Oral Language Matters: Disrupting the Phonics Monopoly

Oral Language Matters: Disrupting the Phonics Monopoly - TLG-IMG-01042018In many schools, students are expected to demonstrate reading comprehension by third grade. For students who can’t, intensive interventions are offered that focus on phonics and decoding.

“GO TO PHONICS. Go directly to Phonics. Do not pass GO; do not collect $200.”

There’s a bit of a phonics monopoly, when it comes to helping kids read with comprehension. But is it safe to assume that all of these kids need better word decoding skills? What about the student who reads 100 words correct per minute with good accuracy?

As Valencia and Buly (2004) have noted, there are plenty of struggling readers whose needs have nothing to do with phonics and decoding. Take, for instance, me reading in Spanish. I can read a lot of words—gracias, Señor Solís from junior high. And with practice, I could probably read them even more quickly and accurately. But if it’s a newspaper article, and you ask me to explain what I’ve read? Problema. I just don’t know enough vocabulary, idioms, or conjugations. I don’t understand well enough to make good sense of most real-world text.

Decoding is not enough. Oral language comprehension is a thing, and it matters. So let’s talk a bit about, well, talking.

How can kids develop comprehension even before they can read? Kids who can’t read yet live in a world of oral language. And surely, they understand one another, even without a written language. Otherwise, how would these little folks negotiate such elaborate rules about saving seats, or decide and publicize which part of the Marvel Universe is happening today at recess?

Oral language – both producing it and understanding it – matters. But it doesn’t just happen on its own. In kids, even those who speak English as a first language, vocabulary and idioms and grammar develop gradually. We hear kids move from “him runned too fast” to “he ran too quickly for me to keep up.” But that gradual development can be slowed or accelerated, depending on what kind of language experiences a child has.

2017 Teachers of the Year - Leading from the Classroom - PodcastsWe can help kids best by interactive, supportive conversations about themes, including the new words and phrases that come with that theme. We can help them by giving them chances to talk and repeat and elaborate. We can give them new experiences— field trip, anyone? — and help them reflect on those experiences. We can expose them to language-rich material that might have been too hard without our good scaffolding and support.

Think about those themed play centers in the pre-kindergarten room and those after-recess read alouds still happening in third grade. Those are not just about creativity and chilling kids out; those are for developing kids’ oral language comprehension. How else are we going to have conversations about what it means to say, “Will that be cash or credit?” at the retail store or, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” (from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)?

Recent research is showing us that oral language proficiency across the primary grades is a critical predictor of how well students will comprehend what they read, even years later (Foorman, Herrera, Petscher, Mitchell, & Truckenmiller, 2015).

So are decoding skills, of course. As a previous blog discussed, reading with comprehension relies upon both Decoding and Language Comprehension (RC = D X LC, the Simple View of Reading). Phonics and decoding are important focuses of instruction. They just shouldn’t be the only focuses of instruction. We shouldn’t be sending all kids directly to phonics, directly and without good information from broader formative assessments. When excellent teachers have strong formative assessment information, they can find which students need some phonics support, and which have a primary need for improving language comprehension.