“… perhaps wider reading should find a place in the curriculum”: Comments on Chomsky, C. 1969. Stages in language development and reading exposure. Harvard Educational Review 42 (1): 1-21.
Carol Chomsky’s analysis of the order of acquisition of complex grammatical construction received a lot of attention when it was first published in 1969. Chomsky studied children’s ability to understand, for example, that the subject of “see” in: “The clown is eager to see” is the clown, but in “The clown is easy to see” the subject of see is not the clown but somebody else.
This study was noticed for several reasons: First, Chomsky found that acquisition of these complex constructions took place after age five, after the age when basic language acquisition is considered to be complete. Second, Chomsky reported that the order of acquisition was similar among children, but there were clear differences in rate of acquisition.
But another result of her work is just as important, and has profound implications: Children who were more advanced, who reached higher levels of syntactic development, had more exposure to books and/or had read more. Exposure to books was measured in a variety of ways, including the number of syntactically complex books the child was familiar with and scores on a measure of familiarity of the content of well-known books, poems and stories from children’s literature (the Huck Inventory). The results were similar regardless of the method used to probe exposure to books.
Chomsky also reported that for younger children (age 6), syntactic development was related to how much the child had been read to. Six year olds with the highest level of development had heard 17,500 words in read-alouds in one week. Those with the least had heard none (Chomsky’s table 5).
For older children (ages 7-10), syntactic development was related to how much reading the child had done. Among older children, those at higher stages reported more reading on their own, more visits to the library and more books taken out of the library (Chomsky’s tables 6 and 7).
Chomsky concludes that her results do not support the direct teaching of syntax. Rather, the implication of her results is to make more language acquisition possible, “ … by exposing the child to a rich variety of language inputs in interesting, stimulating situations” (p. 33). She concludes with this suggestion: “… perhaps wider reading should find a place in the curriculum. The child could be read to, stimulated to read on his own, not restricted to material deemed ‘at his level’ …” (p. 33).
Chomsky’s discovery of a predictable order of acquisition and variability of rate in acquisition has been confirmed for first and second language for a variety of structures, and the relationship between reading and language development has also been repeatedly demonstrated. These robust results, widely published and disseminated, have been ignored by those creating detailed standards that call for a uniform rate of acquisition, and that encourage the use of direct instruction rather than reading.
NOTE: Standards that include grammatical constructions do not consider their natural order of acquisition, but if they did, this would not justify direct teaching along the natural order: The emergence of structures along a predictable order is the result of acquisition via comprehensible input, in this case, reading.