The Role of Early Oral Language in Reading Comprehension

  • National Early Literacy Panel oral language
  • 14 August, 2016

Blast from the Past: Over the past several weeks I've been contacted by educators interested in addressing the language needs of young children. This is great, but it is important to remember that we still lack direct evidence that improving young children's language enhances literacy. We think it does, and there is a lot of correlational evidence showing a connection between oral language development and later reading comprehension, but none of the studies that have examined interventions that improve language have yet shown consequent literacy improvements for first-language learners. Whether you dedicate specific time to oral language teaching or whether you just hedge your bets by trying to address oral language through the environment that you provide, this blog and the attached article will have value.  

         When I was 18-years-old I was a volunteer tutor in an inner-city school. I wasn’t an education major—that came later—but I was intent on saving the world. I was excited about the idea of going into the city and working with elementary school kids who were growing up in poverty.

           But I was also nervous about it. I didn’t know a damn thing about working with kids, the inner city, or reading. A trifecta of ignorance.

           I decided to school myself the evening before my first day of tutoring, so I went to the university library and looked for some books on the teaching of reading. I found two that seemed pertinent and I checked them out.

           One was Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read and the other was Roach Van and Claryce Allen’s Language Experiences in Early Childhood. At the time I couldn’t have found two more separate takes on early reading: Flesch’s convincing polemic on the need for explicit phonics instruction and the Allen’s romantic homage to the role of early language development.

           It turns out I was also ignorant about philosophical differences. I was scrambling to figure out what to do and these books—as far apart as they may have been—were pointing me in practical, if seemingly incommensurate, directions.

           Now, 47 years later, with lots of knowledge and experience, I’m back to where I started. I no longer see them as incommensurate (again). Decoding and language, language and decoding… it’s like those television commercials: “tastes great, less filling” or “peanut butter, chocolate.” Sometimes the complementary just makes good sense.

           Recently, Chris Lonigan and I wrote a short article for Language Magazine. Its focus is on “The Role of Early Oral Language in Literacy Development.” I think both Chris and I have bona fides in the “phonics/decoding/foundational skills” community and have the scars to show it. But we are both also advocates of the so-called “simple view” of reading—students need to know how to decode from print to language and they need to know how to understand language. This is a both, not an either/or.

           Here is a link to the article. Hope you enjoy it.

Language Magazine article on oral language and reading


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The Role of Early Oral Language in Reading Comprehension


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.