A speech pathologist's view on oral language, phonological awareness and phonics - Part 1

Oral language is the system used for spoken words to communicate ideas, knowledge and emotions. It has a strong relationship to reading and writing and is recognised as a component of early reading instruction. The first of a two-part discussion with speech pathologist Jane Beale [Duration: 29:34].

Transcript

Shannan Salvestro

Hello, I'm Shannan Salvestro, Literacy Coordinator for the NSW Department of Education. Oral language, it's the system we use for spoken words to express our ideas and knowledge and our feelings. Phonological awareness is all about the sounds of the language, the sounds that make up words and includes the rhythm of the language and rhyme. Phonics is when we bring letters into the equation and it's about the relationship between sounds and the letters that represent them. We thought it would be interesting to hear a speech pathologist's view on these components that have a strong relationship to both reading and writing and are recognised as components of effective early reading instruction. This will be presented in a two-part podcast series. The first one will focus on oral language.

Today, I'm with Jane Beale from All Areas Speech Pathology. Thank you so much for speaking with me, Jane.

Jane Beale

Yeah, thank you Shannan. It's wonderful to have you come along and to give me a chance to talk about reading and spelling and, yeah, just from a speech pathologist perspective, so it's fantastic.

Shannan Salvestro

Great. I've heard you talk before Jane, and it sounds like it's an area you're quite passionate about.

Jane Beale

Yes, it's actually, it's wonderful to be doing a podcast on this topic because I first began to be a speech pathologist 25 years ago, and the stuff we would be talking about today, I was talking about it back then in very similar ways, which is quite surprising. And, and back then 25 years ago, I never would have imagined it would still be at the forefront of everyone's minds, but it is. So yeah, this is something that, has been a big part of my job, a big part of what I teach other speech pathologists to do. And I guess most importantly, it's how speech pathologists and teachers overlap and share their knowledge. So today would be about, as a speech pathologist, getting teachers to hear just a slightly different perspective, but mostly being able to go, ah, there's our common ground.

Shannan Salvestro

Which plays in learning to read.

Jane Beale

Yeah, fantastic. So oral language, it's something that develops naturally. So we know that children are all going to hear language in the first year of their life. They're going to start using language and they're going to use language to think and language to learn. So by the time a child gets to school, they actually learn through language. And at this stage it's oral language. So we're saying that they learn through listening and thinking about what's being said and then having those same words in their head so that if you said to a child that knows a nursery rhyme, jack and Jill went up the .... If they know that nursery rhyme, based on oral language, they can actually hear that word hill in their head. Jack and Jill went up the..... Can you hear it? Hill,

Shannan Salvestro

yeah

Jane Beale

So oral language is about hearing other people speak, comprehending what they're saying. And we know for early school starters, that means that people around them are talking a bit slower and using clear short sentences. But children basically are at school, they're ready to learn to read and spell and write. But first they're thinking about the sorts of things they would read and write themselves. They're thinking about them from a perspective of hearing other people say it and listening and remembering and then being able to say it back. Because reading is actually not a natural or developmental process. It's not something that people would just automatically develop. It's a contrived thing in our society. It's a learned behaviour.

Shannan Salvestro

It's something we need to be taught....

Jane Beale

Something we need to be explicitly taught. Whereas oral language is developmental. So think of reading as children, identifying something they've already said or someone said to them and something they've already thought and reading is just a match of the knowledge that they have. And think of writing and spelling as just putting down on paper your thoughts so you can't read something and understand it if you can't say it and you also can't write something down if you can't think it and sort of hear it in your head. So oral language just makes total sense as being the first step. We've got to get mastery of oral language. We've got to get children feeling confident with that. And then reading and writing and spelling is just recording what they can do.

Shannan Salvestro

It's amazing when you actually say it all like that. You can, the links and the connections, between the oral language, reading and writing ...the connections.

