Why responsive oral language teaching and learning is important


Oral language and social interaction

Oral language is the basis of most social interaction in life. We use oral language to convey information to other people, develop mutual understanding, express ideas and identity, and define our belonging to a particular social group. Our ability to use oral language in social situations allows us to build relationships with others and manage a variety of different forms of social exchange. For example, people who interact effectively know when to lead, when to follow and when to act independently. They know when it is appropriate to compete and when it is appropriate to cooperate. They achieve results when working in groups.

Oral language and life chances

To succeed in school and society, young learners need to be able to use the spoken and written languages of the curriculum to become proficient thinkers  and communicators. Their ability to communicate using oral language helps them learn more effectively, apply their learning through problem solving, and address intellectual challenges using abstract symbols, analysis and synthesis. Using language, symbols and texts is a central competency in 21st century life.

Oral language and accessing the curriculum

Oral language is the medium through which most of the curriculum in early learning services and schools is conveyed and discussed. What the teacher says and how it is said gives both intellectual and social messages to children about the importance of oral language learning. Teachers should plan and manage their use of oral language, so that it supports oral language learning for all learners.

Talk is the central tool of any teacher’s trade. With it they mediate children’s activity and help them make sense of learning, literacy, life and themselves.8


Both international and New Zealand research indicates that the range of children’s oral language capabilities widens, and is especially noticeable, when they start school. For example, in the United States, Pondiscio estimates that more children than ever are entering elementary school with a vocabulary of under 2,000 English words.

It is no exaggeration to say that the increasing numbers of children with early disadvantages in language – both the volume of words and the way in which they are employed – establishes a kind of educational inertia that is immensely difficult for early schooling to address.9


In New Zealand, Van Hees reports that an increasing number of five and six year olds have difficulty expressing ideas fluently and coherently in oral English. This impacts on their ability to participate fully in the classroom.10 Her research showed that teachers improved the quality and quantity of students’ oral expression by changing the interactional and language patterns used in their classrooms.

When the students were given some control of the topic and the space for spontaneous comments they were more engaged and participatory.

Expression became a partnership rather than one dominated and controlled solely by the teacher. When students’ spontaneous dialogue alongside collaboratively constructing an oral text, the students made more sense of the topic in hand and this enhanced their potential to acquire language.11


Oral language as a precursor and extension of wider learning.

Oral language interactions build children’s understanding of the meaning of a larger number of words, and of the world around them. This understanding is crucial to their later reading comprehension, and literacy in general. Early language skills also predict later academic achievement and success in adult life. For example, recent longitudinal research shows that two-year-old children with larger vocabularies display greater academic and behavioural functioning at age five and beyond than children with smaller vocabularies. Moreover, children at age six with greater academic achievement in oral language, literacy and mathematics are more likely to undertake tertiary study, earn a higher income during their working life, and live to a healthier and more secure old age than other children.12


How should rich oral language learning and development be supported in the early years? 

Shared conversations: talking with young children matters

Early learning starts at home and early childhood teachers should aim to build on this foundation for successful future learning. Parents and teachers can help build stronger early language skills both through their planned language interactions with young children, and by setting up an environment that gives children many opportunities to talk with each other, and with adults.

One of the best ways that parents and teachers can help young children develop their oral language skills is through shared conversations.13 To help young children develop their oral language skills, both parents and teachers should make sure their conversations give children practice with:

  • hearing, listening to, and using a rich and abstract vocabulary
  • hearing and constructing increasingly complex sentences
  • using words to express ideas and feelings and asking questions about things they do not understand
  • using words to answer questions about things that are just not in the here and now.

Shared storybook reading provides an especially good platform for planned conversations with young children.14 Other experiences of daily life can also provide a source of rich conversation if adults are attentive and deliberately seek opportunities to enrich and extend children’s vocabulary and understanding.




Oral language in the early childhood curriculum

In New Zealand early learning services, the national curriculum statement,

Te Whāriki,15 provides a framework for strengthening young children’s oral communication knowledge, dispositions and skills. The framework of principles and strands, and associated goals and learning outcomes, encourages each service to design and implement a curriculum that promotes and responds to children’s oral language learning and development.

Te Whāriki promotes a socio-cultural perspective in learning and teaching, intended to inform early literacy practices, including oral language development in early learning services. While Te Whāriki does not specifically advise early childhood teachers how to promote or teach early literacy, Strand 4, Communication-Mana Reo states that the languages and symbols of children’s own and other cultures should be promoted and protected in an environment where children:

  • develop non-verbal communication skills for a range of purposes
  • develop verbal communication skills for a range of purposes
  • experience the stories and symbols (pictures, numbers and words) of their own and other cultures
  • discover and develop different ways to be creative and expressive.16

Supporting and responding to oral language learning and development in early learning services

Children begin early childhood education with varying literacy skills. Not all children have language-rich experiences prior to starting at an early learning service, and the role of the service is critical in responding to and supporting their early oral language development. Teachers need to be able to identify and respond quickly where children need additional support with their oral language learning and development. Early recognition and response to learning needs can have a huge impact on children’s future learning success.

