Early Childhood Language Development for Future Academic Success

Early literacy development can be conceptualized using the Simple View of Reading, just as later literacy components can be. In the Simple View of Reading, the end result of Reading Comprehension is made up of two factors, Word Recognition and Language Comprehension.

  • Word Recognition is all about the “code”—the ability to use letters to represent sounds to read and write
  • Language Comprehension is all about the “meaning”—the ability to understand and communicate thoughts and ideas

Later in development (in early elementary school for most children), those two factors weave together in real, conventional reading. But how do we get there? How can we best support all children to develop the requisite skills before age 5 to be set for success in school?

Components of Early Literacy Development

The National Early Literacy Panel (2008) identified the factors determined to be most predictive of later literacy achievement and that were recommended for instruction. The four most critical factors for instructional considerations (Strickland & Riley-Ayers, 2006) are circled in the image below as they appear in Ohio’s Plan to Raise Literacy Achievement.

Developing Word Recognition skills in early childhood is important, of course. There is a plethora of research to support instruction in phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and print concepts in the preschool years (NELP, 2008). However, early literacy experts agree (Neuman, 2023; Shanihan, 2013), we tend to under-emphasize the types of oral language development in the early years that best support later reading comprehension. This post will focus on how can we best support all children to develop the requisite oral language skills before age 5 to be set up for success in the later grades.

Research on Oral Language in Early Childhood

We used to think…

Based on the tried and true sentence frame, there are things we used to think, or used to emphasize about each of the critical factors in early literacy development that more recent research has since shifted. One thing we used to think was that the main key to comprehension was vocabulary—learning the meanings of single words. And we tended to measure vocabulary in very simple ways, typically by saying a word to the child and asking them to select the correct image from a few choices.

Now we know…

Now we know that more complex uses of language are far more predictive of future reading comprehension, and more complex language comprehension and use is absolutely necessary for strong comprehension beyond early elementary. Some examples of complex language use are explained below, and classroom practices to grow such language use is presented in the subsequent section.

Vocabulary – Depth of word knowledge

Now we know… Young children who are able to actually define, describe, or explain word meanings with their own expressive language use are more likely to be strong comprehenders in the later grades than their peers whose depth of word understandings are more limited (NELP, 2008; Shanahan & Lonigan, 2013).

Syntax and Sentence Comprehension

Now we know… Reading comprehension depends on language abilities beyond single word meanings. Syntax and grammar are essential to comprehending the relationships between words within and across sentences in a text (Kintsch & Kintsch, 2005).

Verbal Reasoning and Creation of Text-level Mental Models

Now we know… Children need to develop the ability to construct a coherent “mental model” of larger segments of language. In particular, children who can construct mental models of rich children’s literature read aloud to them tend to be stronger in reading comprehension in later grades.

Forming a mental model involves “organizing a text’s multiple ideas into an integrated whole, using both information from the text and the reader’s own world knowledge. To do this, successful comprehenders draw upon a set of higher-level cognitive and linguistic skills, including inferencing, monitoring comprehension, and using text structure knowledge” (Shanahan & Lonigan, 2013).
Consider the following example and explanation presented by Shanahan and Lonigan (2013):

‘Johnny carried a jug of water. He tripped on a step. Mom grabbed the mop.’ The literal representation of the individual words and sentences does not enable the reader to integrate their meanings and construct a mental model. Successful comprehenders understand narrative structure and couple it with their knowledge to infer that Johnny spilled the water. They then understand why Mom grabbed a mop. They also monitor their comprehension of stories-either written or spoken-and realize the need to make an inference (that Johnny spilled the water) to make sense of Mom’s response.

This example illustrates the complexity of verbal reasoning involved in inferring and creating holistic mental models, but also makes clear the necessity of such skills.

Recommended Classroom Practices for Complex Oral Language Development

Now we know research suggests it is the more complex aspects of language that best predict future reading comprehension and academic success. So, what are the classroom practices most likely to promote the complex oral language development?

Classroom Practice #1: Promoting Extended Conversation: Strive for Five

To build children’s comprehension and use of more complex vocabulary and syntax, we need to engage them in more extended language use opportunities. One approach is “Strive for Five”, as outlined by the Erikson Child Parent Center (no date):

Responsive and purposeful conversations between teachers and children are powerful in building oral language. When these conversations are strategic, content-rich, and include a number of back-and-forth exchanges, they are also effective in promoting children’s vocabulary development and their understanding of related concepts (Wasik and Campbell, 2012). These extended conversations should give children explicit opportunities to:

  • Hear new words several times in meaningful contexts
  • Use the new words in the conversations and related activities
  • Connect the new words with familiar words and ideas

Try it out! A “Strive-for-Five” Practice Conversation

  • Stay on a single topic for
  • 5 or more communication exchanges/person
  • Using 2-3 select vocabulary words relevant to the unit of study
  • With at least 1 open-ended question
  • A validating or clarifying response

Example of a teacher-child conversation with >5 turns, with uses of vocabulary words in bold:

Turn 1: Teacher: What are you drawing?

Turn 1: Child: A froggie.

Turn 2: Teacher: Can you tell me about your frog?

Turn 2: Child: From the book.

Turn 3: Teacher: Oh that is interesting. Where does the frog live?

Turn 3: Child: Pond.

Turn 4: Teacher: Oh, your frog lives in a pond, like the one in the book we read today. The pond is his habitat, where he lives. Tell me, what your frog is doing in the pond?

