S3-08. Deconstructing the Rope: Language comprehension with Sonia Cabell
Susan Lambert: How do we help students become confident readers, and what do all our students need so they can enjoy reading success especially during this unprecedented time? Welcome to season three of Science of Reading: The Podcast. I'm your host, Susan Lambert. This season, we're celebrating the 20th anniversary of Scarborough's Reading Rope, a model that helps us understand the complexities of learning to read and helps us focus on evidence- based practices. Each episode we'll cover elements of the model, what it means and how it should impact classroom instruction. We've lined up a dream team of Science of Reading experts we think you'll really love. The Science of Reading movement continues to grow and at a time that is more important than ever. It's vital we focus on research- based practices to deliver classroom instruction that allows students to learn. If they aren't learning, we need to examine our practices. We may not know what changes are coming next, but we do know we need to stay connected, and learning from each other will get us through it. The more we learn and listen, the more we'll be prepared to lead. Our students are counting on us. Joining us for another episode is Sonia Cabell, Assistant Professor in the College of Education at Florida State University. We talk a bit about language comprehension, an often misunderstood concept, and explore the importance of the elements of the simple view of reading before formal schooling begins. It's always a pleasure to chat with Sonia. Hi, Sonia. Welcome back to the podcast.
Sonia Cabell: Hi, thanks for having me. I'm excited to be back.
Susan Lambert: It's always a pleasure. I'm not sure if all of our listeners... Our listener base has really grown since the first time that you were on. I'm not sure all of our listeners actually know who you are. I wonder if you could just spend the first little bit here talking about who you are and how you fit into the Science of Reading world.
Sonia Cabell: Sure. I'm Sonia Cabell, and I'm an Assistant Professor at Florida State University. I'm in the school of teacher education in the reading education program, and I am faculty of the Florida Center for Reading Research. My work focuses on the prevention of later reading difficulties. I'm really interested in understanding how to accelerate children's language and literacy skills during the early childhood period. I think about the preschool and kindergarten kind of range, and I'm also trying to understand how to help teachers and parents foster this learning to lay a strong foundation for children early in their school careers.
Susan Lambert: Wow, that's really, really important work, and we're so glad that you're here with us to talk about that. We're going to get into that preschool age range in a minute here, but I know a lot of the work that you've done is related to language comprehension. And I wonder if you wouldn't mind just taking a minute to talk to our listeners about what language comprehension actually is and why it's so important for reading proficiency.
Sonia Cabell: When I think about language comprehension, we think about it in terms of the simple view or Scarborough's Rope, and we think about the ability to understand what is being said or read aloud. A technical definition might be the ability to derive meaning from spoken words when they're part of sentences or other discourse. I got that from Reading Rockets' website. But basically when I think about language comprehension, I think about the contributors to language comprehension, and I think about the language skills that children need to have. And that includes things like vocabulary and syntactical knowledge and the academic language that's needed. I also think about the knowledge that children need to really understand what they're listening to or reading.
Susan Lambert: I think it's a little misunderstood particularly when we're talking about it in relationship to reading proficiency. But when we talk about language comprehension, we're really talking about that ability to work in the oral environment first.
Sonia Cabell: Right. Exactly. If you think about the simple view being reading comprehension is a product of decoding and language comprehension, that language comprehension sits in that oral language type of space.
Susan Lambert: Yeah. I think maybe because both have comprehension, it's sometimes hard to extract the language element of it. Remember that it's super important that we do that for kids in the oral environment, which makes sense why that's such a part of your work because your work has really focused a lot anyway on this pre- K or even the birth to age five range. I would love for you to talk a little bit about that and how kids develop in those years and what are the things that help them become better readers. Wow. There is a lot there, Sonia.
