According to leading academic Professor Maggie Snowling, ‘Strong foundations in oral language are the key to educational success globally’. (Snowling, n.d.) Without good spoken language, children can struggle to read and write. Supporting reading comprehension through the development of spoken language skills can ensure that children have an in-depth understanding of what they have read. If we support them to understand the spoken word in all its complexity, they can then apply this to words they read on the page.
What does it mean?
We know that early spoken language skills are good predictors of later reading comprehension. Children who are good at understanding the written word tend to have good spoken language skills, including:
- good understanding of words
- understanding of grammar and word order
- understanding of inference and verbal reasoning
- narrative skills, such as understanding sequences and making sense of story coherence
- comprehension monitoring to recognise what they do and do not understand and take action
- pragmatic language skills to help make sense of context.
Conversely, we know that children with low levels of spoken language are at risk for reading difficulties, especially with reading comprehension. Despite being able to read accurately and fluently, around 10% of children in the upper primary years struggle to understand what they have read (Nation et al., 2010). For many of these children, difficulties with text comprehension are associated with lower levels of spoken language, with many having a history of poor spoken language dating back to the Early Years Foundation Stage.
We also have research evidence to show that a focus on teaching spoken language skills can improve reading comprehension for children in Key Stage 2 and early language intervention not only supports spoken language skills, but impacts on reading comprehension later (Clarke et al., 2014).
Action points for teachers
We can improve reading comprehension by teaching pupils how to develop their verbal understanding, alongside sharing strategies for monitoring understanding and knowing what to do if they are struggling.
Vocabulary is important, as children need to understand word meanings quickly and link these with the context of the passage; depth of knowledge is particularly important. Spoken language strategies include:
- explicit and robust teaching of vocabulary with activities that extend pupils’ understanding and use of new words, particularly focusing on depth of knowledge. Vocabulary work should be done in context, linking with other areas of language and text comprehension
- collaborative learning activities where pupils can share their thought processes with their peers
- adults model inference-making by asking relevant questions aloud and answering them
- carefully scaffolded and structured questioning to develop reading comprehension
- supporting pupils to monitor their understanding
- dialogic reading with pupils to support language and reading comprehension
- using visual support to teach robust narrative structures can help with understanding of text coherence
- teaching higher order language, such as summarising, inference, prediction and questioning; supporting pupils to activate their prior knowledge and make links in meaning
- using modelling and structured support and reduce as a child progresses until they are capable of completing the activity independently.
The Driver Youth Trust is a charity committed to improving the outcomes of young people who struggle with literacy.
Want to know more?
Have a look at the Read Oxford blog.
Read the EEF’s literacy guidance reports for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.