Part 1. Key principles of early childhood literacy
Part 2. Embodied non-verbal literacies
Part 3. Spoken and written literacies
Part 4. The power of stories
Part 5. Course conclusion


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In this part of the course, we focus specifically on spoken and written literacies in early childhood contexts, recognising oral languages and print as important ways that young children learn to make meaning for themselves and to communicate meaning with others. As with embodied, nonverbal literacies, the development of spoken and written literacies starts from birth (some say even before), and is shaped by cultural practices at home. Children enter early childhood settings with prior knowledge of communication, languages, and print as experienced in their family homes. 

In this part of the course, we will consider the following aspects of spoken and written literacies in early childhood settings:
  • Oral languages, including speaking and listening, vocabulary and comprehension, and children’s experiences at home 
  • Phonological awareness, or building awareness of sounds in words by playing with rhythm, syllables, rhyme, and phonemes (sounds) 
  • Print awareness, or building awareness that written symbols carry meaning, and that sounds correspond with letters

We will also focus on ways that early childhood teachers can encourage children to develop spoken and written literacies through everyday interactions.

This will involve:
  • Watching a video in which Professor Claire McLachlan talks about how to support spoken and written literacies in early childhood settings
  • Reading about the skills and knowledge that underpin later literacy development
  • Watching a video in which the teachers we met in Part 2 of the course discuss the ways in which they promote spoken and written literacies in their different contexts
  • Reflecting on your own practice in relation to the promotion of spoken and written literacies
  • Building on your inquiry into your focus child by looking at how they learn and use spoken and written language

Revisit your learning so far

What have you learned so far about the ways your focus child uses different kinds of literacies through play (gestural, tactile, spatial, visual)? What did you learn from the parents and/or family? Did you see any patterns in how the child engages in literacies across both home and early childhood settings?

Watch a video

Listen to Professor Claire McLachlan from Federation University in Australia talk about key aspects of spoken and written literacies, and how teachers can help to foster children’s oral languages and their awareness of speech sounds and print in early childhood settings. 

Introducing Claire McLachlan

Professor Claire McLachlan is the Executive Dean of the Institute of Education, Arts and Community at Federation University Australia. Claire became involved with early childhood through Playcentre with her oldest son and became fascinated with early literacy when her second son had reading difficulties on school entry. She did her PhD on how literacy was promoted and practised in New Zealand kindergartens, and has completed several other studies of literacy in ECE settings. She has strong interests in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and evaluation. Claire was privileged to be a member of the writing team for the revision of Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 2017) and has been the editor of the New Zealand practitioner journal, Early Education, since 2006.

What we do know is that, through language development, children develop the neural systems in the brain, and they literally develop the pathways for language. So if children are not hearing language, and are not having those kind of serve and return type interactions with family or with teachers in early childhood settings, they’re literally missing out on being able to build the brain.

What are the critical aspects that underpin children’s development of spoken and written literacies?

We can’t stress enough how important oral language is. Oral language is the absolute foundation for literacy, so it’s terribly important that children are supported to develop oral language, because it then lays the foundation for literacy, and it predicts their linguistic and their cognitive skills throughout life. So, that first three years in which children are learning to talk – it is so important. The next thing is that we know that there are – there was a very famous report which was the National Panel that looked at early literacy in 2009, and they said that there were five critical understandings that children needed to develop if they were to become literate. I’ll read these, because it’s important we get them right. So, the first of these is knowledge of the alphabet. The second is phonological awareness, so that’s being aware of the sounds in words. The third is the ability to rapidly name letters, numbers, objects, or colours. So, just quickly – you can do it really fast. The fourth is the ability to write their own name. The fifth is about being able to remember spoken information for a short period of time, so literally being able to have a spoken memory for a period of time. Now, the reason these are so important – certainly the first two are really important, the knowledge of the alphabet, and phonological awareness – is they support the development of the alphabetic principle, and that’s the understanding that the spoken sounds in words can be represented in print. So, literally that mapping of sounds onto words is so fundamental to learning – to be able to decode, to read, and then to encode, which is to be able to spell it. So, you’ve got to be able to hear it. So, that relationship between print and sound is crucial.

What do teachers need to know in order to support the development of spoken and written literacies?