Sonia Cabell: Well, let's see what we can do to unpack that a little bit. Let's think about both strands of Scarborough's Rope, both the language comprehension, as well as the word recognition sides of the puzzle here. One of the reasons this is really important to me to think about in terms of thinking about what happens during the preschool period and looking at it in light of Scarborough's Rope or the simple view of reading is that a lot of times when teachers are presented with these frameworks, they are thinking about school age formal reading instruction. But the Scarborough's Rope illustrates beautifully how strands come together early on to lay a foundation. I want to encourage people to think about those skills, which are precursors. These used to be termed emergent literacy skills. Sometimes still termed emergent literacy skills. But the idea is that from birth, language and literacy understanding is already starting. It's on a continuum, not all of a sudden children are beginning to read, or all of a sudden that they're cognitively ready to read. Those were older conceptions, but really the idea that these language and literacy skills start developing early on in our lives and lay a foundation for later reading and writing success. Let's talk about each piece of the rope. On the word recognition side, children begin to acquire some non knowledge and understanding about how print works, that it moves from left to right on a page and from top to bottom. They begin to have understanding of the names of the letters of the alphabet and the sounds that those letters make. They also begin to understand the sound structure of language or developing phonological awareness. They begin to understand, for example, that the word dog is not only an animal, but also is a word that they hear and it starts with a D sound. Those insights about print and sound really lay the foundation for children's later decoding and word recognition. Let's think about the other side of it, which is the language comprehension. I spoke about just a few minutes ago that this includes development in vocabulary and syntax, morphology, phonology, pragmatics. Children are developing spoken language and that happens from birth. Spoken language learning is generally a natural process. But for reading, these language skills help students understand the meanings of words and the ways in which words in sentences are combined in written language, which is a little different than spoken language.
Susan Lambert: Right.
Sonia Cabell: When I think about that written language, I think about the language of books in schools, which some people talk about as academic language. Academic language skills are things like articulating ideas beyond the here and now, or inferential language, being able to articulate series of events, whether fictional or non- fictional or narrative language, or understanding a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical structures. That academic language helps children be able to understand the formal structures and words in written language, which is different than our spoken language.
Susan Lambert: Right. Really when we're talking about the language comprehension side, at least of that, much of this from birth to age five is what the kids come to school with and is dependent on their experiences they have in those years in preschooling.
Sonia Cabell: Absolutely. They're gaining knowledge about the social and natural world around them as well through their interactions with adults and siblings and through the books that are read to them, through educational programming that they watch. Those language interactions don't take place in a void, right? We are talking about something. We're learning about something. That's where this background knowledge piece of the equation also comes in to language comprehension. Before school begins, children are exposed to rich ideas about how the world works. I think another skill that goes into both the decoding and language comprehension sides that is often left out is early writing, because that can help children. Exploring with writing even when children are three and four years old can help grow both their decoding ability as well as their language comprehension. Writing doesn't mean that the child has to be using pencil and paper. It could mean that you write down their ideas for them and they begin to understand how the written language works.
Susan Lambert: Yeah. That's really interesting because on a few episodes, we've talked about this reciprocal nature of both reading and writing and mostly, obviously, after schooling begins, as we're starting to learn the code and how that helps reinforce that code. But what would this look like for a preschool kid that would be helpful for them in terms of the writing?
Sonia Cabell: Right. In terms of writing, in preschool... Let's talk about that decoding piece, the word recognition piece, are all the precursors to that. Young children do enjoy exploring with pencil and paper or markers or with other writing kinds of tools if they see models of writing around them. Having this be a part of a playful, meaningful setting is important. For example, there's some work that's been done in the past by Susan Newman and colleagues that looked at putting writing literacy tools, including writing tools, into play centers in preschool settings. Just putting those tools in there did help students to more spontaneously engage with those tools, but then also when the teacher played a role and served as kind of a guide to that, that made it more powerful for children's learning. For example, in a restaurant center, the teacher might take a role of being the person taking the order and then writing down the order, and then the child might play that same role later on, or filling out forms in a doctor's office center. You could see that there are many ways that writing could be involved, where children are getting the opportunity to grapple with how the language works. And eventually their writing will move from drawing and scribbling to writing with letter like forms, things that look like letters, but aren't quite letters, to writing with seemingly random letters. And then, finally, when they start writing with invented spelling or letters that actually represents some of the sounds and what they're trying to write it. That is a huge milestone, where you're seeing that they're beginning to grasp the alphabetic principle.
