Updated: Jun 4, 2020
Don’t throw away your oral language curriculum just yet. What Timothy Shanahan is saying (according to my interpretation) is that in much of the oral language/reading comprehension literature when we examine the relationship between oral language and reading comprehension, we find that there is correlation, not causation.
In a descriptive study we completed with adolescents in flexible education (Snow et al., 2019) we found that students with the poorest oral language skills also had the poorest reading skills and students with the strongest oral language skills had the strongest reading skills. The association (correlation) between oral language and reading comprehension was statistically significant. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17549507.2019.1652343 Causality? Not so fast.
But what does this mean?
- Improved oral language is often associated with improved reading comprehension in many studies. We can readily demonstrate correlation. We cannot always readily demonstrate causation, especially given there are so many factors in RC.
- Students with better knowledge of vocabulary and grammar (oral language) tend to do well on measures of reading comprehension. Of course they do. The more words we know meanings for and the more we know about sentence structure in oral form, the more knowledge we bring to text-level language.
- Students with poor knowledge of oral vocabulary and grammar (oral language) tend to perform worse than their peers on measures of reading comprehension. Of course they do. The less we know about vocabulary and grammar in oral form, the less we can bring to text-level language.
- Developing oral language does not guarantee significantly improved reading comprehension in students with typical oral language skills because they are two different mediums requiring different skill sets. Oral language is a solid but insufficient foundation. Oral language ≠ written language.
- For students with oral language difficulties, Developmental Language Disorder, or Language Disorder associated with co-morbid diagnoses, of course we need to build their oral language first before thinking about text-level language, which has an even greater level of difficulty.
What is oral language?
Language is comprised of form, content and use (Bloom & Lahey, 1987). Oral language includes listening (receptive language) and speaking (expressive language) skills.
Form – knowledge and skills required to understand and produce sentences (includes morphology and syntax)
Content – knowledge and skills required to understand and use vocabulary appropriately/with meaning (this is semantics)
Use – knowledge and skills required to understand and use form and context appropriate to the context (this is pragmatics)
(as per definitions in McLeod & McCormack, 2015)
Oral language (speaking and listening) includes narrative (oral story telling) and discourse (having conversations and/or exchanging information for a variety of purposes) and there are informal and formal registers for both.
If you are teaching ‘oral language’ and your curriculum goes beyond what I have just discussed, then you are probably already teaching components of linguistic comprehension (LC). This is a good thing! If you are teaching components outlined above but you are using text as the medium (reading or reading aloud) rather than oral language, then again it sounds like you are already teaching LC!
What is listening comprehension?
Listening comprehension comprises the multiple processes involved in making sense of spoken language. This is perception of and joining of phonemes to recognise speech as words, understanding words, and then understanding the meaning and syntax of sentences. It also includes perception and interpretation of prosody/intonation. Listening comprehension involves making inferences based on the context, the speaker attributes, and our world/background knowledge. When there is extended discourse, our memory and reasoning are also taxed. We are trying to keep up and make causal links throughout.
“It is often viewed as an active process with three main components: attending to the perceptual input (speech), constructing meaning from stretches of speech, and relating what was heard to existing knowledge. The understanding of written language, or reading comprehension, is assessed separately.” (Nadig, 2013, p.1)
So, when we are thinking about listening comprehension, we need to think about comprehension of everyday spoken language and comprehension of written language read aloud as two very different skillsets. Again, oral language ≠ written language.
What is linguistic comprehension (LC)?
I have already unpacked this in a previous blog: https://eminamclean.wixsite.com/website/post/linguistic-comprehension-not-a-simple-view-of-language
Linguistic comprehension includes:
- Oral language
- Text-level listening comprehension (different to oral language for many reasons)
- A lot of background knowledge, increasing through the years
- Text-level vocabulary knowledge. This means the development of a literate lexicon via exposure in multiple TEXT contexts to Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary. The three best ways to develop a literate lexicon are via direct instruction, teaching students contextual abstraction and via morphological analysis. Marilyn Nippold has written a clear article on this https://pubs.asha.org/doi/pdf/10.1044/persp3.SIG1.211. We need to acknowledge that there are many words which appear in text-level language which rarely or never occur in everyday speaking and listening.
- Understanding text-level sentence structure (very different to oral language)
- Understanding text-types (genre), and for each type, teaching the purpose, structure and language features
- Understanding audience and argument
- Explicitly teaching oral versus written narrative (note that problems in oral narrative such as story structure, story sequencing and story memory can help us predict reading and writing problems and they are best addressed in oral form first)
- Making connections between sentences, paragraphs, chapters etcetera
- Being able to self-monitor and resolve comprehension issues
- Understanding and using text level language to evoke emotions and sensations (given the absence of non-vernal cues available in spoken language)
- Inferencing and metalinguistics (this includes higher order language functions such as ambiguous language, reading between the lines, figurative language, other linguistic devices)
- Being able to create situational or mental models of what you have heard or read. An old but quick read here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/1467-8721.00004
- Lots of exposure to seeing and hearing quality literature with plenty of discussion
- Making predictions with a lot of discussion about students’ reasoning
I am sure there is more to add but I’ll stop there.
So, what does this all mean?
Oral language matters for reading comprehension but it is not sufficient. As students get older, we see less and less benefit because far more is required.
If students have poor oral language you will get a lot of bang for your buck in terms of RC gains following OL instruction/intervention. That effect will lessen over time.
If students have age appropriate oral language, from mid-primary school you will see very limited benefit for RC through providing oral language instruction alone.
Boost oral language in the first few years of school. I support a big focus on oral language in the first two years of school, particularly as a way to close the gap between children who start behind in their spoken language for a variety of reasons, and their peers who may have more advanced Tier 1 vocabulary and sentence structure. This will set them up better for RC, but not ensure it.
Text-level language instruction requires a solid oral language foundation, but LC and RC develop when we base our instruction on text-level language. Move to text-level language instruction as soon as students have sufficient oral language to do so.