In the history of human development, oral language—conversation, poetry,
story-telling, and song—arose long before written language. In children we
see the same pattern of language development. Children first learn to
listen, to speak, to sing, to enjoy rhymes, stories, and books before they
can read or write. What we often forget is that this foundation in oral
language is a critical step in developing literacy.
Professor Barry Sanders, well known for his book, A Is for Ox—a title which
refers to the Phoenician system of using pictures for sounds—describes
eloquently the importance of the oral language development. In summary, he
says: “A person’s success in orality determines whether he or she will
‘take’ to literacy.”
Given this importance of developing good oral language, how can parents,
teachers, and caregivers support a child’s success in developing it?
One of the key times when children develop language is during their free
play. In play children make use of everything they know. As psychologist
Lev Vygotsky expressed so beautifully, children “stand a head taller” when
they are at play. This includes their use of language. In play they feel
free to try out new words and ways of speaking. Sarah Smilansky, a noted
researcher of children’s play, compared kindergarten children who were
strong in socio-dramatic play with those who were weaker in it. The
stronger ones showed stronger abilities in speaking as well as in
Fortunately, children are highly motivated to learn language from a young
age. There are various theories about how they learn language, but anyone
working with children sees clearly that most children are strongly attuned
to language and devour it eagerly. When that’s not the case, there is often
cause for concern. This does not mean that all children begin saying “Mama”
by age one, or speak two word sentences by two and more complex ones by
three. My own mother often commented that I said very little until I was
three. When she asked the pediatrician about this he remarked that he was
confident I would soon begin speaking and never stop. According to my
mother, that is just what happened!
Infants and toddlers are deeply interested in language. Most parents
instinctively understand this and surround their infants with warm, loving
language. Often called motherese or parentese, language directed to infants
and toddlers tends to be higher pitched, more musical, and slower than
language addressed to older children or adults. It doesn’t need to be
exaggerated and made ultra-sweet as it sometimes is, but musical enough for
infants to bask in its warmth. It’s related to the whole field of lullabies
and nursery rhymes which infants and toddlers also love.
Recent research affirms the importance of nursery rhymes for young
children, finding that they contribute to phonemic awareness—the
recognition of sounds and the breakdown of language into sound units or
syllables. Such awareness is an important component of learning to write
and read. Even before they can speak, young children indicate their
attunement to nursery rhymes. I recall doing “This little piggy went to
market” with a neighbor’s nine-month-old. She was in her stroller with bare
feet on a hot summer’s day. As soon as I finished she lifted her foot with
a clear message: Do it again. I did it several times before she was
satisfied. I’ve had similar experiences with many children who were not yet
speaking clear words but were intrigued by the rhymes, rhythm, and gestures
of nursery rhymes.
The oft-cited research of Risley and Hart found that, by age three,
children in low-income homes heard 30 million words less than children from
more affluent homes. This is a lag that needs to be addressed. Exposure to
good oral language—conversation, rhymes, songs, and stories—helps a great
deal. For additional suggestions on how to overcome the word gap, see
NAEYC’s “The Word Gap: The early years make the difference.”
As a preschool/kindergarten teacher I focused on oral language at different
times throughout the morning. I did not like to drown children in words but
at snack and meal times I might tell a little story from my life and the
children responded with stories of their family, pets, trips, and the like.
We learned how to engage in the art of conversation, and this meant
listening to each other as well as speaking.
We used rhymes and songs in transition times to weave the parts of our day
together. Some rhymes were said each day at the beginning of circle time.
These varied over time so that the children learned many in the course of
the year. They were a wonderful way to gather the children’s attention for
the seasonal circles that followed. Sometimes we acted the nursery rhymes
out as in “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candle stick.”
The children formed a line and merrily took turns jumping over the candle
stick at the right moment.
Sometimes I heard children discussing a nursery rhyme, as we might discuss
a piece of literature. On one memorable day, four-year-old Adam spoke to a
friend about Humpty Dumpty. “I don’t think Humpty Dumpty fell,” said Adam.
