Why Study Language?
•Understand the relationship between language and literacy
•Review the systems that make up language
•Explain why learning to read is difficult for many people
•Identify the extensive research base for understanding how reading skill is acquired
•Describe and recognize the phases of reading development
•Review the essential principles of Structured Language and Literacy instruction
Do you think of reading as a visual skill or competence? Would you send a child with a reading problem to have his or her eyes checked, hoping for a vision treatment that would alleviate the problem? Do you tend to think that poor spellers have a “visual memory” problem that can be solved with rote practice, such as copying each word 10 times?
Contrary to popular beliefs like these, literacy is an achievement that rests primarily on language processing at all levels, from elemental sounds to the most overarching structures of text.1
Once students learn to read the words, it is verbal abilities (language comprehension) that primarily determine overall reading achievement.2
On the other hand, visual-spatial reasoning, such as that which is required for scanning pictures, solving puzzles, copying designs, or drawing figures, has very little to do with reading. Therefore, vision therapies that involve colored lenses, directional scanning practice, solving mazes, and so forth are generally ineffective in treating reading problems.3
Effective instruction emphasizes the forms and uses of language along with the meanings conveyed by words.
One basic model for understanding factors involved in learning to read is called the Simple View of Reading (SVR).4
This well-researched model states that reading comprehension—the desired end result—is the product of word recognition and language comprehension (see Figure 1.1
Reading ability depends on both the lower level building blocks that drive printed-word recognition, including knowledge of sounds, syllables, letters, and meaningful parts of words, and the higher level aspects of language important for comprehension, including word meanings, phrases, sentences, and discourse.
Both aspects of the SVR equation rely on linguistic abilities, and both are necessary for proficient reading. Word recognition depends on recognition of alphabetic symbols that correspond to speech sounds. Those small segments of speech must be extracted from the unbroken stream of oral language and mapped to letters or letter combinations. Connections between letters and speech segments must be rapid and accurate so that the reader can build a memory store of instantly recognizable written words. Once a word is recognized or named, the reader must determine what that word actually means in a given passage.5
The apparently “visual” process of word recognition is wired into and deeply dependent on several systems of language processing.
Language comprehension ability, the second major component of the SVR equation, is roughly what readers would understand if a text were read aloud to them. It involves interpretation of words, phrases, sentences, and connected text. It is also a very active process in which an elaborated idea (mental model) of the information in the text is constructed. In addition, language comprehension requires integrating ideas from one sentence to another and associating the text’s information with background knowledge and information from other outside sources.6
The Simple View of Reading. (From Gough, P. & Tunmer, W. . Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education
, 7, 6–10. pp. 7, copyright © 1986 by SAGE Publications Reprinted by Permission of SAGE Publications, Inc.)
The language in written text, however, presents unique challenges that are not present in oral or conversational language. The words in written text tend to be more unusual and specialized than words used in speaking, and the sentences of written text tend to be longer, more embedded, more formally constructed, and more challenging to decipher than those of speech.7
Written text is organized differently—into paragraphs, chapters, and genres or text types. These facts about language imply this: Reading and writing instruction must address a wide range of language forms and uses, along with the facts, themes, and concepts conveyed by text.
Language learning during literacy instruction also requires attention to detail. To distinguish words such as sacks and sax, or past and passed, or their and there, learners must notice subtle differences in sound, form, meaning, and word use. The same can be said for sentences and various kinds of texts. Many struggling students need explicit, systematic instruction before they habitually notice details of both speech and print.
Note and discuss the implications of the SVR for 1) what should be assessed, 2) how instructional time should be allocated, and 3) what a comprehensive curriculum should address.
WHAT IS THE
NATURE OF LANGUAGE?
Five things are important to understand about the nature of
human language generally and English in particular:
1.Human language is unique.
2.Language change is constant.
3.English is special because of its wide use across the world.
4.A language is made up of systems.
5.Reading is not natural.
Human Language Is Unique
Generative language is an achievement unique to human beings (see Figure 1.2
). Human language is creative because its systems allow us to invent new messages without limit. Unlike the signing systems of some highly evolved animals, such as wolves or whales, human language enables us to produce many messages that have
never been spoken before and to speak about abstract ideas that have no concrete or visible referent. Word play, poetry, the invention of new words, and the expression of novel ideas are all possible because of the generative quality of human
language. Thus, learning language involves learning both its individual words and its underlying rule systems.8
We do not learn language merely from imitation or rote memorization of phrases and sentences.
The invention of language. (From Carolita Johnson/The New Yorker Collection/The Cartoon Bank; © Condé Nast.)
Change Is Constant
Languages are constantly changing as the need for new expressions arises and as old expressions become obsolete. Every year the speakers of a language such as English generate several thousand new words and word uses to add to their language systems. The age of technology, for example, has spawned terms such as blog, text (verb), webcast, and tweet. Co...