Jane Beale

Yeah. And I could give a quick example and I know people will think about grammar and you know, have a bit of a chuckle. You can think about the child that instead of saying, 'I saw my brother'. They might say, 'I seen my brother'. Okay, if they're going to go and write that, they won't write 'I saw my brother', they'll write what they would say because that's what's in their head. So they'll go to, write, you know, what did you do on the weekend? 'Oh, I seen my brother'. When they write it, they'll write 'I seen my brother'. So if you want to fix that grammar and you want them to write the word 'saw', you've to fix it with the oral language. You've got to get them hearing it in their head and thinking it and saying it. But that's just a really small, concrete example.

But you could extrapolate that out to a Year 5 or 6 student. You want them to maybe write a quite complicated sentence. So I went to the shop, but I didn't find the thing I wanted and I thought about what am I different options. And I thought I could do this, you know, all that high level language. If a child can't think that way and speak that way, they can't write it. So sometimes when we first want children to use words like suppose and wonder and imagine and perhaps and otherwise, if we do that straight away to a written language task, then it's probably not within their ability to think. So even at that Year 5 or Year 6 level, we still want to be doing oral language and getting them saying and thinking at the higher level. So oral language isn't just all make sure they come to school with oral language and now let's switch to written. Oral language has to come all the way through schooling into high school too.

Shannan Salvestro

So there really is. So moving from oral to written language, what do you think of the, the major factors from, from a speechy perspectives?

Jane Beale

So if I'm a speech pathology perspective, what we would say is spend the majority of your time, your teaching time and your explicit time and you're demonstrating time, have it in the oral language medium. And in a lesson, say if you were going to do, say, an hour lesson and you wanted children to write half a page, then instead of a 10 minute oral language, our introduction and then 50 minutes to write, we would say do 45 minutes of oral language. And that could be talking about it, defining new words, so talking about vocabulary, saying words slowly and repeating them, making parallels. So we're going to look at the word thought and what does it rhyme with? It rhymes with sort and caught. Oh, sort and caught rhyme, but they have different spellings. So you're talking about rules, but you're still in the oral language. Getting children to come back with sentences and saying sentences. Then you can bring in things like your nursery rhymes and your chants, going back and saying the same things repeating. So that by the time they sit down to put pen to paper and move to the written language, all the words are in their head and they can hear them - a bit like the Jack and Jill went up the hill - now they can hear it. So I give the example of a pentagon. A pentagon has and they hear 'five sides' because you've spent so much time talking and, comparing language. So for speech pathologist, you know, traditionally people would think of, well we do the oral language, so they'd come in and our session is around the talking and the repeating and comparing words, putting words into categories. So that seems really obvious for us and I think in times gone by, teachers knew that Kindergarten and early schooling years, there was a lot of time for oral language, have the play corner, have social time, pretend time, nursery rhymes, reading books. There was a lot of understanding that children needed oral language time. Whereas I think in schools now the pressure is a little bit of maybe news but straight into the structured groups. And the teacher probably knows 'I want to talk with them', but they've got to go on and meet other needs. We can't neglect oral language and think that there won't be consequences.

Shannan Salvestro

And actually also thinking as well that yes we do probably recognise that is something that is important in Kindergarten. But I think going back to something you said a little bit earlier, it's not just important in Kindergarten but perhaps continuing throughout other years of schooling. That idea that that time for talking....rich quality talking, that good discussion, is so important particularly for writing,

Jane Beale

You're so right. And if we look at what we expect from high school students, you know we might say read this book, what do you think that character was trying to tell us? You know, we've got into the language around thinking and hypothesising and you know, looking at options. Well children don't think and talk that way. So if you want them to be able to do that reflective writing and looking at possibilities, you need to take them through how to speak that way. You know, who has an idea, who has an opinion. And I did a group with high school students, Year 11 students and they were having problems with their essays and I did that exact structure that I said to you. I gave them a 10 minute talk about a topic and asked them to write for 45 minutes and we got one or two paragraphs and a lot of non engagement.

And then we came back and we did a 45 minute discussion where it was very structured discussion and we got opinions and we got ideas and we repeated concepts and then I said write for 15 minutes. And they wrote a half to one page, flat out. And the results were just incredible and the difference. And it was because they got to talk about it. When they went to write, they could hear it all in their head and they were just getting down what they were thinking.

Shannan Salvestro

It's like setting them up for success.