Effective teaching practices recognise the sophistication and complexity of early learning and development and the integral place of oral language in early literacy. A socio-cultural approach to literacy includes not only reading and writing but also listening, talking, viewing, drawing and critiquing. Teachers need to be knowledgeable about the socio-cultural processes involved in listening, speaking, writing and viewing, as well as the pathways that children take as their literacy skills develop.

Key aspects of oral language learning and development are grouped as follows:17

  • Vocabulary development. By the end of the first year of life young children are approaching their first use of words. By two most have acquired a fairly extensive spoken vocabulary. During their third year they make a significant linguistic leap. Their vocabulary increases substantially and they can argue and ask lots of questions. By the age of five, their working vocabulary typically includes between 3,000 and 5,000 words.
  • Speech sound development. Children’s speech usually gets easier to understand by more people between ages one to five. By two years old, most children’s speech can be understood by familiar adults. By three years of age, it can be understood by unfamiliar adults most of the time, and by four years of age by unfamiliar adults almost all of the time.
  • Hearing. This is a critical part of a young child’s communication development. Any degree of hearing loss in the early years makes every aspect of language acquisition harder. Even a mild or fluctuating hearing loss can affect a child’s communication development. Identifying any hearing loss as early as possible is critical.
  • Early literacy. Children (ages one to four) learn best when early literacy is integrated into everyday activities, rather than taught at isolated learning times. Through such activities, young children can be supported to combine conversation, vocabulary development, print knowledge, sound awareness and story comprehension.



Early literacy teaching practices that support strong learning foundations

Particular literacy practices may help children in early learning services strengthen their literacy competency so they can make a successful transition to formal schooling. Table 1 shows the literacy knowledge and abilities that are enhanced through appropriate early literacy teaching and learning activities. The table clearly shows how oral language learning is an integral part of early literacy.

Table 1: Literacy knowledge and early literacy activities

Literacy knowledge and abilities of learners:        Early literacy activities that provide rich oral language experiences:                       
> alphabet knowledge > nursery rhymes and poems
> letter-sound knowledge > language play
> concepts about print > sustained conversations
> concepts about books > introducing new vocabulary, ideas and concepts
> phonological awareness > informal phonemic awareness activities
> vocabulary knowledge (unusual words) > shared storybook reading
> story comprehension > songs/waiata and chants
> narrative competence (story telling) > scribbling letters, numbers, and letter-like forms

Source: Adapted from Literacy in Early Childhood Services: Teaching and Learning (2011)18

Supporting and responding to oral language learning and development in the early years of school

Once young children start school, rapid oral language development usually continues over the next few years. However, the use of oral language in schools has a number of specific characteristics that most new entrants need to adjust to.19 Spoken language in junior school classrooms is constantly moving on a continuum between informal and formal expression and between spontaneous  and planned opportunities and experiences. Oral language learning shifts from single word comments in simple exchanges to sequences of interactions, lengthy explanations or instructions, and in-depth discussions. The Ministry of Education (the Ministry) suggests that four kinds of oral language usage and development underpin curriculum access and students’ ability to learn in later years.20

These developments are in the following areas:

  • Independent listening. This includes the ability to listen to extended talk (such as stories, factual accounts, or presentations) and to retain the information so that it can be recalled. The kind of listening students are expected to do at school (especially where the teacher is talking to the whole class) often differs from the listening they are used to doing at home, where talk is mainly about familiar events and experiences, involving just a few people who know each other well.
  • Independent speaking. This includes the ability to use extended talk (for example when recounting news, retelling a story, or explaining an idea) without the support of immediate feedback. Independent speaking of this kind requires learners to use increasingly precise and sophisticated language that is tailored and communicated clearly to the audience.
  • Using social language. This is about developing conversational skills in small groups, such as greeting others, sharing stories, or offering entertainment. There are often group norms for initiating, joining and ending conversations, and introducing new topics in particular social situations that may have to be learned.
  • Applying discussion skills. This is about the ability to interpret specific language (especially academic language) to carry out structured learning tasks. This involves students in thinking about abstract concepts, reasoning about possible and probable causes, and reflecting and talking about their own learning. Discussion skills also involve the use of focused talk in a small group for a particular purpose, generally to clarify or explore ideas, make decisions or reach consensus about the best option. During a discussion, students build knowledge and understanding, expand vocabulary, learn new ways of expressing ideas, and develop their listening and critical thinking skills.

Key concepts underpinning the teaching of oral language skills (Years 1 to 3)

Further development of oral language skills in the first three years of school provides the foundation the remainder of their schooling. This includes the literacies students use to develop their knowledge and experiences in the English learning area, other learning areas and the key competencies of The New Zealand Curriculum.21

Responding to oral language capabilities

Children (whether English is their first or additional language) come to school with a wide range of early oral language experiences. Their ability to engage in classroom talk can be affected by factors apart from their home language and early childhood background. These include:

  • the typical variations in the overall rates of development of young children
  • differences in personality such as degree of extroversion
  • differences between what happens in the early learning service and school
  • different cultural expectations and protocols regarding speaking and respect
  • specific events and experiences in students’ lives outside of  school
  • additional needs that affect oral language, such as hearing impairment or difficulty with generating intelligible speech.

