Smart talk: Improving children’s oral language
by Janie F. Haywood and J. Helen Perkins
We must continue to create a nation of readers. The
skills needed for reading begin to develop in early childhood
as children acquire oral language. Oral language refers to
talking, listening, taking part in conversation, and understanding
stories, for example.
Early childhood teachers and caregivers play a critical role in children’s
language development. By engaging children in oral language activities, we lay
the foundation that will enable children to learn to read and write.
Oral language precedes reading
Children begin to acquire language the day they are born. Their
cries, their ability to distinguish sounds, and their coos
and babbles are all beginning attempts at language. Their language
continues to dramatically develop during their first three
years (Savage, 2000).
According to Morrow, Strickland and Woo (1998), children imitate the language
of adults and create their own when needed. Children will continue to use language
when their attempts are positively reinforced.
During their early years, children need supportive adults who will engage them
in conversation, read to them, and provide experiences in which they can learn
new words (IRA and NAEYC, 1998). Children also need adult role models for reading
and writing activities—reading the newspaper and writing a note to parents,
for example. Children with these experiences will have a tremendous head start
when they begin school.
Oral language precedes a child’s acquisition of reading skills such as
phonemic awareness and comprehension (Reutzel and Cooter, 2003). Phonemic
awareness is the ability to recognize the smallest units of speech sounds, and comprehension is the ability to understand what is read—identifying the story’s
main character or retelling a story that was read aloud, for example.
Talking leads to learning
Children must have a receptive (listening) and expressive (talking)
use of oral language so they can become successful readers
(Clay, 1979). Talking to children helps build their vocabulary.
Oral vocabulary refers to words children recognize in speaking
or listening (National Reading Panel, 2000).
Children learn the meanings of most words indirectly; meaningful talk is powerful
(CIERA, 2001). Children between the ages of 2 and 6 learn an average of 6 to
10 new words a day (Reutzel and Cooter, 2000). They learn these words through
everyday experiences. They learn not only by talking with adults but also talking
with other children.
Children also learn words by having books read to them. When 4- to 5-year-old
children hear a single book reading, their expressive vocabulary significantly
improves (Senechal and Cornell, 1993). Reading the same story several times
allows children to hear adults repeat new words and to review words they find
The size of children’s spoken vocabulary is important. They will use
the words from their oral language to make sense of the words they will read
in text. In hearing Little Bear’s Friend, for example, 4-year-old Jacob
might recall how he made a new friend on vacation. The more children’s
oral language mirrors the written language they encounter, the more successful
they will likely be in reading (National Reading Panel, 2000; Bridge, 1978).
When texts relate to oral language experiences, children quickly discover that
written and oral language are parallel forms of language that serve similar
purposes for communication (Reutzel and Cooter, 2000).
Rich oral environment serves as scaffold
Teachers and caregivers can provide a scaffold for improving
children’s oral language. In simplest terms, a scaffold
provides support for children while they are learning.
For example, an 11-month-old child is just beginning to walk but still falls
sometimes. Her father reaches out his hand to help her to walk to her destination.
She’s excited because with his help she is able to walk without falling.
She will need her father’s hand for only a while; she will be able to
walk by herself soon and no longer need the scaffold, or support, from her
More specifically, scaffolding is an adult-child collaboration that fosters
cognitive growth, or learning (Berk and Winsler, 1995). For example, a 2-year-old
points at the refrigerator and says, “Juice.” While Ms. Haywood
is opening the door, she says, “Crystal wants some juice.” She
takes out the juice and gives it to the child: “Here’s some apple
juice.” The child is happy because she has what she wanted.
In this example, Ms. Haywood has provided a scaffold. She is saying in a complete
sentence what the child will eventually say on her own. Ms. Haywood is also
using standard English, not baby talk. By providing this support, Ms. Haywood
is helping the child develop oral language and eventually become a reader.
Extending or rephrasing a child’s attempts at speaking is one aspect
of an environment rich in oral-language opportunities. Equally important is
actively listening to children. Stopping what you are doing, gaining eye contact,
waiting until the child has finished, and occasionally rephrasing what the
child has said helps the child feel heard. Active listening by an adult encourages
a child to talk more, to try unfamiliar words, and to experiment with sounds.
Another important element of a rich oral-language environment is reading to
children. Children love hearing stories and are fascinated with the sounds
of words. They will grow up connecting books and reading with warm, pleasant
times. They will also imitate the reading habits of adults around them.