Jane Beale

It's such a simple little change isn't it? Yeah. Yeah. The other I could say about oral language and is to look at books. So, you know, teachers would hear this whole push of books, especially before children come to school. And what is, what books good for. Books are good for children being exposed to oral language when the book is read to the child. So now it is an oral language thing, isn't it? Cause they're listening. A book can be repeated. And we know that children learn from oral language when they get to hear it in a repeated way. It can end with rhymes. So that's satisfying for them and they're developing some of that early listening for rhymes. But books, probably most importantly, they can teach vocabulary that you wouldn't be able to teach without the book because, I'm sure you don't have tigers and lions and zebras in your house - you might, maybe you've got toys - but you might not have them doing all sorts of things. And rain forests and a book can bring in all these scenarios that allow you to bring the child exposure to in vocabulary. and there's a really interesting quote here. This was, some statistics derived by Shaywitz. So S Shaywhitz in 2003, and it was from a book about overcoming dyslexia. Now the topic, it's not so much that it's about dyslexia, they were just looking at the role of books in general. And did you know that if a child is read to for less than one minute a day, so that's the child that's not getting a story at night, less than one minute. I don't know what that could be - someone's just read them one line or really not very much - in a year, that equates to 8,000 words. So that child from an oral language perspective has heard 8,000 words, the chance to learn new words, vocabulary. If you read to a child for 4.6 minutes per day, so that's maybe, all right, come on. We got time for one quick book or maybe gone through their reader, but you've just read something short to them that jumps to 282,000 words in a year that child's heard. But if you say, 'I'm going to read to my child for 20 minutes a day', could be the school teacher in her, his or her busy day, 20 minutes for these children to hear, to oral language. Hopefully it's a parent or carer, 20 minutes a day, that child is going to hear 1.8 million words each year and we know when we follow those kids that get read to, they have rich vocabularies and they bring the oral language, they hear all this stuff in their head, how much more successful are they going to be in the school day? And we learn through language don't we?

Last little bit probably on this topic because I know you know I'm sounding very passionate and I am, but let's just take something with oral language. We could say to a child, 'could you go and put that between the cupboard and the table?' Something your teacher might say or 'could you go and sit between James and Sarah'. We'll have a lot of children come to school and they don't know the word between an apparent might even say, 'oh, we didn't use that word'. They're probably know in the middle, so it might be justified of, 'oh, I didn't really have time in the first five years to use the word between'. That probably doesn't matter. I used in the middle, well maybe it does matter because by the time a child comes to school, we want them to know multiple ways of saying things. We want them to know in between is like in the middle, next to, beside, up high, above, on top. We want them to be able to have a range and let's come to spelling and reading and writing, we have children that come to school. They don't know what 'first', 'last', 'end', 'start', 'middle'. If they don't know those words, then if you say, what's the sound on the end of white? Well they can't even answer the question because they don't actually even know the concept. So we know that children, we need to give children rich vocabularies and it's not okay to say, oh well if we don't read to them, if we just let them be doing other things, f we're too busy, if, if we don't sit around the dinner table anymore, you know, they just have their meal on their lap watching the telly, it's probably not a big deal. It is a big deal because children need to come to school hearing 1.8 million words a year so that when the teacher says, just go and put that beside the bin, they do it and we move on rather than they get it wrong, they get told off, they seem to be misbehaving, they withdraw. And the whole day is just this stop start because the oral language isn't there.

Shannan Salvestro

Are you noticing any or have you come across anything that is impacting on children's development of oral language? in those early years?

Jane Beale

Yeah, definitely. Yeah. So I think most people these days when you ask them, they can straight away say 'devices' and I'm going to expand that a little bit. It's kind of like our homes, our whole structure has changed with about, I'd say three or four things. We're more likely to have two parents working and even grandparents working because the working age has gone up, you know, people are working longer, so children are more likely to now be in homes where the homes set up. there might be a bit more money coming into the home. We expect bigger homes, people are working so people will plan a home. This is the children's lounge, this is the adult's lounge. Or we all have TVs in our rooms or we all have devices in our rooms - sometimes now don't have tables where people sit around - and so it can be through being time poor or let's just heat that up in the microwave, sit there and have it, your off to dancing, I'm picking so and so forth from their job. That's become an accepted norm and what we're finding is children just basically spending less time with other people, whether it's a sibling or a parent or another adult where nobody's occupied. If you and I sat in this room together with nothing, we would definitely look at each other and talk. But if I came in and you've got a device or a laptop or phone, we probably quite happily sit here and do our own thing.

