It’s about this time each year that parents, teachers and speech pathologists alike, begin to think about whether or not children will be ready for school next year. As well we might ask, “How ready is this school to accept this child?”. In other words, from the beginning, the education process should be seen as a joint venture between a child, their family and the school community. I hope that you will find this article useful in considering the broad and complex topic of “School Readiness”. A follow-up article in our next newsletter will outline my suggestions for how you can contribute to getting your children set for Prep.
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Oral language, both the speaking and listening components, is integrally related to written language, that is reading and writing. As naturally competent speakers we rarely have cause to stop and think about what language really is and how oral and written language are connected. However as our young children embark on their school journey it is important for us to learn more about these important areas and how they impact on reading and spelling.
What is in the Oral Language Pie?
We can think about language simply as a pie with three main ingredients:
Meaning – If we are to understand what others say or write we must know meanings of words and phrases. We must have experiences, ideas and concepts and know how these are linked together into networks of meaning. This is called semantics.
Structure or Form – In English, we create sounds that are used to articulate or pronounce words. With these words we can create sentences and longer “paragraphs” but we must use particular rules. This is called grammar. Structure also includes the overall “hanging together” or organisation of what we say.
Use – We all know that it is important to learn to say the right thing at the right time. Many of these largely unspoken rules of conversation depend on where we are, whom we are with and what purpose we are trying to achieve. This is also called pragmatics.
When children go from home to school they must learn to use their oral language for a whole new range of purposes. From telling stories, reporting and asking questions to following instructions, explaining and negotiating. Their oral language pie transforms as they also learn to communicate more clearly with others as their peers and teachers do not have the same background knowledge or shared experience. At school there is also demand for more sophisticated and literate language skills to talk about abstract ideas and concepts. In order to do this, children must use complex sentences containing a number of linked ideas. Their vocabulary needs to be specific and children must learn to clarify their ideas as they go along.
At school, children need to be able to think about and talk about language, about their learning and about their thinking. Classroom questions differ widely than those asked at home. Take a minute to consider the last time you asked your child any of the following ‘classroom’ questions:
What does the word fragile mean?
What is a better word than got to use in that sentence?
What is the first sound you hear in the word octopus?
How many syllables does octopus have?
How could we remember that information for next week?
How did you know that word said knife?
It is this ability to think consciously about all aspects of the oral language pie, that makes for a smooth transition to and through school. But this doesn’t come easily to all children and so it’s up to parents, educators and health professionals (speech pathologists included) to support our children in baking their best oral language pie. A great first step: to involve your children in lots of talking and listening; feeding new words into the conversation, discussing what words or phrases mean (‘In a pickle’ is my idiom-of-the-moment!), telling jokes and commenting on how and what people say. You might just be surprised by what you hear and where the conversation takes you.