by Becky L. Spivey, M.Ed.
How do oral language skills develop?
Communication begins with hearing and responding to sounds. Children begin
communicating and developing language the day they are born. As children grow and
develop, they begin listening for different purposes and responding with words instead
of sounds and gestures. Receptive language (listening) precedes expressive language
(speaking). Receptive and expressive language skills, or oral language skills, lay the
foundation for future success in reading and writing. These skills develop as children
have opportunities to listen to and talk with their parents, relatives, friends, caregivers,
etc. Children must be able to listen to and understand words before they are able to
produce words and use them effectively.
Learning to Read and Write
Early educators know the importance of oral language development. They ask
children open-ended and yes/no questions, expose them to and teach them to explore
vocabulary by playing with words (rhyming, substituting letters, singing songs, etc.),
and encourage them to converse with each other. However, basic communication isn’t
just talking and listening; it involves thinking, knowledge, and application of skills. It
also requires practice and training. Focusing on oral language is especially important for
children for whom English is a second language and for those not exposed to written
language materials at home.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative – 2010
importance of oral language skills. The Common Core State Standards document includes
a vigorous set of Speaking and Listening standards for grades K – 3 (and extending
through grade 12) that require educators to bring oral language skills to the forefront
of elementary classrooms. These skills help students learn to read and master the printed
word and generalize their word knowledge into other contexts.
Here are some simple activities that promote oral language development in
preparation for learning to read and write. These activities will help preschoolers be
ready to tackle the Common Core State Standards for Speaking and Listening that begin
- Engage your child in conversation throughout the day. Do not use baby talk. Speak
at an appropriate rate and volume and in normal tones without unnecessary
- Read with your child every day. Ask him or her, “What do you
think will happen next in the story? Would you have done
that? What do/did you like best about…? Do you think that
could/would ever happen to you?” This is a time to read
slowly with inflection, using different voices for different
characters. Follow words with your finger as this shows
children that reading words moves left to right across a page.
They will also see how to hold a book while reading.
- Read everything: labels, cereal boxes, road signs, menus, newspapers, comic books!
- Play games that focus on the importance of listening: Simon Says, Hokey Pokey,
Telephone, or while reading, ask questions like, “Do you remember the dog’s name?
What did the family do after dinner? Who do you think is coming to visit?”
- Teach the rules of conversation early (listening and speaking): do not interrupt
someone that is speaking, take turns speaking, stay on topic, use an appropriate
volume while speaking (inside/outside voices), etc.
- Create opportunities for children to follow and give oral directions that follow a
sequence using simple crafts, activities, chores, or while playing games.
- Use language for a variety of purposes: singing, reading and talking about signs,
reading books, following recipes, writing or reading an email to Grandma, etc.
- Ask children questions about and discuss age-appropriate topics: What do like
best about preschool/your babysitter/going to the park/shopping…?” Encourage
children to ask questions of others. “Ask Mr. Brown where he got his new puppy!”
- Prompt children to talk about and describe their feelings and ideas. How do you feel
about asking the neighbors over for dinner? What do you think we should do today?
- Ask open-ended questions. What would you do if….? What if you had …?
Where would you go if...? Encourage children to extend their answers by expanding
the question….But what if you couldn’t ….? What do you think would happen if
you…? Who/what would you take with you?”
- Teach new words and incorporate them into normal conversation. Instead of stir the
eggs and sugar together, say, “Let’s blend the eggs and sugar together.”…etc.
- Make letter flash cards. Begin teaching letter names and sounds starting with the
letters in the child’s name. Teach only a few letters at a time. After mastery of those
letters, add a few more. Do not start with all 26 letters! Cover a table top or a wall
around the bathtub with shaving cream. Let the child “write” words or draw letters
in the shaving cream.
- Talk about things that begin with the same sound as his/her name. After learning
“B” is for Beth, help the child name other objects that begin with “B” or the /b/
sound: bat, ball, bathtub, bell, etc. Then move on to other letters and naming objects
that begin with that letter sound. Have a “B” letter hunt. Have the child find the
letter “B”/”b” in books, on signs, and on packages.
- Teach your child to recognize environmental symbols and signs: restroom,
emergency, danger, exit, hospital, cross walk, stop, railroad, etc. Quiz the child
while riding in the car, “What do you think that sign says?”