Phonology, Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics

27 May

This blog post is from my response to a discussion board in my reading endorsement class. It is slightly modified for my readers who don’t have the benefit of seeing the question and overview. The purpose of the discussion board was to discuss four areas of oral language development as they apply to early literacy.

Before discussing the importance of each of the four topics (phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics), I would like to comment about overall oral language development.

Considering that the earliest language instruction is passive—meaning it comes from the experience of listening (hearing really) to how family and community members use language, it seems that the first important step in literacy development is oral language expression used around babies and preschool-aged children. According to the research by Hart and Risley (1995), there is a drastic difference between a child’s language opportunities and her/his family’s socioeconomic status. They write, “In 4 years of such experience, an average child in a professional family would have accumulated experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family would have accumulated experience with 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family would have accumulated experience with 13 million words” (p. 198). If accurate, that means that children from the highest SES families have about 32 million more quality word experiences than children born into poverty by the time they enter kindergarten. These numbers are based on two and a half years of research observing the interactions between families of youngsters between birth and school age of various economic statuses. If oral language experience and development is critical to early literacy—and Hart and Risley’s research is still valid—then educators are challenged to figure out how to make up a loss of millions quality language experiences for our students who come from lower SES families. This is food for thought about this critical stage of early literacy. I would love to hear from some of my cohort who teach children from lower SES families how they deal with early language deficits based on limited experiences. Does this factor into your decisions?

According to Language Development from Theory to Practice, phonology is the process of breaking down language into discrete sounds called phonemes. SAE (Standard American English) has 39 phonemes or sounds that combine to make about 100,000 words (Pence Turnbull & Justice, 2012, p. 22). The assigned reading states, “Children learn to talk without being consciously aware of individual phonemes…” (Oral Language Reading Selection(1).pdf: 8972_Comp1_Summer2017, p. 11). This means that it is necessary to make children phonologically aware for them to transition from learning to listen and talk to learning to read and write.

Syntax is about the rules governing how words are put together to form phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and beyond (Oral Language Reading Selection(1).pdf: 8972_Comp1_Summer2017, p. 11). Like phoneme use, syntax begins unconsciously. Children and other language learners begin forming sentences by mimicking experiences from other, more proficient, language users. This occurs before they are aware of how the rules work. In my personal and teaching experience, even children with various developmental and cognitive disabilities learn to form sentences by scripting from the language they have heard from various language experiences before they understand the rules—or even the vocabulary—necessary for developing original sentences. This explains why they sometimes express well-formed sentences that are not meaningfully related to the current situation. Or, as Pence-Turnbull and Justice (2012) write, “Consideration of Chomsky’s proposition that Colorless green ideas sleep furiously illustrates the difference between semantics and syntax, in which a sentence is devoid of meaning but conforms to sophisticated syntactic rules” (p. 24). In other words, the child misunderstands the meaning of the words or combinations of words, but still can put them in a meaningful order. Syntactic awareness takes automatic syntax and makes in useable.

Semantics is the area of literacy learning where the sentences and word phrases become meaningful. In the semantic system, meaning extends beyond individual words to include “…phrases, sentences, discourse and whole text” (Oral Language Reading Selection(1).pdf: 8972_Comp1_Summer2017, p. 11). Sometimes words have multiple meanings. Without the semantic skill of deriving meaning from the context of a sentence or phrase, it may not be possible for developing readers to comprehend what they are learning. One example that I frequently employ is the word pitch, which means different things across the many school content areas. In PE, it is a thrown ball or golf shot. In math, it means the slope of a line. In economics, a pitch is a way to sell a product or service. In engineering and science, pitch is another word for tar. In music, it represents the highness or lowness of a note. And, in art, pitch is related to value, meaning how light or dark a specific hue compares to other hues in the artwork. Without a significantly developed semantic system, it is impossible to understand the meaning of the pitch in the various contexts in which it may be used in school texts. Going back to the Chomsky sentence from above, semantical awareness also helps a child understand that there is something wrong with the phrase despite its correct grammatical form (Pence Turnbull & Justice, 2012).

“Pragmatics (use) pertains to the rules governing how language is used for social purposes” (Pence Turnbull & Justice, 2012, p. 24). There are three areas where understanding pragmatics is important for language learners. They must learn how to express intentions, to communicate during conversations, and use language that adheres to social conventions. Pragmatics can involve additional aspects like language register, cultural awareness and responsiveness, and even body language.

Like phoneme and syntax use, low-level pragmatics comes automatically from experiences in social situations. However, educators must not assume that students have sophisticated pragmatic systems down automatically. The reading states, “…many educators: ‘had been operating on the belief that the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic cues were straightforward and familiar to children, and, because of this, were wholly available for use in finessing the graphophonemic system’” (Oral Language Reading Selection(1).pdf: 8972_Comp1_Summer2017, p. 12). Instead of teaching literacy under that deficient assumption, it is important to move the children from their automatic understanding of these important areas of oral reading readiness toward understanding them on a more cognitive level.

Ruby Payne, for one, recognizes this idea in her work demonstrating that different groups of children may be unaware of the language register shifts that need to take place for kids to be successful in school (Payne, n.d.). Students sometimes know when to socially switch codes from the casual register they are using with their friends to a more intimate register that they use with their mother, but they may not recognize when and where schools require formal register since schools are a place where many registers can be used correctly. Language register code changing also requires the student to make a shift in the grammatical rules from their local informal dialect to SAE. Therefore, educators need to be cognizant about the pragmatic shifts that take place in various school-related social situations, and must illuminate the rule changes for the children to apply them properly to different social and learning literacy situations.

To tie it all together, while these four areas are essential for language and literacy learning, without knowing that all the students in our classes have had beyond the most basic introduction to oral language literacy at home, teachers need to find ways to compensate in several ways. We must provide some additional language experiences to supplement what is missing. These experiences should be designed to help the students develop automatic phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. In my estimation, we can never fully make up for millions of missed language experiences that some children have lost in relation to others in our classes. However, we should not write curriculum based on the assumption that the students have all had the same opportunities either. Once the students demonstrate that they can use phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics automatically, there is a need to illuminate the processes for them so that the students can begin to transition from learning how to listen, talk, and converse in social situations to learning how to use these skills cognitively for learning to read and write. It involves ensuring that the children can develop phonologic and graphophonemic awareness to attach letters and other symbols to their spoken language skills.


Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday esperience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.

Oral Language Reading Selection(1).pdf: 8972_Comp1_Summer2017. (n.d.). Retrieved from SCPS instructure:

Payne, R. (n.d.). Understanding and working with students and adults from poverty. Retrieved from Homepages :

Pence Turnbull, K., & Justice, L. (2012). Language development from theory to practice. . Boston: Pearson.


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