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Te reo pānui me te reo ā-waha

Reading and oral language

A benefit of book reading is that it exposes tamariki to words and phrasing that they may not normally hear or use in everyday talk.

Reading together and storytelling are valuable interactions for fostering children's oral language, social and emotional development, self-concept, and sense of belonging.

Poetry, story books, pūrākau, pakiwaitara, fiction, and non-fiction offer opportunities for tamariki to enjoy and experience different narrative structures (the elements in a narrative and how they are organised), for example, a poem about rain, te maramataka poster (Māori lunar calendar), and an illustrated, non-fiction book about water.

Book reading is also a way for tamariki to build vocabulary in te reo Māori and a range of languages.


“The way we read, with emphasis, expression, and drama, makes words clearer. It helps children discriminate between sounds and helps them retain the rhythm and playing out of language and sound.” 1


A kaiako and infant reading a book in te reo Māori.

The best books for developing oral language are those that the child likes and that kaiako and children can have a conversation about – either in small groups or one-on-one.

  • Include books set in New Zealand and around the world.
  • Include picture books that are visually and verbally reflective of the language, culture, and identity of tamariki.
  • Having books available in home languages in your service demonstrates that you value children's cultural heritage and provides them with opportunities to talk about familiar contexts.

For promoting conversation, print books are better than e-books. Print books with less text or even wordless picture books are best.

At any age, book reading is a great way to practise serve and return exchanges.

Professor Claire McLachlan shares her thoughts on reading and oral language

  • Transcript

    Transcript Transcript

    Professor Claire McLachlan: Okay, so it's a really interesting question isn't it to think about how you might use Talking together to inform your practice. I think one of the things which is really important, and I'm sure others in the series will say the same thing, is that story reading is really, really important for supporting both oral language and for early literacy. One of the things which you can use story reading for, is in a playful and a meaningful way, you can support children to develop what are known as both constrained and unconstrained skills.

    So constrained skills in terms of early literacy are things like knowledge of the alphabet and word families. You know, block, clock, lock all belong to the same word family. And you can teach that through good choice of children's books.

    The unconstrained skills are things and there is, sorry, I should just backtrack. There is a limit to the number of things which are included in the constrained skills. There are only a certain number of words and letters in the alphabet. There are a certain number of word families so that they're finite. Whereas the unconstrained skills are things like phonological awareness and vocabulary, and listening comprehension. And those things are never ending, you know. I'm still learning new words and learning to comprehend new understandings.

    So I think teachers can use their storybook reading to be supporting learning in both of those areas. You can also use different approaches to story reading, and they have different outcomes for children in terms of learning. So one of the approaches, which has been identified, is that you use a print referencing approach to story reading. Where, you know, you're literally pointing out that the black bits on the page are the words. And you might be emphasising, you know, that that word is an 's', and it makes the word 'splash'. So you're really emphasising the print. And the fact that those black bits tell you the words to say on the page. And that's a really useful approach for supporting knowledge of the alphabet, for supporting word recognition, for all of those sorts of things. And also understanding concepts about print – that the print goes from top to bottom, from left to right in English, and so forth.

    The other approach that we might use for story reading is a dialogic or a questioning approach. And in this approach, teachers take it much more slowly. And they may not even get through the whole book. But they would stop and they would ask questions about the pictures, about what children think may happen next, about their understanding of what they've read. So they're quite different approaches. But those approaches support vocabulary knowledge. They support comprehension. So these things are all useful skills. So I think it's important that teachers think about how do they go about the reading of the book that they've chosen?



  • Board books that they can touch roughly (even chew) are best, with simple pictures and only a few words per page.
  • At this age, you’re trying to set up a positive routine with books.
  • Don’t worry if infants only want to look at one or two pages of a book together.
  • The interaction with the infant and the cuddle time are most important.


  • Picture books are all about learning new words for toddlers – object words, action words, or feeling words.
  • While they’re in the naming explosion period,2 be sure to include some books with realistic drawings or photographs.
  • Their attention spans are still short, so a five-minute conversation about a few pages of a book is better than simply reading the text to try to race through the whole book. They will learn to finish books later on.

Young children

  • Broaden their choices to include books with a storyline and books about facts, for example, rhyming and non-rhyming.
  • Try to have a deeper conversation about new words, cause and effect, and feelings – linking the story to children’s own lives.
  • Introduce basic literacy concepts such as the front and back, author and illustrator, and text versus pictures.
  • Point out the conventions of print by sometimes pointing to words as you read them and to the pictures as you talk.

Revisiting children's documentation

Revisiting and reading documentation – photos, videos, and narrative assessments such as learning stories – is a particularly effective way to encourage conversation. This is because tamariki themselves are usually centre stage in these resources, giving them added confidence and motivation to talk. When kaiako use learning stories as a way to talk about a shared memory (a rich reminiscing approach), it creates engaging conversations where tamariki extend on their storytelling capabilities.3

Whether in book or electronic form, documentation needs to be accessible to tamariki for it to be effective in fostering oral language.

  • Keep profile books in a central area and eportfolios easily accessible on mobile devices.
  • Where possible, add new stories with tamariki – because toddlers and young children like to discuss recent, past events.
  • Kaiako who were not involved in recording documentation can express genuine surprise, "Oh my goodness, what were you doing there?"
  • Let tamariki choose how to tell the story. For example, "Lily, you tell me the story. What’s happening here?" Then use echo and add techniques to keep the conversation going.
  • Let tamariki take a series of photographs of an event, for example, cooking. Recount the story as you record it digitally or on paper. Practices like this give kaiako and whānau a way to see how tamariki storytelling skills are progressing over time.

Child looking at their learning story book.

Story of practice: Singing, reading, and drawing

During a busy morning in an a‘oga amata, the faia‘oga/kaiako sat down to read a favourite story, O le isumu ma le fe‘e. She followed a well-established ritual of singing to welcome those who wanted to come to the whāriki. After repeating the song twice, the children were ready to look and listen.

The faia‘oga held up the book and started to read the cover page. Pointing to the title, the author, and the illustrator, she explained what these meant. Her pace was intentionally slow and predictable, allowing time for spontaneous interactions. After reading the printed words on each page, she sometimes encouraged children to look closely at the pictures. In this way, the text was enhanced by rich, descriptive language that connected the storyline to the illustrations. Her tone of voice clearly differentiated between reading the text and the responsive conversations about the story.

When the book was finished, the faia’oga suggested the children illustrate their own version of this story. The session ended as it began, with a song.

Further strategies

For further strategies see: