“In England in 2015, one child in five was reported to be leaving primary school unable to read well, rising to one in three among our poorest children.”

The 2018 Education Endowment Fund report ‘Preparing for Literacy’1 highlights the importance of developing children’s communication and language for strong written language skills. In fact, it is the first recommendation of the seven in the guidance. Sir Kevin Collins identified ‘In my view, the most important thing a school can do for their pupils – and for society – is to teach them to read and write well.’ This skill is very much embedded in speech language and communication. The report, in fact, goes on to describe how ‘language provides the foundation of thinking and learning and should be prioritised’.

Reading and writing rely on a range of skills that have their foundations in communication, speech sounds and interaction: Hartshorne’s paper2 highlighted how ‘most models of reading describe learning to read as the interaction between developing systems for mapping between printed words (orthography), spoken words (phonology) and word meanings (semantics)’.

Many children and young people gain word knowledge at an alarming rate, with 100 words in their vocabularies before they even start to join words together to make spoken sentences. Young children are reported to learn between five and nine new spoken words a day, reaching an expected vocabulary of between 3,000 – 5,000 words by age 5 years, and increasing to approximately 8,400 by 11 years of age3. We know that this rich and diverse vocabulary isn’t experienced by all children, however vocabulary knowledge in the primary grades predicts later reading comprehension and academic success4. And studies identify that interventions focusing on understanding oral vocabulary also impact on pupils’ reading comprehension skills5.

The listening skills that are required to identify sounds within spoken sentences and individual words, in order to say them, are the same that are necessary to work out which individual letters are needed to write a word. These, combined with the ability to break words up into their constituent parts (segmenting) and putting sounds together in words (blending) are fundamental to both oral and written language abilities6. Children and young people with poor or delayed speech sound development often go on to have difficulties in their written language skills, even if their speech sound difficulties are in the past7.

Conversely, phonological awareness interventions for speech sound difficulties also have a positive impact on written language skills8.

In his 2017 blog9, Pie Corbett expanded on the link between oral and written narrative skills. He described the Bigozzi & Vettori study, in 2015, where children’s oral story telling in pre-primary was compared to the same children’s narrative writing in Year 1. The researchers found that the ability to tell well-structured, cohesive and consistent stories predicts the ability to write stories with the same qualities.

In England in 2015, one child in five was reported to be leaving primary school unable to read well, rising to one in three among our poorest children. A campaign known as ‘Read On. Get On’ aimed, by 2025, to get every child in the UK reading well by age 1110. The underpinning skills for literacy are clear: Supporting communication and language, speaking and listening or speech and language are fundamental for supporting written language skills. As Hartshorne identified, ‘as language continues to be associated with good literacy outcome throughout schooling, a focus on the development of children’s communication is vital’.

How close are we to reaching our 2025 target?


  1. Education Endowment Fund (2018) PREPARING FOR LITERACY Improving communication, language and literacy in the early years – Guidance Report
  2. Hartshorne, M. (2006 reprinted 2009) I CAN Talk Series Issue 1: Speech, Language and Communication Needs and Literacy Difficulties
  3. (Berk, 2003; Beck et al., 2002), (Locke, 2006), and (Biemiller and Slonim, 2001) in St. John, P. And Vance, M. (2014) Evaluation of a principled approach to vocabulary learning in mainstream classes Child Language Teaching and Therapy DOI: 10.1177/0265659013516474 published online 14 January 2014
  4. Lawson-Adams, J., Dickinson, D.K., aKayle Donner, J.b (2021) Early Childhood Research Quarterly Sing it or speak it?: the effects of sung and rhythmically spoken songs on preschool children’s word learning
  5. Rodge, Hagan, Lervag and Lervag (2019) The effect of linguistic comprehension instruction on generalized language and reading comprehension skills: A systematic review
  6. Nation, K. & Hulme, C. (1997) Phonemic segmentation, not onset-rime segmentation, predicts early reading and spelling skills Reading Research Quarterly 32, 154-167
  7. Catts, H. (1989) Phonological Processing Deficits and Reading Disabilities in A. Kamhi and H. Catts (eds) Reading Disabilities: A Developmental Language Perspective Boston Allyn and Bacon
  8. Torgeson, J., Al Otaiba, S. & Kosanovich, M.L., (2012) Assessment and Instruction for Phonemic Awareness and Word Recognition Skills. In H. Catts & A. Kamhi Language and Reading Disabilities Third Edition pp 112 – 145 Boston Allyn & Bacon
  9. https://www.freospeech.com.au/single-post/2017/06/09/If-you-cant-say-it-you-cant-write-it-Pie-Corbett
  10. Save the Children (2015) Ready to Read: closing the gap in early language skills so that every child in England can read well
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