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From the moment they’re born, babies absorb language from the world around them.
Within months, they start to acquire basic language skills. By the time they’re five, they can master basic grammar and language structures. How well they do this depends in part on how parents and caregivers verbally engage with them.
And even though learning to talk doesn’t require any literacy skills, learning to read and write requires language skills. In fact, oral language skills are key to strong literacy development. Research has shown that listening and speaking skills have a direct relationship to the skills needed for reading and writing. This means that the more opportunities young children have to engage in language-rich activities, such as conversation, storytelling, and word games, the better equipped they’ll be to become confident readers and writers.
If you want to know more about how oral language skills can affect your child’s reading success, keep reading! We’ll dive into the specific connections between oral language and learning to read and share practical tips for developing these essential skills.
The Relationship Between Oral Language and Reading
Oral language skills and literacy skills are closely related. They both rely on many of the same skills, like vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and phonological awareness (being able to understand that spoken words are made up of individual sounds).
Kids who have a strong foundation in spoken language are better prepared to learn to read because they’ve already developed many of the key skills needed for literacy. For example, a child who has a large vocabulary and understands how to use those words in context will have an easier time decoding written words and comprehending what they’re reading.
On the other hand, those who struggle with spoken language skills often struggle with reading and comprehension. For example, a child who has difficulty understanding and using grammatical structures when they speak will have a harder time understanding grammar structure in written language.
So, by focusing on developing your child’s oral language skills, you’ll help set them up for reading and comprehension success.
The Role of Phonological Awareness
Ask someone if they’ve heard of phonics and you’ll likely get a yes. But ask someone about “phonological awareness” and you might get a blank look.
Although they sound similar, they aren’t the same thing. Research shows it’s crucial to develop phonological awareness in kids before they learn phonics.
So how are the two terms different?
Phonological awareness is the ability to recognize and manipulate spoken parts of words and sentences. It involves the ears–not the eyes. Identifying words that rhyme, counting syllables, and segmenting sentences are all skills that kids learn under the “umbrella” of phonological awareness.
Phonemic awareness is the most difficult skill and final part of achieving overall phonological awareness. Think of it as training your child to be a “sound ninja” so they can blend, stretch, or change words in other ways.
Phonics is all about making the connection between sound and print. It involves both the ears AND the eyes.
If kids struggle to hear and isolate different spoken words, they’re going to have an even harder time connecting sounds to written letters.
The importance of Vocabulary Development
Many parents know vocabulary development is an important part of learning to read. But the vocabulary your child has before learning their letters can give them a huge leg up.
According to studies, vocabulary plays a huge role in literacy, both before and during formal reading instruction. Kids with a range of words at their disposal are better able to understand written words and sentences. Having a great vocabulary also helps them figure out unfamiliar words more quickly.
So how can you help your child build a great “store” of words before they learn to read their first letter?
- Expose them to a variety of words by reading out loud.
- Discuss what any “funny” sounding or “new” words mean when reading to them.
- Get playful with words. Chant rhymes with them, sing, and try out different pitches and volumes when reading out loud.
- Give lots of praise when they attempt to put words together. For example, “Good job asking for your sippy cup!”
Storytelling and Conversation Skills
Who doesn’t love a good story? Adults and kids alike enjoy hearing their favorite stories over and over. Kids benefit tremendously from listening to the same story multiple times. Studies show kids who regularly hear stories enjoy the development of stronger neural pathways. And the same research shows this also improves imagination, which helps kids construct their own internal images that connect to words.
Even better, the more kids hear and engage with stories before they learn to read, the more they’ll grasp structure, grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. It also helps them make connections between events and characters, which is key for reading comprehension.
Stories help kids can practice their conversational skills. By discussing what they think characters might say next in the story, or what they and dislike helps kids become more confident speakers. Parents can also help kids with their conversational skills by practicing different scenarios, role-playing, and guiding them in how they communicate with people in various situations.
Benefits of Bilingualism
For years, there’s been a bit of a misconception regarding bilingual kids. Early literacy researchers viewed bilingualism as more of a handicap that would slow reading acquisition down. But recent decades of research haven’t supported that view. In fact, it’s proven to be quite the opposite.
The benefits of raising kids as bilingual are numerous. Research confirms that bilingualism positively impacts reading skills. When children learn two languages, they develop better phonological awareness. They often develop a broader vocabulary and a better understanding of grammar and syntax in both languages.
With the popularity of digital language learning tools in recent years, some parents worry about too much screen time. While parents do need to be careful and establish clear limits, there are many ways to use technology to support bilingual language development, such as…
- video chats with family members far away to practice conversational skills.
- singing and watching performances of songs in the secondary language.
- playing apps or online games in the secondary language.
- watching shows in the secondary language.
The Importance of a Print-Rich Environment
This one seems obvious, but in the current digital age it’s worth mentioning.
Dr. Jenn Berman, author of Superbaby, has stated that research shows “children who come from…a ‘print-rich environment’ consistently score better in writing, reading, and math skills than children who come from a ‘print-poor environment.’”
Naturally having a variety of picture books that can be read to and held by little ones is required for a “print rich environment”. But books aren’t the only “print” items that can help your child develop better oral language and stronger literacy skills.
So, what exactly IS a “print-rich environment”? And how can you create one in your home?
It involves making spaces where kids will see and notice many different examples of print.
Create fun bulletin boards (they aren’t just for school!) that display words and numbers. Hang fun posters and calendars. Consider a subscription to a kid’s magazine you can put out for them to explore. Expose them to food labels or packaging and other informational text they can put their hands on to help them see the relationship between words and objects. Scrapbooks are also a great addition to creating a print-rich environment.
Early Language Development – Identifying and Addressing Language Delays
The most intensive period for acquiring speech and language skills occurs in the first 3 years of a child’s life. By 6 months most babies can recognize speech patterns of their native language. Research has shown that language skills are best developed in environments with a variety of sights, sounds, and exposure to speech and language.
During the early years of language development, young brains are wired to pay attention to speech sounds. The more stimulation the brain receives, the more connections occur that allow children to mimic and acquire speech.
Many pre-reading skills are developed orally. So, identifying and treating language delays promptly can make a huge difference in how well a child develops their verbal and reading skills.
According to the Hanen Centre, parents should get help if they notice any of the following:
- No babbling or gestures (like shaking the head for no or waving goodbye) by age 1.
- Hasn’t said his/her first word by 15 months.
- Isn’t putting two words together or playing pretend (with dolls, cars, or other toys) by age 2.
- Can’t or don’t ask questions by age 3.
If parents notice their kids miss any of these milestones, they should speak to their child’s primary care doctor. Most practitioners do informal speech evaluations at well visits, so parents have regular opportunities to discuss any concerns about speech development. Some places, like the UK, work to actively help practitioners connect families with next steps specialists and resources. These may include audiologists, speech pathologists, and/or others who can perform more formal evaluations and help parents develop specific treatment plans.
The bottom line is a child’s oral language skills have a direct effect on how well they learn to read and write. Understanding how spoken language sets the foundation for reading success can help parents make decisions from the start that can make a big difference.
A text-rich environment, vocabulary development, storytelling and engaging in conversation are all great ways to bond with your child while fostering a love of language and communication. And this ultimately will help your child become a confident reader and learner.