What Is Oral Language Development?

Oral Language Development is the most sophisticated of all the reading skills. It is the first skill that children begin learning, and it is the one skill that people continue learning throughout life—whether or not they know it!

The ability to understand how language is used in a particular event, setting, context, or culture.

Before we go any further, I will take a moment to define the terms in the definition. (This will help you develop your own oral language skills because you will have a better idea of what these words mean in the context of this book!)


Ability to make sense or develop an interpretation


Individual words and words in a string that are intended to express an idea


An occurrence or events in a single time and place


A type of location or place


Conditions, framework, or social environment in which language use occurs


The expectations, rules, experiences, and beliefs shared by two or more people

“Oral Language Development” is better described as “Oral Language Skills.” Oral language development simply refers to the process of developing one’s oral language skills. Typically, when people describe oral language skills, they are talking about very young children learning how express themselves, such as by naming things, speaking in complete sentences, or understanding and answering simple questions. However, oral language skills go far, far beyond these basic skills.

If we think about what is happening with oral language development, we see that what we are really teaching children is how to communicate in various events, settings, contexts, and cultures. For example:

  • When we instruct children to use their “inside voice,” we are really telling them that in the “inside” setting, there are different rules for talking than there are for the “outside” setting.
  • When we tell children to say “please” and “thank you,” we are instructing them on the rules for communicating based on the expectations of our culture.
  • When we teach children that the way we talk at home or with friends may not be the same as how we talk to people in authority, we let them know that their are different rules for different contexts.

All of this is oral language development.

Oral Language and Young Children

At the lowest level of oral language skills, children learn to name objects and use basic speech patterns. For example, a parent might pick up a ball and say, “Ball. Do you want the ball?” The parent is telling the child that the object he or she is holding is called a ball, that “ball” is the word in the parents’ language for the object. The child learns that to indicate the object to the parent, the child needs to use the word “ball.”

If a parent asks the child, “Do you want to go outside?” the parent is modeling how the child can put words together to ask a question. The parent is demonstrating what he or she thinks is the acceptable way to put the words together. If the parent asks, instead, “Go outside?” the parent teaches the child that that is an acceptable way, too.

Basic speech patterns and vocabulary are not the entirety of oral language skills. These behaviors represent only a small part of oral language, only a few of the many and complex oral language skills.

Some people may consider that oral language instruction is only for very young children. For example, in many school environments, teaching and reinforcing oral language generally focuses on children under five or six years old. The focus on very young children’s oral language skills is extremely important. Oral language builds the foundation for the ability to communicate: both to understand received information and to express information.

I have known children who have very poor oral language skills. Even at the age of three or four years old, they are still pointing at objects they want and making meaningless sounds. They do not have the words to name objects or express their desires. Other children may still talk in “baby talk” when they are in kindergarten or first grade. They may be unable to understand simple questions and provide a meaningful response. With so few words at their disposal and with little to no grasps of the syntax of language, these children are going to have a really tough time learning to read.

I understand why early childhood educators focus on oral language development and why many people think oral language development is for young children. I understand the value of helping students develop basic speech patterns and vocabulary. Instruction in basic and low-level oral language skills is important when working with very young children. Unfortunately, once children have more or less accomplished those low-level skills, explicit instruction stops.

Based on the thousands of teachers I have worked with through our reading tutoring program and prior similar programs, I know that few teachers past about third or fourth grade ever think about oral language skills, much less provide any explicit instruction in oral language skills. This is a problem. As communication situations and ideas become more complex, as expectations for comprehension and expression increase, and as children encounter a wider variety of cultures, they need increasingly stronger and more sophisticated oral language skills.