Oral language learning and development: birth to eight years of age

ERO’s findings, particularly in relation to what well-focused early learning services and schools were doing to support children’s oral language learning and development, are described in this next section. The findings are presented in a way that shows a learner pathway from infancy through to eight years of age. They include some broad expectations for oral language learning and development for each group of learners, as well as examples of practice from the well-focused services and schools. The examples of practice from early learning services are supported by information about the kinds of experiences adults (teachers) can provide for the different age groups of children drawn from Te Whāriki. The examples for schools include some expectations for learners’ oral language learning and development.

Infants (birth-12 months)

One of the most powerful ways in which humans share emotions, experiences and thoughts is through oral language; from very early on infants show interest in faces and sounds and practise their own voices. Caregivers who are sensitive to the ‘tunes and rhythms’ of a baby are able to join in with her expressions and vocalisations. These intimate conversations lay the foundations for developing language skills. They provide children with opportunities to extend their range of vocalisations, experiment with an extending range of words and learn about the rules of conversation, which include turn taking, sensitive timing, responsiveness to others’ behaviour and facial expressions, and an ability to listen and respond.34


By the time they are 1 most  children:35

> respond to common words such as “no!”, “bye bye”

> know the names of familiar things

> will show you objects to get your attention

> are starting to use some single words and enjoy repetitive games with others

> take turns in conversations with adults by babbling

> use their words and gestures to be social, to ask questions and to start to show an interest in looking at pictures in books

> enjoy listening to songs and nursery rhymes.



What does Te Whāriki say about the practices/experiences that support infants?36

What was happening for infants in the well-focused services?

Adults communicate with infants through eye and body contact and through the use of gestures, such as waving, or pointing.

Adults respond positively to infants’ gestures and expressions, which can include infants turning their heads away from food, stretching out hands, or screwing up faces.

Adults respond to infants’ early attempts at verbalisation by, for example, repeating or expanding infants’ attempts and by offering sounds to imitate.

Simple words are used to make consistent connections with objects and people who are meaningful to the infant.

Adults interpret infants’ sounds and gestures, including crying and babbling, as attempts to communicate and respond accordingly.

Adults read books to infants, tell them simple stories, and talk to them about objects and pictures.

Teachers talked about what the infants were doing, and gave them words for their environment and what was happening around them.

Quiet conversation, gentle touch and prompt reactions to body language and children’s demeanour combined to give children confidence.

Teachers skilfully provided opportunities to develop infants’ language by responding to their early attempts at verbalisation and using language to soothe and comfort. Storytelling and reading, and songs formed an important part of the programme.

Teachers responded to children’s attempts to talk by elaborating their single words and providing words for what children were doing. They read regularly to children and looked at books together.


Toddlers (1-3 years)

The period between 24 and 36 months is marked by advances in communication and language, co-operation and social competence, and thinking and memory. Children’s development can be supported by adults through sharing and enriching children’s narratives, creative games, storytelling, teaching of early literacy skills and encouragement to play imaginatively with other children, allowing children to take the lead and providing structure or guidance when needed. Throughout their first  years, children learn best through playful interactions, rather than formal activities.37


By 18 months, most children:38

> understand simple phrases

> will give a toy to an adult on request

> repeat actions to make someone laugh

> are starting to use more than 20 common words

> are starting to turn pages in books and pointing at pictures. 







By 2 years, most children:39

> understand instructions containing two key words

> can listen to a simple story

> use over 50 single words

> are starting to combine words

> ask simple questions

> talk about what they can see and hear right now

> enjoy pretend play with their toys

> join in with songs/waiata and nursery rhymes with actions

> enjoy interactive books

> can be understood by familiar adults most of the time.



What does Te Whāriki say about the practices/experiences that support toddlers?40

What was happening for toddlers in the well-focused services?


The programme includes action games, listening games and dancing, all of which use the body as a means of communication.

