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Oral language – We all talk, don’t we?

Written by Elaine Newton, CORE Education, April 2011

The challenge

I recently re-read an article from The Observer[1], which got me thinking about the role of teachers in developing children’s oral language. The writer was suggesting that with the advent of forward-facing pushchairs, our infants and toddlers are missing out on many vital opportunities for interaction (both verbal and visual) with the person pushing them.

Certainly when my children were young, sitting in ‘old-fashioned’ backward-facing pushchairs, we had a running conversation as I pushed them along - babbling and echoing each other, noticing people, hedges, numbers on letterboxes, singing songs, and all manner of ‘conversation’ together.

My children had no difficulty getting my attention – we were facing each other! Contrast that with the infants we see today – sitting silently, being thrust into the world and unable to catch their parent’s attention without great effort. Added to this the advent of mother’s walking groups, where the chat is adult-to-adult, and iPods which isolate the wearer, and the interaction between adult and child can become minimal.

Implications for oral language development

What are the implications of this for us as teachers of young children?

A number of neuro-linguistic researchers (Kuhl, 2004[2] and Christakis et al., 2009[3]) have identified the backwards and forwards interaction between infants and adults as the factor that makes the most difference in babies and infants’ language development. 

Sitting in front of television or videos, merely listening to stories without conversation and comment, all lead to slower rates of oral language development and measurably smaller vocabularies in children. Think too, about the many clever ‘devices’ we have to entertain our very young children – baby ‘gyms’, which hang above their heads when they are very young; jolly jumpers, which keep them amused with an occasional comment from a nearby adult.

When these devices are used to silence or to entertain the child, while mum gets on with ‘more important’ tasks, the child is isolated from the very thing that develops their language and interaction skills. If the research is correct, the danger that some of our children are leading impoverished lives is very real.

What difference can teachers make?

If as teachers, we are to help children develop oral language in ways that ensures they have language sufficient to think with, to express themselves, and to enable them to cope with reading and writing, we need to know a great deal about how oracy develops, and what the components of speech are. 

I challenge you to think about what the smallest element of a spoken word might be – think about the following words – say them out loud:

the     |     flag     |     straight     |    instrument

  • How many sounds are in those words?* How many syllables? Are there more letters than sounds?
  • Do you know how children learn to write the words they are hearing – which parts of the word they learn to write first?
  • Do you understand the rhythm of language, and how important it is for children to ‘play’ with rhyme?

The ‘nonsense’ games we play with words serve a very real purpose in the development not only of children’s oral language, but their ability to move on to written literacies. (If I want to write bat, and I know it sounds like cat with a different beginning, I will be able use what I know about cat to help me.)

How aware are you of children whose hearing might be a little below par? Even a very small hearing loss, due to colds and ear infections, will have a profound effect on what the child is hearing, how they understand what is happening around them; and over a longer period, their chance of success in reading and writing.

Over the next few weeks, try focussing on what you know about language. Try ‘sounding out’ words to determine how many sounds there are; try breaking words into syllables – are there the same number of syllables as sounds?

I will explore the building blocks that make up speech and written language - phonemes, phonetics and graphemes[4] - in the next article. Watch this space.


* The number of sounds in the words mentioned above are:

the (2), flag (4), straight (5), instrument (10) 

Were you right?




  • [1] Clark, L. (2008, Nov 21). Babies in front-facing buggies suffer 'trauma' and grow into 'anxious' adults, says study. Online Daily Mail.
  • [2] Kuhl, P. K. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Neuroscience, 5, 831-843.
  • [3] Christakis, D. A., Gilkerson, J., Richards, J. A., Zimmerman, F. J., Garrison, M. M., Xu, D., Gray, S., & Yapanel, U. (2009). Audible television and decreased adult words, infant vocalizations, and conversational turns: A population-based study. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 163(6), 554-558.
  • [4] Word list taken from: Carroll, J. (2006). Phonological awareness: Investigating the phonological awareness of New Zealand Primary Schools’ educators. SET.


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  • Glenda Albon

    What a fascinating article. I did know lots of things mentioned about spoken language, but had never stopped to consciously think about the number of sounds in a word. 'Instrument' got me thinking. I certainly didn't get 10 sounds at first. This is yet another way to validate the importance of being totally focussed and engaged with infants and toddlers as we interact and share our spoken language with them.   

  • Elaine Newton

    Yes Glenda you are right about the importance of work with infants and toddlers.  It saddens me when centres have untrained teachers working with infants and toddlers, then buy programmes such as Jolly Phonics to 'fill in' the gaps in children's phonemic awareness in a rush to get them ready for school.

    There are two TED videos that are of interest in this regard: Deb Roy, The Birth of a Word. Talking about how babies learn words. He recorded and analysed his own child from birth to give a fascinating insight into how children learn to speak

    The second one is Patricia Khul, The Linguistic Genius of Babies. We are all born with the ability to recognise every linguistic sound - very quickly we become language-specific. How do babies develop language-specific sound knowledge?  This talk offers an interesting insight into how this happens.


  • Megan Jensen

    ECE Online - Infants and toddlers 'resource' survey

    Kia ora. We want to ensure that the resources we are making available on ECE Online - Infants and toddlers are useful and relevant for teacher practice.

    You could assist us with this by telling us what you think: