Don’t delay literacy for children struggling with oral language

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
1 July, 2022

In an article in the June 11-17 edition of the New Zealand Listener, speech-language therapist Karena Shannon argued that our education system over-values literacy and under-values oral language.

Shannon correctly noted that oral language is “innate” in human beings, whereas literacy is “constructed”. All human beings, barring certain developmental disorders or brain injuries, will successfully acquire oral language without being explicitly instructed, provided it is spoken around them when they are infants.  On the other hand, literacy is a technology. It is not a cultural universal and must be explicitly taught.

Shannon also correctly pointed out that oral language is the foundation on which literacy is built. For beginning readers to learn to map writing to meaning, the words they encounter in text must exist in their oral vocabularies.

It is true that too many children start school with an insufficient oral vocabulary and that this hampers them in learning to read. Where Shannon went wrong, however, was in her argument that schools ought to focus on oral language before commencing literacy instruction. The reason that this view is misguided goes back to her correct point that oral language is innate. Unlike literacy, oral vocabulary is acquired through environmental exposure, not through instruction.

Teachers can and should provide rich oral language environments for their students, especially for the sakes of those who have not acquired strong vocabularies earlier. Unlike literacy teaching though, doing this isn’t a matter of direct instruction. Innate language acquisition mechanisms leverage the familiar vocabulary in conversation to enable children to absorb new vocabulary. All of this happens naturally.

The need to do this should not, however, deter teachers from explicitly teaching the mappings between spelling and sound that underpin reading in alphabetic languages like English. There’s no need to wait until a child has a particular amount of oral vocabulary before commencing literacy instruction. Whatever vocabulary a child does have will be quite sufficient to attain fluency in decoding if a structured literacy approach, with phonics at its core, is taken.

Fluent reading also strengthens oral vocabulary. As world renowned literacy researcher David Share has argued, when a fluent reader encounters an unfamiliar word in text, it can be recoded using spelling to sound mappings, and its meaning inferred from its context. It can then be added to oral vocabulary.

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