Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Literacy and Oral Language

Recently I was fortunate enough to participate in a workshop run by Elizabeth Love and Sue Reilly. Many years ago, these two speech pathologists formed the partnership ‘Love & Reilly’. Together, they have worked with teachers, speech pathologists and parents, equipping them with valuable information about language development. The conference was entitled ‘Oral Language and Its Links To Literacy ‘ and I was eager to post some feedback here. 

Oral language is an important pre-reading skill. It is one of the first components of literacy that a child develops. Remember, literacy means reading, writing, listening and speaking. Love & Reilly cite Catts, Fey, Tomblin & Zhang (2002) and highlight that 70% of poor readers had a history of language deficits in kindergarten. Those children who have a wide vocabulary and a good understanding of words, tend to become better readers at school. So even though our young children are not quite ready to pick up a book and read it, we can use their language as an indicator for their future reading success. 

Strive to expand your child’s vocabulary

As parents, we are encouraged when our children learn to speak and we delight in watching them find their way, making mistakes as they try to make sense of our language. I’m reminded of a visit to the beach where I pointed out the waves to my youngest son. He responded by waving his hand at the sea. I smiled, knowing that he related a ‘wave’ to something we do when we say hello or goodbye. As an almost 2 year old, my son is only at the very beginning of his journey with language, but he is already processing information and finding meaning that relates to him. It excites me to see the connections he is making.   

I’m constantly telling parents to keep talking to their children. However, we need to go further than just the conversational language of giving commands and speaking about daily routines. We need to nurture our children’s language development and foster it from an early age. One way we can do this is to find different ways to explain things. Here are some examples:
  • ‘Hurry up ... walk faster ... quickly’.  
  • ‘Pick up your toys ... collect your toys ... get your toys ... gather your toys together’
  • ‘Think about your brother ... be considerate ... be thoughtful ... be kind’
By acting as a thesaurus you can help to broaden your child’s vocabulary which in time, will be greatly beneficial to their reading development. Try to introduce new concepts and enrich your child’s understanding of the world. We went for a drive the other day and passed by a dam – this was a great opportunity to discuss what a dam is, what its purpose on a farm is. Parents are a child’s first and greatest teacher ... so teach! Don’t expect your child to just ‘pick it up’. If you see a new idea on tv, discuss it. If you find a new concept in a book, talk about it. How else will your child know these things? It’s a little bit like gardening. Every time you give your child a new word, you’re planting a new seed. Keep planting and nurturing and one day you will see the fruits of your labour. My eldest child suddenly told me to ‘cooperate’ the other day ... aha, he has been listening!

Provide opportunities for your child to develop their oral language through play

One of the key points I took away from the course was the importance of allowing our pre-school children opportunities for play. The type of play I’m talking about here is quality imaginative play – not just running around at a park (although that too has its merits). Sitting down to a tea-party, dressing up and acting out a part, racing cars around a city made from pantry items etc... When children engage with others during play they have a chance to develop their spoken language. They might play with siblings, peers or parents. Either way, they learn about new concepts, expand their vocabulary and explore notions of what is acceptable. My son often watches what other children do in play and I can see his little mind thinking. He is learning what to do (and what not to do) and figuring out the ‘social rules’.

It can be easy to be caught up in the routine of life, running errands and taking care of a household.  When you are out and about, invite your child to interact with people in the community. Give them a role to play in the organisation of your life. You might simply start by asking your child to greet people, then progress to giving your child the money to pay for the shopping. With encouragement and support your child can progress to completing whole transactions quite independently. Of course, all children have different personalities. This may seem simple for some children who are naturally gregarious but other children may be crippled with fear. Try not to set the bar too high (I don't say that often), but create opportunities for your child to experience success.  

Do try to find time to play with your child and model the language and behaviours you would like to see. The time spent will be worthwhile. And when your child talks and talks and talks and talks and you wonder if they will ever stop ... remember, it will be worth it when they are happy, eager, independent readers.
So good luck and keep talking the good talk!