Adults help to extend toddlers’ verbal ability by accepting and supporting early words in their first language, modelling new words and phrases, allowing toddlers to initiate conversation, and giving them time to respond and converse.

Toddlers have plenty of opportunities to talk with other children, play verbal games, and encounter a widening range of books, songs, poems, and chants.

Books are available for toddlers to read and carry about. Reading books and telling stories are frequent, pleasurable, intimate, and interactive experiences.


Teachers valued children’s voices, followed their cues and interests and used strategies such as explaining, describing, recalling, questioning, sustained conversations, and commenting. They maximised teachable moments across a range of meaningful contexts and experiences. Repetition was the key.

Teachers recognised the importance of supporting children to communicate to build their social skills, relationships and friendships. They provided opportunities for group play and offered a language-rich environment that included rhymes and songs, reading stories, retelling them in different ways, repeating rhymes and waiata, action songs, and sound games.

Toddlers had access to a wide and varied range of resources and activities that promoted language learning and communication through real, play, and problem-solving contexts.

Teachers promoted imaginative play by setting up the dramatic play area to reflect toddlers’ emerging interests.


Young children (3 and 4 year olds)

Young children have increasing capacities for language and inquiry, increasing ability to understand another point of view, and are developing interests in representation and symbols, such as pictures, numbers and words. An early childhood programme for young children should provide a rich bank of experiences from which the children can learn to make sense of their world and the world around them. Children in this older age group are still likely to swing back and forth in development, depending on their moods and the context, but they have a growing capacity for coping with unpredictability and change, especially if they are anchored by emotional support, respect, and acceptance. The children’s increasing abilities to plan and monitor their activities are evident in their developing awareness of themselves as learners.41


By 3 years, most children:42  

> understand instructions containing three key words

> use a vocabulary of several hundred words, including describing words, such as ‘fast’ and ‘small’

> can combine three or more words into a sentence

> play imaginative games

> can talk about things that are not present

> take an interest in other children’s play and sometimes join in

> take an interest in playing with words

> are starting to recognise a few letters

> can be understood by unfamiliar adults most of the time.



By 4 years, most children:43    

> understand more complex language structures

> ask lots of ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘why’ questions to find out new information

> take part in longer and more complicated make-believe play sequences with peers

> enjoy simple jokes – even though their jokes may not make sense!

> can recognise their own written name

> know some letter names

> can recognise some printed words in the environment

> are attempting to write their name

> are starting to use talking to make friends and solve problems

> can talk about what they have done and what they might do

> can be understood by unfamiliar adults almost all of the time.


What does Te Whāriki say about the practices/experiences that support young children?44

What was happening  for young children in the well-focused services?

Young children use a creative range of non-verbal communication, which may include signing.

Children experience the communicative potential of the whole body through dance, gesture, and pretend play.

Children have opportunities to ‘read’ pictures for meaning.

The programme includes action songs and action rhymes in Mäori and Pacific Island languages as well as English.

Opportunities are provided for young children to have sustained conversations, ask questions, and to take the initiative in conversations.

The programme includes frequent and varied opportunities for playing and having fun with words and  also for sequenced activities, experiences, problems, and topics that encourage complex language.

Children are able to have private conversations together.

Māori phrases and sentences are included as a natural part of the programme.

Children experience a wide range of stories and hear and practise story-telling.

Teachers worked collaboratively to provide a high quality, language- rich curriculum that promoted oral language and positive outcomes for children. They gave priority to modelling new language and complex conversations before using questioning techniques.

Teachers used children’s interests and abilities to encourage and extend oral language. For example, they knew which children were interested in music or those who enjoyed playing with words and worked with these children through their interests to extend vocabulary and understanding.

Children who were highly verbal were also a focus for teachers. Teachers encouraged these children to share stories, write and illustrate their stories.

Teachers had a sound knowledge and appreciation that, for English Language Learners, understanding comes before articulation. They were deliberate in the way they introduced rich vocabulary with children in the context of the curriculum. Teachers engaged children in experiences such as gardening, composting, cooking, technological processes and small group excursions that built on children’s strengths and interests and added depth and richness to their learning.

