The Academic and Social Case for Literacy Instruction

I’ve been reading, as I mentioned below, Dr. Mel Levine’s excellent book,  A Mind at a Time (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), On page 143. he makes this compelling observation about (as the subchapter heading characterizes it) “The Special Challenge of Language Production.” Even though I am less than halfway through this book, I cannot recommend it highly enough: there is nary a wasted word, and Dr. Levine has much to offer the teacher working with struggling learners.

“Language output is an especially elusive undertaking for some, and for that reason I would like to give it some further emphasis…. There was a time in our schools when every child was required to take a course called rhetoric. In contemporary culture, not much attention is paid to oral language production, the ability to encode ideas into clear, cogent and colorful semantics, syntax, and discourse. Verbal eloquence and fluency are dramatically less evident in many classrooms as a result. Effective oral language serves and abundance of purposes. For one thing, it correlates highly with writing skill. Quite understandably, ‘If you don’t talk too good, it might be you’d not write too good neither.’

Language production serves as a lubricant for memory…verbal elaboration makes it easier to consolidate information and skill in long-term memory. We also make use of language as an implement for creative expression, as a wrench for tightening our grasps of concepts, and as an elixir for winning and keeping friends.

Expressive language plays a less obvious but powerful role in regulating behavior. Words and sentences can be peacemakers and problem solvers within a social milieu. We adjust our feelings and actions by talking to ourselves. Internal voices…enable people to self-coach, to verbalize internally, as they consider the likely consequences of various actions they are contemplating. They are also able to talk through, buffer, and modify their inner feelings.

When individuals lack expressive language ability, they may be susceptible to the development of aggressive behaviors and also depression or excessive anxiety. I participated in several research studies involving early adolescent juvenile delinquents. In these investigations we sought to uncover specific neurodevelopmental dysfunctions that were common among these kids. We were struck by how many teenagers in serious trouble with the law had signs of expressive language dysfunction as one of the risk factors that led to their downward spiral. In fact, it turns out that at two ages in particular, namely preschool and late adolescence, language production problems are strongly associated with acting-out, aggressive, and sometimes downright antisocial behaviors. So the stakes are sky-high when it comes to expressive language capacities.”

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