Reading as Part of the Language Development Process – About This Unit

This unit looks at how language typically develops in children. Understanding and producing oral language is complicated, physically as well as mentally. No wonder it takes years for children to get really good at it. It’s so complicated, it almost seems like it should be impossible! But actually, speaking and understanding what others say are human capabilities that are hard-wired in the brain.

Comprehending (and to a lesser extent, producing) oral language is also the foundation for learning to read. Children need to build this foundation in order to achieve literacy. As educators, it’s our job to help! Delays in learning to understand spoken language can lead to delays in learning to read. Fortunately, early intervention can keep this from happening.

This unit explores the relationship between oral language development and literacy. It looks at strategies for building children’s proficiency in three areas: oral language, phonological processing, and print awareness.

Core Concepts

Children learn to talk in steps that are well known. Children start listening as soon as they are born, and maybe before that. Next, they start to understand what the people around them are saying. Listening and understanding come before speaking. And language development continues long after that. Learning to read and write are parts of language development.


Key Vocabulary

AJAX progress indicator
  • Academic Language
    The vocabulary and ways of speaking that are used in school subjects (distinct from social language).
  • Active Listening
    A strategy for building rapport where the listener engages with the speaker by asking relevant follow-up questions or expressing sympathy in response to what’s said.
  • Alphabetic Principle
    The relationship between written text (letters) and the spoken word. Letters and combinations of letters are a code that represent individual phonemes (see below).
  • Cochlear Implant [COKE-lee-er]
    A surgically implanted device that connects a microphone to the cochlear nerve (the nerve for hearing), helping people with hearing-impairments to better process sound.
  • Communication
    Any means of sending or receiving information. Spoken language and written language are both forms of communication. But so too are gestures, images, and many other things.
  • Expressive Language
    The use of language (speaking or writing) to say something. The opposite of expressive language is receptive language (see below).
  • Hand-Eye Coordination
    Matching up the use of hands and eyes. What the eyes see, the hands grasp. Young children develop this ability over time. Some children experience delays in this development.
  • Hard-Wired
    Neurological connections that exist naturally and do not need to be taught.
  • Morpheme
    The smallest unit of meaning in a language.
  • Non-Verbal Communication
    Elements of communication that do not rely on spoken language. These include gestures (or signs), facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and other means of communicating.
  • Oral Language
    Talking and listening, that is, language made by speaking and understood by listening.
  • Phoneme [FOH-neem]
    The sound made when a letter, or group of letters, is spoken.
  • Phonological Processing
    Using sound (phonemes) to interpret spoken or written language.
  • Pragmatics
    The rules for how we use language socially. These include gestures, eye contact, and other attributes related to non-verbal communication (see above).
  • Receptive Language
    Taking in spoken (or written or signed) words—the opposite of expressive language. “Receptive” means you are “receiving” the words, by listening or perhaps by reading.
  • Scaffolding
    Things that support learning.
  • Semantics
    The meaning of language as conveyed by words, phrases, and sentences. It does not address smaller units of meaning like morphemes (see above). Semantics includes vocabulary or lexicon (see below).
  • Signing
    A visual language based on hand signals that replace oral speech and listening for some people, especially people who are deaf. In the United States, most people who sign use American Sign Language (ASL). In some high schools, ASL counts as a foreign language.
  • Syntax
    The rules for how to arrange (spoken or written) words in a given language.
  • Telegraphic Speech
    A form of abbreviated language used by children as they develop oral language. “Abbreviated” means short. For instance, “want cookie” means, “I want a cookie.”
  • Vocabulary (or Lexicon)
    The body of words known to a person. Vocabulary can also refer to all words in a particular language or even within a particular subject.