Susan Lambert: That's fascinating. It seems like things that we've been doing in preschool with kids before, but maybe not with the awareness or focus that this is actually impactful to their literacy lives later. Would you think that's true?
Sonia Cabell: Well, I would say that writing in preschools is happening a lot more than it used to. It used to not really happen, but a lot of times teachers will include these kinds of writing tools in centers and make those available to children. I think the piece that still might be missing is how to scaffold that experience for children so that it becomes really meaningful to their literacy.
Susan Lambert: Can you give us an example of what that might look like?
Sonia Cabell: Right. Let's say a child is taking your order in a restaurant setting, and you say... What's something that you would order?
Susan Lambert: Oh, I'll have coffee, please.
Sonia Cabell: Coffee, okay. Let's say the child's writes on... Toward the end of preschool, they write C.
Susan Lambert: Mm- hmm( affirmative).
Sonia Cabell: Well, that is really exciting, because they have just represented the k sound in the word coffee. Oftentimes, it's the salient sound. The first sound in a word is the salient sound for children that they hear the most or feels the most in their mouth. What you can do then is the teacher can scaffold that learning to hear some of those other salient sounds, so coffee. What other sounds become really stand out to you when I say coffee? And you can say it long drawn out like that, coffee. E, right? I hear the letter name E. Children will recognize letter names that they write. They might write C and then they might add an E at the end, because you've helped them see that. And that's a great representation of that word for them. That's bringing them forward, rather than telling them," That's not right. Here's the correct spelling, and this is how you should write the word." Right? I'm not saying that teachers do that, but sometimes as teachers... And sometimes as a teacher, I felt uncomfortable not giving the correct spelling to children.
Susan Lambert: That makes a lot of sense to me, because it's just a step in helping kids be aware of the parts of a word or the individual phonemes of the word. And that seems really natural.
Sonia Cabell: Right. I think in helping teachers to continue to gain that knowledge of how literacy, how writing, how reading, how this unfolds even early on, then you'll have understandings like, oh, the first sound they might hear. Then it's the first and the last sound in a syllable. And then it's that middle sound. They won't get that middle medial vowel sound until they're starting to hear those other salient sounds, which is often the first and last sound in a single syllable word.
Susan Lambert: So often we think about... And I'm going to take a tiny step back here just to talk about the differences in expressive and receptive language. I think often we forget that receptive language, whether it's hearing or whether it's actually reading, comes before the expressive language. I'm right on that, right?
Sonia Cabell: Yes. We generally can understand more than we can express. And that's true not only in our language, but also in our writing, for example.
Susan Lambert: Yeah. It seems to me that, as I'm hearing you talk about this pre- K age or this birth to age five sort of development process, is that we have to make sure we get kids lots of examples and lots of exposures to be able to help with both sides of that, scaffolding appropriately as we can.
Sonia Cabell: Yes. Both receptive and expressive vocabulary or language is really important in the earliest years. In fact, research has found that in the earliest years, they don't necessarily separate out into those modalities as cleanly as we think about them.
Susan Lambert: Really?
Sonia Cabell: Yeah. They actually load onto the same kind of construct early on. Same thing with language more broadly, it's often considered... Newer research has pointed to it being unidimensional when children are very young. One thing that's really important is getting children to talk and getting them engaged in multi- turn conversations where the, where you are a responsive, conversational partner with children and you encourage back and forth turns, kind of like a tennis match, on the same topic, keeping the ball in play. I think that there is a lot of talk sometimes in classrooms, but not necessarily a lot of conversation.
Susan Lambert: Too much teacher talk. Is that what you're...
