Principles and Practices of Language Experience

Ronald L. Cramer, Ph.D.

Ronald L. Cramer, Ph.D. a widely published author of elementary, secondary, and college textbooks, is Professor of Education in Reading and Language Arts in the School of Education and Human Services, Oakland University, Rochester,Michigan. He is the senior author of Language Arts, Reading, and Spelling textbooks with Scott Foresman Publishing.

Professor Cramer’s recent publications include :

The Spelling Connection: Integrating Reading, Writing, and Spelling Instruction
Creative Power: The Nature and Nurture of Children’s Writing
The Language Arts: A Balanced Approach to Teaching Reading, Writing, Listening, Talking, and Thinking

Principles of Language Experience

Oral language and personal experience bridge the gap between spoken and written language.

When children’s language and experience are accepted as a starting point for literacy, learning to read and write is easy. When this is not the case, learning to read and write can be difficult.

Language experience exploits the two major resources children possess — their language and experience. It is one of the most efficient ways to initiate reading and writing.

Learning to read and write had been difficult for Jamal, a third grader, who came to the Oakland University’s Reading Clinic able to read only three words on a pre-primer list. He stumbled through a primer passage and said, "I can’t read this, either." So, I asked Jamal to tell me about something he had done recently. He described his attendance at a Piston’s basketball game. I recorded his account, and read it back to him. Then we read it together.

Finally, I said, "Jamal, read your story to me." He read it fluently, though I helped him on two or three words. Why was this so easy? Why could Jamal read words like basketball, Detroit Pistons, scored, Jerry Stackhouse, and Grant Hill in the context of his own account and not read a seemingly simple list and passage? There is a reason.

Words describing personal experiences provide a context of maximum support; words written by someone else may not. The reception Jamal’s language and experience received was instrumental in turning him into a reader and writer.

Literacy instruction is organized around the personal experiences of the learner.

The child who sees the Great Mojave Desert from the back seat of an air conditioned Lexus may have a more luxurious ride than the child who sees that same desert from the bed of a pickup truck. But both children have their own personal experience of the Mojave Desert.

Why do we persist in thinking that the experience of the Lexus-riding child is somehow richer than the experience of the pickup-riding child? Actually, the child riding the pickup might, under the right circumstances, give a more vivid account of the Mojave Desert than the child riding in the Lexus. Personal experience, when connected to personal language, is much more easily remembered and understood than someone else’s language and experience. Language experience makes learning to read and write accessible for nearly any child — or adult for that matter.

The language arts must be integrated.

Integrated language arts creates a corridor for mutual listening and talking. Speaking and listening are present in nearly every aspect of the language experience approach. Book talks, sharing writing, responding to literature, comprehension discussions, dictating accounts, and peer discussions lead to an abundance of opportunities reading and writing. Research supports writers’ intuitive understanding that reading influences writing (Tierney and Shanahan, 1991).

Katie, a first grader, gave me a lesson in integrated language arts. I’ve always been fascinated by humming- birds. I’ve watched them hover over a flower, wings beating so rapidly they appear to have no wings at all. Katie had read a book about hummingbirds, and it was her turn to share her book with the class. She came prepared with props. She held up a penny and said, "A hummingbird can weigh about as much as this penny." She continued on, now holding up a thimble: "A baby humming bird can fit into this tiny thimble." Then she read a page from her book, showed us a picture she had drawn, and read a report she had written. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had witnessed a first class demonstration of the integrated curriculum — art, literature, writing, reading, and oral language shared with fascinated first grade listeners. A tiny bundle of six-year-old elegance shared a few vividly illustrated facts about hummingbirds, and I’ve never forgotten them.

Language is for making meaning and is best acquired through meaningful use and practice.

Acquiring language, in all of its subtleties, is the special province of childhood. As children acquire language, they acquire more than a set of words and sentences. They also acquire thought structures and learning strategies that aid learning to read and write. As children develop, language becomes instrumental in directing thinking and learning. The richer language becomes, the more bountiful thinking and learning can be.

The language experience approach involves children in their own language learning, acknowledges the worth of their language, and organizes the curriculum around their experiences. Children probe language to acquire its meaning. No one does this better than a young child.

A colleague of mine, Jim Cipielewski, had gone to a local school to read aloud to children. Ann, searching through Jim’s book bag, expressed definite opinions about certain books as she read off the titles, rejecting first this one than that one. Surprised, Jim asked this strong-willed kindergartner to read aloud and discovered she could read books suitable for third and fourth graders. Then this exchange occurred:
Jim: Ann, your mother must be a good teacher.
Ann: My mother is a teacher?
What’s remarkable about this snippet of conversation? Just this: Ann has closely monitored this conversation, and she is surprised at Jim’s implication that her mother is a teacher. In effect, Ann has said, "I didn’t know my mother was a teacher." Up to now she has operated on a narrow meaning of the word teacher — a person who presides over classrooms in her school. Now she begins the process of acquiring an extended meaning for the word teacher — someone who helps you learn, not necessarily one of those folks who preside over classrooms in her school.

Writing knowledge is acquired most easily in company with the acquisition of reading.

