How language skills impact reading development: Part II

Reading can be separated into two domains: word reading and reading comprehension. This second post of two will discuss how reading comprehension skills depend on the development of semantics and grammar.

Reading comprehension and semantics

Learning words involves acquiring information about the phonological features of the word and the meaning (semantics) of the word. Reading comprehension then involves integrating these two understandings into a coherent and complete mental model of the text.

Poor comprehenders

Poor comprehenders typically have deficiencies in understanding what they have read, but intact phonological and decoding skills. For some, effortful semantic processing may leave limited cognitive resources available for making meaning at word and sentence level, while others may have deficits in integrating meaning across the whole text.

Poor comprehenders may not have a specific problem just with reading comprehension, but deficits in a wide range of language skills such as vocabulary knowledge, listening comprehension and grammatical skills. Studies have shown that students with persisting language impairments are those that also fit the “poor comprehender” profile.

Reading comprehension and grammar

Grammatical knowledge is the implicit knowledge used to extract meaning from sentences through cues including ‘word order, grammatical morphemes, and function words such as relative pronouns, conjunctions and modals’ (Kamhi & Catts, 2002, p.54). This knowledge aids word recognition, inferencing, predicting, comprehension monitoring and error detection and correction; all of which support comprehension. Grammatical difficulties impair sentence comprehension which in turn impedes text comprehension as a whole. Some studies have found however, that the link between grammar and reading comprehension is indirect and cannot be separated out from the effect of vocabulary knowledge and memory.

What does this mean from a practical perspective?

For those children already at school age with literacy difficulties, identification of oral language and literacy skill strengths and weaknesses are imperative in order to determine the best path forward in terms of remediation.

Interventions that include a focus on oral language skills as well as narrative skills, story structure knowledge and inference making have been found to be the most effective in aiding reading comprehension. Interventions focussing on oral language skills have significantly improved poor comprehenders’ expressive vocabulary, and have led to long-lasting improvement in their reading comprehension abilities.

Furthermore, interventions such as Colourful Semantics (Bryan, 1997) and Shape Coding (Ebbels, 2007, Ebbels, Van Der Lely & Dockrell, 2007) which link vocabulary learning with sentence production and grammatical awareness have demonstrated an improvement in the grammar of children with language impairments.

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Adams, C., & Bishop, D. V. M. (1990). A prospective study of the relationship between specific language impairment, phonological disorders and reading retardation. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 31(7), 1027–1050.

Bryan, A. (1997). Colourful semantics: Thematic role therapy. In S. Chiat, J. Law & J. Marshall (eds.), Language Disorders in Children and Adults: Psycholinguistic Approaches to Therapy (pp.143-161). London: Whurr.

Cain, K. & Oakhill, J. (2007). Children’s comprehension problems in oral and written language. New York: The Guildford Press.

Cain, K. (2007). Syntactic awareness and reading ability: Is there any evidence for a special relationship? Applied Psycholinguistics, 28(4), 679–694.

Clarke, P. J., Snowling, M. J., Truelove, E., & Hulme, C. (2010). Ameliorating Children’s Reading-Comprehension Difficulties. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1106–1116.

Ebbels, S. H., Van Der Lely, H. K. J. & Dockrell, J. E., (2007). Intervention for verb argument structure in children with persistent SLI: a randomized control trial. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 50, 1330–1349.

Ebbels, S. H., (2007). Teaching grammar to school-aged children with specific language impairment using shape coding. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 23, 67–93.

Fricke, S., Bowyer-Crane, C., Haley, A. J., Hulme, C., & Snowling, M. J. (2013). Efficacy of language intervention in the early years. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 54(3),

Kamhi, A. G. & Catts, H. W. (2002). The language basis of reading: Implications for classification and treatment of children with reading disabilities. In K., G. Butler & E., R. Silliman (eds.) Speaking Reading and Writing in Children with Language and Learning Disabilities (pp.45-72). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Stothard, S. E., & Hulme, C. (1992). Reading comprehension difficulties in children – The role of language comprehension and working memory skills. Reading and Writing, 4(3), 245–256.

How language skills impact reading development

Reading can be separated into two domains: word reading and reading comprehension. This first post of two will discuss how word reading skills depend on the development of oral language skills, specifically phonological processing and vocabulary knowledge.

