidates when they ask the question, “How do I support the language and literacy development of all of the children in my classroom, even when we don’t share a language, or when I don’t have experience with their culture or their background?”

There are lots of suggestions I give, like my recommendations to pursue our university’s ESL endorsement, and especially to use their time and resources to learn more about their students’ languages and experiences. But another way I suggest they bridge that gap with their students in real time is to plan experiences with children’s books. Children’s literature can provide a context through which to help bridge the divide and cross language and cultural barriers.


Burnam (2009) discusses a “culture of conversation” that needs to be the norm in early childhood classrooms, to support children’s speaking and listening skills. She mentions two types of conversation that are important, spontaneous & facilitated. We know how important authentic spontaneous verbal interactions are. That’s the chatter that is the lifeblood of the early childhood classroom, student to student, teacher to student, student to classroom pet turtle, all of it. That kind of natural talk is how children learn to speak from the beginning. The inclusion of spontaneous conversations in our early childhood classrooms is essential for language development. The focus here, though, is on the second kind of conversation: facilitated conversations in our classrooms, the planned instances of oral interactions that, if they’re done right, will look spontaneous to our students but that we will know were purposely inserted into classroom activities to support our students’ listening and speaking growth. There are many ways that children’s literature can be used to facilitate those conversations amongst all of our learners. I present below children’s books that can be used to prompt children’s oral language development. Hopefully you will find both some new ideas to support students’ developing oral language and some new multicultural titles that you can include in your diverse classroom library.

Purposeful greetings & ordinary interactions

In my Head Start and my primary-grade classrooms, our day started with Morning Meeting. This low-key, welcoming introduction to the day always began with a greeting of varied spoken and unspoken messages letting our friends know we were glad they were there. One of our primary greetings involved saying good morning and shaking hands, because that was a greeting familiar to me, from my tradition, but it certainly isn’t the only possible greeting that could be used.

In Say Hello!, children are introduced to multiple ways that people let each other know they are glad to see one another. As a monolingual English-speaker, a book like this supports my tentative attempts to include varied languages in my classroom greetings. Inviting family members to be a part of morning greetings would allow them to introduce their own familiar greetings and help your children learn them as well. Peekaboo Morning might be used with younger children, prompting them to mimic the teacher’s peekaboos and then to create their own. These are examples of facilitated everyday greetings and interactions, planned in a purposeful way to not only prompt children to participate but also to value the multiple languages of the students and to expose them to languages and traditions different from their own.

Experiences that inspire “extended discourse”

Extended discourse is talk that requires participants to develop understandings beyond the here-and-now and that require the use of several sentences to build a linguistic structure, such as in explanations, narratives, or pretend talk (Dickinson & Tabors, 2002, p. 12). This kind of often-decontextualized talk is important for developing young children’s ability to tell stories and carry on conversations about current and past events. Books can support experiences that provide topics for conversation about familiar and unfamiliar topics…cooking, zoo, library, and gardening are just a few. Experiences in a school or community garden, for example, provide a wealth of opportunities to prompt contextualized and unusual language.

One book that allows you to integrate varied cultures is The Ugly Vegetables, which depicts a family growing and then cooking Chinese vegetables, and can culminate in cooking “ugly vegetable” soup. There are numerous gardening-related and food books, all of which support the integration of literature and oral language.

Other experiences that can prompt rich conversation, or “extended discourse,” in a familiar environment are community interactions, or simply walking the neighborhood. A great book to include with neighborhood walking experiences is Last Stop on Market Street, the 2016 Newberry medal winner.

An opportunity to integrate multiple literacies through extending neighborhood experiences is a photo essay activity. Take your camera or smart phone along and allow children to photograph their experiences and what they see as important in the community. This exercise provides multiple opportunities for contextualized and decontextualized oral language, along with reading and writing. Using the photos in class books or on concept charts provides lots of opportunities for children to relive and discuss their experiences. This also provides opportunities for labels and captions in the multiple languages of your students.

Poetry, rhymes, and word play

Rhyming and word play support oral language, phonemic awareness and “…offer each child the opportunity to join with others and share the joy of language” (Buchoff, 1994, p. 29). While the use of nursery rhymes and finger plays is traditional in early childhood classrooms, the inclusion of poetry, nursery rhymes, and chants from multiple languages and cultures provides the opportunity to value the traditions of a diverse student population.

The book My Village: Rhymes from Around the World shares 22 nursery rhymes from multiple languages, included in English and their native language, and provides the opportunity to get to know and enjoy them all. You might rely on options like bilingual staff members who could audio record the nursery rhymes in their traditional language or family members who could join you, to provide a supportive language experience for your students’ biliteracy.

Another option is this website: It provides rhymes and poems in multiple languages. This would also allow you create your own class books of rhymes from targeted languages.

Story reenactments

Use familiar and well-loved stories to encourage children to act out the plot lines or make up some of their own, relying on a story’s characters. For story reenactments, use books with a clear sense of sequence and provide repeated readings so children are familiar with the plot and the language. You can use puppets or props or just children acting out parts, but the goal is in the process, not in a polished performance. Just let the children have fun with it. After children are familiar with the story and perhaps after you have prompted a reenactment with the group, put the book in your library or other space where children feel free to be performers. I guarantee you will have children acting as little thespians on their own!

Using puppets to reenact stories is excellent support for oral language as well as for reader response. In fact, Louie by Ezra Jack Keats, tells the story of a neighborhood child who is reluctant to speak until puppets catch his attention. After that, everyone wants to be involved in the puppet show.