I think they need to know the predictors of reading achievement, like oral language, like phonological awareness, like vocabulary – and recognise when children are developing them. So, I think, within their assessment it’s important that teachers pay really good attention to when they see children displaying literacy knowledge and skills, because they do, and you can see it quite early. So, I think capturing where you can see development happening is important. The second thing that’s important, I think, is about teachers knowing about children’s language or linguistic capacity, and in what language, because you’ve got many children who are bilingual or multilingual within New Zealand, and so it’s important that you can find ways to talk with families about what is their language development, and their literacy development like in their first language, in their home language, and what is it like in English. The languages inform each other, so they do learn from the other languages. 

They have to provide lots of opportunities for literacy in the early childhood environment. There’s a very old piece of research now that says that you need about 25 books per child in the resource, and that the books need to be of many different genres. So, they’re fairy-tales, they’re rhymes, they’re poems, they’re encyclopedias – you’ve got a whole range of types of books, and you’ve got enough that you can cycle them around, so that they’re always fresh. So, changing-up the environment is important. Further than that, teachers need to talk to parents about what literacy looks like at home, because if you don’t know that, you can’t build on it. I’ve done this actually through simple surveying and found out all sorts of things that teachers didn’t know about what was going on at home, so then you’re able to build on it in the service. Finally, coming back to the literacy resources, they need to know which literacy resources are effective, and why? Which children would you use these with?

What can ECE teachers do to foster oral language and literacy development?

One of the biggest things that early childhood teachers can do in this space is help children with language. So, the opportunity to speak, and also the opportunity to develop a really big vocabulary. So, vocabulary is kind of right up there, because it’s so important in terms of comprehension. It’s important that children have lots of really interesting experiences, and have the vocabulary that goes with those experiences made available to them, because that’s what’s going to help them with comprehension when they get into the school. So, I think the richer the experiences children have, and the richer the vocabulary experiences that go with that, the better.  There are some fundamental things around providing a really rich language and literacy environment in the centre, but you come back to principles within that rich literacy environment of access and mediation. So, Vygotksy’s notions that children need to have access to resources, and then they must have somebody who mediates it for them. So, there’s no point in having gorgeous resources sitting on the shelves, and nobody every looking at them – you have to have a teacher who’s prepared to play with children, to talk with children, to show children how to use things, because some of these things will be unfamiliar to them. 

The key things that teachers can do above and beyond that is have a range of really effective pedagogies so that they have different ways in which they engage both with different ages of children, but also at different times, and that they make maximum use of – Bruner talked about the teachable moments, so I think when you can see a child showing an interest, that you pounce on that moment, and make the most of it. I have heard some terrible stories about how little storybook reading is happening with individual children, and I think if you’ve got times to read with children, whether that’s in small groups or big groups, or with individuals, that you’ve got to take those moments, and give children those rich opportunities. So, I think that’s the key thing, that teachers are using a range of pedagogies that they’re offering a rich diet of opportunity to children, and that it’s presented as something which is fun – it’s enjoyable.

Delve deeper

In her interview, Claire talks about the critical aspects that underpin the development of spoken and written literacies in the early years, including the importance of teachers knowing about oral language, phonological awareness, and print awareness. Here is a summary of some key points to consider under each of those areas: 

  • Oral language – children learn about language through listening and speaking with others in their homes and early childhood environments. Children develop both language comprehension (understanding), and expressive language (being able to use words and sentences). Vocabulary refers to the words that children understand and can use – their vocabulary builds as they learn through rich experiences and everyday interactions with others. Children’s language comprehension develops as they gain an understanding of the meaning of words and sentences, along with knowing when and how to use language socially as they engage in conversations and play.  
  • Phonological awareness – an awareness that words have structure as well as meaning. Phonological awareness includes learning about rhyme, rhythm, syllables, and being able to identify sounds, or ‘phonemes’, in words (known as phonemic awareness). Identifying and using these features of sounds and words are central to the later development of reading and writing, where children start to access meaning via print. 
  • Print awareness – being able to listen and identify sounds, syllables, and rhyme is an essential foundation for children to learn to match the sounds they hear to the corresponding letters and words that they see in print. In addition to phonological awareness, creating a print-rich environment and intentional interactions provides children with opportunities to learn about all the ways that we use print to communicate (such as drawing a picture, writing a birthday card, reading a recipe while baking, or searching Google maps for directions). Through interactions that support print awareness, many children will start to identify sound-letter combinations as they see the written symbols in their early childhood environment – for example, they may be interested in looking for the letters in their own name. 

