The Role of Early Oral Language in Literacy Development - Language Magazine (2022)

Timothy Shanahan and Christopher Lonigan explore the connection between early oral language development and later reading comprehension success

Supporting young children’s language and literacy development has long been considered a practice that yields strong readers and writers later in life. The results of the National Early Literacy Panel’s (NELP) six years of scientific research synthesis supports the practice and its role in language development among children ages zero to five.

The NELP was brought together in 2002 to compile research that would contribute to educational policy and practice decisions that impact early literacy development. It was also charged with determining how teachers and families could support young children’s language and literacy development. Outcomes found in the panel’s report (2008) would be used in the creation of literacy-specific materials for parents, teachers, and staff development for early childhood educators and family-literacy practitioners.

Through its work, the NELP uncovered a set of abilities such as alphabet knowledge, oral language, or phonological awareness present in the preschool years that provides the basis for later reading success. It also found that measures of complex and discourse-level skills are particularly strong predictors of reading success – a finding that is consistent with the fact that language is a complex, multidimensional system that supports decoding and comprehension as children learn to read.

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In our book Early Childhood Literacy: The National Early Literacy Panel and Beyond,, we explore the NELP report, as well as newer research findings and the effectiveness of specific approaches to teaching early oral language development to establish a solid foundation for later reading comprehension. Below we expand on concepts to help educators understand how oral language relates to reading comprehension, word reading, and language development; where Common Core State Standards factor into the equation; and what teachers can do to foster literacy development.

Laying Down the Building Blocks
Through its research, the NELP discovered that the more complex aspects of oral language, including syntax or grammar, complex measures of vocabulary (such as those in which children actually define or explain word meanings), and listening comprehension were clearly related to later reading comprehension, but that simpler measures of oral language (e.g., the widely used Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test) had very limited associations with reading comprehension.
Put simply, readers must translate print to language and then, much as in listening, they must interpret the meaning of that language. Numerous studies support this approach by showing that word reading and language comprehension are relatively independent skills, but that each contributes significantly to reading comprehension.

Simple measures of vocabulary in which children simply point to the picture of a word or name a picture are not strongly connected with later reading comprehension. Nevertheless, many studies have shown that vocabulary plays an important role in fostering reading development in the years before and during formal reading instruction. The role of vocabulary is likely two-fold. The words, and the concepts that they represent, are obviously of functional importance in comprehension, and vocabulary might also support decoding or the translation of text into language. The NELP established phonological awareness as a key contributor to children’s ability to learn to read. Of course, phonological representations are part of the linguistic system and the ability to gain access to these representations may in part be a by-product of early vocabulary development (Metsala & Walley, 1998).

Reading comprehension depends on language abilities that have been developing since birth. Basic vocabulary and grammar are clearly essential to comprehension because each enables understanding of words and their interrelationships in and across individual sentences in a text (Kintsch & Kintsch, 2005).

However, children who comprehend well go beyond word and sentence comprehension to construct a representation of the situation or state of affairs described by the text. In some theories, this is referred to as a “mental model” (Kintsch & Kintsch, 2005) and it involves organizing a text’s multiple ideas into an integrated whole, using both information from the text and the reader’s own world knowledge. To do this, successful comprehenders draw upon a set of higher-level cognitive and linguistic skills, including inferencing, monitoring comprehension, and using text structure knowledge.
Take the following story for example: “Johnny carried a jug of water. He tripped on a step. Mom grabbed the mop.” The literal representation of the individual words and sentences does not enable the reader to integrate their meanings and construct a mental model. Successful comprehenders understand narrative structure and couple it with their knowledge to infer that Johnny spilled the water. They then understand why Mom grabbed a mop. They also monitor their comprehension of stories-either written or spoken-and realize the need to make an inference (that Johnny spilled the water) to make sense of Mom’s response.

