“Oracy versus Literacy?” or…. Ensuring a child has Oral Language Skills Capable of Supporting Literacy Acquisition within the National Curriculum.

 What is Oracy? Oracy reflects the ability to use language orally for academic purposes. It involves the participation of a speaker in discourse for purposes such as arguing a point, contrasting a notion, defining, persuading, predicting, or summarizing (Williams and Roberts 2011).  Oracy is a skill which normally developing children acquire around the age of five years. Acting out a story in play and being able to take on the role of another, adapt one’s voice for different characters and set the scene without realistic props could also be considered part of oracy. This level of play usually develops around five years of age.

Apart from Phonological Awareness, Oracy is the oral language component most commonly seen at the classroom level. However, children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) and children with Significantly Delayed Language, do not enter school with age appropriate oral language skills. Children with SLI have difficulties with language which are unrelated to their ability to learn, their hearing ability or any brain pathology. Children with SLI comprise approximately 3-7% of the school-aged population. For these children, and those who come to school with significant language delays which may result from sensory or environmental disadvantage, promoting oral language at a level that is significantly above a child’s comprehension or vocabulary ability does not achieve good literacy outcomes.

It is in early language learning that the Matthew effect begins to take hold (Rigney 2010). Those who know many words and who possess the background knowledge to comprehend what they mean will learn more words and world knowledge later on, while those who know few words in early grades fall further and further behind in later grades (Hirsch 2006).

There are three very important indicators to literacy success and all of these are components of oral language. The first is language comprehension, the second is vocabulary, and the third is phonological awareness or the ability to perceive and manipulate sounds in words.

To thrive in the school setting children must know approximately 8,000 words (Beck, McKeown and Kucan 2002). The huge social class difference in vocabulary size among preschool-aged children (Hart and Risley, 1995) is particularly important (Snow, Nicholson, Kurland and Tabours, 1995). Benefits in understanding text by applying letter-sound correspondences to printed material come about only if the target word is in the learner’s vocabulary. When the word is not in the learner’s vocabulary, it will not be  understood when it occurs in print. (National Reading Panel Report, 2000, pp 4-3).

Middleton (2012) found several disadvantaged students, with non-verbal skills within the normal range and who had attended school for up to five years, with oral language levels of pre-school children. Some of these children had language ages below a child of three years. We would not attempt to teach literacy to a three year old child. Eleven of these children were above seven years of age. These observations suggest the mainstream school setting had done little to improve the oral language abilities of these children as they had been receiving instruction in language or vocabulary levels above their levels of comprehension.

Some authors argue that Late Bloomers just wilt if they start school later than their peers. (American Federation of Teachers 2004). They argue that skill deficits prevent  children from blooming as readers. One of the deficits they cite is phonemic awareness. This is the oral language ability most frequently targeted by teachers. Certainly some children from disadvantaged backgrounds may be provided with more language stimulation in the school setting, but the critical element is the type of language stimulation. Usually these children require a great deal of semantic intervention. In short, they need to learn words and the meanings of new words, how these words relate to other words and how to use words grammatically in sentences, questions, requests, refusals, commands, story re-tells etc. to communicate effectively.

An example of the semantic approach is the following: Take the word “table”. It has legs and a top, you sit at it to eat your dinner, it belongs to the category of furniture, it might be made of metal and wood, it is hard, it may be square, round or rectangular, you may find it in the kitchen, it rhymes with stable, has two syllables and starts with “T”. The latter three components tie the information to the phonological awareness components of the word.

Emphasizing letter names and phonological awareness at the expense of attention to providing a rich language environment that would support vocabulary growth might be counter productive (Snow and Paez, 2004). The concern is that children most at risk of literacy failure are also most likely to be provided print-component-focused instruction that fails to emphasize meaning has considerable basis in reality (Snow 2004).

The Australian Curriculum has targeted phonological awareness as one of its key strategies to improve literacy outcomes but within this excellent curriculum framework, there is still a great deal of emphasis on the importance of oral language. In some states such as Western Australia, however, children now must be more phonologically aware than they were three to five years ago. Direct early literacy teaching is occurring in Early Childhood settings.  This poses particular concern for those children with delayed oral language development or a history of middle ear problems. Children with a hearing history require additional auditory training to identify sounds in words as their auditory pathways may not be as developed as their peers simply because their hearing acuity was not as good during acute middle ear episodes.

Children in Pre-Primary (4.5 to 5.5 yrs.) in WA must now recognize sounds in all their positions in words (Previously Year 1 5.5 yrs. to 6.5 yrs.)  and children in Year 1 in WA must be able to manipulate sounds in words (Previously Year 2 6.5 to 7.5 yrs.). Addressing the literacy skill directly rather than addressing the pre-cursor skills which enable a child to hear the sounds, segment and blend, understand word meanings and the conventions of print, can result in greater levels of anxiety in students who are struggling, and a much greater investment of teacher time. This is at the expense of providing children with the opportunity to practice other oral language skills which are likely to have greater impact on Australian Literacy Levels.

