Beyond phonics: a closer look at language development

With the recent push to incorporate the Science of Reading into state literacy requirements, educators are focusing on phonics. It’s undoubtedly a crucial component of reading instruction. But is it enough?

The challenge


What we heard from teachers and administration at after implementing Tools at

Beyond phonics: a closer look at language development


No items found.

The process

Committee search to choose the right curriculum

Selection of Tools of the Mind curriculum & professional development

Tools training and implementation for all relevant staff

Teaching and learning review and outcomes

Building on the Science of Reading 

Some literacy experts argue that phonics alone is not enough to build strong reading skills. Incorporating language development, specifically oral language, into instruction is equally necessary, say Tiffany Hogan and MaryKate DeSantis of the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston. In a recent EdWeek article, Hogan and DeSantis speculate that a focus on word reading alone is a likely reason children are not making the progress in reading that states are hoping to see. It takes more than phonics, phonemic awareness, and vocabulary; comprehension skill development is critical in reading. Hogan and DeSantis believe an intentional focus on the form, content and usage of language is as crucial for learning to read as an understanding of phonics.

Promoting language development through play and read-alouds

One common-sense suggestion by Hogan and DeSantis is for teachers to use texts with age-appropriate vocabulary that can be read to students as a way to scaffold language learning. DeSantis stresses the importance of having “in the moment” discussions and teaching story grammar and comprehension monitoring - just as we do in Tools Story Lab, where our children listen to both fiction and nonfiction literature with a purpose, answering questions using specific comprehension strategies introduced systematically across the year. 

Another recommendation involves focusing on morphology, or the meaningful parts of words, through play. Giving children many opportunities to engage in conversations with their peers during play enables them to use and parse new vocabulary in context. As Tools teachers scaffold play, they provide children with the background knowledge they need to use not only one set of go-to vocabulary words for each play theme, but also variations of these words in context. For example, one child may play the role of a customer, “ordering” a meal at a Restaurant theme center and another may play the role of the server, taking the “order.” Similarly, a Medical theme center might feature a child-doctor “prescribing” a “prescription” to a patient. Children naturally improve their vocabulary as the variety of roles they play involve increasingly complex speech and actions over time.

The best tools to support reading

Tools embeds the Science of Reading and also intentionally promotes language development. Children are engaged in language-producing activities consistently throughout the Tools day, receiving teacher and peer scaffolding that consistently provides the support needed for every child to continuously improve their literacy skills.

Tools Takeaways:

  • Phonics, reading comprehension and oral language development are all necessary components of good early literacy instruction 
  • Tools promotes language development by providing children with multiple opportunities to use language spontaneously and practice comprehension skills throughout the day