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High-level language skills used to create mental models of text are not exclusive to reading. In fact, children begin developing these language skills well before formal reading instruction in a range of language comprehension situations. For example, young children rely on knowledge of narrative structure to do things like follow a set of instructions, share their daily activities around the dinner table, or understand spoken stories, cartoons, and movies.

Assessing Early-Stage Development
The skills needed for reading comprehension come into play as students progress. In the early grades, for example, reading comprehension depends heavily on emerging word-reading skills. As children accomplish the ability to automatically and fluently read printed words, language comprehension begins to contribute more to individual differences in reading comprehension. Most children who score poorly on reading comprehension tests have difficulty decoding words and understanding language.

Those with poor word-reading abilities (i.e., poor decoders) lag behind their typically developing peers on reading comprehension measures in the early grades, even if they have good language development. However, those with poor language comprehension, in spite of relatively proficient word-reading ability, usually do not lag behind their typically developing peers on reading comprehension tests until they have had one or two years of reading instruction (Catts et al., 2005).

It’s important to point out that what appears to be a decline in reading comprehension for poor comprehenders is not the result of declining language skills. In fact, these students’ language skills were already poor compared with their typically developing peers at the onset of schooling. A recent report found that poor comprehenders in fifth grade (i.e., those with poor reading comprehension despite good word-reading abilities) evidenced weak language skills as early as 15 months of age (Justice, Mashburn, & Petscher, in press) compared with their age-matched peers who went on to become good comprehenders and poor decoders, and NELP found that early language skills were predictive of later reading comprehension development, but much less so with early decoding skills.

Subsequently, many students who are labeled as “clinically language impaired” prior to, or just beginning, formal education in preschool or kindergarten, do not necessarily have problems learning to read initially (Catts, Fey, Tomblin, & Zhang) Their later “decline” in reading comprehension is thought to be related to the changing nature of reading comprehension assessments: the texts used to assess reading comprehension in the early grades require less complex mental models and very limited language processing, allowing those with weak language skills to answer basic comprehension questions as accurately as their typically developing peers.

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In the later grades, however, reading comprehension assessments contain more difficult passages that require more complex mental models. Poor comprehenders lack the language skills needed to construct these complex mental models and begin to score more poorly on reading comprehension assessments when compared to their typically developing peers.
Poor decoders with good language comprehension abilities may be able to compensate to some degree for their weak word-reading abilities in the later grades. That’s because even though they might struggle to decode all of the words, their language skills allow them to bootstrap their way to the text’s meaning, using their good language skills and rich knowledge of the world to help construct sufficient mental models to correctly answer comprehension questions (Stanovich, 1980).

Helping Children “Crack the Code”
According to our book, a key challenge facing the beginning reader is the ability to “crack the code” or, learning how written language maps onto spoken language. This is because better decoders devote greater cognitive resources to the processes involved in comprehending text. Children’s oral language skills serve as the foundation for both aspects of reading ability-word reading and language comprehension.

Because few preschool children can yet read words, we must look at precursor skills that develop into word recognition or decoding ability. Knowledge of the alphabet and phonological awareness are both strong predictors of later decoding and comprehension, and it is evident that teaching these in combination has a consistently positive impact on improving students’ later decoding and reading comprehension abilities. Rapid naming, knowledge about print conventions and concepts, the ability to write letters or names, and oral language skills were also good predictors, but teaching these has not consistently led to gains in reading success.

How the Common Core Factors into Literacy Development
With 46 states now working to implement the Common Core State Standards which include grade-specific K-12 standards in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language, educators may be required to adjust their lessons to align with the standards and assessments used to determine student progress.

But what if the road to success with those standards begins when the student was an infant, toddler, or preschooler? This question was clearly answered through the NELP’s extensive research, which emphasized the importance of print knowledge, phonological processing abilities and oral language skills as important predictors of later literacy skills, and with evidence that teaching these early on can have long-term benefits.

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Additionally, assessment of these early literacy skills is important for identifying children who are likely to need more intensive instruction to achieve success with literacy. By identifying and working with students across all literacy levels at a very early age, today’s educators can take a proactive role in ensuring that students meet or exceed standards across the board.

