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He poutama mō te reo ā-waha

Stepping stones in oral language

Children’s oral language grows from a base of nonverbal skills to listening and taking turns, understanding and using body language, and adjusting to the audience, for example, older or younger, tuakana or teina.

Social and emotional learning is linked to children’s increasing competence in communication. See He Māpuna Te Tamaiti. Kaiako effectively support children to be confident and capable communicators by "being knowledgeable about children’s learning and development and able to identify their varied abilities, strengths, interests, and learning trajectories" (Te Whāriki, page 59).

Kaiako are encouraged to develop an understanding of whānau aspirations for their child’s language learning and development. (See Partnering with whānau for language development.) Kaiako adjust their supports to each child’s language learning pathway – English language, bilingual, or multilingual.

Kaiako and two tamariki talk while looking at learning story.

Additional information on bilingualism and multilingualism will give guidance on further considerations when you are thinking about children who are experiencing bilingual or multilingual learning pathways.

There are differences in some of the stepping stones children progress through across languages.

Dr Jane Carroll shares her thoughts on stepping stones in oral language

  • Transcript

    Transcript Transcript

    Dr Jane Carroll: So stepping stones has a wealth of information within it around how language develops and progresses. So it's a really nice resource for teachers to be able to go back to and have a look at where children's development is at. Celebrate the successes that they have, that the children have achieved, as well as looking at how they can support the next steps for children's speech and language development.

    So speech and language development isn't a skill and drill type of activity. It's a very fluid activity. Speech and language develops within a social context. It's not isolated. We don't develop our speech and language on our own. We develop it with other people. So stepping stones, actually, has some really nice ideas around developing it within the social cultural curriculum.


Below are the broad steps seen in the development of English language across speech sounds, words and sentences, stories, and social interaction.

  • Stepping stones for infants (birth to 18 months)

    Stepping stones for infants (birth to 18 months) Stepping stones for infants (birth to 18 months)

    The bullet points below show the broad progressions seen in the development of oral language in infants.

    Kaiako and infant.


    • Saying and playing with single vowel sounds, for example, "aaa, oooo, eeee".
    • Combining vowel and consonant sounds, for example "ba-ba-ba, do-do-do".
    • Jargoning – putting nonsense words together into what sounds like statements and questions.

    Words and sentences

    • Non-verbal communication, such as sharing eye contact with another person or directing another person’s attention to an object by pointing or reaching.
    • Starting to understand words in speech – understanding comes first.
    • Saying their own first recognisable word. These first words are often short versions of the real thing, for example, "na-na" for banana, "meh" for milk, or "bah" for bird.
    • Doing their own first recognisable sign, especially for children who are deaf or hard of hearing and are learning in and through New Zealand Sign Language.
    • Using imitations (imitates others’ sounds and actions) and gestures to communicate (wave for bye-bye or head shake for no).
    • Pointing to body parts or objects and picking objects up to show to others.
    • Gradually building their word bank to 50 spoken words and understanding many more words than they are saying.
    • Combining words into short sentences, for example, "More ‘nan". Their first sentences might be phrases they copy such as "all gone".


    • Enjoying stories and being read to.
    • Tracking with their eyes as pages are turned.
    • Picking out favourite stories.
    • Pointing to pictures.
    • Articulating what is in the pictures in their own way.
    • Interacting about what is happening in their immediate context of the here and now.

    Social interaction

    • Paying close attention to adults who respond to their babble/vocalisation/talking.
    • Taking turns in the conversation by babbling when the adult pauses.
    • Responding to questions, for example, yes, no, what, or where, verbally or with an action. This shows that they are listening and understanding.
    • Expressing their needs, wants, likes, and dislikes through crying, smiling, looking, and body movements.
    • Joining in waiata and songs with vocal sounds and actions.
    • Starting a conversation with a word and a point, for example, "Doggie", a short question, "What ‘dat?", or a statement, "Me want ‘nana".
    Stepping stones for infants (birth to 18 months)
  • Stepping stones for toddlers (1–3 years)

    Stepping stones for toddlers (1–3 years) Stepping stones for toddlers (1–3 years)

    The bullet points below show the broad progressions seen in the development of oral language in toddlers.

