Parents often ask whether their child’s early communication abilities will have an impact on their literacy skills (such as reading, writing, and spelling). Understandably, many are concerned that delayed communication or difficulty with language acquisition in their child’s younger years will have lingering effects on academic performance one they enter school.

In short, language and literacy and inextricably connected. In fact, the ability for children to produce and understand verbal communication is one of the earliest predictors of literacy achievement. Let’s explore why.

What Do We Mean by Language Development?

Early language development refers to a child’s emerging abilities to both listen and understand language (called receptive language), and their ability to then use this language to express their thoughts, feelings, and desires (called expressive language).

From the time a child is born to age 5, language development happens at a rapid pace. Babies will start using crying to express their needs, which soon evolves to cooing and babbling that mimics the rhythm of adult speech. Children then begin to point and gesture to communicate before eventually producing their first words. This ultimately leads to more complex speech and language habits.

While language development happens universally for all children, the pace at which it is acquired can vary greatly.

It has been well-documented that a child’s verbal abilities gained during their earlier years can affect their reading and writing once they enter elementary school. One of the most comprehensive reports that studied this correlation was conducted by the National Early Literacy Panel. They found that the ability for children to produce and comprehend verbal communication was one of the earliest productors of literacy success.

One early language skill that is highly correlated with reading and writing is phonological awareness. This is the ability to think about, differentiate, and understand the various speech sounds that make up a word. The word log, for example, is made up of three sounds: l, aw, g. There are a number of activities that can help demonstrate a child’s mastery of phonological awareness, including rhyming, alliteration, and the ability to take a word and isolate its many sounds.

As children become more familiar with sounds, they begin to map these sounds on printed letters, which helps with their emerging reading and writing skills. This is why reading is largely considered a language-based activity.

Warning Signs

While there are many different communication impairments that can affect a child’s early literacy abilities, two of the most common are language disorders and speech sound disorders.

  • Language Disorder: Individuals with a language disorder can struggle to use, process, or comprehend language, which makes it difficult to communicate their needs and feelings. As mentioned, the two main types of language disorders are expressive (difficulty expressing language through verbal communication), and receptive (difficulty understanding and interpreting meaning from the words heard). You can learn more about language disorders here.

  • Speech Sound Disorder: While struggling to produce certain sounds is a normal part of childhood development, children that experience difficulty with sounds or words past a certain age may have a speech sound disorder. More specifically, speech sound disorders can be classified as either an articulation disorder (difficulty coordinating mouth muscles correctly to produce certain sounds), and phonological disorders (the inability to string sounds together into coherent sentences). You can learn more about speech sound disorders here.

You should consult with your doctor or a certified speech-language pathologist if you notice your child has difficulty:

  • Understanding what other people are saying
  • Learning or remembering the names of letters
  • Learning new vocabulary words
  • Following directions or organizing their thoughts
  • Using words and sentences correctly
  • Telling stories or having a conversation
  • Singing songs

Intervening Early is Crucial

Children’s speech and language skills become more ingrained and habitual over time. Therefore, while intervention can be effective at any point in your child’s development, earlier treatment is often most beneficial, especially during their preschool period. Strengthening your child’s communication abilities during their emergent literacy years will help set the stage for reading, writing, and academic success.