Making a Difference: The Teacher’s Role in Literacy Development
Interventions focused on fostering language aren’t easy to develop or implement. The interconnected and complex nature of language comes with a long developmental history and draws on a broad range of linguistic and cognitive capacities.
Furthermore, interventions occur within a social context where motivational, behavioral, and social factors can impact the learning climate. Children’s attention to language input and their willingness to respond to it are affected by a host of factors, including their interest in the topic of the conversation, their relationship to the speaker, the number and identities of other conversational participants, and the setting.

Even more vexing is the fact that teachers — the most important source of language input in preschool classrooms — have a history of using language in ways that may not be consistent with the interactions found by research to be conducive to language learning. Teacher’s interactions that best encourage language learning include having conversations that stay on a single topic, providing children opportunities to talk, encouraging analytical thinking, and giving information about the meanings of words.

For teachers, key considerations for instruction include the fidelity of the implementation (an extremely important aspect); teaching children letter names and sounds by performing phonological awareness tasks; and understanding that there is no link between curricula with a systematic and explicit focus (i.e. teacher-directed) and negative social-emotional outcomes for children.

Response to intervention in preschool holds promise for successful early language development but several key issues must be considered. For one, preschools often serve disproportionate numbers of children who need Tier 2 or Tier 3 services, which causes staffing concerns. Also, more research is needed on the effect of interventions for children from low-income families, children with disabilities, English language learners, and children from underrepresented ethnic groups.
The NELP report, along with other studies of children’s early language development, suggests that early oral language has a growing contribution to later reading comprehension — a contribution that is separate from the important role played by the alphabetic code. As such, improving young children’s oral language development should be a central goal during the preschool and kindergarten years.

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In the end, making strides in this area of a child’s educational development can begin with a very simple exercise-shared book reading. Although various approaches have been found to improve young children’s language, the approach of shared book reading has gained the greatest research support thus far, particularly when such reading is carried out dialogically, that is, with much language interaction between the reader and the child. Combining shared book reading along with other language activities with explicit decoding instruction in the context of a supportive and responsive classroom, can make the difference between a child whose literacy development is at or above standards or one who struggles with reading, writing, and literacy throughout his or her K-12 education.

References
Catts, H.W., Fey, M.E., Tomblin, B.J., & Zhang, X. (2002). “A longitudinal investigation
of reading outcomes in children with language impairments.” Journal
of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research
, 45, 1142-1157.
Catts, H.W., Hogan, T.P., & Adlof, S.M. (2005). “Developmental changes in reading
and reading disabilities.” In H.W. Catts & A.G. Kamhi (Eds.), The connections
between language and reading disabilities
(pp. 25-40). Mahwah,
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Justice, L.M., Mashburn, A., & Petscher, Y. (in press). “Very early language skills
of fifth-grade poor comprehenders.” Journal of Research in Reading.
Kintsch, W., & Kintsch, E. (2005). “Comprehension.” In S.G. Paris & S.A. Stahl
(Eds.), Current issues in reading comprehension and assessment (pp. 71-92). New York, Routledge.
Metsala, J. L., & Walley, A. C. (1998). “Spoken vocabulary growth and the segmental restructuring of lexical representations: Precursors to phonemic awareness and early reading ability.” In J. L. Metsala & L. C. Ehri (Eds.), Word recognition in beginning literacy (pp. 89-120). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Perfetti, C.A. (1985). Reading ability. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Stanovich, K.E. (1980). “Toward an interactive-compensatory model of individual differences in the development of reading fluency.” Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 32-71.

Timothy Shanahan, Ph.D., and Christopher J. Lonigan, Ph.D., are the editors of Early Childhood Literacy: The National Early Literacy Panel and Beyond, available from Brookes Publishing Co. They are two of the nation’s top childhood literacy experts and served on the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP).

