Linking Oral Language Development with Reading

By Tamara Jo Rhomberg

National Literacy
Consultant for Zaner-Bloser

Speaking is a natural development; reading is an unnatural act. (Nevills & Wolfe,2009) Thus begins our investigation of the role oral language plays in the act of reading. Our human brain is wired to process the act of speaking and given normal conditions, sometime during their first two years most children learn to talk and to communicate their wants and needs. It is evidenced that the environment plays a major role in both the quality and the quantity of language development. By age three, it can be predicted if a child will have difficulty in reading in elementary school by assessing the level of oral language.


Parents and caregivers who "talk, talk, talk" to their children encourage both vocabulary development as well as build background knowledge which later translates into reading comprehension. This language that is shared consists of four dimensions: 1) phonology –the sound of system of our language; 2) semantics- the meaning system; 3) morphology – the rules for word formation; and 4) syntax – the rules for sentence formation or sentence patterns. Social interactive experiences such as story book reading strongly support language development. It connects oral language with print literacy. Richard Gentry (2010) talks about dialogue reading which is when a parent/ caregiver reads a story to a child stopping to use both text and illustrations as talking points to connect to the printed text. The role of the read aloud is firmly ensconced in the development of reading (Bredekamp, Copple & Neuman, 2000). Reading aloud demonstrates the relationship between the printed word and meaning. Children understand that print tells a story or conveys information and invites the listener into a conversation with the author. It is known that children can listen on a higher language level than they can read, so reading aloud makes complex ideas more accessible and exposes children to vocabulary that are not part of their everyday speech. This, in turn, helps them understand the structure of books when they read independently (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). It exposes less able readers to the same rich and engaging books that fluent readers read on their own, and entices them to become better readers. Students of any age benefit from hearing an experienced reading of a wonderful book.



In the Hart & Risley study (1995) of four year old children it was reported the children in the professional family will have heard 45 million words, the working-class child 26 million, and the welfare child only 13 million. All three children will show up for kindergarten on the same day, but one will have heard 32 million fewer words. This gap has nothing to do with the love the parent’s have for their children but rather emphasizes the role that oral language plays in future academic success. Children who are exposed to repeated words and meaningful sentences develop larger vocabularies, exposure to more concepts, and a deeper understanding of how literacy works.



Meaningful and reflective conversation serves as a bridge to understanding not only the intent of the author but also the nuances of multiple perspectives and cultures. When students engage in personal narratives connecting to the topic (or read aloud) a mutual level of background knowledge is explored, schemas are developed and common vocabulary is established. This social interaction opens the connection to memories and life experiences and enables students to talk and share thus giving a lens into alternate cultures. Vygotsky (1978) viewed this interpersonal interaction as a support for higher order functioning. This collaborative talk enables all the students to participate and for all students to share reflections, clarify understandings, formulate hypotheses, and add to their background knowledge. Through teacher modeling, students learn to share and support opinions with relevant arguments and support. Participants in collaborative talk learn from differing knowledge bases but also learn the need for disciplined thinking and structured oral and written communication.



Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia, has been quoted as saying, "A book is a cooperative venture. The writer can write a story down, but the book will never be complete until a reader, of whatever age, takes that book and brings to it his own story." To develop into this kind of reader, requires children to become conscious of the multiple comprehension strategies that allow them to deeply understand and engage with the material. A read aloud that builds oral language needs to establish connections for children:


Connecting books to children's own life experience


Connecting the books children are reading to other literature they have read


Connecting what children are reading to universal concepts


The richness of the oral discussion leads the reader to more precise written articulation. Writers must choose words to communicate their story, images and concepts. The shared understanding surfacing from the oral discourse prompts the writer to clarify his perspective, offer opinions and suggest alternate actions. Mark Overmeyer (2005) uses student interviews prior to writing as a strategy to help students narrow their topic and to surface more vivid memories for their writing. During the interview process, a student reminds his partner if he begins to "list" items rather than describing a story or concept. This partner method of sharing stories orally acts as a rehearsal for writing.



In the classroom, this might look something like this: The teacher would begin with a read aloud book, such as, First Day in Grapes by L. King Perez posing a central question – How can we solve conflicts in our lives? After sharing a personal conflict the teacher pairs students to discuss ways to resolve conflicts. All students participate by explaining their ideas and building on each other’s perspective. Students would analyze the story focusing on the central question. As the teacher checks for comprehension, she guides the students to a deeper level of understanding by posing questions such as- When should a person stand up to a bully? Or when should a person choose a different solution? This conversation leads the students to write about their perception of how the situation was handled in the story and to support their ideas with evidence (Voices Literature & Writing, 2012)


In accepting the critical role of oral language in the reading process, then we must accept that the process of becoming literate takes place through speech and transfers to written language. Giving voice to our students empowers them to take ownership for their learning thus increasing the depth of their understanding of text.


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