Epithelial–mesenchymal transition (EMT) is closely correlated to metastasis formation generation and maintenance of cancer stem cells, nevertheless, the underlying mechanisms are unclear. The aim of this study is to investigate the role of maternal embryonic leucine-zipper kinase (MELK) in EMT regulation in oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC). We found that there was overexpression of MELK in human OSCC tissues, and high MELK expression was correlated with lymphatic metastasis and led to poor prognosis in patients with OSCC. We also confirmed that MELK is closely correlated to the EMT process using a human OSCC tissue microarray. Additionally, MELK expression was observed to be regulated in several OSCC cell lines, and knockdown of MELK genes inhibited cell proliferation, migration, invasion and EMT of OSCC cells in vitro. Furthermore, silencing of MELK suppressed tumour growth in vivo, and experimental research verified that MELK may augment OSCC development via mediating the Wnt/Notch signalling pathway. Our findings suggest that MELK serves as an oncogene to improve malignant development of OSCC via enhancing EMT, and MELK might be a potential target for anticancer therapeutic.