Oral language

Oral language is an important focus of literacy teaching for the role it plays in learning to read as well as for the purposes of communicating through Speaking and Listening.

Oral language skills and early experiences with print contribute to success with reading, with Konza (2016), Lervag et al. (2018) and Oxley & de Cat (2021) identifying that early oral language development is one of the important precursors for success with reading and writing.

This section is focussed on the role of oral language as one of the elements of learning to read, along with vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, phonics and phonological awareness. Oral language has long been recognised as an element of learning to read and write (Castles et al., 2018; Dougherty, 2014; Lervag et al., 2018; Konza, 2016; Tunmer & Hoover, 2019; Jones & Christensen, 2022) as it develops foundational concepts of language both spoken and written. For most students the introduction to language comes through the oral interactions they have with others. Through these oral interactions students build knowledge of sounds or phonological awareness. They also develop understanding of word and sentence structure, meaning, connections between words and as well as vocabulary and their capacity to use flexible language structure.

The importance of oral language

It is through oral language that most students are introduced to the language concepts relevant to both producing and understanding spoken and written language. Research such as Konza (2016), Lervag et al. (2018) and Oxley & de Cat (2021) suggests that students’ ability with oral language provides an indication of how easily they will learn to translate oral language knowledge and skills into an ability to decode and comprehend written language. Knowledge about language and skills in using receptive and expressive oral language all contribute to students’ understanding of sounds in words or ‘phonemes’ and their relationship to letters or ‘graphemes’, required for the decoding aspect of reading and the encoding aspect of writing.

Fluency with oral language or the ability to speak with accuracy, appropriate speed and prosody (expression and phrasing) (Rasinski et al., 2021), supports a reader’s attention to reading for meaning when reading aloud, rather than needing to concentrate on the sounding out of each word. This assists with successful comprehension of what is read (Konza, 2016; Marzano, 2020; Afflerbach, 2022; Pressley et al., 2023).

Theory to practice

Oral language skills involve ability with expressive language (ability to communicate a message to others) and receptive language (ability to comprehend and understand oral language when others are speaking) (Massonnié, et.al., 2022). Oral language use exists in a social and contextual landscape.

Pragmatic language competence is part of expressive and receptive language. The pragmatic component of oral language, that is the knowledge of, and ability to use, the social conventions surrounding language use, involves cognitive functions such as ‘planning, attention, concentration, and self-monitoring’ (Alaudinova, 2022). It also involves the ability to draw inferences from both oral language and surrounding contexts (Alaudinova, 2022) requiring both explicit teaching according to audience, purpose (function) and context, as outlined in Effective speaking and listening instruction. This should be combined with ample opportunity for students to practice how oral language is used in different contexts and with different people. In addition, explicit teaching of the decontextualised language used for teaching and learning in school is required. Decontextualised language is used for explaining, recounting and reflecting about abstract concepts, actions, people or objects that are not currently present (Rowe, 2013). As decontextualised language is often difficult for early literacy learners, teachers need to consider the supports and structured explicit teaching required to build this understanding.

Evidence base

Cervetti, Pearson, Palincsar, et al. (2020) provide evidence of the role of early oral language skills for decoding and listening comprehension for reading comprehension. This applies to both early readers and students later in the primary school years. A focus on developing language in the early years of school is crucial (Kieffer, Biancarosa, & Mancilla-Martinez, 2013) as reading involves moving from oral language to mapping oral language knowledge and skills onto the written mode of language (Snowling & Hulme, 2021). In this study, as in a similar study with a sample of English children at risk of reading difficulties, Hulme, Nash, et al, (2015) found that students’ oral language skills prior to school provided indicators of how they would progress with decoding skills and reading comprehension. This confirmed the move from considering 5 essential elements (phonics, phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension) as contributing to early reading to adding ‘oral language’ as the sixth element (Konza, 2014).

Links to curriculum

The Victorian Curriculum English in the Speaking and Listening mode provides guidance about what should be taught. The other modes of the English curriculum (Reading and Viewing and Writing), as well as other curriculum learning areas, all have knowledge, actions and skill development mediated by Speaking and Listening as highlighted in Effective speaking and listening instruction.

