Discourse Development.  Discourse is defined as communication beyond the sentence level. Discourse can be formal or informal. It can be written or oral.   It can take the form of conversation or discussion. For our purposes, discourse refers to oral communication in the form of conversation or discussion. My intention here is to look at how children learn to carry on conversations (discussions) for a variety of purposes and the ways in which discourse influences reading success as well as school success.

Discourse is not limited by the number of words uttered or the complexity or length of the “sentence.”  A 2 year old asking “Why?” is discourse–a question in search of an answer.  A two year old announcing “No!” is a response to a request or command. “Children” begin to engage in discourse as soon as there is communication between adult and child (infant/baby), although the intention and structure of the discourse with infants/babies is determined by the adult. When an adult responds to a baby’s noises or cooing or babbling, that is the beginning of discourse. As children get older (2-5), parents as well as other adults initiate and respond to a child’s communication in ways that can enhance the child’s language development…or not.

 In this blog on discourse (1 of 2) the focus will be on four questions: Questions 1 and 2 here. Questions 3 and 4 in the next blog: part 2 (questions 3 and 4)

1 Is there a relationship between oral discourse development and learning to read?

2 What do we (parents and teachers in particular) know about oral language/discourse development?

3 How is discourse related to school success?

4 How is discourse development related to learning to read (and later reading to learn)?

Note all direct excerpts are in italics and quotation marks. Highlighting in bold or red are mine.

1 The relationship between oral discourse development and learning to read. Note the work of Collins and Dennis and Dickinson and Tabors

Targeting Oral Language Development in High-Risk Preschoolers


Collins, Molly F.; Dennis, Sarah E., NHSA Dialog, v12 n3 p245-256 2009

“Among risk factors associated with reading difficulties, poverty and underdeveloped oral language skills can be particularly detrimental to reading success. The City Early Reading First (CERF) project implemented a comprehensive curriculum, professional development, intensive mentoring, and home supports to enhance children’s language, literacy, and cognitive skills. Participants (N = 75) were 4-year-old children and teaching staff from 8 Head Start classrooms in a large urban city in the Midwest. Within the larger project, CERF undertook an intervention–Language Enrichment Group (LEG)–that targeted at-risk preschoolers’ oral language development, including vocabulary, discourse skills, and content knowledge. LEGs focused on deepening content knowledge, providing opportunities for language development, and fostering social skills. Whereas nearly half of all 4-year-olds were at risk for later reading difficulty according to fall “Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III” (PPVT) scores, only one fifth remained at risk by spring. Supportive features of LEGs, refinements for future projects, and implications for the field of early education are discussed.”

Fostering Language and Literacy in Classrooms and Homes

David K. Dickinson and Patton O. Tabors

Copyright © 2002 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.


“Our measures of the classroom environment were far less potent predictors of later language and literacy than our measures of teacher-child interaction. Our data strongly indicate that it is the nature of the teacher-child relationship and the kinds of conversations that they have that makes the biggest difference to early language and literacy development.”

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2 What do preschool and primary teachers know/should know about oral language/discourse development? See the work of Prestwich, Jones, and Dewart and Summers. What do they need to know? See the work of Resnick and Snow

Measuring Preschool Teachers’ Perceived Competency and Knowledge of Oral Language Development by Dian Teer Prestwich, Dissertation, 2012


Research has demonstrated the impact of early oral language development on a child’s later reading comprehension. Additionally, research has suggested that teachers’ knowledge of effective practices in literacy plays an important role in students’ ability to learn to read. The problem is that preschool teachers’ knowledge of strategies for developing language is unknown because there is no known instrument for assessing preschool teachers’ knowledge of these strategies. The research questions for this study examined the development of an instrument to measure preschool teachers’ perceived competency and knowledge of strategies for language development….”

P 161-168 Questions for 3 categories: Vocabulary, Extended Dialogue and Dialogic Reading

Preschool Educators’ Perceptions of Practices in Facilitating/Modeling Oral Language Acquisition and Development, doctoral dissertation, Nicole Alissa Jones, 2012, Graduate School of Education Loyola University, 163 pages


Educators responded to 31 topics divided into 3 topics: Knowledge of Engaging in Dialogue Reading, Knowledge of Extending Discourse, Knowledge of Using Specific Vocabulary.


