How Does Spoken Language Set the Foundation for Learning to Read?

The journey of learning to read is a fascinating transformation, where children decode symbols into meaningful language. This process doesn’t begin with the alphabet itself, but is deeply rooted in the spoken language skills that children develop from a very early age. Understanding how spoken language sets the foundation for reading can provide invaluable insights to parents, particularly those supporting children with dyslexia.

Father helping daughter with reading
Photo credit: Cottonbro Studio

The Role of Spoken Language in Early Literacy

Spoken language provides the basic architecture for literacy. Before children can even recognize letters, they must first acquire listening and speaking skills. These are critical in the development of phonemic awareness, which involves recognizing and manipulating the sounds in spoken language. Research has consistently shown that strong oral language skills in young children contribute to their reading abilities later on.

1. Vocabulary Development

From birth, children are avid listeners, and the vocabulary they are exposed to in their early years plays a significant role in their reading development. A rich vocabulary helps children make sense of the words they will eventually encounter in text. Words that are already in a child’s spoken repertoire are much easier to decode when reading. Moreover, a diverse vocabulary aids in comprehension, allowing children to grasp more complex texts as their reading skills develop.

2. Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness, the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds of spoken language, is a cornerstone of reading readiness. This includes recognizing words that rhyme, counting syllables in words, and eventually recognizing individual sounds in words, known as phonemes. For example, being able to hear that the word “cat” is composed of three sounds /c/, /a/, and /t/ is crucial for later spelling and reading.

This auditory sensitivity to phonemes is especially critical for children learning to read in alphabetic languages like English, where letters are often directly associated with sounds. 

How to foster good practices for early language development

The nature of the spoken interactions between parents (or caregivers) and children is crucial from an early age. When parents engage in meaningful dialogue with their babies and toddlers, they provide a scaffold that supports the child’s language development. This doesn’t just involve speaking to the child but also engaging them in a responsive and interactive manner.

1. Responsive Speaking

Responsive speaking refers to the practice of listening to and responding to a child’s vocalizations and early words. This can be as simple as repeating the sounds an infant makes or answering a toddler’s questions. Such interactions are essential because they teach the child the fundamental principles of communication: listening, interpreting, and responding. This interaction helps to develop both receptive (understanding) and expressive (speaking) language skills.

2. Expanding Language Use

When interacting with young children, it is beneficial for parents to expand on the child’s utterances. For instance, if a child points to a dog and says “dog,” the parent can expand on this by saying, “Yes, that’s a big, brown dog.” This not only models more complex language structures but also introduces new vocabulary, which is crucial for later reading comprehension.

The Consequences of Limited Interaction

Children who do not receive adequate verbal interaction may experience delays in their language development, which can impact their later reading skills. This lack of interaction can lead to a smaller vocabulary, poorer understanding of language nuances, and weaker narrative skills, all of which are important for reading comprehension.

Detriment of Limited Speech Exposure

Research has shown that the quantity and quality of words children are exposed to in their early years correlate with their vocabulary size and oral language skills. A landmark study by Hart and Risley demonstrated that children from talkative families had a significant advantage in terms of vocabulary development over children from less talkative environments. Thus, environments where children are not spoken to frequently can be detrimental to their language and literacy development.

Late Speech Onset: Causes for Concern?

Parents often worry if their child starts speaking later than typical developmental milestones suggest. While late talking is a concern for some, it is not always indicative of a future reading difficulty. Many children who begin speaking later catch up to their peers naturally.

However, if late talking is accompanied by difficulties in understanding language, following directions, or a lack of social interaction, it may be a sign of broader developmental issues that could impact reading.

When to Seek Help
It is advisable for parents to seek evaluation from a pediatrician or a speech-language pathologist if:

  • The child is not using words by 18 months.
  • The child prefers gestures over vocalizations to communicate at 18 months.
  • The child has trouble combining words by 24 months.
  • There is any loss of speech, babbling, or social skills at any age.

Fostering language development: Recommendations for Parents

To foster a foundation for strong literacy skills, parents can adopt several strategies:

  • Talk often and engage in diverse conversations with your child throughout the day.
  • Ask open-ended questions, and introduce new vocabulary during daily routines.
  • Read regularly to your child from an early age. This not only builds vocabulary but also helps them understand the structure and rhythm of language.
  • Sing songs and recite rhymes, as these can also enhance phonological awareness.
  • Play sound and word games to build phonological awareness.
  • Ensure that your interactions are engaging and varied in content to expose your child to different aspects of language.

Spoken language plays a fundamental role in setting the groundwork for learning to read. The interactions that children have with their parents and other caregivers are instrumental in developing the skills necessary for successful literacy. By fostering an environment rich in language and responsive interactions, parents can greatly enhance their children’s reading skills and overall language development.



Spoken language is more than just a precursor to reading—it’s the foundation upon which literacy is built. By fostering strong spoken language skills, we equip children with the tools needed to navigate the complexities of written language. This is particularly crucial for children with dyslexic tendencies, where targeted support can make a significant difference in their reading journey. In our increasingly multilingual world, understanding and supporting the interplay between spoken and written language in different linguistic contexts can help maximize literacy outcomes for all children.

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