Sonia Cabell: Sometimes. I think that as teachers, I know that I've had to check myself on that. How much should I be talking? And then how much do I engage in conversation? It's those conversational interactions where teachers and parents are modeling language for children without even realizing that they're doing it sometimes, but they're providing advanced language models. For example, when my son says," I winned the game," I say," Oh, you won the game. That is so wonderful." I changed his winned to won without calling him out on it. I didn't say," Don't say winned. It is won." Rather, I responded to the meaning of what he was saying and gave him an advanced language model. The same thing in terms of talk related to making children's utterances more complex. You can add an idea, or you can extend what they're saying and keep the conversation going. For example, when my child says," I winned the game."" Oh, you won the game. Tell me, how did you win the game?" I come back with an open- ended question that invites him to take another turn and talk back and forth with me. Young children can do this really well and are eager to engage.
Susan Lambert: I wonder how many... Now I'm thinking back to when I was a parent and wondering what I did wrong, but wondering how do caregivers understand the importance of that? Where do they get this information?
Sonia Cabell: Well, I think that there is... In terms of parents and raising our young children, there's a lot of innatability that we have. I don't want any parents to think," Oh, I don't have what it takes," because you certainly do. However, there has been a push to encourage parents to talk more with their children. There's a lot of distractions around us. In early care settings, including not only at home, but I mean, in caregiving environments too, there is this push to make sure that adults remember to talk with children, not just talk at children, and not just talk to other adults in a room, but rather try to have conversation with children. Even when they're babies, they can take these turns with you where they're making a sound or they're making a movement and you can respond to those things. And when you do that, it does feel very natural to do those things. Another technique when children are very young and throughout the preschool period, you can narrate what you're doing or what you're doing with them, everything from changing their diaper to... I remember when I used to load the dishwasher in front of my infant son, and I would say everything I was doing. I think my husband thought I was maybe a little bit kind of overdoing it, but I tell you what? By seven months, I felt like he could understand everything I was talking about. There's this idea of narrating or casting what you're saying and what you're doing to help that language.
Susan Lambert: That makes a lot of sense to me. If we go back a few minutes ago, we were talking about this idea of academic language. Now it's sort of all coming together the importance of not just having conversations like that with children, but also reading from picture books to them, or reading from trade books for them, so that they get a chance to hear the academic language. That's often more complicated in print than the way we talk.
Sonia Cabell: Absolutely. If children need to have exposure to academic words that are... By third grade, they need to know words like nutrients and spouted on a test. Where are they going to hear those words if we don't read them out loud to children, because our everyday conversations aren't going to necessarily have some of those kinds of words that we only see in written language? There is a large body of experimental research that indicates that reading aloud to children has a positive impact on their language development. An important feature of doing that is its interactive nature. Yes, the book itself matters, but the way the adults engage children in the talk that surrounds the experience, what we call the extra textual talk that goes beyond the text itself, that is valuable for children's language learning. And if you think about the kinds of books you expose children to and the topics, you can really think about bringing that knowledge piece in here too around the book reading and have conversations about something.
Susan Lambert: That makes sense too then as kids come into a more structured pre- K or kindergarten environment. That importance of not just a read aloud, but an interactive read aloud.
Sonia Cabell: That's right. That practice continues on into those early grades and beyond into really helping children be explicitly exposed to vocabulary and meanings of words, words that are related to each other in both different genres of texts, including not only narrative texts, but informational texts. You can easily think about integrating science and social studies instruction with the read aloud experience in ways that will be meaningful for children's development. We'll give them things that they're excited to talk about.
Susan Lambert: They like that. In my experience, at least, they like to be scientists and historian.
Sonia Cabell: Yeah. There's a whole host of books, not just informational texts that are about something, right? You can build coherent text sets that span different genre, and that include narrative, informational, and then a mix of the two as well. You don't have to just think," I only should read informational texts." No, that's not true. You can read a mix of texts. I think one of the things that I erred on when I was a teacher is I gravitated toward narrative texts stories, because I found them interesting, but also because that was the only thing kind of on my shelf to read aloud. I think now teachers have access to so many different kinds of books now, or can hopefully gain more access to informational texts than 20 years ago.
Susan Lambert: Yeah, I agree with that because I do remember being in the classroom as a third grade teacher and wanting to do some read alouds and just the quality of the informational text wasn't the same as what it is now for sure.
