Oral language: The foundation for reading

By Heather Gillum, PhD, CCC-SLP

Text is language made visible. Any time we read a page in a book or write a note we are “seeing” language. Written communication requires both the ability to relate letters to their sounds and, importantly, oral language knowledge. If learning to read and write is like building a house, oral language is the foundation.

So, what is “language”? Language is made up of rules for combining sounds, words, and sentences. This includes speech sounds, vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structures. You may already be familiar with “speech,” having known children who attended speech therapy to learn to say sounds correctly, but this is only one component of language.  A Speech-language pathologist can assess and treat clients who need help to learn things like how to use word tenses and pronouns correctly and how to use and understand complex sentences. These broader language skills are important for reading comprehension and written expression as well as conversation.

Students who struggle to learn grammar and the many ways of combining words are at risk for academic problems. These challenges can seem like an invisible disability, because students may compensate by speaking in more simple language rather than taking the risk of being incorrect. For this reason, language disorders may go unnoticed until the demands of reading and writing bring them to light.

The good news is that targeted language intervention using an evidence-based therapy approach can improve language skills. For these students, working with a speech-language pathologist is an important part of the process of becoming a better reader and writer.