This post is a continuation of the previous blog post – LINKING SPEECH & LANGUAGE TO LITERACY. Please read on to learn about the complexities of the language system, and how it relates to reading.
The purpose of reading is to extract meaning from the words you encounter on a page or screen.
In order to read, we must rapidly recognize the combination of letters, extract the appropriate sounds, and identify a matching word in our lexicon to extract the meaning. We must also link meaning to the preceding and following words.
This must happen RAPIDLY – nearly simultaneously.
The language system is hugely complex, and encompasses the following elements which contribute to how efficiently our literacy system operates:
Vocabulary, or meaning, refers to labels and definitions but also includes relationships between words. We need meaning for skills such as categorizing, sorting, matching, describing, identifying same or different and organizing information into concepts. How your brain organizes information around meaning dictates how we learn and make sense of our world. Vocabulary is crucial for comprehension or understanding information. Without good meaning skills, you won’t do well on Jeopardy!
In reading, we activate synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms based on how a word looks, and our brain sifts through the multiple meanings to choose the word meaning that makes the most sense. We need strong vocabulary skills, but also draw from our experience, our language organization, and the context of the sentence.
To learn, and to understand what we are hearing or reading, our brains must recognize and make sense of word meanings, word forms, word parts, and sentence structures. We also must be able to comprehend at a deeper level through skills such as predicting and making inferences. All of this is done with language. Simply put, you need to comprehend language to learn. Following directions and being able to re-tell what you just heard are quick “tests” of these skills.
When reading, we use the sentence structure and context to predict the word class (e.g., noun, verb) that would fit and to choose the word meaning that will make sense or fit with the other words in the sentence. We need strong language structure skills – syntax, morphology, and grammar – to make sense of what we are reading and rapidly identify less-familiar words.
III. Expressive Language
Expressive language is the ability to organize what we want to say, find the right words, use the right grammar, and put the right words in the right order into sentences, and to organize sentences into coherent paragraphs – in speaking or in writing. Public speaking is the ultimate test of these skills!
Many children HATE writing and struggle to put their thoughts down on paper. They must think of what they want to say, and choose the right words in the right order with the right “grammar gluing” words in place. Then, they must “unpack” each word into the correct sounds, and match those sounds to letters to retrieve the correct spelling. They must remember how to form each letter properly, and insert proper punctuation and writing conventions such as capital letters. Writing is a MASSIVE language processing and working memory task that needs to be supported!
- Critical thinking, problem-solving, and verbal reasoning
We THINK in WORDS, even if we don’t say them out loud. Self-talk is still language! Those that are quick on their feet and good multi-taskers will have good language skills.
As readers, we go far beyond what the author puts down on the page. We use perspective-taking skills to put ourselves in the author’s shoes, and we “read into” the author’s words. We infer a moral, a lesson, a purpose for writing. We predict what will happen next. We speculate on alternate endings if we were to write the book. We begin to understand elements of the story, and the relationships between characters, that aren’t explicitly written. We draw from our own experiences – events, and relationships – and create our own connection to the story. We draw from the story and apply it to our own lives as well – finding lessons, parables, or advice in the story!
We adjust how we speak depending on where we are and whom we are speaking with. We can all think of examples when we weren’t good at this – and we can all think of someone who is frequently not good at this! (those “embarrassing” friends!). How you read a social situation to adjust your voice volume, how formally you speak, or how politely you speak is a function of social language skills. Knowing how to ask for something, sell something, tell someone what to do, talk to a boss, talk to an employee, or talk to a child stems from having well-developed social language skills.
Tapping into the author’s perspective when reading, and recognizing the purpose for writing requires social flexibility to go beyond what is literally on the page. Understanding the discourse structure, the tonality, and emotional complexity of a book all stem from healthy social communication skills.
We have established that language is meaning, and meaning is language. Well, sounds have meaning! If I say “cat”, that means “one feline”. If I say “cats”, that means “more than one feline”. Therefore, the /s/ sound means “more than one” in this case. This sound communicates meaning and is part of our language system. When a child does not recognize, say, or spell the final sound, it reflects a significant underlying language problem!
To read, children must be able to perceive, identify, process, and remember each sound in every word they hear when being spoken to. They must be able to retrieve, plan, and sequence every sound accurately when speaking. And they must be able to think about, manipulate, and operate with sounds – demonstrate sound awareness – when learning the letter-sound correspondence system. Children must be able to recognize and operate with sounds as the smallest unit of meaning within our language system. They must activate meaning at the sound level when reading and spelling.
In order to read, children need a fully developed language system. When reading, children must activate the sound area of the brain, the language area of the brain, and the visual processing area of the brain. Not only must these 3 areas activate, but this “triangle” must be intact by neural connections – each of these brain areas must be simultaneously activating AND communicating with the other 2 areas for effective reading to take place.
If you have concerns about what happens in your child’s brain when they read, write, or spell, I highly recommend you speak with a Speech – Language Pathologist!