Foundational Literacy: What Research Tells Us About Speaking and Listening

Jan 6 · 6 min read

Literacy is a critical foundation of education — across cultures, countries, and people. Since ensuring that all people have access to literacy is so vital, researchers have invested considerable collective time and effort in studying how students learn to read, and what teachers can do to help them learn to read better. In a space where the stakes are so high, and the investment is so large, the sheer amount of research and (sometimes conflicting) best practices gleaned from that research can be very overwhelming to navigate as an educator with a full-time schedule of classes. As a learning science company, we believe that research on teaching and learning should be accessible, and, when possible, digestible for all educators to both understand and implement.

To that end, we are providing brief overviews of key processes in literacy that support students in their reading and writing journeys. These processes form the research foundation behind our Wonders program and serve as the backbone for that particular program’s pedagogical structure. As such, they align to an approach to literacy instruction that is based upon what we know about how learning happens, reading in relation to the brain, and what researchers have been able to learn about literacy instruction from working with teachers and students.

Today, we will begin by looking at one of the most developmentally foundational skills: speaking and listening.

What is speaking and listening?

Speaking and listening support development of all other literacy skills, such as text comprehension and writing. Speaking and listening can also be referred to as oral language — and when we think of language, we should think beyond just words. Language is a complex communication system that includes verbal and nonverbal messages, graphics, and images. Language skills are necessary for successful reading comprehension, and reading comprehension is necessary for successful learning, especially in the later grades.

While speaking and listening encompass a variety of skills critical to reading, academic language in particular should be highlighted here: “Academic language is the specialized language, both oral and written, of academic settings that facilitates communication and thinking about disciplinary content” (Nagy & Townsend, 2012, p. 92). Research shows that students with strong academic language skills also tend to exhibit higher reading comprehension skills (Uccelli & Galloway 2017). Academic discourse is also important within speaking and listening. Students will be expected to engage in academic discourse across disciplines and throughout their academic careers. Academic discourse requires skills such as active listening, evaluating, and responding.

What skills are involved in speaking and listening?

Oral language allows students to perform a number of skills that are critical to further stages of literacy development. Oral language involves communicating, understanding words or concepts, obtaining new information, and expressing thoughts (Goodson & Layzer, 2009).

Generally, oral language is divided into two types: receptive language and expressive language. Simply put, receptive language is language that students hear and understand, whereas expressive language is that which they generate and speak or write. Students develop receptive language skills when they comprehend stories and work with peers. They develop expressive language skills when they tell stories and use vocabulary. Within both of these types of language are additional important cognitive abilities such as vocabulary, grammar, sequencing, and phonological processing. Receptive and expressive language are interrelated, but receptive skills develop earlier (Cain & Oakhill, 2007; Law, et al., 2017; Marchman, Dale, de Groot, & Hagoort, 2018).

Why is speaking and listening important?

Supporting students’ speaking and listening skills early in their literacy journey is critical, because speaking and listening are prerequisites for the later development of reading and writing abilities. Research indicates that speaking and listening can predict later literacy success (LervAag, Hulme, & Melby-Lervag, 2017). Time spent on fostering speaking and listening skills is particularly important for reading comprehension — studies have shown that oral language activities support reading comprehension skills, even for more complicated texts in later grades. Research has also indicated that speaking and listening supports later development in writing skills (Pinto, Tarchi, & Bigozzi, 2015; Young-Suk, Otaiba, Puranik, & Folson, 2011), reading skills (Cooper, Roth, Speece, & Schatschneider, 2002) and word identification skills (Wise, Sevcik, Morris, Lovett, & Wolf, 2007, p. 1095). Importantly, the connection between oral language and reading comprehension even holds true for multi-lingual learners (Babayigit, 2014).

Who benefits from instruction in speaking and listening?

