Oral language is one of the most powerful predictors of social success, school success, and achievement in reading and writing.

It is important to understand the components of oral language and watch for signs of healthy language development across domains in our children.

Many people think of oral language as expressive language.  Expressive language is what is communicated to others.  However, oral language encompasses all of the spoken language – both when we are speaking, and when we are listening.  Receptive language is what we comprehend or understand when listening.

Additionally, oral language encompasses the sounds we use in words.  Note also that speech is different than language.  Speech refers to the sounds we use when we speak.  Language refers to the words, the meaning, and the message we communicate.  Oral language encompasses and includes speech sounds.  It also includes things like our voice volume and pitch, intonation, and body language.

In sum, oral language refers to the sounds we make, the words we use and know, the sentences we create, how we use language to interact with others, and how we understand and think with language.

Let’s look at five areas of Oral Language Development:

1.) Phonology

Every language has a sound system, with rules that govern how sounds pattern together.  For example, in English, every word needs to contain a vowel sound; we don’t start a word with the sound “ng”; and many consonants cannot occur together (e.g., we don’t start a word with the sound combination “fn”, but we do have words that start with “sn”.

Our children need an organized sound system to recognize and understand incoming speech.  They also need a developed sound system to speak clearly and express their thoughts and ideas.

Red Flags to Watch For:  Speech errors such as omissions, deletions, or substitutions – e.g., saying “nake” for “snake” or “tar” for “car”.

2.) Vocabulary

Vocabulary refers to the words we understand and the words we use appropriately to exchange meaning.  Our children should know what words mean, but also start to understand word relationships – to organize their world through language, they start to categorize and group things together by similarities and differences (e.g., dog and cat are different, but are both animals and are both pets; a cow and an elephant are both animals, but one lives in a zoo and one lives on a farm).

Children should be continually expanding their vocabulary, asking questions about word meanings, and experimenting with new words. Once they become aware of a word, they will use it frequently and you may hear them repeating it to themselves.

Red Flags to Watch For:  Limited use of words, difficulty understanding, learning a word but not using it very frequently, non-specific language (e.g., stuff, thing), limited interest in learning words

child language learning3.) Syntax

Syntax refers to how we combine words together into sentences.  It is part of language structure and grammar.  Syntax is heavily tied to meaning – we need to compose our sentence accurately to express ourselves fully.  We also need to understand syntax to comprehend what we hear.

Red Flags to Watch For:  not combining words together, using short phrases rather than sentences, missing grammar words, awkward constructions (e.g., “I not going”), poorly formed questions (e.g., “you gonna play with me?”)

4.) Morphology

Morphology is the other part of language structure and grammar.  Morphology refers to word use and word parts, and how they pattern.  For example, we say “one cat” but “three cats”.  We say “Today I will buy”, but “yesterday I bought”.  We say “he” for boys and “she” for girls.

Red Flags to Watch For:  How children acquire grammar tells us a lot about their overall language awareness and language processing.  Watch for missing grammar endings on words, missing grammar words in sentences, incorrect pronoun use, and incorrect use of prepositions or location words.

5.) Pragmatics

Pragmatics refers to the social use of language.  Humans as a species evolved language to communicate socially.  We use language to give things and get things.  Without a strong social drive or motivation, language often does not develop appropriately.  Within pragmatics, children learn that we talk differently to different people.  We talk differently to mommy than we do to strangers.  We may hug our uncle, but not a man on the bus.  We use a different tone of voice when we are angry or upset vs. when we are asking for our favorite treat at the grocery store.  We may call our neighbor by their first name, but at pre-school we use the word Miss with their last name.  Some jokes may be ok with our friends, but we wouldn’t say them to Gramma.

Red Flags to Watch For:  Children that do not stay on topic; children that talk ONLY on one topic (deep and narrow interests); lack of voice change (volume, pitch); lack of comprehension; not understanding jokes; taking things very literally; not learning polite language; not motivated to say “hi” or “bye”; avoiding eye contact.

6.) Discourse

Discourse combines all the oral language skills together – it is the ability to communicate with others effectively.  Discourse refers to the scripts or sequences that we have learned to be successful with language.  As adults, we write differently in an email than we do in an academic essay or work report.  We ask differently when we ask for food in a restaurant than we do when we ask for a loan at the bank.  We talk to our spouse differently than we talk to a client at work.  We also learn certain phrases in certain contexts – when greeting someone, we may say “what’s up” vs. “it is very nice to meet you” depending on how well we know them.  Or, in traffic, we may say “What’s your problem” vs. “Did I do something wrong, officer?”

With children, we often teach discourse through books.  We point out the difference between fiction and non-fiction books.  We talk about pretend and imaginary discourse (especially when calming our children after awakening from a bad dream!).  We talk about the purpose, the lesson, or the message of the text.

Red Flags:  Children don’t adapt the way they speak from setting to setting; children are very rigid in the way they use language; children use set “scripts” or repeat things in the same order with the same words; children don’t discriminate between reality and fantasy; children have difficulty clearly and accurately expressing their thoughts and ideas.

Taken together, these five areas or domains of oral language predict children’s success in school, in social settings, and in reading and writing development.  Reading books daily with your children, engaging in language games like “I Spy” and “Simon Says”, and drawing more awareness and attention to the patterning and use of language and vocabulary makes a big difference in oral language development.

If you have concerns in any of these domains, it is highly recommended that you talk to a Speech – Language Pathologist.

Trent Wilson M. Ed., M. Sc.- SLP (C), R-SLP

Registered Speech – Language Pathologist

Director – Speak2Read