FAQs

What is the role of oral language in early literacy development? ›

Oral language lays the foundation for the reading and writing skills children will develop as they enter and progress through school. They will use oral language in all aspects of their education, in the classroom as they connect with their peers and teachers, and throughout their lives as they grow into adulthood.

What is the relationship between preschool oral language skills and later development of literacy? ›

The basis of the relationship between early spoken language and later reading development is thought to be causal in nature, such that spoken language skills, especially phonological awareness and listening comprehension, are fundamental precursors to later successful reading.

What is the role of literacy in language development? ›

Language development and literacy is no doubt a critical part of any child's overall development. It supports the ability of your child to communicate, and express and understand feelings. It also supports your child's thinking ability and helps them develop and maintain relationships.

What is oral language in literacy? ›

What is it? Oral language (OL), sometimes called spoken language, includes speaking and listening—the ways that humans communicate with one another. OL skills provide the foundation for word reading and comprehension. They are at the heart of listening and reading comprehension, serving as a predictor for both.

What are the five stages of oral language development? ›

Students learning a second language move through five predictable stages: Preproduction, Early Production, Speech Emergence, Intermediate Fluency, and Advanced Fluency (Krashen & Terrell, 1983).

What is language and literacy development in early childhood? ›

Language and literacy development are major domains of early childhood development. They involve development of the skills used to communicate with others through languages (language development), as well as the ability to read and write (literacy development).

What is literacy development in early childhood? ›

Early literacy is learning about sounds, words and language. You can support early literacy development by communicating with children, reading, and playing with rhyme. Children develop and learn best through everyday, fun activities like singing, talking and games.

What is the relationship between oral language and early reading? ›

Oral language is often called a "bedrock" of reading and writing. Students' comprehension of spoken language is a defining factor for their reading comprehension — the ultimate purpose of reading — as well as for writing ability.

What are the five stages of literacy development? ›

The five stages of literacy development are emergent literacy, alphabetic fluency, words and patterns, intermediate reading, and advanced reading.

What role does the early childhood teacher play in language development of their students? ›

Teachers play an important role in the language development of children in early childhood classrooms. Your efforts in building a relationship where communication is valued, and in implementing strategies that deliberately expand children's vocabulary, make a lasting impact over their educational years.

What oral language development activities would be beneficial for this student? ›

Ways to Promote Language Development
  • Give children opportunities to talk. ...
  • Promote speaking and listening throughout the day. ...
  • Read often, even to very young children. ...
  • Be a language model and describe children's actions. ...
  • Promote peer-to-peer conversations and make home-school connections during meals and snacks.

What activities promote oral language development? ›

Parents can develop oral language and comprehension with these activities:
  • Active every day conversations.
  • Sharing oral stories.
  • Reading books together.
  • Singing and playing rhyming games.
  • Listening games, such as "Simon says"
  • Dramatic play where your child takes on imaginary roles.

What is the relationship between oral language development and written language development? ›

There is a fundamental and reciprocal relationship among oral language (listening and speaking), written language, and reading. Initially, reading and writing are dependent on oral language skills. Eventually, reading and writing extend oral language. Young children use oral language skills to learn how to read.

What is the aim of oral language? ›

Oral language is the system through which we use spoken words to express knowledge, ideas, and feelings. Developing ELs' oral language, then, means developing the skills and knowledge that go into listening and speaking—all of which have a strong relationship to reading comprehension and to writing.

What are the examples of oral language? ›

Examples of oral communication are conversations with friends, family or colleagues, presentations and speeches.

Why is oral reading important as a language skill? ›

Oral reading fluency is one of several critical components required for successful reading comprehension. Students who read with automaticity and have appropriate speed, accuracy, and proper expression are more likely to comprehend material because they are able to focus on the meaning of the text.

What are the five components of oral language? ›

Oral language is often associated with vocabulary as the main component. However, oral language is comprised of much more. In the broadest definition, oral language consists of six areas: phonology, grammar, morphology, vocabulary, discourse, and pragmatics.

