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The Four Language Systems

The Four Language Systems

There are four language systems that children use to process, understand, and use language. While each system is distinct, they are all equally important. In fact, the degree to which these systems function in synergy determines, to some extent, the child’s facility with language-based tasks. These systems are often called cueing systems, because they cue the reader as to the meaning of text when the reading process becomes difficult.

The Phonological System

The phonological system is often called the sound system of language. This system is responsible for recognizing the distinct speech sounds heard in language. For example, when one hears the word dog, he or she is actually hearing the blending of three separate sounds: /d/ /aw/ /g/. Because pronunciation of these sounds varies according to culture and geography, children learn specific pronunciations of such sounds as voiced by their families and older peers.

The phonological system is important as children learn to read and write. Skill in the phonetic system allows young readers to decode phonetically regular words. Of course, English is not a strictly phonetic language. Before children become aware of these exceptions to phonetic rules, they often rely on invented spelling when writing. A child who spells the word butterfly as butrfli demonstrates a strictly phonetic understanding of spelling because each sound in the word is represented by a single letter. While such spelling should not replace lessons in conventional spelling, it is useful in that it gives the teacher insight into the child’s development and use of the phonological system.

The Syntactic System

The syntactic system of language relates to the structure of language. This involves word order, sentence structure, and grammar usage. This system controls the way in which words are used in sentences. The syntactic system is unique to the language upon which it is based. For example, in Standard English, adjectives precede vowels. However, in Spanish, the opposite is true. For this reason, the following sentences are syntactically correct in each language respectively:

English: Edward gave the princess a red rose.
Spanish: Edward dio a princesa a se levantó el rojo
(Edward gave the princess a rose red.)

Because the syntactic system is based upon the use and order of words, instruction about word parts is processed by this language system. The smallest meaningful unit of language is called a morpheme, and morphemes can be added to a word to change its meaning, as in adding un to unlikely.

The syntactic system is important to novice readers who often rely on this system to predict the words that will come next in a sentence. Often, such readers will use the context of the sentence to guess an unfamiliar word. Even when he or she guesses incorrectly, the reader will often come up with a word that makes sense and fits the same part of speech as the unfamiliar word. For example:

Actual Text: The student will board the school bus.
Reader Guess: The student will ride the school bus.

Because the word ride does not begin with the same phoneme as the word board, the student clearly did not apply the phonological system of language to guess the word. Instead, he or she may have used the syntactic system to guess that the word had to be a verb. It is also likely that he or she used the semantic system in tandem with the syntactic system.

The Semantic System

The semantic system is sometimes referred to as the meaning system because it emphasizes the meaning of speech. As children accumulate increasing stores of vocabulary, their semantic systems increase in utility and flexibility. This is particularly true as children learn multiple meanings for certain words. The greatest rate of vocabulary accumulation occurs between the ages of two and five. This is often called the vocabulary explosion (Berk, 2004). At the beginning of this explosion, children frequently ask the question, “What’s that?” Attentive adults usually answer the question with a simple answer which emphasizes a subject. This means that most words learned during the vocabulary explosion are nouns. As children progress to school age, they learn a greater number of words, though not at the same rate. Even so, the sheer number of words they learn is staggering. Studies have concluded that by the time children enter school, they possess a vocabulary of 5,000 words. This is the result of the language explosion. During the school years, children learn an average of 3,000 words each year. This means that during the elementary school years, children learn between 7 to 10 new words each day (Nagy, 1988). Most of these words come from textbooks and subject specific lessons.

The semantic system is an important aspect of language because it allows an individual to understand or express nuances of meaning by using specific words. For example, a child may express degrees of hunger by using the terms hungry, starving, or famished. In order to support the development of the semantic system and to assist with an increase in vocabulary, teachers should teach synonyms and antonyms for the words that a child already knows. Teachers should also engage in wordplay with children by introducing idioms and clichés.

The Pragmatic System

The pragmatic system deals with the practical use of language. This use is often directed by the culture of the individual or the context in which he or she is using language. For example, eleven year-old Max may use slang with his friends, but a more formal speech pattern with his teacher. Linguists call these different patterns speech codes. Most people switch between speech codes effortlessly and without much thought. Young children, however, are less likely to have a variety of speech codes as they generally do not recognize differences in social contexts.

There is some disagreement among experts in the reading field about the extent to which children use these systems. While some claim that the phonological system contains the least useful information, others contend that this system is most frequently used by novice readers. In fact, some researchers argue that the semantic and syntactic systems are rarely, if ever, used by good readers.

Learning disabilities associated with reading may manifest in the inability to access one or more of these systems. For example, dyslexic readers rarely use the phonological system while reading. Instead, they tend to rely more on their visual memory for words and the context of the sentence to determine what the word might be.

While the debate continues, it is important to note that an understanding of these systems supports focused reading instruction because those same systems are the basis for the strategies readers use when they struggle to identify unfamiliar words and maintain comprehension. Look at the examples of these teacher prompts and their correlation to one of the cueing systems in the table below:

“Sound it out”
“Get your mouth ready to say the first sound.”

Phonological System

“What would make sense here?”
“Does that make sense?”

Semantic System

“What kind of word belongs here?”

“Does this sentence sound right?”

Syntactic System

When would you say, “Hey, man. ‘Sup?”

When would you say, “Good morning. Glad to see you?”

Pragmatic System

 

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