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Why oral language is foundational for literacy

In a webinar, speech language therapist and literacy consultant Emma Nahna discussed the fundamental importance of oral language as part a broad, rich literacy programme, and shared practical strategies to help Year 0-8 teachers build oral language capability.

The key insights from the webinar are:

To read and write, we must be able to speak. To speak, we must be able to listen and understand. Unlike the areas of the brain related to speech and language, which are there from birth, the part of the brain responsible for reading must be built. Brain scans show that that the speech and language parts of the brain are integral to the circuit that develops to enable reading.

Communication can be conceptualised as a chain, and if one link is weak or broken, if affects the whole structure (see the Elklan Communication Chain here). About 75% of students who are poor readers at Year 3 have a history oral language difficulties. Similarly, children with spoken language impairments are 6 times as likely to have trouble learning to read than their peers, and are also likely to have trouble with mathematical learning and development.

Students with oral language difficulties may not always be obvious. Often students can appear to express themselves with competence and ease, but then struggle to express higher order concepts and the more complex, abstract ideas and language required for learning. When students experience difficulties in learning in any area including literacy, or struggle with attention and behaviour, the first thing to consider is their oral language capacity.

Developmental language disorder or DLD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental conditions in early childhood. It is a brain difference that affects the acquisition of spoken language and communication skills. It has a genetic component, is often hereditary, and is not caused by parenting practices. It affects about 7.5% of the population and it is more common than autism and dyslexia. About 50% of students with dyslexia also have DLD, which means they will have difficulty with both language comprehension and word recognition or decoding. Note that ‘developmental language disorder’ is the term used internationally for this neurodevelopmental condition, but New Zealand has not yet decided whether or not to formally adopt this terminology.

There are a number of powerful practices for promoting strong oral language and communication skills that teachers can employ in their everyday practice. These include:

  • Valuing bilingualism: encourage families and whānau to use their strongest language at home, and reassure them that they do not need to use English at home to support their child’s learning of English at school.
  • Serve-and-return interactions: our brains are hard-wired to acquire spoken language through two-way interactions, so conversations involving multiple turns are highly valuable for oral language development (and wellbeing). Aim for 30-second conversations, or use the 5-5-5 rule (5-year-olds need at least 5 daily interactions that involve 5 or more turns).
  • Teacher read-alouds: this has the potential to gift students hundreds of books and millions of words a year. Read a range of books, and consider including ‘stretch texts’, or books that contain language and ideas that will extend students’ knowledge and understanding.
  • Think-pair-share: doing these activities daily ensures that every student thinks and talks to someone else about a question or idea every day. Boost think-pair-share activities by providing sentence stems like ‘I think this character felt … about … because …’.
  • Explicit, intentional vocabulary instruction: vocabulary is key for decoding, comprehension, and inferencing, because in a broad, rich vocabulary, words are grouped in networks and families.
  • Explicit, intentional syntax and comprehension instruction: it is important that this is done for all students, not within reading groups, so that the development of these skills is not limited by the student’s current reading level and the corresponding texts being read.
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