What is language and why is it so critical?

Language is an essential key to life and learning. As babies and children develop effective use of language, they acquire the power to have a say in what they need and want. Language is a specific part of the human’s capacity to express inner emotions and thoughts as well as make sense of the world. We all look at a newborn and marvel at how language and thus communication will develop, and hang on that first sign of recognition and connection.

In the beginning, babies acquire language by absorbing, imitating and practising, gradually learning to reproduce sounds and words, putting them together into little sentences and having a communication impact on those around them.

When we look at language we basically consider expressive andreceptive language…what you say and what you understand. At first everything is oral (as well as gestural), but as the child transitions to school, we start to consider language from both an oral and a writtenpoint of view. We know that good language skills are an excellent basis for reading and writing in later life. We also know that students who have strong language skills do better academically. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Children who show delays or difficulties with language will likely have difficulties in learning (if they proceed undetected and unsupported). Even mild difficulties can impact at some stage, particularly in relation to literacy.

Children’s language and speech develop at varying rates. Understanding when assessment is required will help ensure your child or student can thrive in school and beyond.

Recent studies have shown for example, that students that are poor comprehendersof text, but can adequately ‘read’ (decode)  at the word level, showed weak language ability as early as 15 months. The key here is identification. The earlier we are onto the difficulty, the better the chances for the child, in general communication, life and learning.

What aspects of language are related to reading and writing?

Word reading and language comprehension are somewhat independent skills, but each contributes to reading comprehension.  The development of speech, phonological awareness (auditory understanding of sounds) and knowledge of the alphabet are strong predictors of how well a child will decode. These things develop during the preschool years.

Grammar and vocabulary (meanings of words), both understanding and use of them, are crucial to understanding instruction in the classroom. Most importantly though, in reading, they are critical to understanding what we read – reading comprehension. When a person has good comprehension they can build a mental model for what they have read; they can infer from and reorganise the information. Good comprehenders can go beyond the narrative to build their own model of understanding. For example, if the story says Sam spilled the water, the reader can understand why mum grabbed the mop to clean it up!

"The key to a better outcome in either case is identification and intervention, the earlier, the better"

It is important to note:

It is important to recognise that a child can be a poor decoder but not have difficulties with language. If a story is told to them, they can understand. However, their poor decoding will cause them to have poor understanding of what they read because not being able to decipher the code, means you don’t have access to the meaning.

On the other hand, a child can have adequate decoding, but poor understanding of what is read, because they lack the critical competence with grammar and vocabulary for example. They have a fundamental language problem. This becomes more evident as the students goes up the grades. The text becomes more complex, and the understanding becomes more compromised.