The Six Essential Skills
Oral Language

The Importance of Oral Language for Literacy Success

Oral language lays the foundation for the reading and writing skills children will develop as they enter and progress through school. Providing students with high-quality early childhood education enriched with a supplemental program promoting oral language and literacy development can help young students become proficient readers by third grade. 

Research has shown that oral language—the foundations of which are developed by age four—has a profound impact on children’s preparedness for kindergarten and on their success throughout their academic career. Significant disparities in vocabulary and language processing efficiency are already evident at 18 months between infants from higher- and lower- socioeconomic (SES) families, and by 24 months there can be a 6-month gap between SES groups in processing skills critical to language development. Fernald, A., Marchman, V. A., & Weisleder, A. (2013) Child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published the results of their oral language development study (Hart & Risley, 1995) The study was designed to determine why preschool-aged children from low-income homes did not perform as well in school at the age of nine as their economically advantaged peers. They recorded and analysed the words spoken between parents and children one hour a month over a period of two and a half years. By the age of three, there was a large gap between children whose parents provided rich language experiences, such as talking to children, singing, reading, and so on, and children who grew up with fewer languages experiences at home. Children with rich language experiences heard about 45 million words compared to the latter group of children who heard only 13 million words. This is just one reason why we start the Steps to Reading Program with toddlers.

Children typically enter school with a wide range of background knowledge and oral language ability, attributable in part to factors such as children’s experiences in the home and their socioeconomic status (SES) (Hart & Risley, 1995; Fernald Marchman, & Weisleder, 2013). The resulting gap in academic ability tends to persist or grow throughout their school experience (Fielding, Kerr, & Rosier, 2007; Juel, Biancarosa, Coker & Deffes, 2003), which is why a strong focus on oral language development in the early years is imperative for future academic success. 

Since some children enter the school environment already four times behind their peers due to sheer exposure to words (Hart & Risley, 1995), it is critical to ensure kindergarten assessments include components of oral language so educators have the appropriate data to target instruction. Research has indicated that these early skills are among the strongest indicators of future success (Foorman, Koon, Petscher, Mitchell, & Truckenmiller, 2015b), so an early screener of language skills and an early and intensive focus on oral language skills—before students can read independently—is imperative for all students to read at grade level and succeed in all other subject areas. Parents and early years educators have a focus on this within the Steps to Reading Program.

In 2002, the National Reading Panel (NRP) reviewed and summarised scientific evidence on reading and its implications for teaching children to read. Within the report five components were identified; essential to the success of any reading program: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency development, vocabulary development, and comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2002).

Many English language arts scholars believed other critical components, such as oral language development, had been left out (Garan, 2001; Krashen, 2001; National Education Association, 2013). See 'The Big Six' podcast from Deslea Konza.
Oral language development is often missing from reading and writing programs, leaving teachers to wonder why their students are still struggling or taking longer than expected to become proficient speakers and readers.

While the essential components listed by the NRP all contribute to a successful literacy program, if children do not have a solid foundation in oral language, communicating effectively and learning to read can be a long and difficult process. “Children’s speaking and listening lead the way for their reading and writing skills, and together these language skills are the primary tools of the mind for all future learning” (Roskos, Tabors, & Lenhart, 2009).

Oral language proficiency has a major impact on students. All standardised testing in the United States, UK and Australia is done in academic or standard English, therefore, children whose personal language is not an academic language are at a disadvantage.  Children need to be able to speak academic oral language in order to become successful learners and readers in the classroom while their personal language is still valued and maintained.

This 30 million word gap (2003) presents a problem for classroom teachers in today’s high-stakes educational environment. The students are not starting out on an even playing field, and teachers are charged with the responsibility of getting the children who are behind caught up and reading at grade level. The good news is that academic oral language can be taught, and that an early intervention program like Steps can reach our most vulnerable children early, if incorporated within childcare settings.

Repeated exposure to rich language can help children become successful communicators, readers and writers (Simmons & Kameenui, 1998; Himmele, 2009). Educating parents on the importance of oral language and encouraging them to communicate and read with their children as early as possible can help prepare them for school. Teaching parents TO READ by attending Steps to Reading sessions with their children, also addresses this wide spread issue.



Covey, Stephen (1990). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York City, NY: Free Press.
Fernald, A., Marchman, V. A., & Weisleder, A. (2013). SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science , 16 (2), 234–248.
Fielding, L., Kerr, N., & Rosier, P. (2007). Annual Growth for all students, Catch-Up Growth for those who are behind. Kennewick, WA: The New Foundation Press, Inc.

Fillmore, Lily W. & Catherine E. Snow (2002). What Teachers Need to Know about Language. McHenry, IL: Delta Systems.

Gamse, Beth C., Howard Bloom, James J. Kemple, Robin Tepper Jacob (2008). Reading First Impact Study: Interim Report. Retrieved from MDRC website:

Garan, Elaine (2001). Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Phonics, Phi Delta Kappan, volume 82, pp. 500-506.

Hart, B. & T. R. Risley (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Hart, B. & T. R. Risley (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator, Spring 2003, 4-9.

Hernandez, Donald (2011). Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. Baltimore, MD. Retrieved from The Annie E. Casey Foundation website:

Himmele, P. & W. Himmele (2009). The Language-Rich Classroom: A Research-Based Framework for Teaching English Language Learners (pp. 30–33). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Juel, C., Biancarosa, G., Coker, D., & Deffes, R. (2003).Walking with Rosie: A cautionary tale of early reading instruction. Educational Leadership, 60, 12–18.

Krashen, Stephen D. (2001). More Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel (NRP) Report on “Fluency”. Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 83, pp. 119-23.

National Reading Panel (2002). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Rockville, MD;

Roskos, Kathleen A., Tabors, Patton O., & Lenhart, Lisa A. (2009). Oral language and early literacy in preschool: Talking, reading, and writing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Simmons, & Edward J. Kameenui. (1998). What reading research tells us about children with diverse learning needs: Bases and basics. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

  • Steps to Reading - Part of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach

© 2020 Steps to Reading Program - Teaching Reading and Spelling in the Early Years - Part of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach from Miss Emma, The Reading Whisperer 

Steps to Reading Program

Parents and EY Teachers please use this link to order a membership.