Monday, 27 January 2020

Updating the Language (and Literacy) House

Greetings and a belated welcome to 2020. Things have been a bit quiet over here at The Snow Report, while I have been enjoying some long service leave in between professional roles. At the end of 2019, I concluded my term as Head of the La Trobe Rural Health School and tomorrow (January 28) I formally commence as Professor of Cognitive Psychology in the School of Education at La Trobe University. Happily, this role is based in my lovely adopted home-town, Bendigo.

I've been using this period of leave to attend to long-overdue writing tasks as well as preparing some of the presentations I'll be giving in 2020. This work has taken me back to my Language House model, a conceptual framework I have been using for some years in presentations, and have published previously on this blog.

I'd like to share an updated version with you here and would welcome feedback on its utility. There is a version of this model and associated commentary below under review for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and in the event that that is accepted, I will provide a link here in due course.




The basic principle with this schematic representation is that building up children's oral language skills (receptively and expressively) and later their reading, writing, and spelling skills, is akin to building a house, in the sense that both require strong foundations, and careful attention to structural integrity and inter-connectedness of component parts.

It's important to remember that this is a conceptual model, designed to help us think about a number of developmental processes that need to smoothly coalesce in infancy, early childhood, the school years, and throughout adolescence. It is not intended to provide definitive and exhaustive coverage of all aspects of early language, social-emotional well-being, and reading, writing, and spelling abilities.

We all know that when we build a house, we don't start with walls or the roof. When we build a house, we begin with foundations, but even more fundamentally than that, we need to think about the ground on which the foundations will be placed.

In this model, the solid ground is the social and emotional contexts in which infants and toddlers experience language use in the first two years of life. In ideal circumstances, children are nurtured by adult carers who display warm, responsive availability, providing prompt and reliable soothing, lots of close physical contact, eye-contact and use of "parentese" when interacting with the infant. This sends strong signals to the infant and toddler that their world is, by and large, safe and reliable, and their needs, physical and emotional, will be met.

The development of a secure attachment style is an important outcome of warm, responsive parenting, and gives infants internal working models that they take with them throughout life, about how human relationships work. Secure attachment also assists with the development of empathy and the ability to understand another person's affective state, often through the linking of emotions with their verbal labels. It's much easier, as children move though childhood and adolescence, for them to manage emotions they can name and discuss, than for their emotional states to be undifferentiated but generally unpleasant. This is confusing and probably contributes to difficulties for troubled children and adolescents in deriving benefit from verbally-mediated interventions such as counselling. Sometimes, problems naming emotional states are so marked that alexithymia may be present. Word sleuths among you will know that the prefix "a" means "lack of"; "lexi" means word, and "thymia" refers to mood - so you can see where this term comes from. We have identified alexithymia as a prevalent problem for young people in the youth justice system, many of whom have severe maltreatment (abuse and/or neglect) histories.

So - starting with the solid solid ground of emotionally responsive and attuned carers, means that children are going to receive a great deal of verbally-mediated soothing and "serve and return" exchanges. These help to lay the foundations for emotional self-regulation, as well as for language development more generally. Both skill-sets are essential for success at school.

This leads us then to consideration of children's early language exposure in the first five years of life as the foundations of our house. Language development may be biologically natural, but it is not "set and forget". Parents and other adults spend a great deal of time interacting with their infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers, reading to them, telling them stories, explaining how the world works, responding to their seemingly endless questions, and teaching them the subtle but sometimes confusing conventions associated with everyday conversation (turn-taking, topic management, giving enough information, how and when to interrupt, and so on). We also know that there is a social gradient on which children and families sit with respect to early oral language exposure, so children don't arrive at school with equally well-developed oral language skills. In some cases, therefore, teachers need to accelerate the skills of children commencing school, so they can make up some lost ground and keep up with the curriculum.

It's important to remember, though, that here we are thinking about receptive and expressive language skills, remembering that receptive skills typically outperform expressive skills in the early years in particular. While vocabulary is the cornerstone of the metaphorical slab of granite that is the foundations for our house, it is not the whole story. It's also important to think about children's emerging discourse skills (conversation, narrative, expository and procedural), their use and understanding of increasingly complex syntactic structures (e.g. sentence embedding), and their development of phonology and morphology. It's convenient for us to think about these as separate entities, but of course in the rich and messy business of children's language development, they are inextricably related.

So - with the solid ground  and foundations sorted, we can begin to think about the walls for our house. As you can see, the walls are the ongoing development of prosocial interpersonal skills and the emergence of literacy (reading, writing and spelling) on school entry and beyond.  The walls have a complementary relationship with each other, in the sense that developments on one side, contributes to developments on the other (in much the same way that a real house needs walls on more than one side in order to stay upright). This is perhaps most simply represented by the figure below, that reminds us that while oral language skills contribute to early reading success, so too, early reading success loops back to oral language skills. Children need to be exposed to more complex vocabulary and syntactic structures than typical everyday conversation affords, so those who do master reading early, have a lasting edge over those who do not. This is sometimes referred to as the Matthew Effect in early reading.


