For most people, oral language develops naturally. This learning starts at birth, and maybe before. It begins as the brain develops to the point where we can hear and interpret sound. The sounds we hear as humans contain a lot of speech, and soon babies begin to link these sounds with what they see and feel.
Oral language begins developing with infants’ cooing and babbling. Young children then begin using words and eventually put words together with what’s called telegraphic speech. As children link words together, they make increasingly complex sentences, both by using more and more words within a single sentence, but also by introducing concepts like time (for example, past, present, and future) into their speech. While there’s not agreement on when children begin using adult sentence structure, it usually happens between five and 12 years of age.
There are several components to oral language that children learn: phonological, semantic, and syntactic. The phonological component involves rules for how phonemes or sounds fit together while the semantic component or semantics governs how morphemes—or the smallest units of meaning—combine to make words. For example, the word “dogs” has four phonemes (d-o-g-s), but only two morphemes—“dog” and “s”—one meaning the specific animal (a canine) and the other indicating that the word refers to more than one animal of this type.
Lastly, the syntactic component concerns syntax (grammar). Syntax is the set of rules that determines the structure of sentences, or the order of words in sentences. In English, sentences typically follow the subject-verb-object pattern. For example, take the sentence “Deonte plays trumpet.” You wouldn’t say, “Deonte trumpet plays,” though in some languages, this is exactly how you’d structure the sentence.
Many people also consider non-verbal elements of communication or pragmatics to be another component. Pragmatics are the social rules that govern how people use oral language. These include tone and body language, but also the ways that speech accomplishes particular purposes and changes under different circumstances.
Note that schools use language in ways that differ from how families use it. So, our oral language develops further as we go to school. Academic language is the term for the vocabulary and ways of speaking that are used in school subjects (e.g., math, science, social studies). Special training programs later in life (for instance, training to become a nurse or welder) also have certain ways of using language. Oral language develops, in fact, over a very long time. But the crucial development—the development that’s necessary for learning to read—comes early in our lives.
Oral language in a child’s first language usually isn’t taught. Children just learn it at home. But learning to read and write is different. Someone has to teach children about written language. By watching adults read to them, many children develop what’s known as print awareness. Print awareness involves familiarity with written symbols and the combination of written symbols in texts.
As students learn to read, the newly developing skills for reading join together with those for processing oral language. Reading, after all, involves hearing someone (the author) speak in your head. Scarborough’s Rope, discussed in the previous unit, nicely illustrates this convergence of skills. With instruction and many opportunities for practice, vocabulary knowledge combined with word recognition leads to skilled reading.
As children develop, the size of their vocabulary (or lexicon) increases. By age one, most children recognize around 50 words. By age three, it’s closer to 1,000, and by age five it’s around 10,000. This process slows as we age, but we continue to expand the size of our vocabulary throughout our lives. The first years of vocabulary development are incredibly important, though. The more words a child recognizes, the more words he or she will be able to decode.
Learning to read involves five sets of skills:
- Phonological Awareness
- Alphabetic Principle (Phonics)
- Fluency with Text
As discussed earlier, phonological awareness provides a foundation. Skills for recognizing phonemes—along with print awareness and the alphabetic principle—lead to decoding, that is, to skills for using phonics to identify words.
As children improve at decoding, more and more words become sight words. This means that children recognize those words without having to sound them out. The more sight words that a child incorporates, the closer to fluency he or she becomes.
But fluency with reading individual words is not the end of the process. Children must also learn to make sense of sentences, paragraphs, and eventually entire books! To do this, they must learn the rules for capitalization, punctuation, and other elements of writing. Luckily, as children begin to write themselves, they further improve their knowledge of how written language works.
As with oral-language development, written-language development follows well-known steps. Toddlers start to scribble, randomly at first, just making marks on paper (or walls!). By the time they’re about three years old, they typically can draw circles; and by the time they’re four, they typically can draw squares. At age five or six, many children have developed enough hand-eye coordination to draw diamond shapes and slanting lines. By Kindergarten or first grade, they can copy letters, though not very neatly or accurately. These are just averages, of course. Some children follow a slower timeline, and some follow a faster one. Educators shouldn’t worry though if it takes a student a bit longer.
The learning process works best, however, when parents, siblings, and teachers take an interest. If they have the time and energy, parents can help children scribble, draw, and write letters. Most young children enjoy drawing, after all. It’s easy to shift their attention to letters and words. It’s easy, that is, if families have the time and resources to provide this kind of support. Families under stress may not be able to devote time and resources to encourage children’s drawing and writing. But schools can.
Importantly, practicing writing helps with learning to read and vice versa. Working out the rules of spelling, for example, helps children build the skills they need for comprehension. Once a child builds reading comprehension, he or she enters a new phase of literacy development. Between nine and 13 years of age, children develop the capability for using reading to acquire new information. From there, they learn to read materials that present complex ideas, at which point reading ability typically outstrips listening comprehension: It’s easier for most people to read complex sentences and understand them than it is for them to hear complex sentences and understand them. By the time children (now young adults) finish school, they should be accomplished readers and writers.
The Sequence of Language Development
Strengthening Oral Language in Preparation for Reading
By now, it’s clear that oral language development provides an essential foundation for learning to read. A whole body of research demonstrates that stronger language skills lead to better literacy achievement! One way to help students read is to strengthen their oral language skills. This is important for all students. But for students with language delays, it’s especially important! Students with language delays typically don’t speak very much in class, and it’s our job to help them feel comfortable participating.
Three approaches to facilitating discussions are really useful for helping students improve their oral language:
- Seeking communication (or making sure everyone gets to talk).
- Acknowledging communication (or showing that you are really listening).
- Augmenting communication (or giving focused support to help students communicate).