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The Language/Learning Connection

Every year, student are tested on their abilities in language arts. In this week's column, Dr. Lydia Soifer explores why language has become such an important subject in our schools.

With the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) testing scheduled for May 3-6, it is an appropriate time to ask why “language arts” is such a hot topic in education.  

Language and the Curriculum

Language is the vehicle that drives the school curriculum. When children are in school, they and their teachers use language for learning specific subjects and for reasoning and socialization.  As a result, even young children are expected to use their oral language systems to master both print and language for increasingly greater abstraction. Classrooms are filled with language.

Just think about how much oral and written language children are exposed to every day in school. Words and sentences are used for a dizzying array of purposes at a steady and often rapid pace. Teachers use language to teach language. Every subject – math, science, music, art – requires language skills.  Of course, literacy (reading, spelling and writing) is language-based.  

Having good language and thinking skills are crucial foundations for school learning. For this reason, many schools employ a consistent program of literacy across the curriculum.

When you observe what happens in the classroom, you see that language is the mediating force for both teaching and learning.  Good teachers know that talking is not teaching and that just because something has been taught does not mean that it has been learned. This is especially true for children whose language systems are vulnerable or disrupted.

A Way of Thinking About Language

Language is a dynamic, rule-governed process whose purpose is communication.  Language is flexible and supple, influenced by context and the interaction between speaker and listener, writer and reader, thinker and thought.

Language is made up of an intricate system of rules, most of which are unspoken.  Yet these rules are often taught only after they have been unconsciously mastered by the young child or not spontaneously learned. Language is a process; an ongoing, interactive, systematic means of communicating. Language is about communication – successful communication in which ideas, thoughts, feelings and behaviors are shared and experiences created.  

In fact, language can be represented as the interaction of language content, use and form, a concept developed by Lois Bloom and Margaret Lahey in the 1970’s.

Language content is the meaning component of language. It represents our knowledge of the world, our use of words, how we understand and how we represent meaning.  Vocabulary and lexicon are aspects of language content.  Content is the aspect of our language system that can grow endlessly, each time we learn something new.  It is a crucial component of reading comprehension.

Language use is often referred to as pragmatics, or the interactive, social aspects of language.  Pragmatics is about knowing what to say, when and how. Similarly, pragmatics – the intentions and purposes for which we use language – influences storytelling and understanding, reading and writing for different purposes and our skills as communicators.

Language form is about the sounds, the word structure and the grammar of the language, all of which lead to decoding, spelling, reading comprehension and writing.

When language content, use and form are all in harmony, the message is delivered and understood, the communication is successful and language functioning is efficient, invisible, and very matter of fact despite the enormous complexity and the abundant opportunities for something to go awry.

Language is everywhere in our lives and most particularly in school.  Appreciating the role that language plays in learning is an essential aspect of training our teachers, understanding and providing for our children as learners, and adapting the school curriculum in order to ensure that the gift of language is shared fairly by all learners.

Without the gift of language fluency, a student is at a disadvantage. The yearly standardized testing imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law is one way to measure achievement. It looks at a child’s capabilities as measured against a benchmark set by the state Board of Regents for students in specific grades. In my next column, I will address the difference between this type of testing and other ways to assess a student’s understanding, achievement and abilities.

Dr. Soifer, director of The Soifer Center for Learning and Child Development in White Plains, has been called “Teacher of Teachers and Friend of Kids.”  For more than 35 years, she has helped parents, children, educators and physicians to understand learning, behavior, communication and the nature of language functioning in academic performance and success. Her column will be published twice a month.

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