What do speaking and listening have to do with Literacy? This year, our staff had the pleasure of spending a day with a HSD Reading Clinician, Allison Aitken, to explore “Phonological Awareness and Phonemic Awareness”, as these are important elements of language learning. What we learned was very important, and a little surprising, so I wanted to share this with all parents.

Phonological awareness is related to the knowledge and skills kids have with oral language. Phonemic awareness is about the knowledge and skills kids have with individual letter sounds (or phonemes), again in oral language. For many years, these important skills were learned almost exclusively at home because of all the verbal interaction between parents and children. As families talked, worked, read books, rhymed words, sang songs, etc. the children would become skilled in language, due to the rich use of language in their home environment. This language learning from home was so “normal” , in fact, that schools relied on this learning as they moved students into Literacy. The alarming thing we are seeing now is that we can no longer assume that this language learning has happened at home, for whatever reason. So, students often don’t have the strong oral language skills that they used to have when entering school.

As a result, we find ourselves in a position where we need to teach much of the phonological and phonemic awareness during the school day, while we are also trying to get the reading and writing underway. Both sets of skills are developing at the same time. This often makes for a slower journey to Literacy for many students. We are definitely not blaming anyone for this shift. It is simply a reality of our changing society and the different ways we spend our time now. There are benefits to how things are in society now, but we are also starting to notice some significant disadvantages also.

Thankfully, there is a lot that parents can do at home to build a child’s oral language and it doesn’t need to be complicated. Take a look at this article to explore further, or let your child’s teacher know if you want to learn more. It really boils down to engaging your child daily with conversation, questions, etc. and letting them hear you model the proper use of language. It is so easy these days to rely on screens for our entertainment and they can be a lot of fun! However, when on screens, children are not engaging in language practice with their parents. We also learned from Ms. Aitken, that Literacy apps will not teach a child to read. Sorry, I wish it was that easy.

I also want to mention that the Speech and Language programs in our schools are filled with kids who have delays in oral language. For many students the cause is a lack of practice and exposure to language, again affecting the journey to becoming literate. Language, like anything else, takes many hours of practice to become proficient. Since we will never have enough Speech and Language therapists for all children, we need to have “the village” working at language development also.

Is this an enormous concern? Yes, it is. Can we begin to turn this trend around? Yes, we can. I encourage all of us to talk with our children as much as possible every day. Let’s maintain a rich language environment for them at home and at school, so they can develop strong language skills. This will be an incredible benefit to them as they become literate and this will also promote success in their school journey.

Dale Martens

in: General