The development of language skills within a child is fascinating to watch as a parent and educator. From the time of birth, language is observable—from the cry of an infant to the sounds and words expressed by a toddler. Language, both receptive and expressive, forms the stepping stones to literacy. Whether one is an educator, parent, or grandparent, hearing those first words of an environmental language is enlightening, especially to those of us who “eat, breathe, and sleep” the development of language. So, the question to ask is, “How does the relationship between language development and literacy affect the development of both?”

How Language Connects to Literacy

We want to begin with understanding the connection between language and literacy. Both have shared background knowledge and require the acquisition of knowledge across settings, situations, and individuals with whom they connect. We truly do learn from each other. When we look at language and literacy, we copy the present language concepts and carry over those skills into the future. I know each one of you has enjoyed a story that’s been read or told to you. Both experiences require language and literacy. According to Anne van Kleeck in The ASHA Leader, “Reading is the sum of many parts, most of which are dimensions of oral language ability.” 

Receptive Language and Literacy

Let’s look at the receptive language, which is defined as the understanding of language. It is the application of background knowledge. Literacy is a strong proponent for receptive language. Receptive language is supportive of oral language and may be used as a determiner for success with reading comprehension.

Expressive Language and Literacy

Expressive language is also a determiner of one’s success with reading comprehension and word recognition. It provides the connection between language and literacy. Children who have deficits in oral language most likely will have the potential for a reading deficit.

If one compares oral language with reading comprehension, one sees many similarities. Oral language requires syntax and reading comprehension uses sentence structure. It refers to semantics the same way reading comprehension views vocabulary. And finally, both oral language and reading comprehension utilize background knowledge.

The Ability to Perform Skilled Reading Supports Literacy

Skilled reading, which is reading fluently and meaningfully, involves two primary strands: language comprehension and word recognition. The components of each strand are developmental areas that work toward the development of literacy. For language comprehension, those components include semantics, grammar, text processing, background knowledge, verbal reasoning, and metacognition. For word recognition, the components are phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition. When one looks at a simple view of reading, both primary strands of word recognition and language comprehension align.

It is imperative that one keeps in mind the foundations for literacy, which for the language/literacy learner must include oral/argumentative, language knowledge of letter names, phonological/phonemic awareness, and concept of print.

Putting It All Together to Help Struggling Readers

One may ask, “How do we accomplish the teaching we need to provide for the learner who struggles with reading?” The focus should be on receptive and expressive language skills embedded with literacy foundational supports. The relationship between the use of language and literacy will, in turn, support the learner with a proactive model to expand their reading comprehension, a lifelong skill.

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Explore literacy tools and strategies that strengthen receptive and expressive language, reading comprehension, and written language skills.

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About the Author
MariBeth Plankers is a Speech-Language Pathologist, Assistive Technology Professional. She is the Director of the Regional Assistive Technology Center at Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM), a lending library for Assistive Technology. At MSUM Speech Language and Hearing Clinic MariBeth is also a Clinical Supervisor of graduate student clinicians in the areas of augmentative alternative communication, autism spectrum disorder, reading and written language needs and assistive technology.