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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

The place of oral language in literacy learning

Oral language underpins literacy learning. Oral language (or a signed language) is the medium through which people develop thinking, build comprehension, and communicate ideas.

Most students come to school able to talk and understand a spoken language. They have learned to communicate within familiar settings and to adapt their language use to a range of situations. In New Zealand, some have learned (or are learning) English as an extra language.

So, for some students, starting school involves a change in the dominant language of interaction. Their language and literacy practices may differ from those used at school. The teacher’s task is to build on what these students know and can do.

In addition, all students starting school need to learn new ways of listening and speaking that underpin the New Zealand curriculum:

  • Using social language
  • Independent speaking
  • Independent listening
  • Using discussion skills.

These are described on pages 25–27 and discussed on pages 64–70 of Learning through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3. The teacher’s task is to introduce all students to these ways of communicating.


Words are key tools that we use to communicate through texts. Words are also the tools that we use for thinking.

Students need a large vocabulary and an awareness of how words work to enable them to recognise and understand written words.

They also need to learn the words used in the classroom to talk about language, texts, and learning.


Grammar means the rules that speakers use to structure a language, including syntactical rules (such as those governing word order in English) and the rules relating to morphological structures (such as suffixes in English). In other languages, many of the rules are different.

All students benefit from explicit discussion of these rules. For students learning English as an additional language, such discussion is essential. They need it to make use of the information in text (for example, to know if a sentence “sounds right”). Such students develop positive advantages (in thinking and depth of understanding) when they are supported to make links between their first language and English.

Background information

  • For more information, see Learning through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3, pages 7–29 (A Focus on Oral language and Knowledge of oral language learning)

Updated on: 20 Nov 2014