Guest Article: The Missing Ingredient in Reading Instruction

by Sheila Carroll
Guest Contributor

What if there was one simple thing you could do to ensure your child would read well and enjoy reading?

What if that thing didn’t cost a penny?

Would you be interested?

Of course you would. Here it is. The one thing you can do to improve your child’s reading is to significantly increase the amount of speaking and listening.

That’s it.

Too simple, you say? Nope, research shows those children who are read aloud and talked to learn patterns of language and meaning that they recall when they read. In fact, what they do is mirror back the language onto the printed word.

It works like this. A child learns a word and its meaning by hearing it, that is they experience the word. When they learn to read, they draw on that meaning or experience. If the child has a deficit in oral language experiences, he will have less to bring to reading. The word doesn’t make sense to him because he has not sensed (experienced) it.

The richer the oral language experience, the quicker and better the child reads. Researchers call oral language experiences orality. So, just as literacy is the ability to read and write, orality is the ability to speak and listen.

Here’s a big surprise. The most important aspect of children’s language experience is its amount. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, authors of Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children did a longitudinal study in which they recorded each month, for 2-1/2 years, one full hour of every word spoken at home between parent and child in 42 families, categorized as professional, working class, or welfare families.

By age three the vocabulary of the children from professional families was dramatically higher by several hundred words than that of child in a family on welfare. Hart and Risely estimate that in a year a 3 year-old from a professional family will hear 11 million words, while a child from a welfare family will hear only 3 million.

What are the implications? Staggering, if you imagine that orality is the key to a lasting literacy. These authors checked in on the children again at age nine. They found profound differences in the level of learning, literacy and social maturity.

What kind of oral language experiences are best? Ordering or demanding certain behaviors of your child isn’t the kind of orality we mean. The best kinds of experiences include genuine sharing and dialogue.

Here are a few:

  • Reading aloud high-quality literature (this is a must every day)
  • Nursery rhymes and fairy tales
  • Word games, like tongue twisters and silly sayings
  • Telling stories you make up
  • Enjoying a magazine together, where you ask your child to tell you about the pictures.

Other ways are:

  • Use open-ended questions rather than making statements. (E.g. that’s a beautiful picture you drew, can you tell me about it?)
  • Talk about the process of doing something while doing it. (E.g. when going to the store or cooking or repairing talk to your child about what you are doing).
  • Any activity which allows your child to both speak and listen.

Remember, it’s the simple things in life, like talking and listening to your child– that make the difference. In this case, the difference lasts a lifetime.


Sheila Carroll helps homeschooling parents use living books and Charlotte Mason’s methods to produce outstanding results in learning.

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One response to “Guest Article: The Missing Ingredient in Reading Instruction

  1. Sheila, a great article! Annette Kirk tells me you are doing an online course on “Roots of the American Order.” Wonderful! Tell me about it sometime. Reid Derr

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