Language and pre-reading skills

Oral language plays an important part in learning to read. This has long been recognised (Dougherty, 2014) and the relationship between oral language ability and academic success is well established (Brinkman, et al., 2009; Hoff, 2012).  Research now tells us of the link between disadvantage and low levels of language and communication, whereby there are significant gaps in vocabulary between children from the least disadvantaged and most disadvantaged backgrounds (Save the Children, 2015). Acquiring language depends on both the amount and quality of language they are exposed to as well as the interpersonal context in which it occurs (Hoff, 2012). Joint attention and parent–child book reading are considered to be among the most important interpersonal contexts that facilitate children’s early vocabulary development. Joint or shared attention refers to the practice of sharing attention (usually visual) by following the focus of another person’s attention or by drawing their attention to one’s own focus of attention (Williams et al., 2001). Joint attention and parent–child book reading are vital to help close gaps in early language development, school readiness and academic achievement (Farrant, 2012).

What is ‘oracy’?

Oracy may be seen as an outcome of talking confidently, appropriately and sensitively. It is a process, whereby students learn through talk, deepening their understanding through dialogue with their teachers and peers (Alexander, 2012). Oracy involves teachers and their students thinking carefully and deliberately about the sorts of spoken language they are using, and this will vary across subjects and with different age groups. Different types of talk will be appropriate at different points in the learning cycle, and Robin Alexander outlined five key types of ‘teaching talk’ (Alexander, 2008):

  1. Rote: imparting knowledge by getting students to repeat key pieces of information to impart facts, ideas and routines.
  2. Recitation: using questions to test students’ knowledge and understanding, to check students’ progress, and stimulate recall.
  3. Instruction: telling students what to do and explaining key facts, principles or processes in order to transmit information.
  4. Discussion: encouraging the exchange of ideas within a class, to share information.
  5. Dialogue: using structured questions and discussion, helping students deepen understanding of key knowledge, principles and processes.

Communication and language approaches

These emphasise the importance of spoken language and verbal interaction for young children and are based on the idea that children’s language development benefits from approaches that explicitly support communication through talking, verbal expression, modelling language and reasoning. Communication and language approaches in the early years include reading aloud to children and discussing books, explicitly extending children’s spoken vocabulary by introducing them to new words in context and drawing attention to letters and sounds. They also include approaches more directly aimed at developing thinking and understanding through language, such as ‘sustained shared thinking’.

Communication and language approaches consistently show positive benefits for young children’s learning, including their spoken language skills, their expressive vocabulary and their early reading skills. On average, children who are involved in communication and language approaches make approximately six months’ additional progress over the course of a year. All children appear to benefit from such approaches, but some studies show slightly larger effects for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some types of communication and language approaches appear, on average, to be more effective than others. There is consistent evidence that reading to young children and encouraging them to answer questions and talk about the story with a trained adult, is an effective approach. A number of studies show the benefits of programmes where trained teaching assistants have supported both oral language and early reading skills (EEF, 2019).

For example, the Education Endowment Foundation Early Years Toolkit Early Years Toolkit Communication and language approaches 

In order to maximise students’ literacy and learning, teachers need to have solid understandings of oral language and its potential as an educative tool.

Oral language involves expressive and receptive skills.

Expressive language encompasses the words and actions used to convey meaning, including tone, volume, pauses and inflections.

Receptive language is the understanding of language expressed by others. Expressive and receptive oral language are often referred to as ‘speaking and listening’.

Effective vocabulary instruction and exposure to a rich language environment with opportunities to hear and confidently experiment with 'new words’ can boost literacy skills.  A really good read is Bringing Words to Life (Beck et al., 2013) describing classrooms ‘rich in words’, and this work is brought up to date in a recent article by Beck & McKeown (2018).


Alexander R (2008) Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Classroom Talk. 4th ed. York: Dialogos UK.

Alexander R (2012) Improving Oracy and Classroom Talk in English Schools: Achievements and Challenges. In: Department for Education seminar on Oracy, the National Curriculum and Educational Standards, London, 2012.

Beck I., McKeown, M. & Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing Words to Life. Guilford Press.

Brinkman, S., Sayers, M., Goldfeld, S., & Kline, J. (2009). Population monitoring of language and cognitive development in Australia: The Australian Early Development Index. International Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 11(5), 419–430.

Dougherty, C. (2014). Starting off strong: the importance of early learning, American Educator. 18 (2), 14-18.

Farrant, B.M. (2012)| Australian Institute of Family Studies, Family Matters No. 91 pp.38-46.

Hoff, E. (2012). Interpreting the early language trajectories of children from low-ses and language minority homes: Implications for closing achievement gaps. Developmental Psychology. doi:

Nutbrown, C. (2006) Key concepts in early childhood and care. London: Sage.

Save the Children (2015) Ready to read: Closing the gap in early language skills so that every child in England can read well. (accessed 20 November 2020).

Williams, J., Whiten, A., Suddendorf, T. & Perrett, D. (2001). Imitation, mirror neurons and autism. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 25(4), 287–295.