Sonia Cabell: Some of the informational texts, one of the push backs about some of them is that they're really long. What my colleagues and I have done in the past when we've used them both in our classrooms, but also as part of curricula that we were developing, is that we would shorten them and find ways to hit some of the highlights of the book without all of the details. You can find places to kind of shorten them so that they'll actually fit within the time schedule that you have.
Susan Lambert: Oh, that makes a lot of sense. Because for K and one teachers, some of them can get really long, but yet kids are still interested in the topics.
Sonia Cabell: Right. The Gail Gibbons books, books by Gail Gibbons, have been really popular in terms of informational textbook. Very long in the kindergarten setting, for example. So that was some of the texts that we have done that with.
Susan Lambert: That's a great idea. Sort of popping back here to that preschool experience or that birth to age five before the kids come into formal schooling, I can imagine that teachers that are listening are saying," Okay. I know this because I have kids that come to me in all different ranges of experiences when they come to school. How can I support that diversity of experiences in terms of their richness?"
Sonia Cabell: I think that that diversity comes in is really big in kindergarten, in the beginning of kindergarten, because children have vastly different experiences sometimes prior to kindergarten entry. You'll see everything from the child who is just beginning to understand the print concepts and how writing works to children who are writing with invented spelling and reading words and the decoding has started. So that's a huge range. I think kindergarten is a particularly tough time to meet children where they are and their development. But I think having a good understanding of the development that happens before kindergarten is important. That is, how does both the word recognition and the language comprehension pieces, how do they develop throughout the preschool period? Because even children who have had a lot of exposure to books and literacy activities may not pick up on them as easily as other children. It's not just a matter of lack of exposure, but rather, children are different, right? I think understanding development is important. What comes before they get there typically and what happens during and what comes after and seeing development as a continuum versus everybody needs to start on exactly the same page, because you'll have children coming in who know all the letters and letter sounds and you'll have children coming in knowing none of those.
Susan Lambert: I think kindergarten teachers everywhere right now are raising a hand to celebrate what you just said about the range of knowledge that kids in kindergarten come in with. Because I don't think we affirm that or recognize that we talk about it when they get to third grade or when they get to middle school. You have this range of learners. But frankly, it's at every grade level.
Sonia Cabell: Absolutely. I think kindergarten teachers are heroes. I love kindergarten teachers because they are taking care of children's learning at a very early point in their development. Again, they're expected to do a lot during that kindergarten year and the range is so wide.
Susan Lambert: The range on both sides of the simple view, right? Not just their understanding or readiness for word recognition, but really the language comprehension too.
Sonia Cabell: Absolutely. Both sides. Definitely they'll come in with different... Different children will come in with different experiences and different knowledge. That means that they know different vocabulary words. Some of them have a great deal of understanding when it comes to books and how they work, and some of them won't have as much understanding.
Susan Lambert: I have a crazy question that just popped into my head. We didn't talk about this one, so don't shoot me on this.
Sonia Cabell: I'm a little nervous.
Susan Lambert: But here's the thing, I'm wondering, as you're starting to do research in this early grades world or this pre- K- K world or even before that, what's the one thing that really surprised you?
Sonia Cabell: I think what really surprised me is also something that really encouraged me, which is young children are very smart. They know a great deal more than we give them credit for, and they can do a lot more than we understand. I think to me, that's been... When I focused in the early childhood period, I'm always amazed again and again by children, and I think sometimes we don't give them credit for that.
Susan Lambert: That's really powerful, because I have heard comments a lot of times from kindergarten and first grade teachers," Well, my kids could never read that by the end of this year, or no, my kids just can't do that." Do you think it's because... Well, this is speculating here, but I'm going to say, I'm guessing it's not because they don't think they can do it. They're just having their heart on the protective side.
Sonia Cabell: Yeah. I don't think that teachers are trying to have low expectations for their children in their classrooms, right? Most teachers I know absolutely love the children in their classroom and they want to serve them to the best of their ability. I just think that sometimes as a teacher, I felt constrained by my kind of conceptions of what children were capable of doing. I think that one of the things that I would... Myself as a teacher, right now I teach... I'm a professor, so I teach at the college and doctoral levels. But I still want to check myself about that and make sure that I have expectations for all the learners, regardless of where I think that they might be at the end of the year. Sometimes they do surprise you. I think if I'm finding that I have limiting thoughts around particular student's abilities, I need to check myself in terms of, no, they can do more than I think. And I think that young children are the same way. Teachers are also realistic. There's still going to be a variation at the end of the year.