In New Zealand, most children start school at five years of age. The goals and indicative learning outcomes in Te Whāriki highlight what is valued learning for children in early learning services.45

At 5 years of age

All students who enter the school environment need to learn about a variety of conventions and routines of talking and listening (discourses) in a context that is unfamiliar to most of them. Students’ oral language improves through practice, that is, when students talk regularly for different purposes and with different partners. Classroom talk (apart from talk that is purely social) is usually directed towards a goal. To be effective, the teacher and students must know why the discussion is being held and what the desired outcome should be. Students are likely to engage in such talk in a classroom climate that values diversity of students’ cultural experiences and language expertise.46



At school entry                             

Examples of expectations47

A 5 year old:

> has a wide vocabulary of nouns and verbs; can name familiar items and actions; and can state their purpose

> is curious about language and is willing to experiment.


> uses correct grammar to talk about past, present and future

> uses irregular past tense verbs

> asks questions using a range of question forms.

Independent speaking

> can describe and ask questions about a picture

> put pictures into a sequence to tell a story

> can retell a simple story; and can talk about recent events in some detail.

Social language

> can use language for a range of purposes, for example, to play with others, ask questions or make comments

> is aware of the need to speak differently for different purposes in familiar situations.

Independent listening

> can follow simple directions and instructions; listens with interest to stories

> can answer simple follow up questions.


> is beginning to develop ideas with peers, but may need support to do this consistently

> can seek or give clarification in conversation

> can talk about what might happen.


What was happening for learners as they started school in well-focused schools?

Schools maintained close contact with early learning services and liaised with early childhood teachers about the learning strengths and needs of each new entrant, well before they actually started school. This included meeting and talking with the child, their parents and whānau.

Key information about oral language strengths and needs, identified during the child’s time in their early learning service, was shared with the new entrant teacher, to help provide some continuity for children when they started school.

Schools worked with early learning services to develop a shared framework of oral language and early literacy indicators, that early childhood teachers used as a way of showing the child’s learning. This information was shared when the child started school. The school maintained and updated the learner profile over Years 1 and 2.



What was happening for learners in their first few months in well-focused schools?


Students had many opportunities to further develop their oral language skills. Teachers provided opportunities to speak, usually with a peer, and listen in a small group, to display the skills they brought with them. Oral language development was incorporated into the daily programme. Each student’s oral language capabilities and needs were noted by the teacher, and discussed during an early meeting with parents. Students of concern were referred to a senior staff member for more formal assessment or diagnosis. This usually resulted in an individual learning plan for those with high needs. English Language Learners’ (ELLs) entry skills were identified and a plan put in place to encourage their use of a first language, as well as for them to strengthen their competence in English. Learners targeted for support often needed a boost in conceptual/vocabulary development.


At end of first year at school 


Some examples of expectations48

A 6 year old:



> understands and uses a range of concepts

> understands and uses some Māori words and phrases.


> uses verb forms “could”, “should”, and “would” to express possibilities or uncertainty.

Independent speaking

> presents simple spoken texts using basic structures in a logical sequence, for example for description, instruction or recount.

Social language

> uses a range of social courtesies including strategies for coping with disagreement 

> can express own feelings and needs clearly

> is beginning to use humour and participate in role plays.

Independent listening

> follows class talk with ease

> can remember instructions with three to five actions.


> participates in group tasks and uses talk to clarify ideas or understand simple causes and effects.


What was happening for learners in their second year at school in well-focused schools?   

Teachers typically incorporated oral language into their planning and assessment for literacy, based on high interest topics and using discovery or experiential learning. In most cases, opportunities for structured discussions were built into these experiences.

Oral language skill developmental and learning progressions were known by teachers and shared with students, so that they could set their own goals and monitor their progress. The class teacher used small group teaching where necessary to increase phonological awareness or vocabulary development. Home-school partnerships also supplemented classroom learning in many of these schools.

