Courtesy of Dr. Martha Burns, Ph.D. and BrianHQ

Many states have adopted content standards for language arts curricula in the early elementary grades that emphasize the importance of oral language skills in development of reading and writing. A glance at two state standards for Grades 1 and 2 illustrate how schools recognize that learning to write depends on oral language skills.

  • California Grade 1 standards – write and speak in complete, coherent sentences
  • Florida Grade 2 language standards – use repetition, rhyme, and rhythm appropriately in oral and written text

Increasingly, educators recognize that reading and writing skills depend upon phonemic awareness (the recognition that words are made up of individual speech sounds) and intensive instruction in sound-spelling relationships. Unfortunately, many children enter school without the oral language skills that can enable them to learn these skills. Often, our teachers are struggling to teach writing skills to children who do not have the necessary prerequisite listening skills to benefit from the instruction.

Oral language skills can be subtle and challenging to measure Children who need additional help with oral language skills include many for whom English is a second language. These children are relatively easy to identify. However, we also need to consider those children with immature speech or grammatical patterns, those with problems distinguishing differences between different speech sounds, those with problems remembering or retelling stories, those who have trouble following directions, or those with problems easily understanding the language of others. Many of these deficiencies, especially if mild, will not be not obvious to teachers and parents; nor will they show up on school entry screenings. In fact, many children with oral language deficiencies learn to compensate so well that even experts in language development can miss them.

Children who are not distinguishing speech sounds may be able to compensate in learning speech by attending carefully to the mouths of adults as they speak. These children may compensate for phonic instruction with excellent visual memory that enables them to memorize words by sight without learning to “decode” or sound them out. Teachers may not recognize the child has any difficulty until she shows an inability to learn sound-spelling relationships. An example of an eight year old girl who came to our clinic a few years back illustrates this point.

J. P., was a beginning third grader who had consistently failed spelling tests throughout first and second grade. She was adopted, but her mother, a librarian read to her constantly, “almost from the day she was born.” She never had any speech or language delays that her mother noticed. Her reading decoding skills were below grade level when she entered the third grade, but the teachers were not terribly concerned, because her reading comprehension skills were fairly close to the state average. However, written language, especially spelling, was over two and on-half years behind the norm. A sample spelling test taken during the first month of third grade illustrates her difficulties.

Groke (grass), Frkos (graph), Krove (grab), Kolve (bring), Frkos (brick), Fokro (truck), Prokore (trip) and Kobrkol (trick).

Her spelling attempts indicated that J.P. had no awareness of letter/sound correspondence. None of the words began with the correct sound, had the correct vowel, or showed evidence of phonological awareness. She had studied the words with her mother and according to mother, “she knew that they all had b, g, or t/r/ clusters.” Thus, her only apparent strategy for this test was to include two of those letters somewhere in each word. The child had passed all of her hearing, speech, and language screenings at school; however, additional speech-sound discrimination testing indicated she had marked problems distinguishing one consonant sound from another, especially in a noisy background.

Working Memory Skills Can Help Writing
Many children and adults have subtle difficulties with auditory working memory, for example, and learn to compensate for this by being good “visual” learners. Auditory working memory is that short term memory skill that enables us to hold a few sentences in mind at one time to better understand a story we are hearing or to help us formulate our own ideas more clearly. Because writing requires converting an idea into words and sentences in our mind and then transcribing those words on paper with accurate spelling, grammar, capitalization and punctuation, it puts a large burden on our working memory. To illustrate this, imagine a person trying to explain in a letter to a friend how beautiful the sky looks on a spring day in Colorado. He begins to write a sentence like, “the sky was so clear that it didn’t even appear blue until a small cloud passed by.” He re-reads the sentence and decides that it does not quite capture the beauty of the scene. He erases it and tried this revision, “the sky is crystal clear and a pale azure, like those we see in Chicago on a clear cold winter day.” As he revises the sentence he struggles a second over whether a comma belongs after the word pale, wonders whether azure is spelled correctly, and notices he used the word clear twice. He decides to go back to his first thought but after erasing it he cannot remember what he wrote. He settles on his second choice because he “lost the thought.” In scientific terms, he overloaded his working memory.

For children with working memory limitations, writing is always a chore. Children will labor over all writing assignments because they cannot “hold the thoughts” long enough to convert them to correctly spelled, grammatically correct, complete sentences that clearly express their ideas. A fourth grade teacher in a large school district in Illinois described such a child. He was a child who hated to write and would refuse even to attempt written assignments. The only way the teachers or his parents could get written work from him was if he orally dictated his ideas to them as they wrote. Attempts to break his dependence on using adults to write his ideas for him were fruitless. The teacher tried to coax him to tape record his ideas and then transcribe them himself from the tape. But this also failed because he said he couldn’t “hold all the words in his head” after he heard them.

When Writing Is Difficult All Learning Is Affected
Writing in the upper elementary grades and middle grades further increases the demands on a child’s language and memory systems, and difficulties with writing can hinder all scholastic achievement. In late elementary grade students will be expected to write short essays in most of their academic courses, including social studies, history, and science. Even mathematics in later elementary grades requires students to explain how they arrived at answers. Pennsylvania’s Reading/Writing Connection emphasizes that as students progress through the early grades, “reading and writing are complementary processes. They do not develop in isolation from each other, but are equally essential aspects of literacy….” Students’ writing will have to meet two purposes: they will be expected to use writing to learn (enhance understanding) as well as writing in response to reading. When writing is difficult, all learning is affected.