Word reading, phonological awareness and decoding

Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language at sentence, word, syllable and phoneme (individual sound) level. Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the individual sounds of a word. Isolating, blending, segmenting and rearranging sounds in words all rely on strong phonemic awareness skills.

Decoding involves recalling the sound that represents each letter and blending them together to form a word.

These two skills are critical for word reading new, unfamiliar words.

Word reading and vocabulary knowledge

There is a positive relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading skills. Previously encountered words form one’s vocabulary, and these words are then recognised quicker (i.e. by sight rather than sounding out) during subsequent readings. The relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading skills is reciprocal: the more time spent reading, the more words you encounter and the more your vocabulary grows. The bigger your vocabulary, the easier it is to read fluently and efficiently.

What does this mean from a practical perspective?

For children with literacy difficulties, identifying oral language and literacy skill strengths and weaknesses is imperative in order to establish the cause of the difficulty and determine the best path forward in terms of remediation.

At a general level, interventions for word reading difficulties are more effective in facilitating reading acquisition if they include vocabulary development, phonological skill development, phonemic awareness learning, and systematic and explicit phonics teaching.

What is phonics?

Phonics instruction involves teaching the letter-sound rule system and reading by decoding. Phonics teaching approaches have been consistently associated with increased word reading attainment for typically developing and struggling readers. For phonics instruction to have a lasting impact on reading ability, it is crucial that teaching is systematic, comprehensive and explicit.

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Snowling, M. J., & Hulme, C. (2011). Evidence-based interventions for reading and language difficulties: Creating a virtuous circle. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(1), 1–23.

Hulme, C., & Snowling, M. J. (2014). The interface between spoken and written language : developmental disorders. Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 369, 1–8.

Adlof, S. A. & Perfetti, C. A. (2014). Individual differences in word learning and reading ability. In C. A. Stone, E., R. Silliman, B., J. Ehren & G., P. Wallach (eds.) Handbook of Language and Literacy: Development and Disorders (pp.246-264). New York: The Guildford Press.

Paris, S. G. (2005). Reinterpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40,184-202.

Stanovich, Keith, E. (1986). Matthew Effects in Reading : Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360–407.

Murphy, K. A., Justice, L. M., O’Connell, A. A., Pentimonti, J. M., & Kaderavek, J. N. (2016). Understanding Risk for Reading Difficulties in Children With Language Impairment. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 59(6), 1436–1447.

How to support a child who is struggling with phonics and reading

Many children with additional needs, especially those with speech, language and communication needs struggle to use phonic skills as part of learning to read.  Here are some ideas for skills that can be worked on at home.

These ideas can be adapted for the non-verbal learner by using objects and pictures to indicate a response.

Use multi-sensory approaches

Learn about letters and the sounds they make by using the different senses. For example, manipulate wooden or magnetic letters whilst saying the sounds, or tracing over letters in shaving foam.

For the non-verbal learner: over-stretch the sounds in words and allow your child to put their hands on your throat so they can feel the vibrations of your voice-box. Use a mirror so you both watch the movements the mouth makes when making the sounds. These multi-sensory approaches help to ‘anchor’ sounds to memory.

Play memory games

Children with poor short term memory struggle to ‘hold’ a sequence of sounds in their mind in order to blend them. Play memory games that involve your child remembering and carrying out 2, 3 or 4 instructions in order.

Help develop phonological awareness skills

Students at risk for reading difficulty often have lower levels of phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is the ability to recognise and work with sounds in spoken language. Practise skills such as:

  • Rhyming- read books with rhymes, match pictures or symbols of words that rhyme, continue a rhyming string
  • Recognising syllables- clapping out or tapping the beats in spoken words e.g. win-dow
  • Identify same and different speech sounds- ask your child to identify whether two sounds (not letters) are the same. E.g. are the ‘c’ and ‘p’ the same?
  • Recognising initial sounds of words- play games such as ‘eye spy’ or ‘Simon says’
  • Recognising final sounds in words- sort objects into groups based on their final sounds. Over-pronounce the sound if your child is having difficulties
  • Blending and segmenting sounds in spoken words- give your child instructions with a word that is segmented. Your child will have to blend the sounds to follow the instruction, such as ‘give me your b-oo-k’ or ‘find the h-a-t’. Swap roles and let your child give you instructions to follow.

Once your child’s phonological skills are secure, you can then move on to blending to read written words and spelling.

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