Further practical tips and ideas for supporting language, phonological awareness and print awareness are included in the rest of Claire’s interview in the Further Reading section at the end of this part of the course. You will also find more ideas and resources related to each of these areas.


In what ways do you and your team intentionally support and extend children’s oral language, phonological awareness, and print awareness in your early childhood centre?   


In the following research review, Professor Claire McLachlan further highlights essential aspects of lifelong literacy success in reading and writing.  

Literacy development is about both nature and nurture

Most children are born with the potential to develop literacy but require both access to literacy resources and mediation from adults and other children to help them develop literacy skills. This helps children develop unique ‘funds of knowledge’ about literacy to bring to their literacy learning. 

Teaching strong literacy skills in early childhood has a lifelong effect on their learning and achievement

When children start school with limited experiences of literacy relative to their peers, this creates what is known as the Matthew effect, whereby the more experienced children learn more while the less experienced children fall further behind, and the gap between the two groups grows. Children who have had rich experiences before reaching formal schooling usually learn to read and write without much difficulty, but those who lack these experiences or who have learning difficulties may struggle to learn, and the difficulties that stem from this initial disadvantage can still be observed until the age of about 10. 

Teachers need to know what the predictors of reading achievement are and be able to recognise them when observed

Key predictors of children’s literacy achievement include knowledge of the alphabet, phonological awareness, the ability to rapidly name objects, letters, numbers, and colours, the ability to write their own name, and the ability to remember spoken information for a period of time. Knowledge of letter-sound correspondence is not essential in early childhood, but children should recognise that different letters have different sounds. Other important skills are knowledge of print conventions and symbols, being able to match and discriminate visual symbols, and finally a strong oral language base and rich vocabulary (which are incredibly important for children’s listening comprehension). 

An understanding of the alphabetic principle is also a significant development, in which children comprehend that the sounds that they are hearing can be represented in print. This helps children with decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) words. During early childhood, children put all these understandings about literacy together, providing a solid foundation for them to build upon in the early years of school. The school-based Literacy Learning Progressions are helpful for understanding what skills, abilities, and dispositions are important on school entry.  

A literacy curriculum is wide enough to incorporate the familiar while unlocking the unfamiliar

This idea is helpful for building on children’s home experiences while ensuring a rich range of literacy experiences for every child. Literacy in the home may be different to what they experience in ECE settings: for example, it may primarily involve digital devices, or it may be strongly related to church activities. Teachers can use a profile sheet as children enter the early childhood service or talk to parents about what the child enjoys at home, as well as providing suggestions of literacy activities that might suit families to do at home.

Using different kinds of story reading promotes all kinds of emergent literacy skills

One approach to story reading involves print referencing, in which teachers focus on the print and emphasise aspects of print during the reading. Another is a dialogic style of reading where teachers engage in dialogue with children around the book, questioning, predicting events, and explaining new words. Books that are full of rhyme and rhythm are helpful for developing phonological awareness. Working with small groups may be more effective than running a large group mat-time and, wherever possible, teachers should commit to reading to children every day and ensure that all children get equitable opportunities for sharing books with an adult. 

If children have a strong foundation in their first language, it is easy to build English on top of it

It is important that teachers encourage children’s home language(s) and build on these to support their understanding of English. They should find out about children’s skills in their home language by talking with parents (using a translator if necessary) about things such as whether children recognise the symbols that are used in the home script, whether they are interested in hearing stories, and if they use some of the words that they hear in those stories. 

The learning outcomes in Te Whāriki’s Communication strand can help teachers to think about methods of data collection for recording children’s progress

Some data collection might be spontaneous, such as when you see a child writing a letter or hear children using the language of a story you’ve read, but otherwise teachers will need to actively seek data on children’s literacy development. A digital portfolio for literacy can be useful for collecting audio, video and photographs, and revisited every three to six months to determine children’s progress. 

To read the full version of this review, with references, click here.


In the article, Claire emphasises ways that teachers can foster oral and visual or written literacies in early childhood settings, which recall suggestions in the reading in Part 1. Think about your own practice. What are your strengths as a teacher or teaching team in supporting oral and written literacies in your setting? What areas would you like to develop further?  

