Attention to Oral Language Skills Key to Literacy

January 29, 2020

Oral language enables children to read, yet most children struggling with speaking and listening are never diagnosed and therefore do not get the help they need, according to a new paper published in Policy Insights for the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Research shows that between 7 and 9 percent of young children have developmental language disorder, or DLD–“a significant impairment” in the ability to speak and understand language, authors Suzanne M. Adlof and Tiffany P. Hogan explain in “If We Don’t Look, We Won’t See: Measuring Language Development to Inform Literacy Instruction.

Even more children exhibit language delays that are not severe enough to be considered DLD, yet these children also are more likely than their on-task peers to struggle with reading comprehension by the time they are in fifth grade, according to the research. 

In their paper, Adlof and Hogan recommend policy changes that would lead to better identification of students who struggle with oral language—a practice once universal at kindergarten orientations.  These practices stopped with the advent of Response to Intervention (RTI), a framework intended to identify students who struggle to recognize letters and word sounds, such as rhymes.

The thought was that RTI also would identify language difficulties. 

“Evidence suggests this is not the case,” the authors state, citing a “common assumption” that children who participate in conversations and learn to read words have the skills needed to comprehend texts.  But it is a lot harder to comprehend text than it is to talk with family and neighbors.

Another impediment to detection concerns practical barriers to the implementation of universal screenings, which often require an hour to administer.  New technologies addressing these barriers include language screens that can be administered to an entire class of children.  In these assessments, children may be asked to identify one picture out of four that represents a sentence being read out loud

The authors also propose that schools include instructional time for language building skills starting in kindergarten and that more research funds are dedicated to the development of screens for oral language skills.

Their research is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the University of South Carolina and the MGH Institute for Health Professions.