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The Language and Literacy Connection

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 0 Comments

I have recently been developing modified versions of Keys to Literacy’s professional development for instructional practices of comprehension, vocabulary, and writing skills to focus on how these practices can be used to meet the needs of English Language Learners and students with a reading disability. This work has reminded me that language skills are tightly connected to learning literacy skills, and that weak English language skills are often the reason why many students struggle with reading and writing.

Literacy specialists recognize that written, academic language is different from spoken, conversational language, and that the only way to be exposed to (and learn) academic language is to read or be read to. When most educators think about why students with weak language skills have difficulty with literacy skills, they assume it has to do with not having enough vocabulary knowledge. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg! The grammatical structures and written language devices for framing ideas, indicating relationships, and structuring arguments are what create the difference between spoken and written language, and what often are at the cause of reading comprehension difficulty.

Now that the Common Core State Standards require students to learn how to read more demanding, complex text, the strain that weak language skills place on developing literacy skills is becoming more apparent. In the past, teachers could avoid teaching language/literacy skills by avoiding content reading, but now the pressure is on to teach students how to read academic, content text. It is paramount if we are going to develop the literacy skills students must have to become college and career ready.

Much of the discussion about the role of language and literacy is related specifically to English Language Learners, but I believe that many of the same issues and instructional solutions can be applied to students with weak language skills as a result of (1) a language-based learning disability and (2) the lack of early language exposure that some children have before entering school. Regardless of the cause of weak language skills, teachers can help students improve literacy skills if they are aware of best practices for teaching the kind of academic language that is used in complex text. And, it is content teachers who are perhaps in the best position to teach students how to read complex text that is unique to their content discipline (i.e., science, history, mathematics, etc.).

All of Keys to Literacy’s professional development offerings embed instructional practices for explicitly teaching academic language, including:

  • Keys to Close Reading: shows teachers how to conduct a close reading lesson using a short sample of complex text that focuses on word, sentence, and passage language structures
  • The Key Comprehension Routine: includes teaching text structure at the sentence, paragraph, and overall text levels
  • Keys to Content Writing: includes instructional practices for developing complex sentence writing (e.g., sentence combining), paragraph structure, and basic text structures for informational and argument writing

I’ll end this post with links to a website I recently found that provides some helpful resources related to language and literacy:  The Understanding Language Initiative at Stanford University.

The goal of the initiative is “to heighten awareness of the critical role that language plays in Common Core Standards and Next Generation Science Standards” – that learning the language of each academic discipline is essential to learn content. The focus is on helping all students improve content literacy skills, but especially English Language Learners and others who struggle with reading and writing.

The site includes these resources:

  • A collection of white papers related to the language/literacy connection that include brief summary videos by the authors. A few examples:
    • What does text complexity mean for English learners and language minority students?
    • Language Demands and Opportunities in Relation to Next Generation Science Standards
    • Mathematics, the Common Core, and Language
    • Language and Common Core Standards
  • Teaching resources for embedding language and literacy instruction in content instruction

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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