In an earlier post, I pointed out how over the course of millions of years of human evolution, reading and literacy have occupied only the last 5000 years of human existence.  Consequently, our brains did not evolve any brain regions specifically for reading, but must make use of preexisting structures of the brain to make the miracle of reading happen.  In part 1 of this series, we examined how the preexisting ability to discriminate between nature sounds may at least in part underlie a person’s capacity to discriminate between the phonemes of language. In today’s post, I’d like to look at a preexisting human faculty that is broadly fundamental to the process of reading:  oral language.

The ability to communicate with others through vocal sounds stretches back hundreds of thousands of years, and very probably rudimentary forms of it going back even further in time.  Its function in promoting the evolution of the species (e.g. hunting requiring cooperation that makes use of language) is plainly evident.  Consequently, a capacity for oral language has been over time hardwired into our brains and must be regarded as foundational to any understanding of reading.

Rather surprisingly, some reading programs don’t even explicitly acknowledge the seminal role of oral language in learning to read.  In some cases, oral language is even discouraged during reading, as when a teacher, for example, catches a student ”sub-vocalizing” (mouthing the words as he reads) and advises him to read silently. More commonly, oral language simply takes a back seat to phonics in many beginning reading programs.  This of course is part of what distinguishes phonics from a ”whole language” approach to reading (this sometimes contentious conflict between the two methods over the past fifty years has been dubbed by some ”the reading wars”).

The whole language approach fully acknowledges and makes frequent use of this evolutionarily preexisting capacity for oral language in teaching reading.  Teachers engage students in songs, stories, chants, rhymes, tongue twisters, dramatic plays, and other forms of oral expression which are then tied directly into the act of reading books, poems, plays, and other written works. The biggest criticism of the whole language method is that it doesn’t help students ”crack the code” (e.g. develop the ability to sound out words based upon their rudimentary components).

The reality of the situation is that both these approaches to reading are important and must be creatively combined.  Phonics by itself devolves into an artificial and emotionless ”science” that lacks passion and thereby fails to create a love of reading in many students. The whole language approach, if it sidesteps any substantial phonemic awareness activities, fails to provide practice in decoding skills that research tells us are fundamental to learning to read, especially for students who are diagnosed with dyslexia.

The real answer to this quandary is for proponents of whole language to make sure that its oral language component ties into written material that helps students decode in a lively and entertaining way.  So, for example, poems or rhymes with alliteration, can be profitably used to help students discriminate sounds (as, for example, the tongue twister ”Sally sells seashells down by the sea shore” as a way of discriminating between the phonemes ”ess” and ”shh”).

I learned a terrific song in a summer camp with my students that helps with long vowel sounds.  It goes ”I want to eat/Some apples and bananas/I want to eat/Some apples and bananas.” Then the song is sung with variations that insert  a particular long vowel sound, as for example for ”ee”:  ”Ee wheent tee eat/Some eeples and baneenees.” Or for the ”double o” phoneme:  ”Oo whoont too oot/Some ooples and banoonoos.” There’s no reason why songs and rhymes can’t be created that cover all 44 phonetic sounds in the English language (they probably have been, but such programs are not widely available).  Then, as students encounter these vowel digraphs in their reading, their acquaintance with these songs, poems, or chants can direct them toward greater accuracy and thus fluency.

Aside from the use of oral language to help teach phonemes and other word configurations, there are a wide range of activities that unite the act of speaking or listening (oral language) with the act of reading.  I remember the Mitch Miller television program in my youth which gave the lyrics to songs at the bottom of the screen, and had a little red ball that bounced on each word as it was sung.  Today, computer programs do the same thing much more efficiently (though without Mitch’s endearing grin!).  I began some of my own special education classes with singing, and made sure that every student had a copy of the lyrics in front of them.  I also used to have students tell me things about themselves orally, while I typed out their words, so they could have a personal copy that linked their oral expression with words they could read.  True, this didn’t necessarily help them to decode words, but I was looking for something more broadly based, in terms of showing them that something they did all the time with ease (speaking) could be transformed into something that they thought they had difficulty with.

Making these connections between oral language and written text is crucial to helping students feel a sense of ownership of their words, and also a feeling of excitement in seeing the words come into existence on the page.  Computer programs like Dragon Naturally Speaking, or other speech-to-text features built into word processing programs, do the same thing now with students oral language.

Finally, (and I realize I’m going backwards from specific to general), there is the importance of oral language in and of itself, as a precursor and supporter of written language.  There’s a great deal of research tying rich oral language experiences in early childhood to greater achievement in school.  Studies, for example, have shown a direct relationship between the number of words a child says and hears during the first three years of life, and later school success.  They also indicated social class disparities in terms of the child’s word exposure, with welfare families speaking far less words than professional families (and with the totals of working class families situated somewhere between these two groups).

The evidence is clear, oral language is fundamental to later reading and should be fully integrated into literacy experiences once kids are reading.  Because students diagnosed with dyslexia have particular difficulties in discriminating and blending sounds, they should have plenty of oral language exposure, especially those activities that play around with fine distinctions in language sounds (including many of the whole language experiences discussed above).

I should also point out that these oral language experiences shouldn’t end in the early grades.  Middle school and high school students should have ample opportunity to experience oral language, through drama, debate, oratory, storytelling, poetry recitations, songs, and other oral forms of expression. These experiences also have the advantage of giving kids with strong oral language skills but weaker literacy skills the opportunity to be seen displaying their strengths in class (and this includes many students diagnosed with dyslexia).

For more information about building upon preexisting brain pathways in teaching literacy skills, see my book The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive (ASCD).

This post was brought to you by:  Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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