Oral Language Development in Early Childhood

Author: Cathy Doggett, Education Specialist – School Ready

Broad achievement gaps exist prior to school entry. Four-year-olds from low income families have heard 45 million fewer words than their higher socioeconomic status peers, leading to a great disparity in vocabulary size. (Hart-Risley, 1995) English Language Learners have significantly lower vocabularies than their peers. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012) Researchers have found a strong correlation between the receptive vocabularies of Pre-K students and their 4th and 7th grade reading comprehension scores.  (Tabors, Snow, and Dickinson, 2001)

Twenty-six of the Pre-K Guidelines are devoted to language development. Yet time spent on language development in Pre-K does not always reflect its importance.  A recent study found that teachers introduced on average only one new vocabulary word per read aloud. (Zucker et al., 2013)

Research shows that in order for language instruction to be effective, it must be:

Intentional– New vocabulary is explicitly taught. The teacher plans experiences and lessons specifically to support language development through center activities, small group lessons, read alouds, and daily routines. (Justice, et al. 2005)  Click here to view a 2 minute video example of a small group language building lesson. (Video is from the Region 13 School Ready website – http://www4.esc13.net/schoolreadyteam)

Meaningful– The teacher introduces vocabulary that relates to a common theme which reflect students’ interests and daily experiences (e.g., “My community” rather than “polar bears”).

Rich with Opportunities for Practice– Robert Marzano concluded that “to understand the word at deeper levels… students require repeated and varied exposure, during which they revise their initial understanding….…Without [these] experiences … word knowledge remains superficial…” (Marzano, 2004) Students need multiple opportunities to practice new words over time, often in playful learning centers.

Consider all the language possibilities in a Dramatic Play Center that is transformed into a weather station: mild, warm, hot, cool, cold, freezing, light, moderate, heavy, clear, partly, mostly, low, mid, high, wet, dry, sunny, cloudy, rainy, windy, stormy, snowy.

Story retelling is another great way to promote language development.  After reading The Mitten by Jan Brett, a teacher uses masking tape to create a mitten on the floor. She first guides children to pretend to be the characters and climb into the mitten as they retell the story. Later they retell the story independently in the Library Center.

The School Ready Pinterest page offers 14 different boards of ideas for transforming the Dramatic Play Center into different “places” that offer opportunities to use different vocabulary sets (e.g., farm, doctor’s office).



Austin ISD, Manor ISD, Del Valle ISD, Pflugerville ISD, E3 Alliance, Success by 6, and Region 13 collaborated to create a tool for administrators to use to evaluate the quality of language instruction and supports in a Pre-K classroom.  It’s available through the School Ready website.


Hart, B. &  Risley, T. (1995).  Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Dickenson, D.K., Snow, C.E., & Tabors, P.O. (2001). Homes and schools together: Supporting language and literacy development. In: D.K. Dickenson and P.O. Tabors (Ed.), Beginning literacy with language. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). The nation’s report card: Vocabulary results from the 2009 and 2011 NAEP Reading Assessments (NCES 2013 452). Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Zucker, T.A., Cabell, S.Q., Justice, L.M., Pentimonti, J.M., & Kaderavek, J.N. (2013). The role of frequent, interactive prekindergarten shared reading in the longitudinal development of language and literacy skills. Developmental Psychology, 49, 1425-1439.

Marzano, R. (2004). Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Justice et al., (2005) in Baker, S.K., Kameenui, E.J., & Simmons D.C. (1995). Vocabulary Acquisition: Synthesis of the Research.  National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators. University of Oregon.

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