Read, Write, Speak and Listen: Encouraging Literacy in Young Children

Published on Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Last updated on Monday, 10 May 2021

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Reading, writing, speaking and listening - these are the actions that help to build literacy in infants, toddlers and young children in early learning environments, enabling them to make meanings for themselves, and communicate effectively with others.

In their collaborative article ‘Early Literacy and the Teacher’s Role’, published in childhood education journal He Kupu, Chelsea Bracefield and Fiona Woodgate focus on how teachers in early learning centres can encourage written, verbal, visual and auditory literacy among the children in their care, with simple play-based activities engaged in every day. 

Bracefield and Woodgate, both early childhood lecturers at New Zealand Tertiary College and ECE experts, tout the lifelong benefits of increased literacy in young children, and share ideas for how teachers can help build these skills.

They stress the need for teachers to create “opportunities for literacy learning within a play-based curriculum. This means that today's teachers must be equipped to engage in pedagogy in both planned and emergent ways which require a range of teaching strategies, content knowledge and on-going professional learning.” 

Bracefield and Woodgate also cite how all forms of literacy are a vehicle to transmit culture as much as they are tools for communication, which can be done through learning a language and passing on cultural beliefs, practices, and stories in that language.

Oral literacy

This aspect of literacy focuses on the spoken word, starting with sounds made in infancy and progressing through to full conversations, storytelling and more.

Oral literacy enables children to communicate with others, to understand and be understood. This includes participating in conversations, telling stories, informing and entertaining through the spoken word, as well as children making meaning for themselves in their own thoughts.

“Oral literacy is more than words;” says the article, “it is a tool that provides children with the ability to be imaginative, communicate their experiences, and share and respond to others.”


Intentional narration is an important tool used to encourage oral literacy, teaching children a wide range of words relevant to their lives by purposefully verbalising what you are doing, what they are doing and what is around them every day.

As the article states, “When kaiako [teachers] consciously narrate as children complete tasks or when engaged in play, children are supported to put words and names to actions and objects. Narrating also supports children in learning about positional language and order, for example first, next, after.

This puts actions and observations into words to support children's meaning making and development of language for communication.”

Related to oral literacy, auditory perception is the ability to understand what is heard, and not just words but other sounds made in the world around us. According to the article, the best way to build this form of literacy in children is to actively listen to them.

“Listening to a baby’s, toddler’s or young child’s attempts to communicate verbally, reiterating their sounds or words and responding accordingly teaches them that their voices are heard and valued and encourages them to explore language more and experiment to build their own skills,” say Bracefield and Woodgate.  

As an ECE teacher, you can then encourage children to take note of and communicate the things that they hear when they are in turn actively listening.

For example, taking a walk out in nature and asking the children to identify the sound of the wind in the trees, the chirp of a bird, the crunch of gravel under their feet, and to describe these sounds to the group.

As the teacher, you could then collate a list of all the sounds heard, showing the children that their contributions were heard and remembered, while also demonstrating the action of writing. 

Visual literacy

Understanding the representation of objects, actions and ideas in images and their connection to the physical world constitutes visual literacy. Visual recognition and interpretation of images such as drawings, photographs, and symbols such as print letters, numerals and words is a precursor to both oral and written literacy.

As children learn to associate an image of a furry four-legged animal with the word ‘dog’, or to see a photograph of a boy with his feet off the ground and understand the action of ‘jumping’, they are building not just their vocabulary but also the meaning behind the words.   


Tools such as picture books and flashcards are created for the purpose of enhancing visual literacy in children, as well as increasing their understanding and enjoyment of the world around them.

Reading aloud to a class while also bringing attention to illustrations of characters, actions and objects, for example, builds associations in the brains of infants, toddlers and young children, helping them to recognise and name these items, people and concepts. 

However, encouraging children to create their own images in drawings, paintings or even play dough to depict feelings, ideas, memories and more helps them to become better communicators, and to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and others.

In Bracefield and Woodgate’s article, they note how other experts “urge kaiako to seize opportunities to support children in documenting their ideas and presenting these to others, making them producers as well as consumers of visual literacy.”

Enabling this production of visual communication can be as easy as making drawing and modelling materials readily available throughout the day.

“Children need a range of print material and mark making equipment to allow choice, time and space to gain confidence and muscle control,” say Bracefield and Woodgate.

“The positioning of the kaiako as a resource in actively engaging children in the exploration of materials and literacy concepts should not be overlooked.”

Written literacy

Writing is an ability gained over time, of course, but it is never too early to lay the foundation for this fundamental communication skill. As the article states, teachers can encourage written literacy in even very young children by creating a print-rich environment for the children to play and learn in every day.

“Through exposure to writing activities, children learn that writing can be used for a variety of purposes including maintaining relationships (letters, emails, texts), communicating information (newsletters, bulletin boards, signs, posters), entertainment (stories), and developing knowledge (non-fiction).” 


Model the act of writing for children who are too young to have the fine motor skills to learn how to write themselves. Create a story together as a group and write it out on butcher’s paper including simple illustrations as you go.

Display the story at an appropriate height and in a place that the children can see it and engage with it every day. As they recall the details of the story and recognise the images created, they can then associate these with the written words, and remember the act of creating those words, thus building on multiple forms of literacy in one activity.

This aligns with Bracefield and Woodgate’s belief that “the role of the kaiako is to facilitate an environment that provides opportunities for children to engage with a range of materials, interactions and experiences that support their holistic literacy development.”


Early literacy and the teacher’s role by Chelsea Bracefield and Fiona Woodgate

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