[Overton]The Impact of Early Language Development on the Acquisition of Reading

by Valerie Johnston, MS, CCC-SLP

Reading is a secondary language system which is built upon vital oral language learning that occurs in early childhood through such activities as conversing, listening to and telling stories, singing songs, and engaging in imaginative play. It is a complex activity involving many different processes. However, most researchers agree that the key components of reading comprehension include phonological processing of letters and the sounds that they represent, word retrieval, use of the grammatical structure of language to understand and predict upcoming information in sentences, and discourse processing to organize and construct interpretations of information contained in longer passages (Snyder and Downey,1991).

In order to understand how all these parameters are related to early language development, some basic language concepts need to be established. Miller (1990) divides language into two different levels (Level I and Level II). Level I contains such basic language components as semantics (word meanings), syntax (grammar), morphology (word forms), phonology (sound system) and pragmatics (functions of language). It is competence with these components that enables a child to understand and speak in clearly articulated, meaningful, grammatically correct sentences that are situation-appropriate. Children typically acquire this ability by the time they are three or four years old through interactions that occur naturally in their environments. This basic competence with language enables a child to access word meanings and use sentence structure to predict upcoming words when reading. However, it appears that while these abilities are necessary to learn to read, they are not sufficient. In order to become a competent reader a child must develop proficiency with the higher order language processes (Level II), which includes metalinguistic awareness and discourse knowledge. It is competence with this level of language that allows a child to develop sound-symbol associations and engage in higher levels of organization, prediction and interpretation when reading.

The remainder of this article will define these higher order language processes, discuss how these processes develop in young children, and relate these abilities to later reading ability.

Metalinguistic awareness involves the knowledge that language is an arbitrary code comprised of a system of elements and rules for how those elements go together. In addition, it involves the ability to reflect on language as something that can be talked about, just as a chair or a car can be talked about. And finally, it means being able to manipulate the various elements of language for social and stylistic purposes (Miller, 1991).

Evidence of metalinguistic development is readily apparent as early as 2 1/2 years of age. For example, one early developing metalinguistic ability is word consciousness, which indicates that a child recognizes that words are separate segments of the speech flow. This awareness is demonstrated when a child asks what a word means, or engages in word-play activities such as substituting different words in nursery rhymes; for example, "Mary had a little can" instead of "Mary had a little lamb" (van Kleeck and Schuele, 1987). Word consciousness is the beginning of the awareness that language itself is something that can be talked about, just like any other event or object.

The use of linguistic verbs (verbs that label language-related activities) during pretend play is another metalinguistic ability that indicates an awareness that language can be discussed. These verbs include words such as "say", "read", and "talk", and are used to plan or negotiate actions by children engaged in imaginative play (Pellegrini and Galda, 1990); for example, "You be the mommy and read to the baby. And I'll be the daddy and come home and say, 'Let's go for a walk'".

Another metalinguistic ability that begins to develop in early childhood is phonological awareness. It involves the knowledge that words are composed of syllables and individual speech sounds, that they can rhyme, and that they have beginning, middle and ending sounds (Catts, 1991). It is this ability that enables a child to make the associations between sounds and symbols when learning to read. Early indications that this awareness is developing include episodes of word-play in which a child says a word repeatedly while changing one sound (for example, baboon, babean, babone) and questions such as, "Is it an 'A-dult or a 'Nu-dult?"

Word consciousness, the use of linguistic verbs and phonological awareness are necessary in order for a child to understand and respond appropriately to directions that occur frequently during formal reading instruction; for example, "Read the first word on the page. Now what is the first sound of that word?"

The second higher level language ability important in the acquisition of reading is discourse knowledge and involves the ability to participate in verbal exchanges that are organized in specific ways. By the time a child enters school he should be a competent user of everyday discourse. Everyday discourse is characterized by a rather colloquial style ("Hey, you gonna be my friend?"), some degree of shared knowledge between participants, frequent turn-taking, and the use of the immediate environmental context to carry at least some of the meaning of the messages (Miller, 1990). This type of discourse is learned in the daily interactions children have with others around them, involves primarily the Level I language processes previously mentioned, and is a prerequisite for developing other discourse types.

According to Pellegrini and Galda (1990), it is during imaginative play that children begin to develop some of the aspects of instructional discourse which are important when learning to read. These aspects include the ability to use language to convey meaning independent of shared context and shared information and to integrate meaning into a coherent story. The first of these abilities develops because as children transform the real into the imaginary, the props, roles and dialogue must be negotiated through the use of explicit language rather than context or shared information. For example, when handing over an imaginary object, a child might say, "Here, have a drink of lemonade". The child must explain verbally what is being offered, instead of simply saying, "here", as could be done with a real drink. The ability to use explicit language is an important development since reading also conveys information through the use of explicit language rather than shared context or information. Make-believe play also helps children develop the ability to engage in narrative discourse, or create stories that are temporally organized, have a definite beginning and ending, and an integrated theme. This knowledge of story structure provides an overall organizational pattern which facilitates reading comprehension by enabling the child to engage in prediction based upon past experience with narratives. It also makes interpretation of the reading material easier.

Reading is not something that just happens when a child enters school. Its foundation, oral language, has been under construction for years. If we are interested in school children's ability to read, what we should be looking at in preschool children is their ability to use oral language. This includes not only competence with the basic language components (semantics, syntax, phonology, and pragmatics), but also the ability to talk about language, to use language to convey meaning independent of environmental context, and to tell stories that are logically sequenced with a definite beginning and ending.


Fiedler, P. and Standop, R. (1983). Stuttering: Integrating Theory and Practice. Rockville, MD: Aspen Publications.

Catts, H. (1991). Early Language Disorders and Reading Disabilities: A Clinical Connection. Clinical Connection, 5,1-4.

Miller, L. (1990). The Roles of Language and Learning in the Development of Literacy. Topics in Language Disorders. 10,1-24.

Miller, L. (1991). Language, Learning and Literacy: Some Variables and Considerations. Presentation at Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association's Annual Convention.

Pellegrini, A. and Galda, L. (1990). Children's Play, Language and Early Literacy. Topics in Language Disorders, 10,76-88.

Snyder, L. and Downey, D. (1991). The Language-Reading Relationship in Normal and Reading-Disabled Children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research. 34,129-140.

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Last revised: September 28, 2006