Shannan Salvestro

So does that mean they're missing out on those incidental conversations?

Jane Beale

Yes. You're absolutely hit the nail on the head. And there's new research that's coming out, which is of great interest to speech pathologists just come out this year in 2018 but great interest to educators as well. We've always known that there's a gap with when children come from poverty, we know that they hear less words, but what they've really been able to show with the research now is it's not just, I could sit here and read words to you.

It's the interaction. So they've, these researchers have called it the serve and return so that basically you say something and I respond. So with children it could even be, 'oh mum, Richard took the remote again' and you know, it might not even be a positive. Now a parent might think, 'oh well if you had a TV each, that'd be great'. There'd be no arguments, but I need you to say that so I can come back with, 'oh well perhaps it was his turn, well, how about you get two minutes and he gets two minutes' and then you might say to me, 'oh, but you said that yesterday'. 'Oh, well we'll have another go look, you go first'. It's all this serve and return and then what we're doing is we're building on each other and that can start right back from the baby. You know, people see now baby's being given devices. If the baby's on the device and the mum's on the device, and this is what I saw at the cafe the other day four mums all meeting for the baby, get together and all four mums on the phone and all four babies looking. What we know is that when one of those babies went, 'da' , hit the table and went 'da', if someone does a, that's a serve. If someone does a return, 'you're so cute, what are you talking?' They're more likely to go 'da da' and you might do it back 'da da'. So we get serve and return right from the beginning. Peekaboo, peekaboo games, all of those games, those incidental, it's just how we've always done it as people and for the first time we've got, I'm lifting up my phone for people that can't see for the first time we've got this thing now where the baby's gone 'da' and I've not responded yet.

Shannan Salvestro

You're too preoccupied on your device to even see that happen. There's no then return response back to the baby.

Jane Beale

And what the research has found was that even in the households where there was poverty, if there was an adult that was doing serve and return, those children were okay. The flip side is, for the first time, we've got lots of children coming from middle of the road and upper socio economic areas that are showing oral language delays and it's because that might be the family where we get in the car and everyone's got the latest DVD player and headsets and there's no 'mum are we there yet?' 'Oh can't we get McDonald's'. 'No, I've told you we're going to do this' or 'oh, maybe', those serve and returns aren't happening.

Shannan Salvestro

So if that's what's happening and say by school age, children are coming to school and they do have those I guess a deficit. Yes, our language or delay. Is it too late? What do we then do? Do we have to do more work? What happens is what happens then?

Jane Beale

Well I do a lot of workshops for teachers and the way you've raised it is a really good point. I get teachers to look at when a child comes in, think of them in four categories. Now you might go, well that sounds like a lot, but it's not. It's really quick. Your first category is your child who as you're talking with them you go, oh, they're fine and you're probably these days going, wow, they're great because we know that more than half of children are turning up with oral language delays. We've done lots and lots of research and screening, so this practical knowledge as well as the research that's coming up. So when we get the child that just comes in and speaks well, we go well and we probably go, yeah, look, when your mom dropped you off, she took time to say, 'let's look in your bag', 'here's your note', 'ok mum, I'll see you after school'. 'Thanks for dropping me off'. We're seeing the serve and return. So I would say to teachers, you're going to notice your first group and they're fine. With your second group of kids. They're going to be the ones who there isn't something inherently wrong with that child. They don't have a disability, they don't have a diagnosis, but you're noticing, they seem distracted. Their oral language seems to be a bit of a delay or a deficit. What we're saying to teachers is if it's simply a case of they've just not had enough language exposure, you can make a difference. Well all you need to do is put the time into the oral language and by that I would specifically mean speak more slowly, make eye contact with the students, repeat what you're saying and give them time to process because it's like they're learning another language.

