Assessment of oral language and emergent literacy indicators in the first year of school

Dr Elizabeth Schaughency and Dr Jane L D Carroll, University of Otago

Children enter school with differing development of competencies across a variety of learning areas. Research links children’s school entry skills with later academic achievement, making it important for teachers to be able to identify where different students are on their learning journeys and the next steps on children’s developmental paths.

Reviews of early years learning, assessment, and the NZ Ministry of Education’s Learning Support Action Plan identify school entry screening and assessment as important tools for teachers to assist this process. We know that there are teachers and school personnel who already assess children’s skills at school entry and during the first year of school, with perceived benefits for teachers’ practice and children’s learning. However, there may be scope for further development of assessment tools for teachers of children in the early years.  Subsequently, we wanted to learn:

  • what approaches or tools teachers and schools are already using to assess children’s developing competencies in oral language and emergent literacy, and
  • what additional oral language and literacy tools they would like for their professional kete (toolkit).

This blog posts shares our findings, based on our recent article in the NZ Journal of Educational Studies.

Our survey: School entry screening and assessment practices in Aotearoa New Zealand

Embarking on print literacy learning is a key developmental task for most children upon beginning school. Literacy learning builds on a foundation of strong oral language skills. Therefore, our survey focused on oral language and emergent literacy skills.

  • Oral language skills are involved in understanding and conveying ideas and meaning in spoken language, crucial for reading comprehension and written expression.
  • Emergent literacy skills are skills identified by research to predict later successful reading acquisition. These include aspects of oral language such as phonological awareness (e.g., awareness of sounds within words) and print-related skills (e.g., recognising letters).

Acknowledging that children may begin literacy learning in Māori or English-medium instruction in Aotearoa, we consulted an experienced Resource Teacher: Literacy (Māori) prior to developing our survey. Given additional considerations for literacy acquisition in Māori medium instruction, such as when children are learning to speak Te Reo Māori at the same time they are learning to read in Te Reo Māori, she advised limiting our survey to teachers in English-medium instruction. Therefore, our survey was limited to teachers in English-medium instruction, something we acknowledge as a limitation of our research, with future research needed to better understand assessment practices and needs of teachers in Maori-medium instruction. As part of her PhD research, our student Tracy Cameron invited teachers of Year 0/1 students in English-medium schools to complete our on-line survey in 2016.   

Findings: What assessment tools are new entrant teachers already using?

Most of the 745 teachers who responded to our survey indicated engaging in literacy assessment activities with children at school entry. Just over half (54%) indicated using one or more components of the School Entry Assessment (SEA), most commonly Concepts about Print. Most (89%) respondents reported using other techniques to assess emergent/early literacy skills including phonological awareness, letter-names, letter-sounds, and high-frequency word reading. In addition, all respondents used Running Records, usually beginning within children’s first 10 weeks at school and periodically thereafter (e.g., monthly) to monitor children’s literacy progress. Tools to assess oral language were also identified, with just under half reporting using the Junior Oral Language Screening Tool (JOST), typically when they were concerned about a child’s language skills.

Findings: What else did new entrant teachers tell us they wanted in their assessment kete?

Teachers identified scope for further assessment development, particularly for assessing children’s developing oral language and emergent literacy skills, such as phonological awareness. Beyond identifying what learning areas should be assessed, teachers had suggestions for how they should be assessed – indicating they’d like tools that were user-friendly, time-efficient, and contextually-relevant for assessing children growing up and attending schools in New Zealand.

In addition, teachers conveyed important messages about what they would need to help them use assessment information effectively to differentiate instruction and scaffold children’s learning. This included time outside the classroom to conduct assessments and reflect on assessment results, professional development and resources for fostering children’s oral language and literacy learning, and access to specialist support when needed to better understand and address children’s learning needs.

Trialling assessment tools for young learners

Our research team has also been trialling assessment tools and approaches for assessing children’s oral language and emergent literacy skills at school entry and describing progress in early learning. Assessing children’s skills at school entry is inherently challenging. Not only do children come to school differing in skill development, but many children have had little experience with formal assessment activities. Subsequently, lack of familiarity with the assessment context may play a role in young children’s performance. Therefore, we were interested in finding an approach that would be a familiar context for children and adults.

One approach we’ve been trialling for assessment at school entry embeds oral language and emergent literacy activities into a story-book that an adult shares with a child, a familiar experience for most young children and new entrant teachers. Our trials of this approach have been promising, in emerging research findings[i] and responses from school personnel who have tried out the approach in their setting.

Skill acquisition happens over time. To describe progress in early learning, Tracy and other research students on our team have followed children’s learning on a number of early literacy skills. This research, co-authored with our colleague Mele Taumoepeau, indicates it is also important to consider children’s learning trajectories in early literacy acquisition. Children’s skill development across the first six months of instruction contributes to their literacy acquisition after one year of school. Therefore, when children’s skills are not reflecting growth during the first six months of school, educators should consider whether more explicit instruction and/or additional learning supports might better meet children’s learning needs and contribute to their successful literacy acquisition.

Where to from here

We have more work to do. Collectively, we need to consider how best to support all young children’s early learning needs, including those from diverse cultural-linguistic backgrounds. One key part of this work involves providing teachers with assessment tools to help discern when children are struggling with skill acquisition. However, another key part of this work is ensuring that initial teacher education and professional learning enable teachers to adapt instruction as needed. Finally, teachers need access to specialists and researchers who can collaboratively support them to meet children’s learning needs.  Therefore, we encourage – and invite – educational practitioners, university teacher educators, researchers, and those within the Ministry of Education to partner together in working toward achieving these objectives.  


The authors wish to gratefully acknowledge all those who have contributed – and are continuing to contribute – to our research. This acknowledgement includes participating children, their families, and school communities, current and former postgraduate students, and faculty colleagues. Thank you!

[i] Reports of preliminary findings from trials of our storybook-based assessment:

  • Cameron, T. A., Carroll, J. L. D., & Schaughency, E. (2020). Concurrent validity of the Preschool Early Literacy Indicators (PELI®) with a New Zealand sample of 5-year-olds entering primary school. International Journal of School and Educational Psychology,
  • Carroll, J., Schaughency, E., Taumoepeau, M., Cameron, T. A., McPherson, C., & McCambridge, A. (2018). Preliminary evaluation of the concurrent, predictive, and social validity of an oral language and emergent literacy screening tool with New Zealand (NZ) children at school entry. Symposium presented at the 11th Educational Psychology Forum, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand, 19 – 20 November.

Dr Elizabeth Schaughency is a clinical psychologist and faculty member in the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago. She specialises in clinical child psychology, and her professional interests are in the interplay between important socialization environments (home and school), children’s developing competencies, and collaborative approaches to fostering children’s development

Dr Jane L D Carroll’s speech-language therapy and teaching careers have resulted in specialist research on oral language/emergent literacy development. She contributes to teaching and research in the Department of Psychology and College of Education at the University of Otago.

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