“You don’t?” replied his friend, in a tone implying a great heresy had been
spoken. “No, I think he jumped!” Adam was certainly a child who jumped into
life, undaunted by the many difficulties he faced. He was not an easy child
to work with but one I treasured for his fierce spirit.
Fairy tales were also a regular part of our school day. Just as one wants
teens to have a solid background in the world’s great literature, I wanted
my young children to be well versed in the tales that have been part of
children’s culture for centuries. Great stories enrich feelings, stimulate
the imagination, and help shape our outlook in life. For young children
fairy tales affirm that, yes, there are difficulties in life but we have
the courage, strength, and steadfastness to meet them. And while our
strength alone may not be enough, there are wonderful beings who come to
our aid—kindly dwarves and animals, wise old men and women, and children
themselves. The world of fairy tales is full of wonderful beings as well as
evil ones. They strengthen the child’s inner confidence that while terrible
things sometimes happen, life is nevertheless good.
Today’s children are heavily immersed in the characters of television and
other screens. Whether they derive the same nourishment from them—or merely
experience their captivating entertainment—remains to be seen, but I am
skeptical. I have never seen any modern programming that rivals the depth
and richness of fairy tales, told simply and well, which children absorb
I generally taught mixed age classes of three to six-year-olds and enjoyed
the different responses of the age groups to fairy tales. The preschoolers
usually sat with mouths open and their little feet might shuffle on the
rug. One felt them drinking the stories in, all the way to their toes, much
like an infant drinks its mother’s milk and wiggles its toes. Oh, those
stories tasted so good!
The kindergarten children listen with mouths closed and one can practically
see the images of the stories flit across their minds’ eye. The door to
image making—imagination—has opened for them and they can see the stories.
Many go home and tell the stories after hearing them a few times.
For preschoolers, the difficulties of the tales are mild as in the Billy
Goats Gruff, Goldilocks, or the Gingerbread Man. In such tales there is a
repeating sequence of events and the rhythm of the story helps capture the
children’s attention. There are tales in which creatures come to live
together as in The Mitten, and there are tales in which the abundance of
life overcomes poverty as in Sweet Porridge. I remember telling this tale
to a group of children who were homeless. They sat up at attention at the
line, “One day there was no food left in the house to eat.” They knew this
situation intimately and seemed especially satisfied by the little pot that
always filled itself with sweet porridge “as if it wanted to feed the whole
Kindergarten children are ready for stronger tales in which some evil rears
its head but courage and goodness are victorious. Little Red Riding Hood is
a good example, but there is no need to dramatize it. The wolf is scary
enough as it is for young children, and the line, “And then he swallowed
the Grandmother whole” can be said in a calm and quiet way. This age group
loves Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, and dozens of
others drawn from cultures around the world.
In my mixed-age classes I varied the tales, telling a simple tale
repeatedly for about a week and the more complex stories for two weeks. The
older children saw the humor in the little tales and were not bored by
them, and the young children drank in what they could from the more complex
tales, content in the presence of their older classmates who absorbed the
There is yet another level of complexity and strength of evil in tales that
are better saved for first grade such as the Norwegian tale, East of the
Sun and West of the Moon. For some years I volunteered at an inner city
school and did painting and story telling with the first graders once a
week. One day the teacher told me she had had a parent evening and the
parents wanted to know what happened on Mondays. Their children came home
from school, gathered up their siblings and cousins, sat them down and
said, “Now I’m going to tell you a quiet story.” They would then tell the
fairy tale they had heard that day.
I was deeply impressed, for fairy tale language is complex and the stories
I told were not simple. Yet these first graders from very low income
families were repeating the tales after a single hearing. What a wonderful
way to overcome the language gap and develop oral language skills, and at
the same time be strengthened by tales with great meaning.
Joan Almon was a Waldorf early childhood educator for nearly thirty years
and then co-founded the Alliance for Childhood to advocate for the needs of
all children. She frequently writes and lectures on the importance of play
in early education and throughout childhood (in the USA).