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The Reading and Language Link

The acquisition of reading skills by stages

An NIH study showed 73% were at risk readers have language milestone delays in preschool. This makes sense. Reading is a language skill — it’s oral language in a visual format. Therefore it makes sense that the acquisition of reading skills runs through language development and mastery first. It’s the foundation and bedrock of reading proficiency.

Why Language and Reading Acquisition Are Linked

The three key emergent literacy skills that predict acquisition of reading skills are phonological awareness, recognizing letters in text and oral language. These reading acquisition skills all require efficient language processing:

  • Phonological awareness to pick out the sounds inside words,
  • Print recognition to match up symbols to sounds, and
  • Oral language to listen and learn the language.

The most powerful way to help a young child, 3-6 years of age, to acquire reading skills, is to focus on these three areas of development. Not reading itself, but rather the foundations that predict unimpeded progress through learning to read, reading fluency, reading comprehension and ultimately, reading with metacognition.

If your child’s language development is on track, you have reason to be optimistic about reading.  However, when there are speech or language delays, you child is at risk for reading problems.

This is because reading is just another way for the brain to receive written language. Reading ability is superimposed on language; the same brain regions that we use to learn and use language are also used for reading. fMRI’s confirm a 98% overlap in brain activity while listening and while reading. It comes as no surprise that children who have language issues, regardless of the cause, also have trouble learning to read.

Building Blocks of Oral Language and Reading

When a child enters the world at birth, he is bombarded with sound, much of which is oral language. The infant quickly learns to categorize these speech sounds into familiar units and patterns that recur frequently. By doing this, the infant figures out which sounds seem to signal differences in meaning (phonemes).

Parents wonder if it’s ever too early to learn to read.  If you include this language dexterity as part of the learning to read process, then it’s never too early to bombard your child with language. On the other hand, learning to connect the sounds of language to text is a real challenge if the sounds of language are still muddy. And so yes, it’s too early to press that second text-related phase until your child hears the sounds clearly, normally around 6-7 years of age. More on reading too early here.

Gradually the child learns how sounds combine to form words and how words combine to form different meanings (semantics). Later still, the child learns how to combine words and word endings into phrases and sentences (syntax), and how to use language to communicate needs, make requests, get information, and so on. This functional communication is called pragmatics. It’s an important reading acquisition stage that promotes fluency and reading comprehension.

Learning to Read

For most children, the acquisition of reading skills is not as effortless and natural as learning to talk. For one thing, unlike oral language, reading requires a higher level of processing accuracy to be able to hear words not as whole sounds, but to hear the component sounds inside words, called phonemic awareness, needed for decoding.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonological awareness, which forms the foundation for phonemic awareness, is the key to understanding the alphabetic principle; that letters represent the sounds of words. Using these metalinguistic skills, the child is taught phonics (instructional practices that stress sound-letter relationships) and thereby learns to decode or sound out words.

Although phonemic awareness is critical to learning to decode words, a child must also learn to map new words into meaningful constructs in order to comprehend them. This latter ability requires accurate decoding as well as a solid oral vocabulary and understanding of grammar and syntax.

Reading Comprehension

New research points to the importance of both oral vocabulary and high-level language skills in building reading comprehension. It follows logically, when all of these language capacities are considered, that effective reading accuracy, speed, and comprehension — at any age — require a solid oral language foundation. Regardless of the cause, a child who tries to superimpose reading on a limited or immature language base, whether due to phonological, semantic, or syntactic limitations, will experience some degree of failure.

Early Identification Leads To Prevention

One key to improving reading acquisition in school-age children is identification and remediation of emergent language problems in toddlers and pre-school-age children.

Here is a speech and language checklist with language and speech delay milestones by Our checklist will help you recognize and focus on the signs of language delays that could turn into reading and learning delays in later life.

The checklist incorporates the most recent language-acquisition and pre-reading or reading skills known to be essential for successful reading in the early school grades. Children who are behind or lacking in any of these items by the end of their age range should seek help, such as a speech-language pathologist, learning disabilities or early childhood specialist or by an educational psychologist.

What Types of Remediation Work?

In theory, if 73 percent of reading-impaired youngsters have a history of delayed language milestones, and 75 percent of preschoolers with language impairment go on to develop significant reading problems, we could prevent about three-quarters of reading problems with adequate language therapy provided at an early age. Unfortunately, the answer does not appear to be that simple.

So far, traditional speech-language therapy alone has not been shown to improve reading acquisition processes.  It does not reduce the risk of reading failure in children with a specific language impairment. Although the reasons are unclear, it may be that speech-language therapy is too limited in scope and effect to cover all of the prerequisite language abilities needed to support reading success.

Similarly, there is evidence that phonological awareness training alone, although useful for increasing decoding skills in young children, is insufficient for increasing reading-comprehension skills among children at risk for reading failure. Reading research repeatedly points to the importance of a broad range of language skills — phonologic, semantic, syntactic, and metalinguistic, as well as good verbal working memory—as a foundation for successful reading.

Focus on Core Language and Cognitive Skills

As in many things, the best way to resolve a problem is to get to the source. And in the case of a delay in the acquisition of reading skills due to language development issues, the source of the issue is cognitive and language processing skill deficits or delays.

The best way to help is to replicate and augment the natural language processing stimulation that occurs in early childhood through listening to parents, peers and teachers. Sound exercises or extra language activities can be helpful, as well as cognitive training exercises at home or at a learning center.

Gemm Learning uses Fast ForWord software at home to build essential language processing and pre-reading skills, and then reading comprehension.

language and reading acquisition

Online reading test

“Just this week he has finished an over 200 page book (the second in a series) in two days. Before the program, he was reluctant to read short chapter books, and it took him a month or so to finish the first book in the same series.”
Jane P.

Parent of 3rd grader