In our previous article, we explained that a child struggling to read may not just have difficulty with phonics (the word-letter association system) or decoding (the process of using phonics rules to put together words), but that several other underlying language processes may be at play as well, intertwined with the reading process. Syntax (grammatical word order) was discussed in detail as one of these processes. A second part of language that can have a strong effect on a child’s reading success is semantics, which refers to the understanding of word meanings. This is a crucial consideration for a struggling reader, because an underlying deficit in semantics may begin years before a child is first expected to begin recognizing his ABCs and may contribute to difficulty with reading.
The development of semantics begins before a child even learns to talk. Developmentally, babies and young toddlers can understand words earlier than they can speak them. Tell a 15-month old, “Go get your sippy,” and she may immediately retrieve her favorite cup; tell her, “Time for a clean diaper,” and she may run in the other direction. Even if she cannot say any of the words in these sentences, we know she understands the words based on her responses. Receptive language (the understanding of words) develops even before expressive language (the use of words) in typical children.
When these same children begin to encounter text in early grade school, they are well-equipped to recognize written words because they are familiar with most of the words in beginner-level texts from their spoken language experience. A child who is able to sound out the beginning of a word will be able to finish it more easily when he recognizes the word from his vocabulary. As an illustration of this, read the following four words out loud:
Calculator, Imaging, Siberia, Adaptive
Now read the next four words out loud:
Rabtudator, Aflining, Tofedia, Olensive
Which list took more effort to read? Did you trip over your tongue at all when reading the second list? Both lists contained words of equal length and similar spelling patterns that, from a strict decoding standpoint, should be equally difficult to read – but there was a difference in the ease of reading because the semantics process was underlying your decoding. The first list contained words that, while not necessarily part of an everyday vocabulary, were familiar and meaningful. The second set contained non-words: though they were of similar decoding difficulty, they were completely unfamiliar and held no meaning, and so you likely had to look at them longer in order to sound them out. Even if the immediate task is decoding the words, our understanding of the words affects our ability to read: our decoding skills are enhanced when the text is meaningful.
Translate this to children who have weaker semantic skills and a smaller vocabulary when they begin to read. These children will naturally encounter more unfamiliar words in text, which will slow down their decoding and impact their reading experience. One of the most important things we can do to prepare young children for reading, before even looking at the ABCs, is to ensure that they are equipped with a strong semantics system in their spoken language. When we talk to them, read aloud to them, and expose them to a broad vocabulary in the language they hear, we are fortifying their semantics system to prepare them to become readers.
Anna Fredman, M.S., CCC-SLP
Certified Speech Language Pathologist
Anna Fredman is a licensed, certified Speech Language Pathologist. She received her Master of Science in speech language pathology from the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA and previously worked at the Monarch Center for Autism. She currently sees school-aged children and has also worked with toddlers through students 21 years old. Anna has specialized in therapy for individuals on the autism spectrum, with a special interest in high-functioning students focusing on social pragmatics and young children learning basic communication and social skills. She also addresses reading, expressive language skills, written expression, and articulation with her students.