Wordless picture books are an especially good choice for story reenactments. Wordless picture books like Jerry Pinkney’s gorgeous 2010 Caldecott award winner, The Lion and the Mouse, inherently inspire language since the illustrators so considerately leave the story telling to us, without a right or wrong way to interpret the story.


Interactive Read-alouds

Finally, I can’t end without advocating for interactive read-alouds, with both fiction and nonfiction texts. Using read-alouds with plenty of opportunities for children to talk–to you, to each other, to the story and the characters–is highly motivating for oral language production. Children get the opportunity to hear and to use decontextualized language in an atmosphere of authenticity. Informational and conceptual text are especially supportive of diverse student populations since they often contain fewer cultural barriers to understanding than do fiction texts (Kamil & Bernhardt, 2001).

Early childhood educators eager to support the oral language of their young learners can rely on children’s books to build bridges across language and cultural barriers. Learners who spring from languages and backgrounds different from our own will especially benefit from our efforts to allow children’s literature to pave the way toward greater interactive language experiences in early learning settings.


Buchoff, R. (1994). Joyful voices: Facilitating language growth through the rhythmic response to chants. Young Children, 49(4), 26-30.

Burnam, L. (2009). Are you listening: Fostering conversations that help young children learn. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Dickinson, D.K., & Tabors, P.O. (2002). Fostering language and literacy in classrooms and homes. Young Children, 57(2), 10-18.

Kamil, M.L., & Bernhardt, E.B. (2001). Reading instruction for English language learners. In M.F. Graves, C. Juell, & B. Graves (Eds.), Teaching reading in the 21st century. (pp. 460-503). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Web Resources:

International Children’s Digital Library:  (houses over 46oo digital books in 59 languages; iPhone and iPad apps

Multicultural Children’s Book Day resources:

Mama Lisa’s World:  (songs and rhymes from multiple cultures and languages)

Children’s Books

Food and cooking:

Akin, S. (2010). Three scoops and a fig. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.

Nayer, N. (2009). What should I make? Toronto, ON: Tricycle Press.


Emberley, R. (2002). My clothes. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company.

Hoffman, S., & Hoffman, I. (2014). Jacob’s new dress. Chicago, IL: Albert Whitman & Co.

Tafolla, C. (2008). What can you do with a rebozo? Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press.


Bunting, E. (2000). Flower garden. Boston, MA: HMH Books for Young Readers.

Emberly, R. (2005). My garden. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company.

Lin, G. (1999). The ugly vegetables. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Celebrating individuality & differences:

Baker, K. (2011). No two alike. San Diego, CA: Beach Lane Books.

Beaumont, K. (2004). I like myself. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Fox, M. (1997). Whoever you are. San Diego, CA: Voyager Books.

Ludwig, T. (2013). The invisible boy. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Rotner, S. (2010). Shades of people. New York, NY: Holiday House.

Wyeth, S.D. (1998). Something beautiful. New York, NY: Dragonfly Books.

Rhyming & poetry:

Crews, N. (2004). The neighborhood Mother Goose. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books

Greenfield, E. (2016). In the Land of Words: New and Selected Poems. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Wright, D. (2015). My village: Rhymes from around the world. London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

Wright, D. (2013). Korean nursery rhymes: Wild geese, land of goblins and other favorite songs and rhymes. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing

Local and world community:

Chocolate, D. (2009). El barrio. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Choung, E. (2008). Minji’s salon. La Jolla, CA: Kane/Miller.

de la Pena, M. (2015). Last stop on Market Street. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Global Fund for Childen. (2009). Global babies. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Gray, N. (1988). A country far away. New York, NY: Orchard Books.

Keats, E.J. (1972/2001). Pet show! London, UK: Puffin.

Kerley, B. (2009). One world, one day. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Children’s Books.


Mora, P. (2008). Join hands! The ways we celebrate life. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Tafolla, C. (2010). Fiesta babies. New York, NY: Tricycle Press.

Home and family:

Alexie, S. (2016). Thunder boy, Jr. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company.

Hurwitz, J. (1993). New shoes for Silvia. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Joose, B.M. (2005). Papa, do you love me? San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Joose, B.M. (1991). Mama, do you love me? San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

McCarty, P. (2000). Baby steps. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Rotner, S., & Kelly, S.M. (2015). Families. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Tonatiuh, D. (2013). Rancho rabbit and the coyote. New York, NY: Abrams Books.

Williams, V.B. (1982). A chair for my mother. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Everyday life:

Bunting, E. (2006). One green apple. New York, NY: Clarion Books.

Falwell, C. (2005). David’s drawings. New York, NY: Lee and Low.

Heap, S. (2002). What shall we play? Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Johnson, A. (2007). Lily Brown’s paintings. New York, NY: Orchard Books.


Pinkney, J. (2009). The lion and the mouse. New York, NY: Little, Brown, and Company.


Isadora, R. (2010). Say hello! New York, NY: Putnam’s Sons

Isadora, R. (2002). Peekaboo morning. New York, NY: Putnam’s Sons

Murphy, M. (2014). Say hello like this. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Raschka, C. (1993). Yo! Yes? New York, NY: Scholastic.

Stojic, M. (2009). Hello world: Greetings in 43 languages. United Kingdom: Boxer Books Limited.

Sherry Sanden is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Literacy at Illinois State University. She is a former first- and second-grade teacher and child care director. Her research interests include the ways that teachers learn about and use books and reading in early education classrooms. Check out Sherry’s past posts at this blog hereherehere, and here.


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