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Young father talking and laughing with preschool son

Basics: Oral Language

Oral language encompasses both speaking and listening. Oral language skills include learning how spoken words sound, what words and sentences mean, and how to communicate ideas. Nurturing oral language skills provides a strong foundation for learning to read.

Reading rests on a sea of spoken language.

Britton, 1970

Oral language skills include learning how spoken words sound, what words and sentences mean, and how to communicate ideas. A child’s early language skills form the bedrock for learning to read and write print.

Learning to talk is natural but learning to read is not

Children learn how to speak and communicate without formal instruction in language. Most children say their first words between 12-18 months old. By the time most kids enter kindergarten, they have mastered the fundamentals of language and can communicate easily with family and peers. Young children learn to navigate a complex system of spoken language that includes phonological (sound) components, semantics (meaning), and syntax (grammar). They must also negotiate the rules and situations when language is used

What is the relationship between oral language and learning to read? 

Research like the National Early Literacy Panel Report (2010) tell us that young kids with better oral language skills have an easier time learning how to read. Conversely, children who have difficulties with listening and speaking tend to have difficulty learning to reading and write.

Dr. Julie Washington: The connection between speaking and reading

Speech-language pathologist Dr. Julie Washington says that the oral vocabulary a very young child brings to the reading process is key to success. (From our webcast, From Babbling to Books)

Is this because children with strong oral language skills know more words and word meanings? Although vocabulary size is important, research shows that comprehensive oral language skills are a better predictor of how well a child will read in the future, even better than vocabulary alone (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2005).

Parents and educators can support oral language development by encouraging children to engage in purposeful conversations. Be intentional about using sophisticated words, asking questions, and engaging turn-taking in conversation during informal times, e.g., centers, recess, or family mealtimes. Reading stories aloud and talking about books is one surefire way to foster oral language skills in the classroom.

The role of speech-language pathologists

But when should educators and parents be concerned that a child needs more support learning to listen and speak? Oral language is critical for reading since it promotes phonemic awareness, comprehension, and vocabulary. Most schools and communities have speech language pathologists (SLPs) who can assess a child and treat language and speech problems. 

SLP’s provide targeted interventions to develop students’ speech skills. They can also collaborate with teachers to design effective reading instruction that addresses oral language skills. SLPs help remediate speech and language issues, foster oral language development, and support better reading instruction in schools. You can find out more about SLPs and resources to support oral language by visiting the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) website: Information for Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) (opens in a new window).

ASHA offers a wealth of helpful information for educators and families. Browse these key articles shared by ASHA on Reading Rockets

Modeling read-alouds for parents

Speech-language pathologist Dr. Julie Washington says that most important thing about read-alouds with very young children is offering positive, joyful experiences around reading. (From our webcast, From Babbling to Books)

How do early language experiences contribute to a child’s ability to read?

Dr. Mark Seidenberg talks about the importance of oral language, early vocabulary acquisition, and knowledge about the world on learning to read.

Bringing up baby

Parents are a child’s first teachers and those early years are key to creating a strong foundation for later reading. The Reach Out and Read program works with pediatricians across the country to help parents and kids start off on the right foot. 

More on oral language

Browse our oral language resource library

Learn more about the importance of oral language in children’s literacy development through our articles, tips for parents, video, FAQs, and research briefs. Visit our Oral Language section