Cambourne’s Conditions of Learning
An Australian researcher, Brian Cambourne identified
the following conditions for oral language development.
His conditions also have strong implications for the
environment needed for learning to read and write.
Humans are surrounded by language from the time
they are born. Families talk to infants even though they
know the child will not respond with words. As well,
they talk and sing in the presence of the child, even if
they are not talking to the baby directly. This immersion
in language allows the child to observe how language
is used by those who have already acquired the skills,
and allows them to attune their ear to the rhythm and
nuances of language.
In the early years classroom, literacy learners should be
immersed in all forms of language, print, and text. The
amounts, variety, and quality of the text that students
experience have a profound effect on literacy learning.
They do not have to be fluent readers before being
surrounded by print.
Families do not specifically teach children to speak, but
they do provide models of how language works, the
sounds that make up the home language of the child,
why we use language to communicate with others, and
how words work together to form ideas.
Literacy learners need continuing models and explicit
demonstrations of reading and writing strategies.
Children need to understand how successful readers
and writers construct meaning from the text. Educators
can provide powerful models of what effective readers
and writers do and think as they read as well as models
of why and how we use reading and writing in our daily
Families expect that all children will learn to speak and
communicate with others. Unless there is a physical
problem, this expectation is realistic. Because of this,
families act in natural and relaxed ways as they help
infants develop their language but do not set up specific
lessons in which to teach the specific skills.
What can we take from this to help our understanding
of setting realistic literacy expectations for children?
Since all learners are powerfully influenced by
expectations, educators must convey the same high
expectations to all students. Literacy learners need to
know that they are expected to succeed in learning to
read and write and that the educator is there to guide
them through the process.
Application and Practice
Infants are given time to develop their language skills.
They set their own timetable for developing the specific
skills related to learning to talk and communicate but
families do not generally worry that a child who is late
in developing words and sentences will not develop the
skills in their own time.
Literacy learners need time and opportunities to
engage in reading and writing activities, where they
can apply new learning, and practice and extend their
developing control of reading and writing. Reading
and writing opportunities for young children should be
authentic – that is, the child chooses the material and
the topics about which to read and write. It is part of a
natural learning process.
When infants are learning language, they are given the
responsibility to learn at their own pace and in their own
way. We do not say to young children, You will be hearing

a lot of words in your environment, and these are the ones
that you should say first. Children surprise their families
with words and expressions that have meaning to them
and with the sounds that the young child wants to copy.
That is the fun of listening to a new language learner.
Do we do the same for children who are learning to read
and write? Children who are surrounded by literacy in
their early years classrooms will want to learn how to
communicate in written fashion. They will find real
purposes for reading and real purposes for writing that
make sense to them and to their own environment. It
is the educators’ responsibility to create appropriate
opportunities and an environment for literacy learning.
Literacy learners have the responsibility for taking
advantage of the opportunities provided to them.
Young children are not told when and where to babble
or talk. They choose when they are ready and those
around them simply try to provide the motivation to
get that started.
Literacy learners need to acquire effective strategies
for reading and writing independently. When young
children understand that reading and writing are
interesting, useful, and productive activities, we have
given a lifelong gift to them. Young children need
to have appropriate literacy texts that meet their
independent interests and needs.
Young children are allowed the freedom to take risks
as they learn to communicate with others. We do not
expect them to be able to pronounce words accurately
but respond to the sounds or proximity to words that
they do say. When a young child points to something
with which they are familiar and makes a sound that
resembles speech, we act as though we know exactly
what the child has said and respond accordingly. We
demonstrate that those sounds are to be understood
by others and form a base of communication. We allow
children to form words in a developmental way.
The acceptance of approximations is crucial to literacy
learning. Students will have the necessary confidence
to take risks or ‘give it a try’, if they know that their
efforts are valued, encouraged, and supported. When
young children pick up a book and begin telling the
story from the pictures, this is an example of a literacy
behavior that should be praised, as it is understood
that it is an approximation on the way to traditional
reading. Similarly, we should allow the emerging writer
to be able to scribble, or write strings of letters that
represent ideas to the writer but are not necessarily
recognizable by others. This approximation should be
accepted by others as a form of writing development
and that the child will, with thoughtful teaching, soon
be a writer in the traditional way.
Babies receive much feedback from others when
they attempt to communicate. Families laugh, hug,
and respond to the first sounds a baby makes. Then
they begin to help them to develop more accurate
sounds and simple words by providing the words in
simple ways, by stretching out a word or sound and
encouraging the child to make that sound. This specific
and ongoing feedback allows the child to make tighter
and tighter approximations of sounds and words and to
develop their language skills authentically.
When given specific feedback to reading and writing
attempts, children begin to incorporate new ideas
into their set of literacy skills. For example, someone
could help a child to stretch out the individual sounds
of a word they are attempting to write so that more
individual sounds are heard and therefore written.
When children are telling a story without actually
reading the words of a text, the words they are saying
could be pointed out in the text so the children see the
connection between their talking and their reading.
By receiving helpful feedback children begin to use
this knowledge to expand their repertoire of literacy