Turn 4: Child: He swimmin’. And eatin’ fish.

Turn 5: Teacher: You remembered that frogs can swim, and they do sometimes eat minnows! But they can’t eat big fish. Big fish wouldn’t fit in a frog’s mouth. And a big fish might actually eat the frog instead! Frogs would eat the little fish, which are called minnows.

Turn 5: Child: This frog eatin’ a little fish.

Turn 6: Teacher: What are little fish called again? Minnows.

Turn 6: Child: He eatin’ a minnow.

Classroom Practice #2: Repeated Interactive Read Alouds with Questioning and Discussion

Experience with written language is crucial to language development in the early years. Written language, or the language of books, is significantly more complex than oral language. Did you know the language of quality children’s literature is more complex in vocabulary and structure than even prime time television for adults or conversational language between two college graduates (Hayes & Ahrens, 1988)?!

Books should be read multiple times each to provide practice and deepen understandings over time. When adults read with children, they should include discussion that:

  • Explains unknown words
  • Prompts for expressive language use
  • Provides conceptual knowledge that children need to understand the text
  • Encourages children to reason and speculate.
  • Models correct grammar and pronunciation and uses recasts and rephrasing, rather than correcting students explicitly

See McGee & Schickedanz (2007) for more information and examples of how to conduct repeated interactive read alouds.

Classroom Practice #3: Content Learning in Intentionally Designed Play

Children come to school ready to learn, excited at the prospect of figuring out more about their world. Although some early childhood professionals are hesitant to provide such content learning for young children, research demonstrates that children are quite capable of and engaged by rich content area learning, and that such learning promotes complex language development. Content area learning in science, math, or social studies requires the use of new vocabulary, more formal syntax, and uses of verbal reasoning that inherently extend language use.

When engaging children in learning in the content areas like science, teachers can use the following practices to promote language development (NAEYC, 2009):

  • Model using new vocabulary and prompt for children’s use of the terms as they interact with engaging materials and planned experiences in different contexts over time
  • Encourage meaningful conversations and expand on what children say
  • Ask open-ended questions that promote predicting skills and teach problem-solving skills: “Now that we’ve frozen water into all these interesting shapes, which of them do you think will melt most quickly? Let’s write down our predictions. How can we find out if we’re right?” Let children make their own predictions, try things out, and note what works and why.
  • Use words to describe our actions and the children’s actions: “I’ll pour this water into the cup of cornstarch as you stir. Let’s observe what happens as we try to pick up the interesting mixture we’ve just made. Is it more like a solid or a liquid?”

Reminder: Consider Social and Cultural Contexts

As a reminder for all of us—language is always situated within a social and cultural context. Teachers need be to aware of those contexts and how they impact language use and development. Many factors impact language use, including children’s interest in the topic, their relationship to the speaker, the number of speakers involved, the setting, and the social and cultural statuses of the speakers and the dialects they speak. Read more on this topic in this article by Seidenberg & Washington (2021).

And we still need to know more…

We have a plethora of correlational evidence of the relationship between oral language development and later reading. Classroom practices are evolving as a result. However, we still more research on precisely what the effects are of our intentional language supports in early childhood, especially the effects on long-term outcomes, in order to best support all students to succeed academically as they grow. Longitudinal experimental studies that measure the actual effect of early childhood language instruction and intervention on long term reading comprehension outcomes will help us know better how to best improve long term outcomes for students.


Dickinson, D. (2019) Emergent Literacy: How Early Childhood Teachers Can Foster Language Development. Ohio Striving Readers Literacy Academy 2019.

Erikson Child Parent Center (date unknown). A “Strive-for-Five” Conversation Experience. https://coursemedia.erikson.edu/eriksononline/CPC/2014_2015/Module1/Documents/Purposeful_Talk/Strive_for_Five_Experience.pdf

Justice, L.M., Mashburn, A., & Petscher, Y. (2013). Very early language skills
of fifth-grade poor comprehenders. Journal of Research in Reading. 36(2): 172–185.

McGee, Lea M., & Schickedanz, Judith A. (2007). Repeated interactive read-alouds in preschool and kindergarten. The Reading Teacher. 60(8), 742-751.

NAEYC. (2009). Science in the Air. Young Children 64(6), 15.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Neuman, S.B. (2023). Early Literacy Instruction that Promotes Future Academic Success with Dr. Susan B. Neuman. On the Scene with SST13 Podcast. April 3, 2023. https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/sst13/episodes/Early-Literacy-Instruction-that-Promotes-Future-Academic-Success-with-Dr–Susan-B–Neuman-e1vumg3

Shanahan, T. & Lonigan, C.J. (2013). The Role of Early Oral Language in Literacy Development. Language Magazine. https://www.languagemagazine.com/5100-2/

Strickland, D. & Riley-Ayers, S. (2006). Early Literacy: Policy and Practice in the Preschool Years. National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). https://www.readingrockets.org/article/early-literacy-policy-and-practice-preschool-years

Washington, J.A. & Seidenberg, M.S. (2021) Teaching Reading to African American Children: When Home and School Language Differ. American Educator, Summer 2021, https://www.aft.org/ae/summer2021/washington_seidenberg

Wasik, B.A. & Iannone-Campbell, C. (2012). Developing vocabulary through purposeful, strategic conversations. The Reading Teacher, 66(2), 321-332.

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