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Oral Language and Reading Skills, Part 1

You are probably reading this article because you are either a parent or a teacher who has tried everything you can think of to help a child learn to read and yet they still are not reading efficiently or at all. As a parent, you are watching your child become less confident. They may say things like “I’m dumb” or “I hate school”. As a teacher, you want more than anything to help every child in your care and yet you don’t seem to be able to catch them all. Both of these scenarios are heartbreaking. No one likes to see a child suffer.

If you are faced with a situation like this, please know there are answers out there. More traditional reading instruction is likely NOT the answer to this child’s challenges. As a veteran reading and dyslexia specialist, I have seen hundreds of students struggle to learn how to decode and read fluently. By the time students came to my high school reading class, they had spent nine or ten years in school enduring death by a thousand paper cuts-all those little messages they get every day that they aren’t smart enough, good enough, or trying hard enough. Although I’ve been able to break the code for every student I’ve ever worked with, those days as a high school reading teacher spurred my decade-long study of neurodevelopment and the sensory system.

In the picture below, referred to as “Scarborough’s Rope,” researcher Hollis Scarborough (2001) illustrates how fluent reading is achieved. The top half of the rope are all oral language skills and the bottom half, decoding, phonological awareness, and sight recognition, are the skills that are directly taught in a classroom. The oral language skills are dependent on receptive and expressive language and the bottom skills are dependent upon the auditory and visual processing systems, working memory, and processing speed.

The bottom portion is where most reading intervention is focused. If a child is not “picking up” their letter sounds or can’t remember sight words in kindergarten, there is often a reading group they are placed in where they do more practice on these skills. While this is valuable and important, a large number of students who struggle to learn to read also were delayed in their speech development and/or have other speech issues. This may be speech articulation or the forming and production of words, receptive vocabulary deficits, or expressive language impairments. Any delay or impairment in speech has the probability of impacting reading development and achievement.

Looking at the graphic above, you can clearly see how integrally involved speech and language are with reading. We generally earn language in this order: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. When they are deficits in spoken language, this generally carries through into the other areas of literacy. Why? That is a very complex question. The simple answer is that we develop a framework for language orally first. Remember back to before your children were talking. They understood what you said to them before they were able to respond, right? That is receptive language. Receptive language is the bank of words, sentences, word meanings, and grammatical structures that we build even before we can speak, and that continues to grow even after we learn to talk. Once we begin speaking, we move into expressive language. We have must robust receptive language in order to have strong expressive language.

If you want your child to be a strong reader, they must be a strong listener and have good receptive language. What can you do to help foster receptive language?

  1. Talk to your children. All the time. About everything.

  2. Read books with them. Ask them questions about what you are reading. Ideally, read something with pictures that you can reference. You can ask questions like “can you point to the red wheelbarrow in the picture?” Is the chicken on the left or right side of the cow?” “are there more ducks or chickens?”

  3. Take them grocery shopping and ask them to show you items or get items to put in the cart.

  4. Play Simon Says.

  5. Play games where they have to remember a series of words.

  6. Play rhyming games.

  7. Play a story-telling game where each person in the game adds to the story. For example, you say, “once upon a time there was a little boy named Dane.” The next person repeats that and adds to it. “Dane loved french fries.” The next person repeats both parts and adds to it. “Once upon there was a boy named Dane. Dane loved french fries. He loved them so much that he would squeal with excitement every time they passed a McDonald’s.” This goes on until someone can’t remember all the parts of the story.

The idea here is that they have to listen to information and then respond. These are all very basic ways to build receptive language but they are effective. By engaging your child in purposeful conversation and games, you can help build a solid foundation for reading later on.

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