To respond to these factors, teachers need to engage all students in general classroom talk and in activities that require specific listening and talking skills. Teachers also need to be aware of, and incorporate, the cultural practices and perspectives of all their students where possible.22 When students feel that the talk and activities in the classroom are meaningful, purposeful and meet their needs, they are likely to better engage in learning.

Teachers in schools face a challenge when planning oral language learning activities that respond to the unique strengths and needs of every student, and for the groups of students with particular needs. Such groups include:

  • students who need help to develop their phonological or phonemic awareness
  • new learners of English
  • students from backgrounds with language practices that differ from the conventional practices of the school
  • students who experience specific difficulties with one or more aspect of their oral language learning
  • students who use alternative methods to communicate, for example students who use picture software programs to generate  sentences.

Curriculum frameworks and guidance

The following tables provide an overview of the curriculum frameworks and guidance for oral language teaching and learning for both early learning services and schools.

Table 2: Curriculum and Assessment Guidelines for Oral Language Development, birth to eight years


Curriculum framework

Assessment framework

Early Learning Services:

Te Whāriki (1996)

Kei Tua o te Pae (2009)

In Te Whāriki, the communication strand includes goals for: children developing non-verbal and verbal communication skills; experiencing stories and symbols of their own and other cultures; and discovering or developing different ways to be creative and expressive.

Kei Tua o te Pae, Book 17. Oral, Visual and Written Literacy.

Provides a lens focused on assessment practices, a lens based on Te Whāriki, and a lens focused on the symbol systems and technologies for making meaning using oral, visual and written literacy.


The New Zealand Curriculum (2007)

Learning Through Talk (2009)

The English Language Learning Progressions (2008)

Sound Sense: Ready to Read (2003)

In The New Zealand Curriculum, the English learning area Speaking, Writing and Presenting strand provides opportunities for students to recognise how to shape texts for a purpose and an audience; form and express ideas on a range of topics; use language features showing recognition of their effects; and organise texts using simple structures.

Learning Through Talk, has sections on priorities for oral language assessment, the assessment process and expectations for oral language learning (for English as a first language learners).

The English Language Learning Progressions, has progressions describing patterns of language learning (oral language, reading, writing and vocabulary) for ESOL (English as a second or other language) learners.

Sound Sense:

Ready to Read 

Web resources



Table 3: Guidance for Oral Language Learning and Development, birth to eight years


Guidance for learning:

Guidance for teaching:

Early childhood:

Much More Than Words. Communication Development in Young Children (2011)

Help on knowing the learner – lists examples of typical communication skills by development ages and stages: at 1 year; 18 months; 2 years; 3 years; 4 years.

Tips for encouraging communication development – lists four or five key tips of activities for parents/ caregivers at each age and stage, ages 1 to 4 years. (Note – not targeted at teachers).



Learning Through Talk. Oral Language in Years 1 to 3 (2009)

Help on knowing the learner – lists indicators for common patterns of progress: at school entry; the end of the first year of schooling; the end of the third year of schooling.

Instructional strategies for teachers – has separate sections of research-based advice on scaffolding students’ learning; using deliberate acts of teaching; using classroom talk; and linking oral language and literacy.

Learning Through Talk. Oral language in Years 4 to 8 (2010)

Advice and guidance for learners in Years 4-8.




8        Ministry of Education. (2009). Learning Through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3. Wellington: The Ministry: p. 23.

9        Pondiscio, R. (2014). Education for Upward Mobility: Vocabulary Development. Washington DC: Fordham Institute of Education: p. 4.

10        Van Hees, J. (2011). Focus on Developing Language. SET 3, 2011. Wellington: NZCER: p. 47.

11        Van Hees, J. (2011). Focus on Developing Language. SET 3, 2011. Wellington: NZCER: p. 52.

12        Morgan, P. et al. (2015). 24-month old children with larger vocabularies display greater academic and behavioural functioning at age five. Child Development. Vol 86. No 5: pp. 1351-1370.

13        National Institute of Literacy. (2009). Learning to Talk and Listen: An oral language resource for early childhood caregivers. Washington DC: RMC Research Corporation: p. 5.

14        National Institute of Literacy. (2009). Learning to Talk and Listen: An oral language resource for early childhood caregivers. Washington DC: RMC Research Corporation: p. 10.

15        See:

16        Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whāriki, He Whāriki Mātauranga mō ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa. Wellington: The Ministry: p. 16.

17        Ministry of Education. (2011). Much More Than Words. Wellington: The Ministry: pp.  6-12.

18        Education Review Office. (2011). Literacy in Early Childhood Services: Teaching and Learning. Wellington: The Office: p. 9.

19        Ministry of Education. (2009). Learning Through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3. Wellington: The Ministry: p. 28.

20        Ministry of Education. (2009). Learning Through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3. Wellington: The Ministry. p. 25.

21        Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington: The Ministry: pp. 12-13.

22        Ministry of Education. (2009). Learning Through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3. Wellington: The Ministry: p. 51.