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Language and literacies

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”. 

From their first moments of awareness, children start to develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes about oral, visual, and written language, symbols, and texts of their own and other cultures. Throughout early childhood, children become increasingly competent and confident in their ability to enjoy, interpret, create, and express meaning in a range of contexts, for a range of purposes.

Oral language and literacy (visual and written language, symbols and texts) are two key, overlapping areas in the Communication strand.


Oral language

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, interpret, and write. This is because the words children know and use help them to think and share ideas. Over time, they recognise how both language (oral and sign) and print can support them to make sense of their world and their lives.

Kaiako who are interested in what infants and young children communicate through gesture or words 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. Using a range of mediums, like songs, rhymes, and stories from different cultures, strengthens their ability to enjoy, interpret, create, and express meaning in a range of ways. 


Oral language and literacy are described as the nature and nurture of communication because both are recognised as important foundations for future learning. Kaiako who offer effective literacy programmes also pay particular attention to the richness and quality of talk. Interactions in the early learning environments support broad notions of literacy as oral, visual, and written communication.

When young children use symbols to write a story, they also reveal that they understand the function of print and demonstrate that they can re-tell a story.

Book reading provides rich literacy-learning opportunities. Kaiako and children can use different kinds of stories to:

  • explore concepts about print
  • engage in discussions about the story (linking to children’s experiences).

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

In our increasingly multicultural society, the idea of multiliteracies is a reality throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. Social practices at home, in early learning services, and in the wider community support rich oral language and literacies.

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 aspects matter most, 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

“The curriculum must be wide enough to incorporate the familiar as well as unlocking the unfamiliar” (Professor Stuart McNaughton, 2002)

Support for oral language and literacy require awareness and planning. For example, learning to tell and retell stories requires kaiako support for children’s story schema - the concept that a story has a beginning, middle, and end. The learning outcomes in the Communication strand of Te Whāriki act as guides for curriculum design, including what to document to build a full picture of a child’s language/s and literacies, and how to progress these. Both planned and spontaneous observations contribute to a continuum of development for kaiako and children to use as a reference for designing curriculum.

Kaiako who implement a rich literacy curriculum:

  • provide rich, responsive oral language interactions
  • 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 (unconstrained skills), as well as the skills they need to be literate (constrained skills)
  • intentionally support children’s story schema (knowing that stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and may include a climax)
  • 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 of verbal games and waiata, repeated often
  • consider language and vocabulary as part of curriculum design.
  • References

    References References

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

    McLachlan, C. (2021). The essential skills and understandings children need for lifelong literacy success

    McNaughton, S. (2002). Meeting of minds. Wellington: Learning Media.

  • Useful resources

    Useful resources Useful resources

    Dialogues about two year-old dialogues in 'Preschool'

    This website, which includes a number of videos, represents a study that looked at how 2-year-olds operate in early childhood spaces and how kaiako might alter their practices to support learning for this age group. This research was led by Professor Jayne White, Waikato University.

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

    An account of a Kaiako very effectively using an everyday event – putting on socks and shoes – to have a playful conversation with a 2 year-old.

    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.

    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.


    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.

    Useful resources