Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Theories on Reading and Writing Development

This week, I’d like to begin the discussion on reading and writing as language entities. There are differing theories behind learning to read and write, which I will begin to explore below. In the coming weeks, I will continue to explain the processing systems behind all modalities of language (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) using my language tree illustration, and teach strategies for addressing these skills systematically!

Reading and writing are not considered to be “add water and stir” language skills. Theorists believe that reading and writing are the result of a process called brain plasticity, in which these new skills are acquired by utilizing areas of the brain specified for other language tasks. Thus research does not support the theories that just exposing kids to reading will be enough to teach reading, or that kids will read when they are “developmentally ready” without any explicit teaching. However, it is true that exposing kids to a literacy-rich environment will aid in their learning about text, and that reading aloud to your children will significantly improve their vocabulary and grammar development.


Young learners learn to use their sound, word, grammar and visual systems. The left hemisphere develops new and efficient reading areas—areas that are able to consolidate those underlying speaking and listening skills. The more efficient their underlying language systems are, the more efficiently children learn to read and write. Conversely, weaknesses in any of the underlying language systems result in reading and writing struggles. If your child is struggling, waiting does not solve the issue. The underlying weaknesses will need to be addressed in order for children to progress to their maximum potential.

The “reading is plasticity” theory is a relatively new concept, confirmed through the use of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies conducted over the last few decades. Neurocognitive scientists are now able to have children engage in various language activities, and then observe blood flow to regions within the brain. Thanks to these recent studies, we now know that young learners need time to coordinate their foundational language system, and to develop and consolidate the reading regions of the brain that manage all reading and writing tasks.

Researchers know that children with strong reading and writing skills develop and access these reading regions, while children with weak reading skills do not. Studies performed comparing children with dyslexia and typically developing readers indicate that dyslexic children have less processing capacity in these regions, and that the language regions do not network efficiently.  Researchers are also identifying which strategies of teaching result in better development of the reading/writing brain centers in children. 


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Language Tree

In my Language Tree (see below), the trunk of the tree represents our basic language system, broken into four parts: speaking, listening, reading and writing. Although language is one living system, it is like a multi-trunked tree—separate yet still a part of the whole. Likewise, language is understood and expressed in four modalities, with each mode intertwined, yet thriving on its own. As odd as it seems, the absence of one mode of language would certainly weaken the entire tree, yet would not destroy the other trunks.

A strong Language Tree has all modes of language thriving:

Expressive skills (speaking or verbal production)
Receptive skills (listening or verbal comprehension)
Writing skills (encoding or text production)
                                Reading skills (decoding or text comprehension) 

Let’s begin with Speaking and Listening, because we all begin life developing these skills. If you have experienced pregnancy (your own or in someone close to you), you already know that fetuses in utero react to sound—sometimes with a swift kick! Research suggests that fetuses even recognize their own mothers’ voice, orienting differently than from other voices. I remember holding my own newborns and sensing the way they alerted or calmed to my voice as compared to other people’s. As a fetus brain forms, it develops sensorineural functions that react and absorb both sound and visual information.

Our brains are language-ready for developing a spoken language, even before birth.

Infants also respond differently to their native speech sounds than to foreign ones, refining their auditory knowledge of speech even before producing sounds. Babies typically engage in cooing (around age 3 months) and babbling (from 4 to 12 months) without being taught, then follow developmental milestones of first words around 12 months and two-word sentence combinations around 18-20 months. We know babies need to feel love and safety, and to be nourished physically, in order to develop. But once those basic needs are met, babies thrive in their verbal development with little more than smiles from their parents. Babies also develop nonverbal rules of communication, such as turn-taking, sharing eye contact and using powerful cries of rage get a fast response!
Vocabulary grows exponentially within the first two years of life. Again, given the proper stimulation and average physical and cognitive skills, all children learn to speak and to comprehend in their native tongue. There are regions of the brain within the left hemisphere that are innately specified for language development, so all our babies need is our undying love and attention to make the miracle of language expression and comprehension happen.  Spoken language development is an “add water and stir” phenomenon. Albeit fraught with endless demands and repetition, parents find that actually “teaching” children language is one of the few easy jobs. Parents are required to engage constantly and answer many questions, but mostly we marvel over our young talkers.


Note: Some children are born with specific language impairments that delay their progress in speaking or comprehension. When this occurs, parents should seek help in finding ways to maximize learning during the critical language development years. While many struggling language learners continue to progress in spite of their delays, there are important skills that need ongoing stimulation to improve language-based learning.