September 30, 2011

The Six Language Arts Skills

With each passing year, language arts have allowed mankind to thrive and to reach greater levels of knowledge and productivity. You often here mathematicians and scientists credited with such accomplishments, but what if those innovators could not read? What if they could not write or otherwise clearly communicate their ideas? How could they promote their ideas or share their advancements with others? No matter what specialty one excels in, a proficiency in language arts is the key to further cultivation of skills, talents, innovation and success.

Language arts development in elementary aged children includes all skills related to reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and visually representing ideas and knowledge as designated by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Reading Association (IRA) (1996).
“These six areas are notably different from one another, but there are also important connections among them… reading and writing involve written language, listening and speaking involve spoken communication, and viewing and visually representing involve visual language.”
These skills are all part of effective communication, and though some go through life deficient in one or more of these areas, the best communicators learn to use them all efficiently. For this reason, it is important we incorporate all six areas into elementary language arts instruction.

By this point in a child’s life, he has some life experience to help him make sense of oral, written, and physical forms of communication, though for every child this background knowledge is different. Perhaps one child had great exposure to sign language is his early years, while another spent most of his time watching TV. Another may have listened to a great variety of books and music, while still another had nothing more to listen to than the conversation of those around him. Whatever the case me be, it is important to reach each child at their level and provide them with opportunities to explore all areas of language arts as often as possible.


When it comes to the systems of symbols and markings we know as writing, there really is no reason or rhyme or reason to it except that one group of people started using it and others continued to refine and define it until it got to where it is today. The basis of learning to read is nothing more than learning to decode the message represented by such symbols, but reading does not stop there. Reading also involves understanding and comprehension, knowing what each individual word means, and how they work together to form a sentence, a paragraph, a story, and a book. It also includes interpretations of purpose and meaning, such as knowing whether a book was written to teach a moral lesson or written to teach one how to cook. At the elementary school level, these skills are just developing, and thus a crucial time for matching children’s skills with texts they find interesting in order to encourage a desire for reading proficiency.


The bunch of lines and squiggles on paper, or another medium, to create letters is what most think of when we talk about teaching elementary aged children to write. Yet, this is a small piece this very critical area of language arts proficiency. Not only do children need to know how to form letters and make words, they need to learn how to use these words effectively and clearly to communicate their ideas and thoughts to others. This involves an understanding of spelling and grammar rules, sentence and paragraph structure, style and voice, and other complexities that have come to make our language richly diverse and interesting. For today’s elementary aged child, this skill also takes on a great deal more than paper and pencil handwritten assignments of yesteryears. It often involves word processing software, touch screens, interactive smart boards, and other technologies that have reduced a need for developing refined handwriting prior to the ability to express ones thoughts and ideas with written words.


In order to develop meaningful speech, children need to learn how to use emotion, volume, tone, and inflections to fully communicate the meaning of their words. This skill often comes naturally while listening to others, but not always. In some cases elementary aged children need to be taught this skill, particularly when they are reading aloud because they are often focused only on the recognizing the words and not the meaning behind them. Also at the elementary level, children quite often need instruction in understanding time and tense as they learn to communicate when an event or story took place. It is not at all uncommon for a child of this age to talk about a party from a year ago as if it were happening today. This of course can be confusing to the listener. Rounding of this language arts skill, a well developed vocabulary makes speech communication more effective and efficient. Thus, at the elementary level, it is important that children continue to receive diverse experiences and exposures that will increase the word bank in their developing minds.


For most people, this is the first of the language arts skills we learn to develop. Before we can see clearly, before we can speak, and before we can gesture for things we desire, we are learn to listen for clues about the world around us. Newborn babies today hear others speaking, they hear the sounds of nature, and they hear the sounds of technology all around them. Unfortunately they quite often learn to tune out much of what they hear and to selectively receive and process what they desire to fulfill their basic needs. When they enter the elementary ages, however, it is important that children learn to process what they are hearing for deeper meaning and purpose. It can be quite difficult for some to learn what to ignore and what to pay attention to, and even then what to do with the information they heard. Still, such skills are crucial to learning content and should receive considerable attention during the elementary school years. Reading aloud to children and asking comprehension questions is a great way to improve their listening skills. Having children complete an activity while listening to audio stories and music selections is also helpful. Activities could include putting character cut-outs in the order they hear them presented, or sculpting images of what they think they are listening to. Other strategies include rewarding good listening habits, such as giving a sticker to all the children who put way their books as soon as they are told.


The skills involving observation and interpretation are all included within the category of viewing, whether one is watching television, studying a photograph, or looking at a chalk art on a sidewalk. Today, the visuals that surround elementary aged children are far more plentiful than those just twenty years ago, and nearly every moment there is something new available for them to look at. It is important to help young children learn to observe these images critically, process the content, and comprehend the meaning. This may sound complex, but it starts with simply asking what the purpose is behind what one is looking it. Is it advertisement? Does it want to convince others of something? Is it just to tell a story or to entertain? Teaching elementary aged children to consider such questions will set a firm foundation for the critical thinking skills they will need when they reach more complex content and higher levels of learning.

Visually Representing

Naturally on the other side of viewing we find the creation of collages, posters, photographs, dramatizations, videos, charts and graphs… to some this may seem like the most advanced of all the language arts sub-areas, but really it can be the simplest. Stick drawings and crayon pictures can be far easier to make and interpret than letters and symbols one may be unfamiliar with. For this reason when we study ancient history we find it far easier to understand cultures that recorded their stories with pictures rather than those who used letters or other such text symbols. Thousands of years later, technology has allowed man-kind to complicate this form of communication with computerized graphics arts programs, electronic display boards, and pocket sized smart phones that display photographs and videos, and stream digital content around the world. Still, the concept it still the same. Visually representing ideas on the simplest level merely involves organizing thoughts or events in such a manner that another can observe and understand the content. With elementary aged children, this can be as simple as drawing a picture of a boat to tell what they did on vacation, pasting the elements of a story in order on construction paper. What matters is not the complexity of the medium used, but rather that a viewer can make sense of it.

Though each of the six areas of language arts discussed above can be defined separately, it is clear that not one of them can truly stand alone. The use of language centers on people, involving communication between at least two individuals. It does one no good to eloquently and intricately write the details of a story if no one else can understand the writing. And to receive communication with no understanding of how to interpret it is equally ineffective, as is the case with many ancient texts discovered by archeologists. In order for the language arts skills to fully serve a meaningful purpose, they must be used effectively, understood, and systematically passed down to future generations. This begins in the home during the first days of life, and continues on into the elementary school years and beyond. Recognizing each of these six areas and creatively incorporating them all into a variety of learning activities will make an elementary school level language arts program a success.


International Reading Association. (1996). Setting standards in English language arts. In Standards for the English Language Arts (Chapter 1). Retrieved from: