By Alice Thomas and Glenda Thorne
In school as in life, the main way that ideas are exchanged is through language. So it becomes essential for a child to master language if he is to succeed at this place called school and a journey called life.
Kids who are “naturally” adept at language seem to master language with as little conscious effort as they give to breathing. But language skills do not come naturally for most of our children in both public and private schools.
In fact, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), research suggests that about 50 percent of school children learn to read relatively easily once exposed to formal instruction, while the other half of our nation’s children find learning to read to be a much more formidable challenge. Also, Reid Lyon, Director of NICHD, points out that “reading failure cuts across all ethnic and socioeconomic strata. A striking 32 percent of fourth grade children across the nation who were reading below basic reading levels were from homes where the parents had graduated from college. These data underscore that reading failure is a serious national problem and cannot be attributed to poverty.”
So what does this mean? As parents and teachers, it is crucial for us to understand that the development of language skills is not something that will “take care of itself.” The development of language skills requires a lot of hard, focused work. Dr. Lyon sums it up well: “Reading is not a natural process.”
First, let’s define language. When we think of language and school, most of us think about reading. Reading is a language skill. But language skills encompass much more than reading. As humans, we talk, we listen, we read and we write with words. So it is in school. Language skills include reading, and also writing, listening, and speaking. Throughout this article, then, the word language will be used to mean the language we speak and write, and also the language we hear and read.
The following paragraphs describe a student for whom language is causing problems in school. As you read through it, think about the four manifestations – reading speaking, listening and reading – and see if you can determine the strengths and challenges (breakdowns) for this child. Why? Identifying specific strengths and breakdowns allows us to provide specific strategies that will help a child move forward.
The Heavy Load of Language
Lucy is a very likeable girl, and until this year she got along well with her classmates as a group. Now, however, they don’t seem to want to have much to do with her because of the way she talks. Lucy gets along well with peers one-on-one. But in class discussions, she often says things that have nothing to do with what is being discussed. She also talks slowly and seems to be confused when trying to talk with others in the class. Sometimes this leads to her classmates’ making fun of her or acting annoyed. This bothers Lucy a lot.
Although Lucy seems to read well for her grade level, her parents say that over the years she’s had problems with sounding out words. Her decoding has never become automatic for her. Her slow reading speed causes her have to spend long hours on homework. Lucy complains that reading is laborious and tiring.
Hearing the difference between words such as “middle” and “metal” is also difficult for Lucy. Often, directions have to be given to Lucy more than once, but if they are said slowly the first time, she usually understands. Or, if she is given a written copy of the directions that she can read in addition to the oral directions, she usually gets it. When she talks, Lucy has trouble finding the right words to say and she has trouble getting sentences together on quick demand. For this reason, Lucy hates to be called on in class and will frequently answer with, “I don’t know” even when she knows the answer because she just can’t get it together and give it out fast enough.
Lucy does very well in science and social studies. When given enough time, she can also write well in language class. She knows the rules of punctuation and grammar, and she also spells quite well, although her parents say that this was not always true.
Lucy has had a lot of extra help in the past. Her tutors taught her lots of strategies for remembering language. For example, spelling used to be a real problem for Lucy, but now she uses colored markers to write her spelling and vocabulary words and says them out loud while she is writing them. This has really helped her.
Teachers like having Lucy in class because she works hard and wants to please others. She just wishes that the other kids would be more patient with her.
Can Lucy and other children like her be helped? Of course! Kids like Lucy, however, are not likely to “fix” themselves. They need help from their parents and teachers as they develop strategies that build their language skills.
Step One for helping a child increase his language skills is knowing the child’s “language profile”. That is, what kinds of language strengths and weaknesses does the child have? Teachers and parents who are keen observers will soon see a pattern in a child’s language profile. A very important part of this process is to ask the child about his/her language skills.
Step Two for helping a child build language skills and strategies is demystifying the language processes – taking the “mystery” away by breaking language down and understanding how it works. The sections that follow contain a summary of language, common language problems, and some management strategies.
What Is Language?
An easy way to organize how we look at language is by 2s, 3s, and 4s:
- Two Systems – Receptive and Expressive
- Three Components – Phonology, Structure, and Meaning
- Four Manifestations – Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking
1. Receptive Language
The system of language that includes what a person hears and reads is called receptive language. Receptive language puts information into our brains.
So much of what a student does in school has to do with his ability to use language. He needs to listen to the teacher and also his classmates in order to receive information. In his very early years, much of what a child learned came from his ability to listen. As he grew older, he learned to receive information by reading as well. In fact, as he progressed in school, he found that more and more of the material that he needed to learn depended on his ability to understand the printed word.
2. Expressive Language
The ability to transmit information to others is called expressive language. Expressive language is the output part of your language system.
A telephone is only half useful to a person as a means of communication if it has only the earphone and all she can do is receive messages. She also needs the transmitter, or the part she speaks in to, to be able to send information or to deliver her thoughts or ideas to someone else. In like manner, there is a part of her brain that controls her ability to send messages by what she says or what she writes.
Three interactive parts sit under the umbrella of phonology: phonics, phoneme awareness, and auditory discrimination. Phonics means associating segmented units of speech sounds with their graphic or printed forms (letters). This is the ability to match individual sounds in one’s native language with letters of the alphabet and letter combinations. Some of us may remember learning phonics in the early grades where we learned the sounds that certain letters and combinations of letters make.