Susan Lambert: Yeah.
Sonia Cabell: Right? But I have seen examples of kindergarten classrooms, for example, where children were highly affected by their teacher. For example, my now colleague, Dr. Tricia Zucker from the University of Texas, she and I started out... We met each other. I was a reading coach in Virginia and worked with kindergarten to third grade students. I mean, third grade teachers and students. She was the best kindergarten teacher I'd ever seen. She always was the one saying," Please come in my class and do model lessons for me. I need help. I need you to help me." She was the person who needed the least help, but it's that kind of teacher that you want, where they are always eager to seek out how to improve their practice. What I noticed in her class was that all of the students... I mean, they came in in various spots, but all of them were readers by the end of the year, and some of them were way far ahead. I compared her classroom to other kindergarten classrooms. It was a clear difference, because there was a clear difference in how she taught and what she expected of every student.
Susan Lambert: That's a great shout out to her, so I hope she's listening.
Sonia Cabell: I'll make her listen. No, I'm kidding.
Susan Lambert: Well, it's clear you really have a passion for starting out strong in those early grades. And I just wonder as we sort of wrap up a little bit, if you can talk a little bit about how you think COVID has impacted these kids, either in this birth through grade five or the early elementary grades. How are you thinking about that?
Sonia Cabell: Right. I am worried about the impact of COVID on children's learning across all age ranges. Early childhood period, for sure. There are reports out that speak to the potential exacerbation of disparities that already exist in children's achievement and those disparities being widened because of COVID and the inequities being more pronounced. I am concerned about the stressors that have been placed on teachers. I mean, all respect to teachers right now that are doing everything they can to help children and caregivers and parents, because everybody has seemingly come together to really... I think that one of the positive things in my view is that the benefits of education in terms of parents partnering with teachers, I'm hoping that this is going to be a positive benefit and more pronounced as we move forward that schools and teachers really partner with parents and vice versa to help children's learning move forward maybe in ways that they hadn't before. This has been such a stressful time, and I am worried about widening gaps, but I'm also encouraged that the importance of education has been heightened or awareness has been raised. I think that there's good things and bad things. I think that the partnership between parents and schools and teachers, if that should come out of this, then that's a very important and good result.
Susan Lambert: Yeah, I agree. It's only in the best interest of the students too to make that partnership happen and have better communication between them.
Sonia Cabell: Right. And really to realize that parents are children's first teachers. To really embrace parents in children's learning process is really critical.
Susan Lambert: Well, we thank you so much for your insight. It's always a pleasure to chat. We thank you for helping make that research easy to understand. It's just been an honor to have you on again, Sonia.
Sonia Cabell: Thank you. I've absolutely loved it.
Susan Lambert: Thanks for listening and keep your feedback coming. Do you want to learn more? Be sure to stay connected by subscribing on your favorite podcast app and join our Facebook discussion group Science of Reading: The Community. Visit amplify. com to check out all our free literacy events and upcoming Science of Reading Symposium. Until next time, keep the hope, take the action, and stay in touch.
Join Sonia Cabell, assistant professor at the School of Teacher Education at Florida State University, in the latest episode of our Deconstructing the Rope series as she unwinds language comprehension, a strand of Scarborough’s Reading Rope. Sonia explains the true definition of language comprehension in relation to the simple view of reading and highlights the role of parents and educators in the use of advanced language models in literacy development. She also reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on teachers and families and discusses how it has highlighted the importance of education today.
Want to discuss the episode? Join our Facebook group Science of Reading: The Community.
“Young children are very smart. They know a great deal more than we give them credit for and they can do a lot more than we understand.”
“Parents are childrens’ first teachers and so, to really embrace parents in childrens’ learning process is really critical.”