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Q: Does reading correlate at all with speaking at age appropriate levels?
A: In order to answer this question I have to introduce two notions: Communicative Fluency (CF) and Cognitive Language Mastery (CLM).
Communicative Fluency (CF) refers to language skills needed for social interaction in everyday communication within an "ordinary" (commonplace) context and includes basic skills in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. This aspect of language seems to be acquired naturally and without formal schooling. In short, it is mostly oral language fluency needed for social interaction in everyday communication.

Cognitive Language Mastery (CLM) refers to language as a tool of reasoning, a means of literacy, and a medium in academic learning. This aspect of language emerges and becomes distinctive with formal schooling and through developing literacy skills involving conceptual and semantic knowledge of the language. CF and CLM are not isolated from each other and interact as they develop, enhancing or inhibiting each other. Nevertheless, there is a distinct difference between these two language proficiencies. The context of communication is one of major distinguishes between CF and CLM. You see, in CF we have context-embedded communication where the linguistic message is coming within a flow of meaningful context, supported by a wide range of nonlinguistic clues, such as situation, intonation, gestures, etc. In CLM (reading a text, writing an essay) communication has a very limited range of nonlinguistic supports, and is said to be "context-reduced". Acquisition of meaning in context-reduced academic situations (and during psychological tests) requires specific conceptual and semantic knowledge of the language itself.

Developmentally, CF forms much earlier than CLM in normal language acquisition and may (or may not) support the formation of CLM. With the emergence of CLM, however, they (CF and CLM) develop at a different pace, with CLM developing more rapidly. Compare, for example, the oral communicative skills of a 9-year-old and 18-year-old in terms of topic maintenance, turn- taking, expressive vocabulary, grammar structure, speech fluency, intonation, the use of appropriate extralinguistic skills, etc. The difference is not so great. However, if we compare their CLM in terms of conceptual knowledge, comprehension of word meanings, mastery of writing/reading skills, etc., the difference will be significant. According to Dr. J. Cummins (a well-known authority in bilingual education), it takes a 9-year- old immigrant child about 2 years to reach native speaker proficiency in CF and about 5 years to reach CLM comparable to the native speaker. I personally do not believe in these numbers at all, but would like you to be aware of this point of view anyway. I have found through observations and practical experiences that the effect of bilingualism on academic performance - in other words, on CLM formation at the age expectancy level -depends on a great variety of factors. Under certain circumstances, bilingualism can impede the learning process and lead to academic difficulties).

Children in adoptive families are in a different situation from children in immigrant families, where native language is used in CF function and, sometimes, in CLM function as well. Your children do not learn English as a foreign language. They live within the culture of this language: peers, media, and culture at large are influential sources of language. They acquire English as a byproduct of meaningful communication in the process of performing different activities. Their situation of language acquisition is more akin to the naturalized ways in which first languages are developed.

Does this mean that they are immune from CLM related problems? Not at all. What may often happen is the following: your child (and I am talking about a child older than 7), within a relatively short period of time, becomes almost indistinguishable from native speakers in CF. It does not mean that s/he has sufficient mastery of the context-reduced aspects of the English language to do well academically. Nevertheless, as a result of his/her fluency in face-to-face communication, educators (and adoptive parents alike) assume that the child has learned the language, can be classified as English proficient, and is qualified for regular instructions in English. If the child then experiences academic difficulties or shows low verbal abilities on an IQ test, this is attributed to intrinsic cognitive or motivational deficiencies within the child ("learning disability"). Interestingly enough, in my practice I run into the opposite scenario as well. A child (at that time 10 years old and after 3 years in the country) felt comfortable communicating interpersonally in Russian, but had formed the CLM in English only. Moreover, it was determined that she has no measurable CLM in Russian! Nevertheless, this child (who had a pronounced learning disability) was designated as having English as a second language and testing was requested in her native (and weaker) language. It is your duty to determine (with professional help, if needed) the nature of bilingualism in your children and request teaching (and testing if needed) in the strongest modality available to a child.



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Last update on May 8, 2018