Language and literacies in early childhood services

The importance of oral language as the foundation of literacy learning

It has been said that “reading and writing float on a sea of talk”. Children who develop strong oral (or signed) language abilities before going to school are more likely to experience success well into their school years, especially when it comes to learning to read. This is because it is only through the words children know and use that they are able to think, have ideas, and make sense of their world and their lives.

Therefore, kaiako who offer effective literacy programmes also pay particular attention to the quality of talk and interactions. They are interested in what infants and young children express through gesture or words and they take time to listen and respond. When kaiako take this time, children learn that their ideas and thoughts are of interest to others. This encourages children to communicate more, strengthening their oral language abilities.

Exploring multiliteracies in early childhood education

The impact of new technologies and globalisation has meant that concepts of literacy have greatly expanded. While reading and writing print are still central to what it means to be literate, the ability to make sense of visual and oral texts has become just as important. The term “multiliteracies” reflects the idea that messages are now produced and received in a combination of ways.


Britton, J. (1970). Language and learning. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press.

Learner focus

Literacy as social practice

Kaiako concerned with promoting literacy take into account the many and varied ways that children “read” and interpret information, and how children share, state their views, and create meanings about the wider world. The literacy practices that are significant in the everyday lives of children do not occur in isolation to their interactions with adults, older children and peers, and significant social events.

Building on cultural experience

It is well documented that young children are more likely to experience success in learning to be literate when kaiako, children's families, and the wider community have a shared understanding about what literacy involves, what counts, and what is valued by everyone.

Using a multiliteracies framework, kaiako acknowledge the significance of children's unique cultural and social skills, knowledge, and understanding in becoming literate in today’s culture. Kaiako who understand this promote literacy practices that take account of the beliefs, attitudes and expectations of children, their families, and members of the wider community. Children therefore experience literacy that is meaningful to them and built around their interests, knowledge, and expertise.

In twenty-first century families, children often have exposure to technology and use it in sophisticated ways that kaiako can build on. Diverse literacy practices might include children creating and recording their own digital stories or making movies. These and other literacies bring with them new and different social practices and social relations, as children, kaiako, families and whānau learn together across social, cultural, and linguistic situations and contexts. Kaiako may find themselves asking "who is the expert here" as they recognise the wealth of cultural knowledge each child and their family brings to the literacy experience.

Implications for early childhood kaiako practice

Kaiako who operate a rich literacy curriculum:

  • are curious about the social and literacy practices children enjoy outside their service, using these as a jumping off point for planning literacy experiences and activities
  • recognise that being literate in today’s world involves much more than written literacy (reading and writing)
  • are attuned to the literacy potential of everyday events and experiences and draw children’s attention to this
  • actively support dual and multi-lingual literacy conventions and practices
  • hold expectations that all children, including infants and toddlers, are in the process of becoming literate
  • are confident in their knowledge of how literacy learning progresses as children develop
  • value parent and whānau views and expectations on literacy
  • are keen to see children learning what they can do with literacy, as well as the skills they need to be literate
  • model being literate themselves with enthusiasm and interest.

Kaiako also ensure that as children grow and develop from infancy onwards, the language or languages they experience around them become more varied. This happens when kaiako:

  • make time for conversations with individuals and small groups of children
  • use specific and descriptive vocabulary in their everyday interactions matched to the child’s level of language development
  • make the most of languages spoken at home as the foundation for language learning
  • extend on the vocalisations and gestures of infants
  • delight in talking about words and language with children
  • know when and how to be playful and expressive with language
  • tell and read stories frequently
  • offer a variety verbal games and waiata, repeated often
  • consider language and vocabulary as part of their their programme planning.

Useful resources

Building oral language through storytelling

Christine Alford is an ECE teacher and 2016 CORE Education Efellow. Christine’s research looked at ways in which materials and the arts can be used to promote storytelling for young children.

COMET – Talking Matters

Talking Matters is a community-wide initiative, run by the Auckland City Council , bringing together education, health, and social services with whānau to promote the importance of talking more and talking differently with children to maximise their potential.

Extending their language – expanding their world: Children’s oral language (birth – 8 years)

Extending their language – expanding their world is a resource developed by the Education Review Office that explores effective pedagogical and leadership practices that promote children’s oral language development. Leaders and kaiako need to know how children’s oral language develops and recognise the ways both the curriculum design, and kaiako practice, can promote rich oral language learning. Examples of effective practice are provided to provoke early learning services to reflect on, and strengthen oral language practices in their setting.

Literacy practices – Education Review Office

These two literacy reports developed by ERO “highlight the variety of factors, activities and experiences that go into the development of children’s early literacy skills”. The two reports outline strategies for teaching, as well as examples of what literacy learning can look like across a range of early childhood services.

Much More than Words

Much More than Words is a resource developed by the Ministry of Education that provides information and ideas to support kaiako and parents to facilitate children’s oral literacy development through the child’s skills and interests.

“Children need the adults around them to actively support and encourage their communication development. The more we know about how to support and encourage, the more we can help children develop their communication skills through play and social conversations in real-life situations” (p. 4).

New Zealand Sign Language

Learn NZSL is a free learning portal on New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). Download the NZSL dictionary onto your mobile device and get a word of the day in NZSL and te reo Māori.

Now we’re talking – Ko Awatea

Now We’re Talking provides an opportunity for ECE services to work collaboratively to develop new approaches, test ideas, and formulate measures for improvements in the identified communities.

On the path to literacy through a pair of shoes and smelly socks

An account of a teacher very effectively using a every day event - putting on socks and shoes - to have a playful conversation with a 2-year-old.

Oral language awareness

The Ministry has developed resources to support Oral Language Awareness and learning for parents, schools, and Early Childhood Centres. The resources include posters for schools and Early Childhood Centres and a pamphlet for parents. These resources form part of the Ministry’s response to the recent ERO report titled Extending their language - Expanding their world: Children’s oral language (birth – 8 years).

Hard copies can be ordered from the Ministry of Education warehouse at

Oral, visual, and written literacy – Kei Tua o Te Pae

Kei Tua o Te Pae provides excellent resources to support literacy teaching and learning.

“Children who have enjoyed the opportunity to talk, describe, argue, reason, justify, question, and explain will have developed language skills that predispose them to literacy with purpose, understanding and pleasure” (Book 17, Oral, visual, and written literacy). Two particular resources are:

Picking up the Pace

This research project delivered concentrated professional development in literacy instruction to groups of early childhood and new entrant teachers in decile one schools in Mangere and Otara. The outcome was a substantial lift in the reading and writing achievement of new entrants. Picking up the Pace was a component of the Early Childhood Primary Links via Literacy (ECPL) Project, which was part of a much broader project, Strengthening Education in Mangere and Otara (SEMO). This project aimed to raise achievement significantly among students in these two communities.