What Is Oral Language? Understanding Its Components and Impact on Reading Instruction
Unlike mathematics or science, reading is the only academic area in which we expect children to arrive as kindergarteners with a basic skill level. Research has shown that oral language—the foundations of which are developed by age four—has a profound impact on children’s preparedness for kindergarten and on their success throughout their academic career.
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. The acquisition of these skills often begins at a young age, before students begin focusing on print-based concepts such as sound-symbol correspondence and decoding. Because these skills are often developed early in life, children with limited oral language ability are typically at a distinct disadvantage by the time they enter kindergarten (Fielding et al., 2007). Furthermore, Title I and English Learner students are often among the most at-risk.
Let's take a deeper look at these six areas of oral language:
Phonology covers the organization or system of sounds within a language. Once the phonological system has been acquired for basic listening and speaking, children begin to develop phonological awareness—the awareness of words in sentences or syllables in words. Other aspects of phonological awareness include rhyme, alliteration, onset rime (word families), blending, segmenting, and manipulating sounds. At the most complex level is phonemic awareness (blending, segmenting, and manipulating words at the individual sound—or phoneme—level).
The development of vocabulary focuses both on expressive and receptive vocabulary. Expressive vocabulary represents the words a student actively uses when talking, writing, or otherwise communicating. Receptive vocabulary represents the words that a student understands—based on context and background experiences—but may not necessarily use when speaking or writing. A common misconception is the idea that vocabulary can be measured simply by the sheer number of words an individual can understand and use, although this actually pertains only to the breadth of vocabulary knowledge. To measure the depth of vocabulary knowledge, a broader definition also includes a focus on such areas as: multiple meanings of words (homonyms), shades of meaning, figurative language, and relationships between words (synonym, antonyms, analogies).
Sometimes considered to be a subset of syntax and sometimes considered as part of vocabulary (semantics), morphology is focused on the smallest units of meaning within a word, as well as the rules about how those words are formed. For example, if we were to examine the word “cats,” a basic analysis would show there are four phonemes: /k/, /a/, /t/, and /s/. However, the word only has two morphemes (meaningful word parts): “Cat” is a feline animal, and “s” tells us that there is more than one cat. Morphology can also include the study of structural analysis—how words are joined together and build vocabulary by analyzing the morphological structure of the word (prefix, root, and suffix)—which then helps build upon the child’s foundation in vocabulary.
As children develop their oral language skills, they also develop an understanding of grammar—the set of structural rules that govern the combination of words and phrases into sentences, as well as how sentences are combined into paragraphs. Knowledge of these rules helps children understand the relationship among words and apply vocabulary and abstract thinking to their comprehension of oral language.
Considered by some reading experts as the “hidden curriculum” in a classroom, pragmatics requires the understanding of the social use of language. This includes social norms regarding conversational turn-taking, personal space, and appropriate behavior with peers and authority figures in a variety of common social situations. In some classroom settings, students lacking background experience—which can be attributable to cultural differences in some instances—don’t understand group dynamics and expectations regarding behavior. Understanding a variety of situations prepares students for more successful comprehension at later stages, including both listening and reading.
Oral and written communication, also known as discourse, is a critical skill. For example, narrative storytelling follows a very specific format: Stories typically have a beginning, middle, and end. They describe the main characters and the setting in which they live, the conflict, and the resolution. An understanding of story structure is essential in order to read, understand, and write narrative. In contrast, consider the structure of expository, or informational text. These forms of writing also follow certain structures, such as: persuasive, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and procedural. It is critically important that students understand these structures through listening comprehension before they even begin to focus on reading comprehension. Before they can begin to write these kinds of stories, they first need to be able to understand and tell stories in those formats.
Children with a history of oral language impairment are more likely to present with reading difficulties than their peers (general population). Some research identified this increased likelihood to be as great as four to five times more likely than their peers (Catts, Fey, Zhang, & Tomblin, 2001). It has been shown that children who struggle with phonemic awareness have significant difficulty acquiring phonic word-attack strategies. There is also evidence that a child’s level of vocabulary significantly impacts reading development, but there has been debate in the research over whether or not it is only vocabulary or if reading acquisition is affected by all of the oral language components mentioned above. A recent study of reading comprehension found that both reading accuracy as well as oral language skills, beyond just vocabulary, predict performance on outcome measures (Foorman, Herrara, Petscher, Mitchell, & Truckenmiller, 2015a).
The key to instruction in oral language is assessing these skills (mentioned above) early on and focusing instruction on building a foundation of these skills through listening comprehension and oral expression. Building the foundation of oral language skills can begin as soon as a child enters school. Since some children enter the school environment already four times behind their peers due to sheer exposure to words (Hart & Risley, 1995), it is critical to ensure kindergarten assessments include components of oral language so educators have the appropriate data to target instruction. Research has indicated that these early skills are among the strongest indicators of future success (Foorman, Koon, Petscher, Mitchell, & Truckenmiller, 2015b), so an early screener of language skills and an early and intensive focus on oral language skills—before students can read independently—is imperative for all students to read at grade level and succeed in all other subject areas.
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