What are the four stages of language development? ›

There are four main stages of normal language acquisition: The babbling stage, the Holophrastic or one-word stage, the two-word stage and the Telegraphic stage.

What does early language development mean? ›

In the early stages of language development, the brain is programmed to attend to speech sounds and begin to mimic them. Early on, babies like to make sounds up on their own. Later they attempt to repeat sounds and words they're exposed to from their environment.

How do you teach literacy in early childhood? ›

8+ Ways to Support Literacy Skills Development
  1. Capture children's interest before you read. ...
  2. Introduce vocabulary during a read-aloud. ...
  3. Share the see-show-say strategy with families. ...
  4. Highlight children's favorite books. ...
  5. Establish read-aloud routines. ...
  6. Read in small groups. ...
  7. Support children who are learning two languages.
3 Aug 2021

What are the basic early literacy skills? ›

Early literacy skills include Vocabulary, Print Motivation, Print Awareness, Narrative Skills, Letter Knowledge, and Phonological Awareness. These important foundational skills are the building blocks for learning to read and write.

Why is early literacy development important? ›

The Importance Of Early Literacy

Early literacy means helping children develop a rich vocabulary, self-expression, and reading comprehension—tools they need to become successful readers and lifelong learners. These skills allow a young child to enter kindergarten with a love of books and a readiness to learn.

Why is literacy development important in childhood? ›

Literacy is essential to developing a strong sense of well-being and citizenship. Children who have developed strong reading skills perform better in school and have a healthier self-image. They become lifelong learners and sought-after employees.

Why is literacy important in a child's development? ›

Regardless of this shifting definition, literacy is essential to developing a strong sense of well-being and citizenship. Children who have developed strong reading skills perform better in school and have a healthier self-image. They become lifelong learners and sought-after employees.

How does early language development relate to reading fluency and comprehension? ›

In the early grades, for example, reading comprehension depends heavily on emerging word-reading skills. As children accomplish the ability to automatically and fluently read printed words, language comprehension begins to contribute more to individual differences in reading comprehension.

What is the most significant connection between oral and written language? ›

One obvious connection between oral and written language is vocabulary. For a reader to recognize and get meaning from text, most of the words represented by the text must already be in the reader's oral vocabulary.

What affects the oral language of children? ›

The environment itself is also a significant factor. Children learn the specific variety of language (dialect) that the important people around them speak. Children do not, however, learn only by imitating those around them.

What is relationship between language and literacy? ›

Expressive Language and Literacy

Expressive language is also a determiner of one's success with reading comprehension and word recognition. It provides the connection between language and literacy. Children who have deficits in oral language most likely will have the potential for a reading deficit.

What is the process of literacy development? ›

The five stages of literacy development include emergent literacy, alphabetic fluency, words and patterns, intermediate reading, and advanced reading. Each stage of literacy development helps the child move forward and become a stronger student.

How do you develop literacy skills in the classroom? ›

8 Tips to Help Students Build Better Reading Skills
  1. Annotate and highlight text. ...
  2. Personalize the content. ...
  3. Practice problem solving skills. ...
  4. Incorporate more senses. ...
  5. Understand common themes. ...
  6. Set reading goals. ...
  7. Read in portions. ...
  8. Let students guide their reading.
12 Apr 2017

How does the first language influence language learning? ›

Besides culture, the first language (L1) of a learner might have an influence over foreign language learning, either by acting as a source for the learner to understand how the language works when the first language and the foreign language are similar (transfer), or by being a factor of interference if the two ...

What is Piaget's theory of language development? ›

Piaget believed children need to first develop mentally before language acquisition can occur. According to him, children first create mental structures within the mind (schemas) and from these schemas, language development happens.

How does listening and speaking contribute to the development of literacy in pupils in early grade? ›

Language and communication

Listening to other people speaking enables children to develop vocabulary, comprehension and language skills. These important communication skills are the building bricks of literacy and learning.

