Language and Literacy Development

Oral language development is the foundation for later literacy development (reading and writing). Young children will start by listening to the sounds of speech, and later they will begin to imitate them unless there are developmental delays that would impede children from developing normal language acquisition. In this chapter, we provide a broad spectrum to the study of language development and it will provide you with an understanding of how children acquire their first and second languages. We also explore the importance of literacy development, emergent literacy, and different methods for teaching young children reading. In addition, we will emphasize how parents and teachers can support young children’s language and literacy development.

Language allows children, at a very young age, to learn and express their needs, emotions, and desires, to give and receive information. We, as humans, use language to communicate, to express our emotions and beliefs with one another. The most common tool to express this communication is oral and written language. In summary, it allows children to better comprehend the world in which they live.

As an innate process of human development, children learn such skills as listening and speaking without any formal instruction. Children learn these language skills by socially interacting with others in a verbal environment. Researchers have found that children as young as four or five years of age (preschool age) can understand and use sentences and grammar of their native language (Neuman & Roskos, 1993). The following section presents the theories that support language development.

The Theories of Language Development

Behaviorist Theory

Behavioral theorists believe that actions are shaped by responses to other individuals’ performances so that behaviors that are reinforced become reinforced, and behaviors that are punished become inhibited. Therefore, humans stimulate language and children learn language as adults reinforce their speech. Through constant reinforcement, children recognize language as a means of gaining autonomy over their spoken utterances (Yaacob, 2016). The child behaves as though she/he had learned the structures of oral speech as a result of this imitation reinforced or inhibited processes. Language development continues as children grow older and learn the more complex structures of language which parents and teachers continually reinforce.

The Nativist Theory

A strong advocate of the nativist theory (also known as the innate hypothesis) is Noam Chomsky (1965), who believed that children are “prewired” for language, and that language is a process of normal human development. Chomsky explained children’s ability to produce and understand new and novel sentences as an innate capacity — known as the language acquisition device (LAD) — dedicated to language and not to other forms of learning. Nativists try to investigate the internal logic of language structure and seek to explain how language is acquired (van der Walt, 1991). Children do not just imitate language they have learned, but test the rules they have verbalized. Through early trial and error, children formulate the rules for transforming the basic structures of sentences into all sentence types.

To compare these two theories, the behaviorist and the nativist, one would say that Chomsky would focus on the learner, in this case, the child. The behaviorist, on the other hand, would put the situation or the environment as its main focus.

The Interactionist Theory

The interactionist contemplates certain functions of language to be a combination of maturational and genetically determined. In other words, there is an interaction between the child’s innate language abilities and the child’s environment in order for language development and reasoning to occur. The nativist maintained that language development was biologically determined. The interactionist also believes that language development is innately determined; the difference, however, is that language development is also dependent on the age of the child. This interaction allows the child to formulate rules for communicating in that environment.

Box 4.1 Theory and Research to Practice Connection: Who are the two research proponents that support the interaction theory?

Two proponents of the interaction theory are Vygotsky (1962) and Piaget (1955) who saw language and cognition as related components that occur during different stages of development: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

Piaget argued that children developed language with the capacity for logical thought and reasoning, and that language reflects these capacities. He further advocated that children have innate cognitive abilities for language learning but, as these internal abilities grow and develop, children must interact with their environment and absorb these elements into their internal structure before moving into the next developmental stage. Children need a language-rich environment in order to be able to construct the phonetic, morphemic, syntactic, pragmatic, and semantic rules of language. They also need to practice language in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes.

Social interaction is a term coined by Vygotsky which happens between an infant and parents, siblings, teachers, and/or peers. This social interaction is a critical mechanism for children’s language acquisition. Vygotsky viewed language as a uniquely human ability that exists independently of the child’s cognition. Starting at about two years of age, general cognition and language are interconnected, and as the child gets older, these two processes begin to develop as separate entities. According to Vygotsky, children develop external speech, apart from thought, during the sensorimotor stage. During this stage, speech is followed by an action, but it is not connected to an understanding of speech as communication. Vygotsky maintains that human consciousness develops through words. During the preoperational stage, egocentric speech becomes inner speech, a sort of isolated talk that one hears in one’s head. At the same time, children become conscious that through speech they can communicate ideas and concepts to others. This awareness becomes apparent in children’s language development as they become interested in learning the names of things and constantly ask to be informed.

Vygotsky emphasized the importance of the adults’ role in children’s language development. He maintained that children develop their understanding of the rules and function of language from the adults who use that language in a regular and constant manner. At a young age, children have some concept of the meanings of adults’ language even before they can pronounce the words. These vague concepts come closer to adult meanings in a series of more complex ways (not unlike Piaget’s stages) as children interact with the adults. During these stages, adults supply more context for concepts as children build and refine their own meaning. Though the children construct meaning, the adults determine the direction of their thinking process.

Researchers emphasized how the adult language styles can affect the development of a child’s language, and thus the child’s capacity for more complex thinking processes (Hazan, Tuomainen, & Pettinato, 2016). Chapman (2000) has revealed that different parental language styles and interactions result in differing scores on children’s intellectual and language tests. Parental styles that include such characteristics as reading to children, mealtime conversations, role-playing in pretend games, expanding children’s language, and engaging children in different verbal interchanges are related to children’s more extensive use of language and increased problem-solving ability (Lynch, Anderson, Anderson, & Shapiro, 2006).

In addition, studies have revealed that children learn the five general language structures before entering school: phonology (sound system), morphology (rules regarding words), syntax (grammatical structure), semantics (meaning of words), and pragmatics (appropriate usage). We will discuss these five language structures in the section to follow.

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