The Importance of Talking

by Jennifer Kobrin on September 15, 2010

Spoken Language and Literacy

Several years ago, I was involved with a study focusing on young children’s language and literacy development in rural Central America. Over several weeks, our team traveled to remote villages, often fording rivers swollen by mountain rains in a jeep or lugging stacks of supplies over precarious footbridges. It was not an undertaking for the faint of heart.

Using a survey, we asked first-graders’ parents if they read books, counted and named objects, or told stories to their children regularly (in addition to gathering socio-economic and demographic data). According to the surveys, many parents were illiterate or had very low levels of literacy, and had completed only a few years of school. We also tested the first-graders on vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing.

Many studies have shown that a mother’s education level and literacy will affect her child’s success in school. If mothers have not completed much schooling and cannot read books to their kids, the logic goes; their children may be less likely to succeed academically. While this may be true, our findings indicated that when parents talked to their first graders, either telling stories, asking questions, or naming and counting everyday objects—creating environments where children were surrounded with rich oral language—the children had significantly higher test scores in reading (a random sample from many schools was selected to control for school quality and other factors). According to our results, children whose mothers and fathers frequently engaged in storytelling had the largest vocabularies of any in the group.

At school meetings, seeing parents sign their name by rolling their thumb into a black inkpad and gingerly pressing it onto a sheet of paper was a common sight. Many had left school by fifth grade to earn money for their families. But these same parents can and did support their children and help them to be successful.

The idea that an environment rich in oral language can help kids’ literacy skills is strongly supported.  A recent study in Psychological Science “Ameliorating Children’s Reading-Comprehension Difficulties: A Randomized Controlled Trial” looked at 27 schools in the United Kingdom. Researchers found that an intervention strategy focusing on providing oral vocabulary led to the largest gains in reading comprehension. Readers can find more information on the Early Ed Watch blog by clicking here. Mary Anne Zehr also wrote an article in Education Week last year on increased scholarly interest in how oral language can support English learner students.

Finally, whether in the coffee fields of rural Central America or the Seeds for Learning farm at an inner-city Philadelphia school, we need to make sure that kids are exposed to a variety of new words and language—and one of the best ways to do this is by providing hands-on experiences. Talk to kids, show them new things, and remember: anyone can help a child learn how to read.

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