Writing is a fundamental component of language experience, and dictation is a forerunner of independent writing. Dictation is oral composition, and oral compositions are the language experience child’s first reader. The step beyond oral composition is independent writing. But independent writing has requirements that young children are only partly prepared to emulate. For instance, they have only rudimentary knowledge of spelling. Invented spelling, therefore, must be encouraged because it enables children to write early.

Recording dictated accounts gives children a model of how written language is produced by observing the teacher recording their accounts. As teachers record speech, they can talk about writing and model writing as they talk. I’m always amazed at how much children retain from these modeling experiences. They soon begin incorporating conversation and punctuation into their writing. Sometimes their first efforts are accurate; sometimes partly accurate. Alisha’s first independently written story provides an example of each:
Accurate: the racoon sayd "non av the anam can halp you"’
Partly accurate: the snail "sayd you are so sad b cas no bdey lics you y not" sayd the bear

In the first example, Alisha put quotation marks around the raccoon’s exact conversation, and did so correctly. In the second example, where snail and bear are speaking, Alisha incorrectly incorporates the word said (sayd) within quotation marks and doesn’t separate the two speakers — snail and bear. But she is partly accurate; she knows that quotation marks are used in the context of conversation. She has the concept but not the refinement. The refinement of writing knowledge results from much authentic writing and reading practice.

Literature models and motivates language arts instruction.

Where literature is a priority, books must be available. Therefore, classroom and school libraries are essential. Through books, children may meet any person, visit any place, live in any era. Reading books enhances children’s ability to function well in a literature society. Literature models the kinds of writing we want children to produce — expository, narrative, and poetic. Literature helps children think about what writers do and how they do it. Literature offers meaning on many levels, and enriches lives in many ways. As literacy grows, children read and write their own books, talk about what they have learned, and create art related to the literature they have ingested.

A sight vocabulary is derived from dictated accounts to support growth in word recognition.

Word recognition is a means to an end — comprehension. Until a child can read written words fluently, meaning cannot be reliably derived from text. An initial sight vocabulary is necessary so that word recognition can be taught from known words. Language experience is an efficient way to establish a sight vocabulary. After reading their dictated accounts, students make word cards, choosing only those words they recognize both in and out of context. Word study activities begin once a child has acquired a few sight words.

Summary of Language Experience Guiding Principles

  1. Oral language and personal experience bridge the gap between spoken and written language.
  2. Literacy instruction is organized around the personal experiences of the learner.
  3. The language arts must be integrated.
  4. Language is for making meaning and is best acquired through meaningful use.
  5. Writing knowledge is acquired most easily in company with the acquisition of reading.
  6. Literature models and motivates language arts instruction.
  7. A sight vocabulary is derived from dictated accounts to support growth in word recognition.

Practices of Language Experience

Language experience is not limited to dictation. There are other instructional components that are part and parcel of the language experience approach. They include dictation, comprehension, writing, literature-based individualized reading, word recognition, talking and listening, art and drama, sharing and publishing, and the mechanics of literacy — spelling, handwriting, punctuation.

Dictation: There are three phases to dictation: recording the account, rereading the account, and drawing words from accounts for word study. The language experience approach introduces children to reading through dictated accounts. These dictated accounts are the initial source of reading material. Dictation may be taken from groups or individuals. Groups typically have seven to nine children. Group dictation accustoms children to talking about their experiences, and it helps them understand the procedures for rereading dictated accounts. Individually dictated accounts can be started once children are comfortable talking about their experiences and are familiar with rereading procedures. Dictation can be gradually phased out as children become fluent readers. Those who are progressing more slowly continue until they, too, can read fluently. Some children are less eager to dictate than others; some need the stimulus of a recent class experience: a book read aloud, a nature walk, a discussion of pets. After a time, children come to class able to discuss their personal experiences and have less need for a specific classroom stimulus.

Comprehension: Any approach to language arts that does not include a strong comprehension component has an intolerable weakness. Comprehension instruction must be deliberate, intensive, and direct. It can’t be left to chance or limited to shallow questioning during or after reading. Comprehension instruction must be planned and organized. Comprehension strategies can be used with fiction and nonfiction materials. Instruction can occur in small groups and whole class settings.

Writing: Writing is a crucial component of language experience. Schedule writing for not less than 35 to 40 minutes every day starting on the first day of school. Those who can not write can draw and have their drawings labeled by the teacher. Writing process and writing workshop are essential in order to develop a strong writing component. Children need support in their writing, consequently, it is necessary to use invented spelling, which enables children to use the full range of their oral vocabulary. Writing is valuable in itself, but it also contributes to comprehension, word recognition, and spelling. Writing also gives multiple opportunities for developing speaking and listening skills.