At each level of the curriculum and across all disciplines, spoken texts are included with written and multimodal texts, to be explored, analysed and created. This is outlined in Speaking and listening across the curriculum.

Links to Victorian Curriculum - English as an Additional Language (EAL)

Refer to Speaking and listening and EAL/D learners.


Afflerbach, P. (2022). Teaching readers (not reading). The Guilford Press

Alaudinova, D (2022). Theoretical approach of oral communication competency. Society and innovation 3(3/S), 147-151.

Castles, A., Rastle, K. & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition from Novice to Expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5-51

Cervetti, G. N., Pearson, P. D., Palincsar, A. S., Afflerbach, P., Kendeou, P., Biancarosa, G., ... & Berman, A. I. (2020). How the reading for understanding initiative’s research complicates the simple view of reading invoked in the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 55, S161-S172.

Dougherty, C. (2014). Starting off Strong: The Importance of Early Learning. American Educator38(2), 14. Dougherty, C. (2014). Starting off Strong: The Importance of Early Learning. American Educator, 38(2), 14.

Hulme, C., Nash, H. M., Gooch, D., Lervåg, A., & Snowling, M. J. (2015). The foundations of literacy development in children at familial risk of dyslexia. Psychological science, 26(12), 1877-1886.

Jones, M. E., & Christensen, A. E. (2022). Learning to Read. In Constructing Strong Foundations of Early Literacy (pp. 33-46). Routledge.

Kieffer, M.J., Biancarosa, G., & Mancilla-Martinez, J. (2013). Roles of mor-phological awareness in English reading comprehension for Spanish-speaking language minority learners: Exploring partial mediation by vocabulary and reading fluency. Applied Psycholinguistics, 34(4), 697–725. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0142716411000920

Konza, D. (2014). Teaching reading: Why the" Fab five" should be the" Big six". Australian Journal of Teacher Education (Online)39(12), 153-169.

Konza, D. (2016). Understanding the reading process: The big six, In J. Scull and B. Raban (Eds.), Growing up literate: Australian literacy research for practice (pp.149 - 176). Eleanor Curtain Publishing.

Lervag, A. Hulme, C. & Melby-Lervag, M. (2018). Unpicking the Developmental Relationship Between Oral Language Skills and Reading Comprehension: It’s Simple, But Complex. Child Development, 89(5), 1821-1838

Marzano, R.J. (2020). Teaching Basic, Advanced, and Academic Vocabulary: A Comprehensive Framework for Elementary Instruction. Marzano Resources https://www.marzanoresources.com/reproducibles/teaching-basic-advanced-academic-vocabulary

Massonnié, J., Llaurado, A., Sumner, E., & Dockrell, J. E. (2022). Oral language at school entry: dimensionality of speaking and listening skills. Oxford Review of Education, 48(6), 743-766.

Oxley, E. & de Cat, C. (2021). A systematic review of language interventions in children and adolescents with English as an additional language (EAL). The Language Learning Journal, 49(3), 265-287

Pressley, T., Allington, R. & Pressley, M. (2023). Instruction that works: the case for balanced teaching. (5th ed.). The Guilford Press.

Rasinki, T.V., Yates, R., Foerg, K., Greene, K., Paige, D., Young, C & Rupley, W. (2021). Impact of Classroom-Based Fluency Instruction on Grade One Students in an Urban Elementary School. In T. Rasinki, W. Rupley, D. Paige & C. Young (Eds.), (pp. 55-63). Reading Fluency. MDPI. https://doi.org/10.3390/books978-3-03943-269-1 

Rowe, M. L. (2013, November). Decontextualized language input and preschoolers' vocabulary development. In Seminars in speech and language (Vol. 34, No. 04, pp. 260-266). Thieme Medical Publishers.

Snowling, M. J., & Hulme, C. (2021). Annual Research Review: Reading disorders revisited–the critical importance of oral language. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry62(5), 635-653.

Tunmer, W. E., & Hoover, W. A. (2019). The cognitive foundations of learning to read: A framework for preventing and remediating reading difficulties. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties24(1), 75-93.