Discussing stories will help children understand how meaning is made. It will
help them to understand the story and make their own meaning. Discussing stories
will also help children to understand story elements such as plot, characters,
theme, problem, and solution. (See box at left for more reading tips.)
Offer oral-language activities
A rich environment enhances children’s language development
indirectly. You can also enhance development directly by providing
activities aimed specifically at improving oral language skills.
Infants and toddlers
Read: Read to infants for at least 30 minutes a day. Read stories
or poems. While reading, position your mouth or face where
the infant can see it. While reading to toddlers, encourage
them to turn the pages.
Talk: Talk to infants about what you are doing. Talk about
changing the diaper, washing hands, and putting on shoes, for
example. Use short and simple sentences.
surrounding objects: Pronounce the names of objects that
surround the baby such as bottle, diapers, and table. The baby
will begin to connect the sound of the word to the object.
and listen: Talk about what you see and hear. When a baby
drops a spoon, for example, say, “Did you hear that? Your
spoon hit the floor.”
simple directions: Give a toddler simple directions and
recognition for completing the task. “Please go and get
your cap.” “Yes! You got your cap. Now you can put
it on your head.”
toys: Have stuffed animals, puppets, and other toys
available for children because playing with them will encourage
children to talk.
Play “Follow the Leader”: Encourage children to
follow you around the room and name each object you touch.
about family pictures: Ask parents to send a family photograph
(one they need not have returned), and encourage children to
talk about it.
open-ended questions. Frame questions so they require the
child to answer with several words, not yes or no. Ask questions
such as “If you wanted to have more fun in this play yard,
how would you change it?” and “What did you do at
your grandmother’s house yesterday?” Be sure to listen
while the child talks.
A rule of thumb is to begin questions with “wh” words. Questions
that begin with who, what, where, when, and why (and how) encourage children
to talk and to begin to explain their answers. They will use more words. Sometimes
they will use words they didn’t know were in their vocabulary.
props: Place props in the dramatic play center or use
at circle time. A dentist kit, for example, may encourage children
to talk about their experiences in going to the dentist.
art work: Encourage children to discuss their creations: “Tell
me about your painting.” “How did you feel while
making this collage?”
while playing: Encourage children to talk while playing
in the block building and dramatic play centers; these activities
are interactive and collaborative. While children are playing
and talking, their vocabulary will improve because they hear
themselves and remember some of the words they have heard adults
Play “Objects in a Bag”: Place a few items such
as a cap, plastic cup, and spoon into a bag. Have the child pull
an object from the bag and talk about it. The child can describe
the object and talk about how it’s used.
sounds in nature: Tape record sounds from outdoors.
While playing sounds such as birds, moving vehicles, and dogs
barking, encourage children to talk about what they hear. Encourage
children to write about or draw pictures representing the sounds
a puzzle: While working with a child to solve a puzzle,
talk about the pieces, colors, and shapes. Encourage conversation.
field trips: Expose children to a variety of experiences
by visiting the zoo, library, park, and museum. Encourage children
to make comments and to ask questions. Encourage children to
tell their families about their trip.
or tell a story every day. Vary the reading format, using
books as well as flannel board and puppets, for example. Have
a well-stocked book center that children can use on their own.
a story: Read a story and record it on tape. Make the
tape available for children to play and enjoy as many times as
pantomime: Encourage a child to retell their favorite
story or pretend to be a character from the book in front of
a rhyme game: Say “Ball rhymes with call.” Spell
out the words—“Ball, b-a-l-l and call, c-a-l-l.” Encourage
the child to say the words to feel and hear how they rhyme.
Sing songs and chants. Be ready to sing the same songs
over and over.
labels: Help children to read the labels on items. Make
labels for objects in the classroom, such as “wastebasket,” “door,” “blocks,” and “paint.”
writing materials: Encourage children to write by making
available materials such as a variety of paper, pencils, non-toxic
crayons, paints and brushes, and washable markers. Set up a special
place for reading and writing.
a story: Have the child dictate a story to you while
you write what the child says.
notes: Write the child a note, such as “Wow! You
caught the ball three times today.” Read the note to the
child in an expressive way.
books from your library: Set up a book lending program
so children can take books home to read with their families.
Oral language activities lay the foundation for future literacy learning. By
providing a rich oral-language environment, engaging children in responsive
conversation, and reading to them, you will help children acquire the skills
they need to read and write.
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About the authors
J. Helen Perkins, EdD, is a literacy expert and assistant professor
at the Center for Teacher Education, Southern Methodist University,
in Dallas, Texas.
Janie F. Haywood holds a CDA credential and
is an experienced early childhood educator in Houston, Texas.