Research shows that certain student populations benefit greatly from strong supports in speaking and listening. Young learners, through kindergarten and early elementary, should receive speaking and listening instruction to ensure they have a strong foundation in receptive and expressive language skills. Researchers suggest activities such as engaging in shared discussions, working on collaboration, answering and asking questions, and practicing new vocabulary (Whorrall & Cabell, 2016). Students in need of additional support also benefit from instruction in speaking and listening — specifically, researchers have found that oral language instruction is beneficial to students with dyslexia (Berninger & O’Malley, 2011).

Oral language instruction can also support reading comprehension and writing skills for English Learners, and higher English oral language skills are also associated with higher Spanish reading scores, and vice versa (Miller, Heilmann, Nockerts, Iglesias, Fabiano, and Francis, 2006).

For research recommendations for speaking and listening instruction as well as additional foundational literacy skills, see the full research review below.


Babayiğit, S. (2014). The role of oral language skills in reading and listening comprehension of text: A comparison of monolingual (L1) and bilingual (L2) speakers of English language. Journal of Research in Reading, 37(Suppl 1), S22–S47.

Berninger, V. W., & O’Malley May, M. (2011). Evidence-Based Diagnosis and Treatment for Specific Learning Disabilities Involving Impairments in Written and/or Oral Language. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(2), 167–183.

Bigozzi, L., Tarchi, C., Vagnoli, L., Valente, E., & Pinto, G. (2017). Reading fluency as a predictor of school outcomes across grades 4–9. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, Article 200.

Cain, K., & Oakhill, J. (2007). Reading Comprehension Difficulties: Correlates, Causes, and Consequences. In K. Cain & J. Oakhill (Eds.), Challenges in language and literacy. Children’s comprehension problems in oral and written language: A cognitive perspective (p. 41–75). Guilford Press.

COOPER, D., ROTH, F., SPEECE, D., & SCHATSCHNEIDER, C. (2002). The contribution of oral language skills to the development of phonological awareness. Applied Psycholinguistics, 23(3), 399–416. doi:10.1017/S0142716402003053

Kim, Young-Suk & Al Otaiba, Stephanie & Folsom, Jessica & Greulich, Luana & Puranik, Cynthia. (2014). Evaluating the Dimensionality of First-Grade Written Composition. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research : JSLHR. 57. 199–211. 10.1044/1092–4388(2013/12–0152).

Law, J., Rush, R., Parsons, S., and Schoon, I. (2009). Modelling developmental language difficulties from school entry into adulthood: Literacy, mental health and employment outcomes. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research 52, pp. 1401–16

Lervåg, A., Hulme, C. and Melby‐Lervåg, M. (2018), Unpicking the Developmental Relationship Between Oral Language Skills and Reading Comprehension: It’s Simple, But Complex. Child Dev, 89: 1821–1838. doi:10.1111/cdev.12861

Marchman, V. A., & Dale, P. S. (2018). Assessing receptive and expressive vocabulary in child language. In A. M. B. de Groot & P. Hagoort (Eds.), Research methods in psycholinguistics and the neurobiology of language: a practical guide (pp. 40–67). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Miller, J., Iglesias, A., Heilman, J., Fabiano, L., Nockerts, A., Francis, D., & Fabiano-Smith, L. C. (2006). Oral Language and Reading in Bilingual Children. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 21, 30–43.

Nagy, W. and Townsend, D. (2012), Words as Tools: Learning Academic Vocabulary as Language Acquisition. Read Res Q, 47: 91–108. doi:10.1002/RRQ.011

Uccelli, P., Galloway, E. P. ( 2017). Academic Language Across Content Areas: Lessons From an Innovative Assessment and From Students’ Reflections About Language. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 60( 4), 395– 404. doi: 10.1002/jaal.553

Whorrall, J. & Cabell, S.Q. Early Childhood Educ J (2016) 44: 335.

Wise, Justin & Sevcik, Rose & Morris, R.D. & Lovett, Maureen & Wolf, Maryanne. (2007). The relationship among receptive and expressive vocabulary, listening comprehension, pre-reading skills, word identification skills, and reading comprehension by children with reading disabilities. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. 50. 1093–1109.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.


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We apply the science of learning to create innovative educational solutions and content to improve outcomes from K-20 and beyond.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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