Watch a video

In this video, Jodi and Kelly from Stokes Valley Kindergarten and Irene & Angela from Elim International Kids ECE talk about specific ways they facilitate spoken and written literacies as part of their everyday interactions with children in their settings. They also discuss how they incorporate children’s home languages into their programmes and interactions.

Kelly: We have a child-led curriculum. So, as teachers, it’s about ensuring that we are looking for those teachable moments, so our intentional teaching, where we’re working alongside children, thinking of those strategies that we have learned, and how to use that to enrich oral and written literacy. We’re using facilitation, especially when it comes to social situations with children. It’s about facilitating interactions with each other. Then, by doing that, we’re able to do use role-modelling, scaffolding, and helping children to enter and exit play, for example, and by using those using those rich languages – and repetition is a major one for children. For them, hearing those conversations all the time is how they’re going to acquire the oral literacy. It’s also those nappy-changing moments, or helping a child get dressed. It’s verbalising what we’re doing with them.

Jodi: It’s describing, isn’t it?

Kelly: Yeah, describing as a strategy, so making that child feel safe, because something is happening to them, so by putting words to that, it’s making them feel safe and secure in our interactions, but it’s also a rich language conversation for them, as well.

How do you promote written as well as oral language?

Angela: One of the things we do is, with the environment, making it print-rich, making those different areas of learning – domains, pockets of learning – such as having an art area where children can go and get paper and pen, and feel free to write and scribble at their own pace, as well as having a quiet area for reading if they just want space to their own, as well as an area for music, dramatic play. So just giving them lots of areas to explore and express themselves through different means.

Kelly: If we look around our environment, there is text everywhere. So, whatever area you’re working in with children, you have that opportunity to refer to that, to talk about it, to talk to it, to listen to children when they’re referring to it, as well.

How do you incorporate children’s home languages and cultures into everyday interactions?

Angela: From the first settling visit, it’s something that’s quite important to our centre, that we always ask the parents, ‘is there another language that you speak at home with the children?’ We ask for particular phrases, usually around day-to-day routines, so things like ‘sit down’, ‘time for a sleep’, ‘time to eat’ – and then we’re able to sort of incorporate it, and introduce it to the other children as well. We have a young child whose mother is from Peru, so they speak Spanish at home, and when she started asking for water, she’d always say ‘agua’. The other children have become so familiar with it, that now, whenever they ask for water as well, they say ‘agua, agua’, and everyone understands what it means, so it’s a nice shared understanding, and sharing of culture and language.

Irene: A very big activity that highlights this language would be singing, so the waiata.  So, we often sing one song that would highlight the language, and it’s amazing to see children able to follow through, identify with that language. So, in Samoan we have this Le Aute song, so you can see children also like learning how to do the actions. For the Filipino song we have the ‘Tong Tong Tong Tong’ – the crab song.  So, it’s something that the children really like when they hear that song, they would know already how to act out the actions.

Angela: Songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – we have lots of variations of that in so many languages. We’ve got one in Fijian – ‘Kalokalo’ – as well as in Mandarin, ‘Yi Shan’, as well.  So, it’s a familiar tune, but in another language that the children can learn another variation of it.

Kelly: The most important thing that we believe in is your relationships with families and parents. So, to be able to work with home languages, and promote it, we need to have those strong relationships, because we need to be able to ask families what they want from their ECE experiences for their children, and then reciprocating it when we are the learners as well. The whole concept of ako – we’re all learning together. So, we need to be able to reach out to our families and ask them, ‘what language do you speak at home? Do you have resources? Can you support us? We have that culture within our kindergarten that we can go to people and they will share their knowledge and expertise. When that comes in, then we use it through Storypark in our assessments. We’re writing our learning stories or smaller snippets, and we will include the home language in those, for the whānau. That’s what we read out to children when we’re on the floor, or if they’re reading that at home, it acknowledges their identity, and it enhances that side of it. So, we’re really proud that we have that culture within our kindy community with our home language. When you come in here, you see it, as well. You hear it. You are greeted by the teachers in your home language, so children and whānau are hearing it, and then they’ll see it. It’s printed it on our documentation through our project work.  English and te reo are obviously our two major languages in our bicultural curriculum, but we will still incorporate, depending on the children that we have in our kindy at the time, so we really pride ourselves on doing that, and the whānau feedback is amazing because they see it acknowledged, and then they become enthusiastic, and they want to share. So we’re all working together to make sure that children are hearing their home languages and whānau are seeing it and hearing it as well.

