Book language: promoting literacy and oracy in the early years

Studies have identified important differences between ‘book language’ and spoken language, for example in terms of the vocabulary and syntax they contain. In order to understand texts, children need to learn the ‘language of books’.

This study aims to develop a detailed picture of the language used in different types of texts aimed at children, through analysis of the 12,000 English language texts contained in the Oxford Children’s Corpus. The results of this analysis will then inform the design of a series of six proof-of-concept shared-reading experiments aimed at investigating whether specific, systematic exposure to ‘book language’ in Reception can improve children’s language and literacy skills.

Exposure to books prior to school entry is known to vary according to social disadvantage. The study will test whether the shared-reading experiments have the potential to mitigate the effects of this variation and support disadvantaged children in learning to understand written texts.

The language skills and exposure to books of 40 Reception-year children will be measured prior to and after each experiment. The children will be assigned to two equal groups, one of which will be read a bespoke story and asked to retell it. All retellings will be recorded and analysed using established measures to assess whether they show that the targeted learning has taken place. This procedure will be repeated three times to see whether children’s retellings became closer to the original text with increased familiarity.

This innovative study complements our work on oral language in the early years, including the evaluations of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention and Talking Together.

Project details



Professor Kate Nation and Dr Yaling Hsiao, University of Oxford

Grant amount and duration:


January 2019 – August 2021