How can teachers promote oral language use in the classroom as a foundation for Ells literacy development and academic achievement in English? ›

There are many ways to do this, such as selecting key vocabulary, using context or visual cues, building background knowledge, building on experiences the students have had, using consistent language, and providing images or visual representations to support vocabulary and content.

What is the connection between language and literacy? ›

Language and literacy are major domains of early childhood development. These are connected areas, but refer to different things. Language development involves the development of the skills used to communicate with others through languages, while literacy development involves the ability to read and write.

Why is oral reading important as a language skill? ›

Oral reading fluency is one of several critical components required for successful reading comprehension. Students who read with automaticity and have appropriate speed, accuracy, and proper expression are more likely to comprehend material because they are able to focus on the meaning of the text.

What are the five stages of literacy development? ›

The five stages of literacy development are emergent literacy, alphabetic fluency, words and patterns, intermediate reading, and advanced reading.

What is literacy development in the early years? ›

Early literacy is learning about sounds, words and language. You can support early literacy development by communicating with children, reading, and playing with rhyme. Children develop and learn best through everyday, fun activities like singing, talking and games.

What activities promote oral language development? ›

Parents can develop oral language and comprehension with these activities:
  • Active every day conversations.
  • Sharing oral stories.
  • Reading books together.
  • Singing and playing rhyming games.
  • Listening games, such as "Simon says"
  • Dramatic play where your child takes on imaginary roles.

How can teachers facilitate oral language development through instructional activities? ›

14 Ways to Improve Your Students' Oral Language Skills
  • Encourage conversation. ...
  • Model syntactic structure. ...
  • Maintain eye contact. ...
  • Remind students to speak loudly and articulate clearly. ...
  • Have students summarize heard information. ...
  • Model and guide sentence construction. ...
  • Explain the subtleties of tone.
23 Jan 2018

What strategies can you implement to promote language development for ELL students? ›

Your Weekly Eureka Moment
  • Cultivate Relationships and Be Culturally Responsive. ...
  • Teach Language Skills Across the Curriculum. ...
  • Emphasize Productive Language. ...
  • Speak Slowly—and Increase Your Wait Time. ...
  • Differentiate—and Use Multiple Modalities. ...
  • Incorporate Students' Native Languages—and Don't Be Afraid of Technology.
12 Apr 2019

How can you promote language and literacy development in the classroom? ›

8+ Ways to Support Literacy Skills Development
  1. Capture children's interest before you read. ...
  2. Introduce vocabulary during a read-aloud. ...
  3. Share the see-show-say strategy with families. ...
  4. Highlight children's favorite books. ...
  5. Establish read-aloud routines. ...
  6. Read in small groups. ...
  7. Support children who are learning two languages.
3 Aug 2021

How can we help children's literacy development? ›

Activities like talking, singing, reading, storytelling, drawing and writing help to develop your child's literacy. For babies and younger children, try nursery rhymes, sound games, 'I spy', and books with rhyme, rhythm and repetition. For school children, look for words in billboards, signs and supermarket items.

What are the principles of developing literacy? ›

Phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency are foundations for proficiency. Older students benefit from learning structural analysis, such as common prefixes and suffixes and rules for dividing longer words into syllables. All these are essential to reading and understanding.

What is the relationship between oral language and early reading? ›

Oral language is often called a "bedrock" of reading and writing. Students' comprehension of spoken language is a defining factor for their reading comprehension — the ultimate purpose of reading — as well as for writing ability.

What is effect the oral language on children? ›

The way children develop oral language skills is tremendously impactful on their ability to learn how to read. Oral language familiarizes children with specific sounds and language structure, as well as abstract concepts of linking sounds and words to a physical meaning.

What is the relationship between oral language development and written language development? ›

There is a fundamental and reciprocal relationship among oral language (listening and speaking), written language, and reading. Initially, reading and writing are dependent on oral language skills. Eventually, reading and writing extend oral language. Young children use oral language skills to learn how to read.

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