| Sep 06, 2007

September 2007 - Early Literacy

Back toHome

Early Literacy - September 2007 All Talk: Oral skills precede writingby Susan Ramsay, Early Literacy Specialist, HFL&A

It’s all talk and, what’s more, it’s nothing new. Anthropologists estimate that humans figured out how to speak about two million years ago and have been chatting ever since. Worldwide we speak more than 3,000 different languages. If we consider dialects, that number doubles.

But although humans are born with a genetic predisposition to communicate verbally, it took nearly half a million years for humans to develop any form of written language. Of these 3,000 to 6,000 languages, only about 78 have a written system of communication. Unlike speaking, the ability to read and write must be taught.

Yet close attention to speech is the very thing that helps children learn to read and write. Oral storytelling plays an important role in literacy learning. Storytelling integrates word meanings and sounds, as well as an understanding of how words and ideas are ordered to describe, relate and retell events.


Storytellers must be able to make sense of sentences, individual words and the small units of meaning and sound found within each word. For example, “ing” on the end of “fall” tells the listener that “falling leaves” are tumbling to the ground. Without this small meaningful suffix, the listener may imagine brightly coloured “fall leaves” but not know they are being blown from the trees. Attentiveness to the first sound in “fall” impacts comprehension as well. The listener interprets a story very differently if a word is pronounced as “ball”, “hall” or “mall” instead of “fall”.

The first types of stories young children tell (typically around 3 years of age) are called Additive Chains because the events in these stories are not connected. “I see a pumpkin.” “I like candy.” “My cat meows.”

As children absorb greater understanding about how language is used, their storytelling becomes time-ordered. “I saw a pumpkin. I got candy at her house! The cat inside her house meowed.” We call these stories Temporal Chains. Children often begin telling this style of story somewhere between 3 and 5 years of age.

Children soon progress from this stage of storytelling to the next. Simple Causal Chain stories link the events in their story with meaning. “It was dark outside. The pumpkin had a light inside it. The pumpkin had big teeth and big eyes! I wasn’t scared. I said, “Trick or Treat” I got candy! But the cat was really scared. The cat meowed like this…MEOW!”

Children’s narratives can tell us more than an exciting story. If we listen to the way children tell us their stories, we can hear what they have learned about how language is structured. If we ask children questions that draw their attention to differences in meanings and in sounds found in the words they use, we strengthen their ability to learn how oral language is linked with written words. “Did you say it was a cat or the bat that was scared?” “Was there really only one pumpkin with big teeth and big eyes?”

It may seem like just a lot of talk. But all that talk can help children learn to read too.

Susan Ramsay is the Early Literacy Specialist for Hastings, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington. You can contact her at 613-354-6318 (ext 32)

Support local
independant journalism by becoming a patron of the Frontenac News.