Delve deeper

Jodi and Kelly talk about supporting oral and written literacies through their child-led programme at the kindergarten. As teachers, Kelly and Jodi see it as their role to work with and alongside children to create opportunities for children to express themselves and to interpret the world around them. Kelly and Jodi also talk about using intentional strategies to facilitate rich conversations and social interactions during everyday play and care moments. They look for teachable moments, describing, role-modelling during play, and providing repetition of language as examples of intentional strategies that help to build and extend children’s oral and written literacies. Similarly, Angela and Irene talk about the importance of setting up opportunities for infants and toddlers to explore and express themselves at their own pace in different domain areas, including books, art, music, and dramatic play. Teachers in both centres refer to the importance of having a print-rich environment, where children can see written texts and refer to them. 

Kelly and Jodi also describe the ways they nurture and promote the home languages of all children in their kindergarten by fostering relationships with parents and families. The concept of ako is important here, recognising that teachers are sometimes learning from parents and asking about how best to support their home languages in the kindergarten. Teachers make the effort to use children’s home language in their learning stories and other documentation shared with families. 

Angela and Irene also talked about learning from families about languages used at home, and they keep a note of words and phrases relating to everyday routines such as eating and sleeping that they can incorporate and use with all the children to promote shared understandings of culture in the centre. Songs or waiata are another way to promote children’s home languages, as well as the languages of others in the early childhood setting. 


Jodi and Kelly talked about using intentional strategies to support spoken and written literacies in their kindergarten. Claire also talked about some fun ideas for fostering phonological and print awareness in her video. As a teacher or teaching team, do you have favourite activities for fostering children’s phonological and print awareness in your setting?  

For further inspiration, check out following resources and the ideas on supporting phonological and print awareness in the reference list.

Relate your learning to practice

Over the next week, record one or more aspects of spoken and written literacies in relation to your focus child. For example, you could choose one of these ideas:

  • observe and record how the child demonstrates their understanding of spoken language during play and conversations
  • observe and record how the child expresses themselves using sounds and words during everyday interactions in the early childhood environment – what are some examples of the vocabulary they use? 
  • if the child’s home language differs from the language used in the setting, ask the family to share some words and phrases they use at home, then share these with other children and teachers. What are some other ways you could reinforce children’s home languages in your early childhood environment?    
  • try out some of the ideas to encourage phonological awareness during play and conversations (rhythm, rhyme, syllables, identifying the first sounds in words)
  • try out some of the ideas to encourage print awareness during play and conversations, or think about how you could enhance your environment to ensure it is print-rich and stimulating 


In Part 3 of the course, we learned that:

  • Oral language is an essential foundation for learning to read and write
  • Rich oral language environments at home and in the early childhood setting support the development of children’s vocabulary, comprehension, and ability to express themselves verbally
  • Phonological and print awareness are key to the development of children’s literacy, and there are many ways that teachers can explicitly and intentionally support these
  • It is important to support children’s home languages and to foster links between home and the early childhood setting

Further reading and resources

  • Hamer, J., & Adams, P. (2003). The New Zealand early childhood literacy handbook: Practical literacy ideas for early childhood centres. Dunmore Press: a useful book focusing on early literacy in ECE. See chapter 9 on highlighting phonemic awareness and letter-sound relationships.
  • Weitzman, E., & Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and beyond: Building emergent literacy in early childhood settings. The Hanen Program: this book contains ideas for addressing building blocks of oral and written literacies, including conversations, vocabulary, comprehension, phonological awareness, and print knowledge.


Interview with Professor Claire McLachlan: hear more practical tips and strategies for developing phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and early written literacy from Professor Claire McLachlan of Federation University.

Webinar with Professor Claire McLachlan: Claire goes into more detail about the importance of early oral language and literacy experiences in a webinar with The Education Hub.

Further reading on specific strategies for supporting oral language and communication

Further reading on listening and phonological awareness

Further reading on print awareness

See in particular:

  • pp. 13-15 Descriptive language strategies and pp. 22-25 Expanding vocabulary 
  • pp. 41-42 Word play and phonological awareness and pp. 48-50 Extending phonological awareness through music and songs