The complex conversion of spoken to written language required of middle school students is clearly illustrated in a section from Texas’ TEKS standards for Grade 8: Section 8.15: Writing/Purposes

  • “Produce cohesive and coherent written texts by organizing ideas, using effective transitions, and choosing precise wording.”
  • “Write to express, discover, record, develop, reflect on ideas, and to problem solve.”
  • “Select and use voice and style appropriate to audience and purpose.”

These standards reflect the complexity of written language expected during the middle school years and the dependence on oral language abilities of expressive vocabulary, the ability to clearly organize sentences into paragraphs, and the ability to direct writing for different purposes and to different audiences.

All of these are skills we first learn while listening and speaking. Any subtle language or memory difficulties will begin to cause serious problems with writing once the emphasis shifts from correct grammar, spelling and punctuation to the “cohesive and coherent tests” required of middle school students. Eventually many of these students will avoid taking optional writing courses and, upon graduation, will almost certainly avoid considering occupations where writing might be regularly required. They may not be admitted to more selective colleges, even if they have high aptitudes in math or science, because of problems writing effective essays on college applications.

The adult for whom writing is a challenge may have problems demonstrating a high level of knowledge on vocational entry tests or even fail to get a job simply because of an inability to accurately complete a job application. As a result, these adults may find their career opportunities limited to lower salaried or less challenging options. In today’s fast paced internet-based job market, poor writing skills will affect everything from E-mail and chat room exchanges to writing for the Web or designing new technology products.

Underlying Causes Of Literacy Problems Must Be Addressed First
If schools are to teach writing effectively to all students, underlying factors that contribute to both language and literacy problems will have to be addressed. Educators are discovering that in their effort to significantly improve writing skills, increased time and effort in their chosen writing programs is not having the desired impact. Learning to write, like learning to read, is founded upon the knowledge and use of spoken language. More than any other academic skill, writing necessitates mastery and integration of many language components that are acquired and learned in a hierarchical fashion. We listen, we speak, we begin to read and write. Like a chain, one faulty link at any point breaks the progression.

Fast ForWord Training Programs and Literacy
Recent research is beginning to clarify some of the causes of language and literacy problems. Several recent studies point to a problem with perception of rapidly changing visual and auditory stimuli as a factor in both language learning difficulties and the development of literacy skills. If schools are to effectively teach writing to all students, underlying factors that contribute to both language and literacy problems will have to be addressed first. Scientific Learning Corporation is a neuroscience company that has developed a family of research-based programs designed to do exactly that — drive neurological changes in sensory processing speed and perceptual skills while simultaneously building a broad range of language skills essential for literacy. The Fast ForWord family of training programs for language and reading was designed by a team of renowned neuroscientists and language experts to “remap” those brain-processing centers known to be critical for language and literacy. Efficacy research published in leading scientific journals using these programs has demonstrated their efficacy on over 1250 children in increasing processing speed, speech perception abilities, language skills, working memory skills, reading decoding, and reading comprehension after six to eight weeks of training.

A School District Reports Improvements In Written Language After Fast Forword
One school district in Oklahoma used Fast ForWord with some of their students to determine effects of the program on standardized measures of spoken language, written language, and mathematics. One test they used for pre and post-testing was the Diagnostic Achievement Battery (DAB-2). They compared the Total Achievement Composite (an overall score for all three areas) on 17 of the students in grades 1-5 before and after administration of the Fast ForWord. They found significant improvement — almost two and one-half grades — on this academic composite after an average of 33 days of training (SS = 76.24 improved to SS = 85.82). Spoken and written language changes on the same test battery with those students showed similar significant improvements in both areas, with the pre-test performance falling below average expectations and the post-treatment performance moving the children into the “average” range. Spoken language skills improved 13 standard score points (SS= 78.47 improved to SS= 92.12) and written language improved over ten standard points (SS = 75.29 improved to SS = 85.53). These results not only corroborate the widely held view that oral language and written language are interdependent, they clearly illustrate that increasing oral language competence will have a parallel affect on written language.

To understand how improvements in oral language skills can have such a profound impact on written language, the cases of the two children described earlier is illustrative. J.P., the third grade child with the spelling problems began the Fast ForWord program a few days following the spelling test described earlier. After less than one month on Fast ForWord, the spelling sample below shows remarkable improvement.

Kame (came), gmae (game), sme (same), mce (make), tme (time), lne (line), mne (mine), and bgne (bike).

Although the child had not received any changes in her spelling instruction during the same four-week period, she was able, for the first time, to identify the first sound and remembered the silent final e on each word. She was also able to identify the second consonant correctly 75% of the time. None of the words were spelled entirely correctly but one could see that she now understood the alphabetic principle and was developing a phonological strategy for spelling. The teacher stated that J.P. could now benefit from her instruction on spelling-sound correspondence. Two years later, her mother has related that spelling is now one of the child’s strengths.

A teacher in an Illinois school district provided this description of her fourth-grade student after completing Step ForWord.

[He] completed Step ForWord in December. He had not written anything since school started, but about two weeks into January he came to me and said, “Mrs. Z, isn’t there some writing I should be doing?” I almost fell over. I started him out on a computer writing program we use in the district. He wrote his first independent creative writing. Two days later, I added a keyboard overlay to make it easier for him to find the keys. For the next 12 school days he wrote a 7-12 sentence story, complete with detail, every day and was begging for more. All of a sudden, the letters and words made sense to him.

Writing is a complex language act that is founded on well-developed oral language skills. Like reading, writing skills must be systematically taught using methods that enhance phonemic awareness, and understanding of sound-spelling relationships. Problems learning both language and literacy are correlated with more fundamental processing skills. The Fast ForWord family of programs, by providing a neuroscience-based method for driving brain changes in processing speed and intensively teaching language using patented technology, provides an effective approach for improving the core skills required for academic success with written language.

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