    Kaiako and child.


    • Starting to use and play with many new sounds, especially m, n, y, p, b, d, h, and w.


    • Rapidly learning new words every day – called the naming explosion.
    • Understands and expresses a range of concrete words, for example, sit, car, eat, and cup. Later develops an understanding of more abstract words, for example, warm, fast, move, or nice.
    • Starting to refer to needs, wants, and feelings, usually their own, for example, "My want ‘dat" or "I mad at you". These words help children regulate their emotions and behaviour.
    • A spoken vocabulary of 1000 words or more.


    • Combining words (or signs) into short sentences, for example, "More banana" and "My like banana".
    • Creating more complex sentences, for example, "My want to go home now".
    • Putting endings onto words, for example, "My shoeses" or "We’re having drinkers at our tea party". These apparent mistakes are actually a sign of progress.


    • Telling their first stories by talking about the recent past, for example, "Banana allgone" and the future, for example, "Want banana". This is a milestone because toddlers can now talk about images in their mind rather than describing only what they see in front of them.
    • Answering simple questions with words and phrases (what, where, or who).
    • Telling a relatively complete story about an event that happened weeks or even months earlier.

    Social interaction

    • Learning to take turns in short conversations with adults supporting.
    • Starting to take part in pretend play, for example, pretending a block is a phone.
    • Following simple verbal instructions, for example, "Shut the door".
    • Joining in waiata and songs with words and actions.
    • Starting to use common sentence openers in past and future conversations like “Do you remember when … ?”
    Stepping stones for toddlers (1–3 years)
  • Stepping stones for young children (2.5–5 years)

    Stepping stones for young children (2.5–5 years) Stepping stones for young children (2.5–5 years)

    The bullet points below show the broad progressions seen in the development of oral language in young children.

    Kaiako and child.


    • Making more difficult sounds – k, g, f, v, ch, j, sh, zh, l, r, s, z, and th.
    • Becoming more aware of sounds, and larger parts of words, for example, syllables and rhymes.
    • Making up their own rhymes, for example, bees knees. This sound play is vital for their later reading.


    • Continuing to learn new words almost daily.
    • Understanding and using words for abstract concepts (helping, above, or because), time (yesterday or tomorrow), and more complex emotions and thoughts (wish, think, or scared). These will help them deal with heightened emotions, regulating behaviour, and resolving conflicts.
    • Exploring and using mathematical symbols, concepts, and processes, for example, volume, concepts, measurement, classifying, matching, and pattern recognition.
    • A spoken vocabulary of 300-5000 words.


    • Making longer, more complex sentences (in oral language or New Zealand Sign Language) with person + action + object + time/place, for example, "I went to Aunty’s today".
    • Beginning to ask simple questions, for example, "What that?" progressing to asking complex questions like "Why is the sky blue?"
    • Ninety percent of sentences are grammatically correct.


    • Telling short stories about real-life, pretend events, and dreams.
    • More complex pretend play, for example, "Now you be the fairy and I be the frog".
    • Telling longer stories with a basic beginning, middle, lots of talk about thoughts and feelings, and sometimes an ending, for example, "There was a monster, and then … and then … it was super scary and I wished it would go away. That’s all".

    Social interaction

    • Learning to take turns in a conversation.
    • Starting to adapt their level of language use to different people.
    • Starting to predict what others may be thinking and show empathy with how they may feel.
    • Following two-step instructions without prompting, for example, "Pick up your jersey and put it in your bag".
    • By age four, most children will be able to communicate effectively in most situations.
    Stepping stones for young children (2.5–5 years)
  • References

    References References

    Acknowledgement for this section to Professor Elaine Reese (University of Otago) and Dr. Alison Sparks, SLT.

    Te Whāriki: He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa, Early childhood curriculum.

  • Useful resources

    Useful resources Useful resources

    He Māpuna te Tamaiti: Supporting social and emotional competence in early learning

    See pages 37–38 for more information on supporting children to understand, express, and regulate their emotions.

    Much More Than Words

    A Ministry of Education publication providing information about children's communication development. It includes how to make a referral to Learning Support when a whānau and early learning service have some concerns about a child's communication learning and development.

    Useful resources