When children enter school they are already masters of oral language. They are able to communicate with their parents, teachers, friends. When children are hungry they know how to ask for food. When they want a toy they know how to convince their parents to buy it for them. In essence, children can use oral language to achieve their goals. The goal of early reading instruction is to extend childrens mastery of language to include written language. Teachers and parents want children to communicate as effectively with written language as they do with oral language. For example, reading the menu at a new restaurant or writing a birthday toy wish list. Since children enter school with an oral language foundation, how can we use their oral language to build their written language? There is an overlap between the skills and knowledge of oral and written language. Given the overlap in necessary skills , one would hypothesize that children would easily learn to read.
However, one of the biggest obstacles for children is making the connection between oral and written language. Children have a hard time realizing that every spoken word has a written symbol. They find it difficult to understand that a printed sentence corresponds to a spoken sentence, that the word written on the page symbolizes the same spoken word they are accustomed to hearing and speaking. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that printed words are delineated by spaces, whereas spoken words occur in a continuous stream of speech. Indeed, children may begin reading with little awareness of how speech becomes partitioned into word units. As children learn to read and spell, they acquire a visual representational system that allows them to see what they say and hear(Barr 1990). Thus word learning as a part of reading instruction involves not only learning about the nature of printed words, but also discovering how oral language may be segmented into units that correspond to these words.
We hypothesize that understanding the meaning and usage of words through oral language should make the task of learning to read words easier. This hypothesis is based on Seidenberg and McClellands (1989) model of how readers read and learn to read words. Below is a diagram and explanation of their model.
According to Seidenberg and McClelland, there are four types of knowledge we need to know about any given word in our language:
Few researchers or studies subscribe to an exclusive inside-out or outside-in model of reading. Interactive models are a combination of the two. These models are based upon the assumption that reading is both a conceptual and a cognitive process, which the reader uses both background knowledge and the orthographic features of the text to create meaning(Wray 1991).
Figure 1: Interactive Processing model
In an interactive model, both the processing scenarios described above take place at the same time. Whichever model is the first to reach the correct meaning wins. This dissertation is based on the interactive model.
The connections between words that the child develops upon hearing a story are not isolated to just oral language. If a child reads a story she have heard multiple times then she is prepared to read the same words. For example, when a child who has heard Little Red Ridinghood, reads it for the first time she will expect to read the words - wolf, grandma, forest, big, nose, eyes, and ears (see table below). The child would find it strange if while reading Little Red Ridinghood, she read the words- Snow White, dwarf, or Humpty Dumpty.
Table 1: Example of familiar stories and words we expect while listening to these stories.
Why is this? The context of Little Red Riding Hood limits the number of possibilities children have to consider when hearing a word. Besides limiting the number of word possibilities, context helps children decide the appropriate meaning of words that have multiple meanings. The context, word pronunciation, and word meanings join to create children's understanding of the word. Upon hearing a story over and over, the child starts to develop connections between the words heard in the story. When the child hears some of the words in the story she is prepared to predict words that she will hear. Thus, the contextual knowledge unit signals the meaning unit, which in turn signals the phonological unit to prepare to hear certain words.
Figure 2: Diagram of the Interactive processing model in use
Stories are not the only forms of oral language that use contextual knowledge to filter meanings and prime us to hear and read certain words. Our everyday conversations are full of episodes where we use our contextual knowledge as a filter and primer. For instance, when we talk about last nights basketball game, we expect to hear about fouls, three-point plays, the score, and baskets. We do not expect to hear about missed field goals or icing penalties. In essence, we use contextual knowledge to filter all of our communication.
Beginning Readers use only three of the four knowledge sources- contextual, meaning, and phonological knowledge- to understand and process language. Their ability to comprehend an oral utterance is a result of the interaction between the utterance, its context, word meaning, and phonological representations of words in the utterance. When a child is learning to read she does not have enough knowledge of letter-sound correspondence to be outside-in processors.
For a child to turn their oral vocabulary into a written vocabulary she must add orthographical knowledge. Skillful word reading depends on the processing of the orthography (i.e., textual representations) of words. Skillful reading is the product of the coordinated and highly interactive processing of all orthographical, phonological, meaning, and contextual knowledge.
That beginning readers are inside-out processors follows the stage theory of Barr (1990). As stated earlier, beginning readers word recognition mistakes are highly contextual. For example, when reading I took my coat over to my friends house Children might sometimes read the sentence as I drove my bike to my friends house, thus mistaking bike for car.
To this point, the acquisition of the knowledge components has been described as a linear process. However, this is not necessarily true. Children do not acquire the knowledge components of individual words in any set order. For example, a child might know the meaning, pronunciation, and spelling of the word bus, but for the word catch the child might only know its pronunciation and meaning. The order in which we try to teach children the four components dictates the type of processing model, top-down or bottom-up upon which our instructional strategy is based.
It is important to determine which of the components children possess for words that we are trying to add to their sight vocabulary. In that way instruction can be tailored to use the components children already have to teach them the components they need to learn.
When print is both viewed and read aloud, it will automatically result in the growth and refinement of the associations to, from, and within the childs orthographic knowledge- provided that the child has sufficient familiarity with the units that are to be associated.
One way to teach children about the relationship between written and oral language is to help them build a sight vocabulary that includes the words in their oral vocabulary. As children develop a sight vocabulary the connection between written and oral language becomes clearer because each word in their sight vocabulary represents a word in their oral vocabulary. The words that make up a childs oral vocabulary are there because she uses them to communicate with others. For example, a child uses her oral vocabulary to describe her day to her parents, to tell her mom why she is angry with her brother, or to ask for help from her teacher. With many of these words, the childs ability to use the words correctly in speech indicates her understanding of their meaning.
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Last modified: January 12, 1999