The Hanen Programs such as “It Takes Two To Talk” provide good evidence for the parent training approaches. Parents as language therapists for their own children works well (Roberts and Kaiser 2011). The Early Head Start Program in the US involved training parents in promoting early Oral Language and Literacy. Outcomes for children’s literacy levels after participating in this program with their parents were encouraging. This outcome is not surprising. Early vocabulary work is best done in the child’s natural environment which places considerable emphasis on the importance of play.

Professor Dorothy Bishop (2012) recently quoted Kami (2004): “Why does no one other than speech-language pathologists and related professionals seem to know what a language disorder is?”

Speech Pathologists are specialists in the remediation of oral language and communication difficulties. They are able to train parents in the use of evidence-based techniques to promote a child’s oral language skills and build good foundations for literacy.

Speech Pathologists are also able to advise teachers on oral language techniques for use in classrooms. They are able to identify children who might be most at risk for literacy acquisition due to language impairment. Not all children enter school with age appropriate receptive and expressive language skills. Not all children are ready for Oracy. Some of these children will need consolidation of early language skills.  It is the speech pathologist who is able to identify the oral language areas which require intervention, and devise remediation programs to enable these children to benefit from literacy learning. This is what occurs in Language Development Centres in WA. Given that the Education Department has a mandate for “inclusive schooling”, Speech Pathology access should be provided for any child who enters school with speech, language or communication difficulties below the level of their peers, or the linguistic level in Standard Australian English assumed by the Australian National Curriculum. These children should be provided with an individual education plan which has had input from a Speech Pathologist outlining their language needs and recommended therapy activities, and these children should have ongoing access to a Speech Pathologist to ensure their speech and language therapy program continues to be effective.

For some children this may mean literacy learning needs to be delayed until a child has a sufficient number of words in his/her vocabulary to comprehend the stories being read and spoken about in  the pre-school setting.

What we would like to see is Speech Pathologists in all Australian Schools. This would be an additional step towards ensuring literacy standards reached the levels we as a nation desire. At the very least, Australian Curriculum Advisors should make themselves conversant with what it means to have a speech, language or communication impairment and the impact this will have on literacy learning at the classroom level. They should also prioritise the provision of resources to meet the educational needs of these children who are at risk for literacy acquisition due to speech and language impairment.


American Federation of Teachers (2004), Waiting Rarely Works: Late Bloomers Usually Just Wilt., American Educator, Fall Edition.

Bishop, D (2012) Neurodevelopmental disorders: are our current diagnostic labels fit for purpose? Institute of Advanced Studies Lecture, University of WA. October 2012.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.

Burns, S., Griffin, P., & Snow, C. (1999). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: P.H. Brookes.

Hirsh, E. D. (2006). The knowledge deficit: Closing the shocking education gap for American children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kamhi, A. G. (2004). A meme's eye view of speech-language pathology. Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 35(2), 105-111.

Middleton, L (2012)  (Establishing a Speech Pathology Service to a Traditionally Hard to  Reach and Disadvantaged Population, Paper presented at the RCSLT Conference 2012, Driving transformation  using evidence based practice, Manchester UK,  September.


National Early Literacy Panel. (2009). NELP Report: Developing Early Literacy Excerpted from National Early Literacy Panel. (2009). Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel, Executive Summary. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

National Reading Panel (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Neilson (1995), Sutherland Phonological Awareness Test, in From Assessment to Programming: Assisting Students requiring additional support in reading. NSW Department of Education and Training Publication. 176-186.

Pepper, J and Weitzman (2004), It Takes Two to Talk: A Practical Guide for Parents of Children with Language Delays. The Hanen Centre. Toronto.

Rigney, D (2010), The Matthew Effect – How Advantage begets further advantage. Columbia University Press. New York.

Roberts, M., and Kaiser, A. (2011), The Effectiveness of Parent Implemented Language Intervention: A Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 20, 180-199.

Snow, C.E. (2004) What counts as literacy in early childhood?  in K. McCartney & D. Phillips (Eds.), Handbook of early child development. Oxford: Blackwell.

Snow, C. E. & Páez. M. (2004). The Head Start Classroom as an oral language environment: What should the performance standards be? In E. Zigler & S. Styfco (eds.), The Head Start Debates (Friendly and Otherwise (pp. 215-244). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Snow, C.E., Tabors, P.O., Nicholson, P., & Kurland, B. (1995) SHELL: Oral language and early literacy skills in kindergarten and first grade children. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 10, 37-48.

Westby, C.E. 1980, Assessment of Cognitive and Language Abilities through Play.   Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools Vol. 11, 154-168, July 1980.

Williams, C., Roberts, D., (2011) Strategic Oral Language Instruction in ELD Teaching Oracy to Develop Literacy., Ballard & Tighe, Publishers Brea, California, USA.


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