Literature-based individualized reading: Individualized reading relies on children self-selecting books as the primary reading material. Children read at their own pace and keep a record of the books they have read. Individual and group conferences are held to discuss books and monitor comprehension. When not otherwise engaged, children read books, write about books, or work on projects related to the books they have read. Periods of time are set aside to share experiences and projects related to the books children read. Activities, such as drama and read-alouds, are organized at the teacher’s discretion. A good way to introduce books to children is to read all or part of them aloud. Reading materials should include short stories, essays, reports, books, magazines, newspapers –any materials that children find interesting. Since multiple copies of reading materials may be needed, literature based basal readers provide a convenient source of useful reading material. However, using the full basal program is counterproductive to a comprehensive language experience approach. Time will not permit simultaneous use of a complete basal approach and a complete language experience approach. Furthermore, the two approaches are philosophically incompatible.

Word Recognition: Spend 20 to 25 minutes a day on word recognition activities and continue until word recognition fluency is achieved. Sight words, learned through language experience accounts, are a starting point. Auditory and visual discrimination can be taught, using the text of dictated accounts and words drawn from these accounts. Word study activities are especially valuable. Show children how to categorize words by meaning, sound, structural pattern, and other word features. After a sufficient number of words have accumulated in word banks, children can work in groups or individually to construct and exchange short messages using their word banks.

Talking and listening: Oral and written language are parallel systems for communicating meaning. Talking and listening sometimes get short shrift in the language arts curriculum since reading and writing tend to dominate class activities. It is far better when oral and written language work together to create literacy events. Art and drama projects are excellent vehicles for connecting reading and writing with speaking, listening, and viewing. Language experience and whole language have an advantage in that their approach to reading and writing affords multiple opportunities to integrate listening and talking with reading and writing.

Art, drama, and music: Before children are capable of recording their ideas through the more abstract medium of print, they are able to represent their impressions of the world in the concrete forms of art, drama, and music. Artistic expression allows children to use their senses and this, in turn, adds substance to experience. Writing, reading, talking, listening, viewing, and thinking are enhanced when children express themselves with paint, fabric, clay, drama, and dance.

Sharing and Publishing: Encourage publication and oral sharing of writing. Sharing and publishing experiences are an essential component of the language experience approach. Book talks, book making, and the author’s chair are forums for sharing language arts experiences, though they can easily degenerate into routines devoid of vitality and interest if not monitored closely. Book talks and author’s chair stimulate critical listening when the format is varied and fresh. If it becomes too routinized, children lose interest.

Mechanics; spelling, handwriting, and punctuation: Children need to experience the writing process so they can draft, revise edit their writing, and in the final stages, proofread for. They also need systematic spelling instruction beginning in first or second grade and continuing until a high level of spelling proficiency is acquired. Legibility is the key issue in handwriting. It takes time for children to acquire the eye-hand coordination needed to write legibly. Whether teachers choose to use handwriting materials or teach handwriting on their own, it does no harm and much good to show children how to form letters and space them so that their audience can read them. Punctuation becomes increasingly important as children move from early to later stages of writing. Dictation provides opportunities to informally talk about the symbols we call punctuation. Casua comments about punctuation can be made now and then as an account is recorded. Teach punctuation in mini-lessons, as well, aiming at needs observed from analyzing children’s writing.

Summary of Language Experience Practices

  1. Comprehension: Crucial goal of reading instruction.
  2. Writing: Indispensable companion of reading instruction.
  3. Individualized reading: Provides the essential literature base.
  4. Word recognition: Necessary means to an end — comprehension.
  5. Talking and listening: Vital counterparts to reading and writing.
  6. Art, drama, and music: Expressive and artistic component of literacy.
  7. Mechanics, spelling, handwriting, and punctuation: Handmaidens of accomplished literacy.

Criticism of Language Experience

A criticism of language experience has been that the approach is difficult to manage because it is less structured, for instance, than a basal reader approach. Actually, management is seldom a major problem in implementing language experience. I have worked with teachers who tried and failed to install language experience in their classrooms, and I have worked with teachers who have succeeded. The most common reason teachers fail with language experience is lack of support, not difficulties with management. Support has two dimensions, both of which are crucial to success: (1) teachers must be grounded in the principles and practices of language experience, and (2) teachers need the support of administrators and colleagues. To lack either is to lack something crucial.

Requirements for Success with Language Experience

The first requirement for success with language experience is the need for solid grounding in the principles and practices that define the approach. If you do not understand the principles and practices of language experience, you may become discouraged before you have given the approach a chance to work.

The solution is to acquire a proper grounding. This can be done by reading the works of those who advocate the approach, seeking the counsel of teachers who have used the approach successfully, or taking a university course from someone well acquainted with language experience. Then you have to give it a go, and stick with it long enough to discover whether it will work for you.

A second requirement for success is that teachers need the support of their administrators and colleagues. If you work in a school where all teachers are required to use the same materials and approach, opportunities for experimentation are nil. Lack of administrative support has kept many fine teachers from exploring alternative instructional approaches. Language experience is not for the faint hearted, nor for those who are content to drift through the teaching day in a routine way. Language experience requires a strong commitment from teachers and administrators. When there is commitment, support, and solid grounding in the premises and practices of language experience, it works.

1 thought on “Principles and Practices of Language Experience”

  1. This is something that I have already heard of as our school district is in the early stages of implementing this approach. It seems very much like common sense to me but, I can defintely see the necessity of support for it’s implementation in the classroom. One of the things that we have started is the “turn and talk” read-aloud.

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