Relations among Oral Language, Reading,
and Writing Development
Historically, reading and writing (literacy) have been thought of as secondary form of language—highly dependent upon the more primary oral forms (listening and speaking) (Berninger, 2000). This view makes sense in terms of the ontogeny of language (Hauser, 1996), because it is well documented that some societies have never developed literacy, but oral language is inescapable. Moreover, there are societies in which reading has been prevalent, but writing has been much less available (Spufford, 1979). Archeological accounts suggest that written language developed later in human history than oral language (Schmant-Besserat, 1993), and that same pattern is generally true for individual development as well: Most children begin speaking around the age of 12–18 months, while written language rarely appears before 36 months, and 60–84 months is more characteristic for the onset of beginning reading (Wood, 1981).
Within this general schema, the receptive forms of language (listening and reading) are posited as being more basic than the productive forms (reading and writing), with relatively earlier onsets for listening and reading, and with more formative roles to play in overall language learning. This formativeness has its basis in the fact that language is a social activity; thus, while language learning can be characterized as a form of invention (see, e.g., Read, 1975), this is not a strictly accurate description of construction because of the requirement that language learning entail mastering a shared and existing system of language. This in no way challenges the idea that certain aspects of the language learning process may be "hardwired" into human cognition (Lenneberg, 1967), because even within that theory, it takes language input to make the language learning mechanism go—which is why children in France learn French and children in China learn Chinese (much to the relief of their parents).
The four language systems (speaking, listening, reading, writing) develop in "overlapping and parallel waves rather than in discrete, sequential stages" (Berninger, 2000, p. 66). What this means is that, though writing comes late in the language learning arc (Vygotsky, 1978) or takes longer to accomplish "full" development than the other language systems, it has the potential to be affected by oral language and reading, and likewise can influence the development of those systems, though it is less likely to affect them than to be affected by them. Understanding how the different language systems are correlated with each other can reveal the degree to which progress in writing may be determined by oral language and reading development, which students will likely do best