You know, like if I was speaking to you in French and you only knew a little bit, you'd want me to go slow. So we'd say you're to say it again, repeat it. Be quite animated with what you're saying and definitely speak more slowly. And then most of those children, they should start to thrive because they're now being exposed to more language. What I've just described then, that's typical of what would have happened 20 or 30 years ago. 'Come in', 'I'm the teacher, I'm not in a rush'. The first year is we get everybody up to the same standard, lots of reading and playing. So we know that method. We just need to give teachers permission and I'll have teachers say to me,' is that really okay?' 'Can I really put the curriculum to one side because I just want to talk to them and play with them?' I had one teacher who said Oh yeah, 20 years ago I'd bring the home corner out and, they'd get it every afternoon. Now I bring it out for 20 minutes or 30 minutes on a Friday and that's it. And I see them just getting into the game of pretend shop or washing up and I have to pack it up. And she said, 'can I leave it out more?' And I'm like, 'yes!' Something that simple. So those B group kids as just, you've noticed they haven't had enough exposure, use your time. If they're in a C group, those are the kids that probably have come, maybe they've already had some speech pathology, so it's not been picked up. Maybe they've got a diagnosis, it could be autism, Down's syndrome, intellectual disability. So there's something where we understand that's why there's the delay. Occasionally a child that should have been a B child has just had so much missing out that it's really got that bad, but generally with the children that are Cs, they're not a surprise, you've maybe picked them up in the transition to school. They still need the same thing. Slow down, give them more time for processing. But what I'd say to teachers is in that first year, try to link them in to a speech pathology service. We go into schools a lot. see, if you know, talk to your wellbeing team, talk to your student counsellors, school counsellors or whatever your resources are, but go, is this child getting speech pathology? If not, what can we do? Because when you said is it too late or not, it becomes too late quite quickly. Especially when it's receptive oral language. When children actually are not even understanding first and last and you know, 'put your hand up if you're not a boy' and then they don't get the 'not' - all the boys put their hand up. Yes. If that's the case you got, you have to get intervention quickly. Otherwise they just can't catch up. And we know children with significant receptive language difficulties by the time they're five or six, they can continue to improve, but they really struggle to catch up. I'll put it over to you now Shannan. We've had ;A, B and C, any ideas what the fourth group could be? What the D group is? What's D group?

Shannan Salvestro

The D group is..... is the ones I'm guessing who....

Jane Beale

I'll let you know cause he'd probably, your bank, what does it, it's the intermittent child is the child that turns up and you go, what is wrong with that kid today? They're not listening. They're not paying attention or think I'm going to have to do a referral. The next day they come in and they're fine. They're switched on. So why for some kids. Oh, can you picture a child like that?

Shannan Salvestro

Yes

Jane Beale

And then it's because there's something else going on. Maybe that's the child that has sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea can mimic having like an oral language delay or even autism. Children that there's no routine at home. So they're just falling asleep anywhere. Children that have a fear, maybe trauma, maybe every second week there's a pattern and it's because they're going to one parent's house or another parent's house and, and yeah, and our curriculum is busy so that those kids may be in the past when they came in, you spotted that and it's play time and they can get it out their system.

But there's a lot expected of them in that category would be children with hearing loss that's not been picked up. Children with blocked sinuses and blocked noses and mouth breathers. So for teachers, what I'd say is if you have a child that one minute they're fine, I'm not worried about their oral language or their comprehension, but the next day, oh, I'm so worried then, then the answer for them is problem solve. Yeah. I'd encourage teachers to speak up and say this child's oral language is not up to speed. They're not concentrating. They're not listening, they're not understanding. They can't stand up until news because you know, get onto it early.

Shannan Salvestro

Making sure that you follow up on those hunches.

Okay. Well, we might move on. Can we move on to talking about phonemic awareness phonological awareness and phonics?

Jane Beale

I love this topic.

Shannan Salvestro

This conversation is continued in Part 2, where we bring phonological awareness and phonics into the discussion, and we link the ideas together. So if you're enjoying the chat, head straight to Part 2.

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