Educators agree: Oral language is a critical component of literacy.

Female teacher with two small children.

As many educators holding an early childhood development degree will attest, early literacy development and growth is a process that occurs in stages throughout the first years of a child’s life, and oral language is a critical component. “Oral language and literacy develop concurrently,” said Dr. Dorothy Strickland, distinguished research fellow and online learning course content expert. “We don’t need to wait until children get into first grade before we really begin to think about literacy. It starts much earlier. And, while oral language is foundational, children who aren’t speaking—if they don’t have a strong vocabulary—are less likely to do well with literacy.”

Children’s home experiences greatly impact their language and literacy development. We know that the more we talk to children, the more words they will hear and learn over time, which is crucial to the development of their oral language skills. Unfortunately, certain cultural and socioeconomic influences can negatively impact a child’s language development.

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In fact, a renowned study conducted in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd Risley revealed startling differences in language development for children from professional homes versus those in low-income households.* For example, the recorded vocabulary size of children in professional families was statistically higher than that of a parent in a low-income family. Dr. Strickland believes this type of data is important and should be used to guide educators.

Recorded Vocabulary Size
Hart and Risley study
Professional Families
Welfare Families

“What can we do in our classrooms to make sure that these children have the kind of environment that will support language and literacy?” challenges Dr. Strickland. “[Our classrooms need] responsive adults who are positive with children, who talk with children, and who use words that expand the language base for children.” The educators best equipped to meet this need typically hold early childhood degrees, such as a bachelor’s in early childhood studies, a master’s degree in early childhood studies, or an EdS degree in early childhood education.

Fortunately, even in preschool classroom settings where the student population contains a variety of household statuses, all students benefit from best practices designed to support oral language development. Here are a few:

Greetings: Greet each child individually when they arrive in the classroom and encourage them to greet others.

Show and Tell: Encourage children to talk about and expand on experiences and interests they engage in outside of the classroom.

Story Readings: Read stories to children in a group setting, using a big book with enlarged print. Select children’s books with repetitive language patterns, so children can anticipate what will happen and understand how sentences are constructed.

Story Discussions: Encourage children to participate in discussions about books to help them practice their conversational skills.

Writing and Reading: Work with children to create varied types of text such as lists, stories, and paragraphs of information.

Language Play: Find ways to engage children in language using playful approaches like songs, tongue twisters, and rhymes.

If you are considering an early childhood development degree and are interested in the advantages of an online learning environment, The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University offers a number of programs for teachers at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels and is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

*Risley, T., & Hart, B. (1995). Meaningful Differences in Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

†Griffith, P., Beach, S., Ruan, J., & Dunn, L. (2008). Figure 2.4 on Ways to Support Oral Language Use Throughout the Day. Literacy for Young Children: A Guide for Early Childhood Educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Dr. Dorothy Strickland is a contributing course content expert for Canter®, a Walden University educational partner, with more than 50 years of experience as a reading and literacy expert. She began her career as an elementary classroom teacher and went on to serve as a reading consultant and learning disabilities specialist before assuming such leadership roles as president

Canter® Course: Teaching Beginning Readers, Resources Section 1.

Walden University is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). This accreditation covers initial teacher preparation programs and advanced educator preparation programs. As a recognized standard of excellence in professional education for the preparation of teachers, administrators, and other preK–12 school professionals, NCATE accreditation ensures that the institution has met rigorous national standards set by the profession and members of the public. However, the accreditation does not include individual education courses offered to preK–12 educators for professional development, relicensure, or other purposes.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,

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