After further diagnostic assessment, students with identified needs were grouped for more focused teaching. Assistive technology or listening posts supported learning for some. Support from Speech Language Therapists or Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour were accessed to help teachers support students with specific learning needs. This also included utilising teacher aide support where appropriate.

English Language Learners (ELLs) were typically buddied or grouped with other speakers of their home language/s. They had ongoing opportunities to use their strongest language. Planned opportunities were used to share their language/s and culture with other students and parents. An English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programme for ELLs typically continued for their second and third year at school.


At end of third year at school 


Some examples of expectations49

A 7 and 8 year old:


> uses increasingly specific language, for example, adjectives and adverbs appreciates humour and wordplay.



> is confident in using a range of complex sentences in both speaking and writing.

Independent speaking

> can compose spoken texts designed appropriately for a range of different audiences; to create a variety of effects; and in response to feedback.

Social language

> confidently uses a wide range of strategies and social courtesies adapted for various settings

> uses verbal and non-verbal features to convey thoughts and feelings

> asks appropriate questions.

Independent listening

> can follow a set of instructions requiring six or more responses on paper or with e-device

> can follow reasonably long stories.


> participates well in pair or group work

> can adapt to different roles within a group.


What was happening for learners in their third year at school in well-focused schools?

Teachers regarded student learning as a social and communicative process, with oral language at its centre. They encouraged students to share their ideas and support each other. Teachers understood that oral language competence underpins all learning and so they ensured that opportunities for oral language learning occurred in a variety of cross-curricular contexts, as well as in English. They deliberately linked learning activities to students’ cultural and linguistic identities.

Teachers did not rely on students’ oral language skills being extended just through exposure to classroom talk. Instead, they used explicit teaching strategies and modelling when necessary to show what competent oral communicators know and do. Many teachers also used instructional strategies to ensure that new oral language learning was reinforced, and to let students know how they were doing with this new learning.

Teachers used question-and-answer sequences, not just to test knowledge, but also to develop conceptual understanding. They regularly asked ‘why’ questions and explained the meaning and purpose of classroom activities. When necessary, students were taught procedures for solving problems and for making sense of their new experiences.



34      See http://www.suttontrust.com/researcharchive/sound-foundations/

35      See http://seonline.tki.org.nz/Educator-tools/Much-More-than-Words

36      Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whāriki, He Whāriki Mātauranga mō ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa. Wellington: The Ministry: pp. 88-96.

37      See www.suttontrust.com/researcharchive/sound-foundations/

38      See http://seonline.tki.org.nz/Educator-tools/Much-More-than-Words

39      See http://seonline.tki.org.nz/Educator-tools/Much-More-than-Words

40      Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whāriki, He Whāriki Mātauranga mō ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa. Wellington: The Ministry: pp. 88-96.

41      Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whāriki, He Whāriki Mātauranga mō ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa. Wellington: The Ministry: p. 25.

42      See http://seonline.tki.org.nz/Educator-tools/Much-More-than-Words

43      See http://seonline.tki.org.nz/Educator-tools/Much-More-than-Words

44      Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whāriki, He Whāriki Mātauranga mō ngā Mokopuna o Aotearoa. Wellington: The Ministry: pp. 88-96.

45      See Appendix 5 for a description of some of the relevant learning outcomes from Te Whariki.

46      Ministry of Education. (2009). Learning Through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3. Wellington: The Ministry. (Note: These are a selection of the expectations from this resource and not the full list.)

47      Ministry of Education. (2009). Learning Through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3.Wellington: The Ministry: p. 42.

48      Ministry of Education. (2009). Learning Through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3. Wellington: The Ministry: p. 43. (Note: These are a selection of the expectations from this resource and not the full list.)

49      Ministry of Education. (2009). Learning Through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3. Wellington: The Ministry: p. 44. (Note: These are a selection of the expectations from this resource and not the full list.)