The Necessary Foundation for Reading and Writing

We don't often consider the importance of spoken language and the role it plays in learning to read and write. But the truth is, you can't write if you don't have something to say, and you can't read if you don't understand another person's spoken thoughts.

Before you even consider things like the sound games, letter practice, or early readers, work on these four key conditions for a strong foundation in spoken language at home.

(note: Some of this article is paraphrased from my AMI Language Album)

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Build Self-Confidence

If you've been following along here, you know that self-confidence is directly tied to functional independence and choice. Children who have the opportunity to contribute, to practice life skills, and go at their own pace to reach mastery build strong intrinsic motivation and confidence in their abilities. Read more about offering independence and building confidence here.

Once you've established a few opportunities for functional independence at home, you can focus more on mental and intellectual independence (what to say when greeting a guest, how to ask for more peas, how to wait for your turn to speak, etc).  It's critical to follow the same model of self-paced practice with these grace and courtesy lessons, and never pressure your young child to act or say something in a social situation. ("What do you say?" "Say you're sorry!")

You can also help your child feel confident merely by the way you speak to her. Think about how you would have a conversation with a best friend who had just lost her job. You'd pay attention, make eye contact, show interest, and listen. It's the same with children. Get down to their level, repeat back what you hear so your child knows you are listening, ask questions, and speak respectfully. Learning to have a conversation is a skill that needs to be learned, just like riding a bike.


Offer Enriching Experiences

To have something to say means that you have something to talk about. Something interesting, exciting, captivating, puzzling, or remarkable. By choosing experiences that are meaningful and enriching to your child, you create an environment for richer, deeper language development and conversations. You can talk about that red-bellied woodpecker you saw on the birch tree this morning, what might he have been eating? Or, offer your comment on all the kinds of apples you saw in the store yesterday, the colors, shapes, and smells.

When you can, offer your child a chance to choose these experiences, just like you would with independent activities. Quality children's books are an easy place to start, as are songs, poems, or spoken stories. 

Use Enriching Vocabulary

We use language to express ideas and concepts. When you learn a word, you are tying that idea to a set of spoken sounds and later a set of written symbols. So, the more words you know, the more concepts you can readily access. This is huge, especially for young children. Study after study finds that the more words you know by age 3, the more likely you are to have strong literacy skills throughout your life.

Thankfully, it's not difficult to teach vocabulary, as young children are eager to learn more words and absorb new ones from daily life. You can of course offer a few formal lessons to teach vocabulary, or use a set of flashcards, but the best way to teach vocabulary to young children is to use it in everyday conversations that matter.

“Would you care for some more golden butternut squash soup? I see you ate all that you had already”
“Here, look! I see a katydid on this lilac bush. He's a bit camouflaged, can you see him too?”
“I prefer red to blue” (rather than “I like” )


Provide Opportunities for Expression

Having a strong understanding of vocabulary and ideas to say won't matter if your child can't practice speaking about them.  You can encourage this expression by listening of course, but also by asking questions, clarifying thoughts, and offering your own comments.

Remember, young children live in the moment, and so when they think of something to say, they can't wait and tell you later. It must be said right now! When possible, take the time to listen yourself, and offer opportunities for your child to speak, ask questions, and share ideas with others.  


How are you encouraging spoken language in your home?  Share your thoughts!

About the Author:

Leanne Gray, M.Ed has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. 

She's on a mission to raise a generation of kind, confident, responsible children, and does this through her work with families and schools.   Read more here.