Phoneme awareness is awareness that spoken words are composed of individual sound parts called phonemes. According to Reid Lyon, Chief of NICHD, phoneme awareness is the ability to demonstrate knowledge of the sound structure of words without any letters or written words present.
Phoneme awareness and phonics are not the same. Dr. Lyon goes on to state that “when educators assess phoneme awareness skills, they ask children to demonstrate knowledge of the sound structure of words without any letters or written words present. For example, ‘What word would be left if the /k/ sound were taken away from cat?’ ‘What sounds do you hear in the word big?’ To assess phonics skills, teachers ask children to link sounds (phonemes) with written letters. Thus, the development of phonics skills depends on the development of phoneme awareness.” To learn to decode and read, then, children must have both phoneme awareness and phonics skills.
Auditory discrimination is being able to detect a change in sounds, such as the difference between drill and thrill and knee and Lee. When a person has trouble distinguishing the subtle differences in sounds, it may become very hard for him to understand the meaning of sentences.
2. Structure: Morphology and Syntax
Morphology and syntax deal with language structure and organization. Morphology has to do with the changes that can be made to root words by adding prefixes and suffixes, or by changing verb tenses. For example, the prefixes re- and pre- can be added to the beginning of a word such as view to form review and preview. Suffixes such as -able and -ly can be added to end of a word such as like to make likeable and likely. And -ed and -ing added to laugh change the verb laugh into laughing and laughed. The words untidy bedroom are made up of four morphemes – un, tidy, bed and room. A morpheme has meaning on its own. For example, un- means not. A morpheme is not the same as a syllable because not all syllables have their own meaning. For example, with the word devil, dev and il have no meaning on their own (dev/il). But a syllable may be a morpheme! For example, in the word preview, pre means before and view means look.
Syntax has to do with joining all the parts of a sentence together and understanding how the different parts work together. Syntax involves understanding the rules of grammar and how words relate to each other in sentences and paragraphs. For example, consider the different meanings the commas make in the following sentences:
“Mary Jo Ellen and Krystal went to the store.” (Two people went to the store.)
“Mary, Jo Ellen, and Krystal went to the store.” (Three people went to the store.)
“Mary, Jo, Ellen, and Krystal went to the store.” (Four people went to the store.)
Rules of grammar help us make our message clear. When we don’t use or understand the rules of grammar, it is difficult to express or understand the intended message. Syntax refers to understanding things such as subjects and predicates, adjectives and adverbs, direct objects, prepositional phrases, and participles gerunds and infinitives.
Semantics is the meaning of words and word combinations. As a student progresses through the elementary school grades and moves into higher reading levels, he finds that he needs to be responsible for more and more new vocabulary words. Many of these are technical words that he has to use in math, science, or English, like hypotenuse, subtrahend, photosynthesis, or subjunctive.
Discourse is the ability to use large volumes of language. It involves the understanding of longer and longer passages (paragraphs and stories, either heard or read), which include detailed explanations. Discourse is also being able to produce long paragraphs or passages, either in oral or written form. It is the building of narratives, story-telling, and essays.
Pragmatics is understanding the fine points of how we use language. Being able to tell a joke that is funny, a story that is interesting or a lie that is convincing are examples of language pragmatics. Understanding the shift of meaning in different situations, the intentions of the speaker, the needs of the listener, and being able to code switch all involve pragmatics. Code switching is changing how a person may talk to her parents and teachers to how she talks to her friends. For example, what can be okay for a teenager to say to a friend may be interpreted as disrespectful if it were said to her grandmother.
D. Metalinguistic Awareness
Metalinguistic awareness is a person’s ability to know her own knowledge of language and how to use it, and her own language capacity. It includes phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, discourse and pragmatics.
There are four ways language occurs or manifests itself. Two are receptive – listening and reading. We receive or take these in with our ears and our eyes. Two are expressive – speaking and writing. We express or give these out with our voices and our hands. So, when thinking of how language manifests itself, think 2 + 2 = 4!
Hall, S. L. and Moats, L. C. (1999). Straight Talk About Reading: How Parents Can Make a Difference in the Early Years. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books.
Levine, M. D. (1994). Educational Care. Cambridge, MA: Educator’s Publishing Service.
Lyon, G. R. (1997). Learning To Read: A Call from Research to Action. Adapted from statements made before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, U. S. House of Representatives, Washington, D. C., July 10, 1997; and printed in Their World, 1997/1998, pp. 16 – 25. NY: National Center for Learning Disabilities.
Lyon, G. R. (1998). Why Reading Is Not a Natural Process. Educational Leadership, Volume 55, Number 6, March 1998. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Moats, L. C. (2000). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Thomas, A., Thorne, G., Small, R. DeSanti, P. and Lawson, C. (1998). MindWorks…and How Mine Works. Covington, LA: Center for Development and Learning.
Tunmer, W. E. and Bowey, J. A. (1984). Metalinguistic Awareness and Reading Acquisition. In W. E. Tunmer, C. Pratt and M. L. Herriman (Eds.). Metalinguistic Awareness in Children. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Vail, P. L. (1996). Words Fail Me: How Language Works and What Happens When It Doesn’t. Rosemont, NJ: Modern Learning Press.
Vail, P. L. (1998). A Language Yardstick: Understanding and Assessment. Rosemont, NJ: Modern Learning Press.
Wallach, G. P. and Butler, K. G. (1994). Language Learning Disabilities in School-age Children and Adolescents: Some Principles and Applications. New York: Macmillan College Publishing Co.