A few weeks ago, I went to the Language Literacy and Learning 3-day conference in Perth. It was a phenomenal 3 days, with amazing keynotes, great workshops and discussions. Having speech pathologists, psychologists and teachers in the same place guaranteed stimulating conversations.

Over the three days, something which was discussed frequently was the significant change which occurs when children transition from learning to read to reading to learn. As we know, the first years of formal schooling are involved with learning to read. Children use their phonemic awareness skills, learn the alphabetic code and memorise basic sight words. By the end of grade 3 we see many children transitioning from skill building to utilising those skills to read to learn. This transition is gradual and not like flicking a switch. Indeed children, at points, are using both processes simultaneously and continuously. Yet what is certain, is that if children haven’t made the switch by the end of grade three it can have significant impact on their future experiences and capability across all areas of the curriculum.

Learning to read is like rocket science. It isn’t natural or straightforward, although some children make it look easy. I have often talked with teaching colleagues about oral language being the solid foundation on which we build literacy – oral language as the house foundation and literacy as the house.  I have come to appreciate that there is another level below this – the soil. The soil represents the social and emotional context for language growth. To build strong oral language skills we need to consider all the factors which interplay. This includes form, content and use. We need to practice these in environments which encourage us to use and practice all aspects of communication. More and more I see the importance of social cognition and strong social connections. These competencies are often achieved before children enter school.  The combination of vocabulary, narrative syntax and phonological/phonemic and morphological awareness promotes future academic achievement, school attachment and positive self-esteem.

What happens when kids don’t develop strong oral language skills? The impacts are huge.

As humans, we have an innate ability to develop oral languages skills. However, it is vulnerable to a range of developmental conditions and environmental factors. Hart and Risley (1995) found huge differences in the vocabulary children heard when comparing professional families with families on welfare. This gap equates to a 30-million-word difference by the age of four. We know that many children with language disorders, become students with language disorders, who become adults with language disorders. Literacy and language are lifelong buddies who piggy back along together.

If children do not make the shift to reading to learn, it has far reaching impact on their future development. It’s that critical! When children are reading to learn a whole world of new vocabulary and information is open to them. Their development continues to soar, which has a positive effect on their academic outcomes as well as their self-esteem. Whereas poor readers get stuck in a loop. Poor readers have reduced vocabulary growth, which impacts on their future academic success.

What does this mean for us? Early intervention is the key. We must continue to champion on behalf of our clients. We must continue to work with our teaching colleagues to ensure that evidence-based methods are at the forefront. We must ensure that our therapy is targeted, supportive and integrated to make sure that we reach this deadline. Failure has such detrimental outcomes.