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Oral Language: The Foundation for Literacy

by Joan Lessen-Firestone, Ph.D. | September 13, 2011 | Early Education & Literacy

“Grammy, the geese came back!” my four-year-old granddaughter exclaimed in a recent phone conversation. And while I am always delighted to talk with her, I was especially pleased to hear her story about seeing the geese this autumn. The story she told made it clear that her oral language abilities have reached a level that predicts success in reading and writing in the early school years and beyond.  As you might expect, we have long-known that children who are better talkers generally do better in school. But we now have a much clearer understanding of how specific oral language skills build the foundation for developing high-level literacy. Let’s look at three of these oral language skills my granddaughter used in our conversation.

“I named the little geese Hilly, Billy and Willy.” Young children’s ability to recognize and produce rhyming words is an important predictor of success in reading and writing. As they learn that words that share common sounds are often spelled the same way, children who can rhyme easily discover that if they can spell cat, they can also spell rat, mat and bat. Similarly, these children know that if they can read the word man, they can also read ran and tan. Children who struggle to read words in beginning readers are often those who also struggle to rhyme.

“They really made a huge racket!” Children who develop rich vocabularies during their preschool years are repeatedly found to have better reading comprehension at fourth grade and beyond. The challenge for beginning readers is to sound out simple words in books. As they get older and can read most words, however, more extensive and difficult vocabulary is included in their texts. Those children who have heard and used these words in conversations are better able to comprehend reading passages that include them.

“And they flew off and lived happily ever after.” Developing a sense of story, with an understanding that each one has a beginning, middle and end, is crucial to children reading and writing stories on their own.  Young children who can tell stories about experiences in their daily lives possess a real advantage in comprehending stories others have written, as they know what to expect and can easily make sense of the sequence of events that unfold. And, since we tell children that books can be their own stories written down, they easily see themselves as authors and translate their oral stories into written ones without much difficulty.

These wonderful oral language skills that my granddaughter has can also be developed by your children.  We know that the language modeling and support you provide at home are critical to success in this area. Here are some simple strategies that will build your child’s oral language and literacy success.

  • In order for children to acquire oral language, they need to be surrounded by words connected to their immediate environment. So just like a baseball announcer gives an ongoing explanation of the action on the field, you should provide a running commentary as you and your child participate in routine events each day. “I’m cleaning you all up so I can put on a fresh diaper” or “Let’s mix some of this delicious cereal with milk so you can have a good breakfast” may not be fascinating conversational tidbits for other adults, but are just what infants and young toddlers need to hear to kick-start their own oral language development.
  • In order to build your child’s vocabulary, be expansive in what you say. Instead of just pointing and saying, “Put this over there,” ask your child to pick up his striped shirt and put it into the laundry basket. Studies have repeatedly shown that when parents and caregivers expand their sentences, young children’s vocabularies blossom. This is especially true when parents make an effort to occasionally use interesting or unusual words in context so children can understand them.
  • Model storytelling for your child by telling daddy or grandma a simple story about what you did at the park or after school. Once your child has heard you tell many stories about your experiences together, have him or her participate in the storytelling by asking, “What did we do after we went on the swings?” or “Where did we stop on the way home?” With practice, they will be able to tell more and more of the story all by themselves, setting them on the road to becoming real writers.