When children learn to speak, the process is typically regarded as natural and eventual; that is, it will happen in due time. In becoming readers, however, the process is regarded as anything but. If we consider that each of these processes involves learning a language, what might be the factors that make learning to read, learning to write, or learning a second language so much more difficult than learning to speak in the first place?
As with most progression, the conditions make the difference.
Brian Cambourne, a pivotal theorist in the New Zealand literacy movement, proposes the existance of 7 conditions of language learning that are present in all successful cases of acquisition. This applies to learning to speak a first or subsequent language, read, write, or perform any other communicative function that might be called a language. This theory has major implications in the home, modern classrooms, and other situations in which the goal is fluency for the learner.
Before birth, children begin receiving a "language flood" that continues throughout their development. They not only hear sounds and words every day, but they hear meaningful language. While the flood is important, emphasis should be placed on the communicative (or meaningful) nature of the stimulus.
In plain English, the learner has to be in an environment which is inundated with necessary and applicable uses of the target language. If you want to teach a child to write, you have to flood them with situations in which writing is paramount. If you want to learn to speak Italian, the best way to do it is to spend 6 months or a year in Italy, where the language can wash over you and you need to drink it to survive.
All around a child learning to speak are model speakers. Seeing holistic, successful demonstrations of the language enables the child to develop the conventions of expression for that particular medium of communication.
We need to see the big picture. A beginning reader should see fluent readers in action; this is why it's so vital that you read to your child from a very young age. In a foreign language classroom, this means students need to see native speakers using their language in everyday practice. This is why we tell new noders to read and take some time before submitting write-ups of their own--they need to observe more experienced writers first, if they're to be successful.
With few exceptions, all parents fully expect their kiddos to speak.
Yet when a child enters a classroom, it is questionable whether they will learn to read and write. Parents don't have grand debates over methodolgy the way educators go back and forth about phonics and whole language instruction. Similarly, many of my students in foreign language classes entered with the attitude that they might learn a few things, but they would never be able to "speak like a real person" in the target language. The goal of fluency is a reasonable expectation that must be established to support the acquisition of the student.
A child might acquire language at their own pace, but we're confident they'll acquire that language eventually. The idea of individuality, often expressed in the celebration of "first words" and varied personality types, allows the child to have control and responsibility over their ability to speak.
How often do we celebrate a child's preferred reading style? In reading, children are all expected to perform tasks the same way, at the same time. They are discouraged from writing in their own dialects, or in their own styles, and are met with grammar lessons and standardized reading materials. In order to give beginning readers responsibility, we have to allow them choice. Just as you spoke successfully when allowed to choose your own words, a reader performs better with a book self-selected and a foreign language student will invest more focus on phrases and conventions they're interested in. Such autonomous choices promote responsibility and fluency among learners.
Babies don't pop out speaking perfect English. Not only do we expect error, we encourage it and use it as opportunity for instruction.
Enter a typical classroom when a child is writing a story. Notice the red marks all over that misplaced period, that dangling participle. A student practices saying "My name is Joe," only to have the professor give them a bad grade for inaccurate verb conjugation. For language acquisition to be achieved, there must be room for risk-taking. Mistakes can be one of the most valuable teaching tools in language learning, yet in so many situations language approximation is considered failure.
If a child says, "Mommy I goes now sleep," the mother is most likely to either accept the input completely or model a more effective way. "Oh, you're going to sleep now?" or "I'm going to sleep, too!"
With enough attempts, the child's approximation will lead them to the correct convention. Moreover, since the discovery was their own, they're more likely to retain knowledge of that convention.
In communicative settings, your output is met with feedback. Learning to speak, your parents probably spent a lot of time replying to your speech. "Oh, you're going to sleep now?" confirms for the child not only a more effective way to say what they meant, but also that their message was received and understood.
Reciting German verb tenses to yourself in the mirror won't make you fluent in Berlin. Writing fifteen nodes a day wouldn't help improve your writing much if you didn't have peers to /msg you with criticism, helpful ideas, encouragement and other feedback. Communication is a two-way signal; the learner needs confirmation that their signal has been received and was appropriate if they're to improve.
We talk to children--even before they can talk back, we ask them questions, tell them stories, and treat them like contributing members of the conversation. New talkers are given many opportunities to to use their language; they are given employment.
In French class, you were rarely engaged in the language. Taking notes, doing repetitive pronunciation exercises and studying verb charts doesn't allow you to employ the language as a communication tool. Too often students are expected to succeed via grammar lessons and phonics workbooks, when the effective solution involves active employment in real communicative activities. For example, rather than doing an exercise on I vs. Me, a child might write a story about him/herself and then edit it with a peer.
While a child's development as a speaker of their native tongue is regarded as natural, we don't have to assume the process is inexplicable or out-of-reach. We can use the success of that development to modify the other systems of acquisition already in place.
I've used the terms "learning" and "acquisition" interchangeably in this write-up, though they can have rather different meanings. Cambourne uses "learning" in a traditional sense. It is growing more popular, however, to use the term "acquisition" when one is speaking of autonomous strategies and to use "learning" in reference to specific skills or tasks. For example, "I acquired the language some time ago but I've only recently learned how to spell without consulting a dictionary."
The information contained in this write-up can be found on the web and in various textbooks, I'm sure. Instead, I paid a rather large annual sum over four years for the privilege of having these concepts imbedded into my skull forevermore.