As noted above, I am describing literacy and prosocial interpersonal skills as conceptually separate for the purposes our our house metaphor, but they are strongly inter-connected. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that reading difficulties are over-represented in children who were identified with developmental language disorders in their pre-school years, and in the comorbidity between reading difficulties and social-emotional problems. Note too, that the walls of our house are represented in a brick pattern, meaning that the skills they represent on both sides they are built up and refined over many years.

When we consider prosocial interpersonal skills, we are thinking about children's developing capacity to use language to navigate the business of everyday life. School for example, has a strong social dimension, in which making and keeping friends is important for mental health, and oral language skills are central to children's success in this endeavour. Drawing on the ongoing scaffolding of parents and teachers, and hundreds of "serve and return" opportunities per day, children learn about what's OK and what's not OK in their particular culture with respect to how they use language, across a range of discourse genres (conversation, narrative, expository and procedural) at home and at school.

These discourse skills in turn, connect to children's understanding of the world and development of background knowledge, both of which are key to social and academic success. Daniel Willingham's 2012 article Why does family wealth affect learning? is a reminder to us about the social and human capital that assists children to make their way in the world, if they are fortunate enough to have parents who can provide access to these assets.

On the other side of our house, we have the transition to literacy in the early school years. As readers of this blog would be well aware, this is the part of our house which is subject to ongoing debate in academic and school circles. No-one seems to disagree with the contention that early oral language skills are the essential engine that children need to bring to school, so that they can engage with the highly verbally and text-mediated environment that is the school classroom.

However, there is, unfortunately a lack of consensus on some aspects of the approach that should be taken to early reading instruction. I've dealt with those tensions in multiple previous blog-posts and publications and won't dwell on them here. Rather, I will focus on the fact that there is broad agreement about the importance of phonemic awareness, ongoing vocabulary development, decoding ability, text exposure, and high-quality instruction (ideally delivered by teachers who are knowledgeable about the linguistic workings of the English writing system). Readers are referred to the  Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read for an understanding of how decoding and language comprehension need to work together in reading acquisition.  Increasingly too, there is a strong and appropriate emphasis on explicit teaching of morphology and etymology, processes which can be introduced in the early stages of explicit and systematic phonics instruction (e.g. by talking about plural-s and past tense -ed and how their pronunciation changes as a consequence of their morpho-phonemic environment). 

Now we can begin to think about the roof of the house, which is supported by a strong structural rafter, in the form of social and emotional well-being and social cognition skills. Social cognition refers to our ability as humans to "read the play" and to understand that what other people say and what they mean can be quite different things. I don't know whether humans are unique in their ability to play against their emotions, but it is certainly an aspect of our communication with each other that is complex for children and for people with many kinds of neurodisabilities (notably autism spectrum disorders) to master.

Being able to "read" social interactions and respond in ways which grease rather than grate on the cogs of social interaction is what employers often refer to as "soft skills". This term unfortunately risks trivialising the skill-set that can be the difference between sink or swim in the workplace. These skills take many years to refine, and are supported by ongoing scaffolding and feedback from adults, as well as understandings gleaned from the reading that children and adolescents are ideally doing to deepen their understanding of the human condition. Children and adolescents who, for a variety of reasons are not readers, miss out on these additional insights about how people think, feel and react in everyday situations. 


The roof of our Language House, is, as with all houses, the last to materialise and rests on the structural supports that began with solid ground, strong foundations, sturdy walls and a supporting rafter. In turn, it completes these achievements by providing access to post-school training and education, as a means of being part of the social and economic mainstream

The important thing to bear in mind in relation to the roof, is that jobs for unskilled workers are disappearing in first-world industrialised nations, as automation and artificial intelligence are increasingly doing work that was once done by unskilled workers. In fact, the Committee for Economic Development in Australia estimates that in the next 10-20 years, the jobs of a staggering 40% of the workforce could be replaced by automation. Just think about your local supermarket and the so-called self check-out points (which ironically, at this stage, often still require human intervention, but give it time). Inescapably, there is no faster express lane to unemployment and social and economic marginalisation than having low language and literacy skills, as identified in 2011 by the Australian Industry Council.




The Language House is intended as a conceptual framework for tying together a number of the important and complex threads that contribute to healthy transitions for children and adolescents into adulthood, on a population basis.

It is designed to remind us that foundations are critical, but are not enough. For example, it's ideal that in their pre-school years, children are read to by parents. However, this in itself, will not turn a good talker into a good reader. It will promote vocabulary and background knowledge, both of which are are powerful drivers of early reading success, but on its own is not enough.

It is difficult to directly influence the quantity and quality of early language to which children are exposed in their pre-school home environments. We can, however, influence the nature and quality of early and ongoing instruction to which they are exposed at school. This is where we need to maximise our impact.

For many children, this makes the difference (metaphorically and perhaps even literally) between living in a structurally complete and aesthetically pleasing house, and being homeless.



***Please feel free to use this image of the Language House and associated commentary. 
All I ask is appropriate attribution - thank you***.  



(C) Pamela Snow (2020)