“Preschool educators are linguistic models for their students. They prompt students to speak. Educators who are able to understand the critical nature of their role in the students’ oracy development and to deliberately encourage conversation may have a profound impact on preschoolers who may be at risk. Oracy is self-expression prompted

by discourse activities such as questioning, labeling, turn-taking in conversation, and it is stimulated by a variety of speech events, such as playing or otherwise interacting with peers and adults. This study explored how preschool educators behaved as models in facilitating oral language acquisition and development. The goals of this study were to answer the following research questions:

What are the perceptions/practices of preschool educators in racially, linguistically and economically discrete preschool programs with regard to their role in developing oral competencies/oracy among their students?

What are the perceptions/practices of preschool educators in racially, linguistically and economically discrete preschool programs with regard to their role in facilitating second language acquisition?

What are the perceptions/practices of preschool educators in racially, linguistically and economically discrete preschool programs with regard to the instructional strategies used to facilitate interaction among their students?”

Pragmatic Skill Profiles (For Parents, Teachers, and Specialists)


Hazel Dewart and Susie Summers C 1995 Pages 29-32 references, 68 page pdf.

Hazel Dewart, Professor of Psychology at the University of Westminster, London, is a charted clinical psychologist whose research has concentrated on language development and communication disability. Susie Summers, is a speech and language therapist, working extensively with young children and their families. She has a particular interest in supporting the development of communication in everyday contexts. Developed by researchers on literacy, language development and practitioners of literacy, preschool education, and parents.


These authors, noting the lack of a tool to observe and measure pragmatic development (at the discourse level), developed an observation tool, as well as charts showing developmental milestone from birth to seven years and beyond for each of the three observational categories.

For example: Communication Functions:

9-18 months: Begins to express a range of communicative intentions..(attention seeking, requesting, protesting, greeting, naming) [Note connections to Halliday’s functions in the prior blog post on Sentences]

18-36 months: Uses single or multiword utterance to : comment, express feelings, assert independence.

36-48 months: Uses language to talk about past and future events, give information.

 For example: Response to Communication

18-36 months: Begins to recognize a range of adult communication intentions and responds appropriately.

36-48 months: Notices changes in wording of familiar stories and rhymes

 For example: Interaction and Conversation

9-18 months: Responds to qs by non[-verbal vocalizations or gestures; interactions limited to one or two turns per partner.

18-36 months: Responds to requests for clarification by repetition or by revision of the original form of the utterance.

36-48 months: Can participate in pretend conversations and switch from one speech code to another when taking stereotypical role in plays. When child is misunderstood tends to repeat without modification.

 Includes 4 Observation/Interview Sections (links): Communicative Functions, Responses to Communication, Interaction and Conversation, and Contextual Variation with detailed guidelines for both Preschool and School Age Populations

“We decided to focus on three major aspects of the development of pragmatics. The first of these is the

development of communicative functions, the way the child comes to be able to express a range of intentions, such as requesting, greeting and giving information, through a variety of communicative behaviors, such as gesture, vocalization and language.

The second aspect is that of the child’s response to communication, the way the child reacts to and understands communication from other people.

The third aspect is the way the child participates in interaction and conversation, looking at the child as a participant in social interactions involving initiation, turn taking and repair.

We also looked at the way the expression of these aspects of pragmatics is affected by variations in context,

such as time and place and the people involved.”

One final reference in relation to the idea that reading begins with oral language is by Resnick and Snow, Speaking and listening for Preschool Through Grade 3 (2008), published by the International Reading Association. These standards were developed as a joint project of the Learning Research and Development Center of the University of Pittsburgh and the National Center on Education and the Economy.

In this revised edition of an earlier work, the authors provide a set of 3 standards* for speaking and listening for 3 age levels: 3-4 year olds, 5-6 year old and 7-8 year olds.  This text offers a clear outline of the standards, multiple examples in both the text and on video, as well as suggestions for how to implement each standard.  They describe 3 Speaking/Listening standards:
1  Habits
Talking a lot  (authentic practice)
talking to one’s self  (meta skills)
conversing at length on a topic (knowledge building)
discussing books (discourse)
2 Kinds of talk [functions] and resulting genre
Inform, entertain and persuade
Present themselves, their topic, or their point of view to others
Negotiate or propose relationships with others
Evaluate people, information, or events
Think, teach, and learn
3 Language Use and Conventions
Rules of interaction
Word play and language awareness
Vocabulary and word choice
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In the next blog: part 2, questions 3 and 4 about discourse:

 3 How is discourse related to school success?

4 How is discourse development related to learning to read (and later reading to learn)?