ECE Resources

The essential skills and understandings children need for lifelong literacy success

In our webinar on fostering literacy in early childhood settings, Professor Claire McLachlan from Federation University Australia explains the importance of supporting children’s emergent literacy, and provides some principles and practices for fostering the skills that are crucial to children’s lifelong learning success. Claire discusses the importance of knowing what kinds of skills, knowledge and dispositions provide a strong foundation for children’s early learning in school, and talks about assessment and planning for progression. The key insights from the webinar include: 

Literacy development is about both nature and nurture. Most children are born with the potential to develop literacy but require both access to literacy resources and mediation from adults and other children to help them develop literacy skills. This helps children develop unique ‘funds of knowledge’ about literacy to bring to their literacy learning.  

Teaching strong literacy skills in early childhood has a lifelong effect on their learning and achievement. When children start school with limited experiences of literacy relative to their peers, this creates what is known as the Matthew effect, whereby the more experienced children learn more while the less experienced children fall further behind, and the gap between the two groups grows. Children who have had rich experiences before reaching formal schooling usually learn to read and write without much difficulty, but those who lack these experiences or who have learning difficulties may struggle to learn, and the difficulties that stem from this initial disadvantage can still be observed until the age of about 10.  

Teachers need to know what the predictors of reading achievement are and be able to recognise them when observed. Key predictors of children’s literacy achievement include knowledge of the alphabet, phonological awareness, the ability to rapidly name objects, letters, numbers, and colours, the ability to write their own name, and the ability to remember spoken information for a period of time. Knowledge of letter-sound correspondence is not essential in early childhood, but children should recognise that different letters have different sounds. Other important skills are knowledge of print conventions and symbols, being able to match and discriminate visual symbols, and finally a strong oral language base and rich vocabulary (which are incredibly important for children’s listening comprehension).  

An understanding of the alphabetic principle is also a significant development, in which children comprehend that the sounds that they are hearing can be represented in print. This helps children with decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) words. During early childhood, children put all these understandings about literacy together, providing a solid foundation for them to build upon in the early years of school. The school-based Literacy Learning Progressions are helpful for understanding what skills, abilities and dispositions are important on school entry.   

A literacy curriculum is wide enough to incorporate the familiar while unlocking the unfamiliar. This idea is helpful for building on children’s home experiences while ensuring a rich range of literacy experiences for every child. Literacy in the home may be different to what they experience in ECE settings: for example, it may primarily involve digital devices, or it may be strongly related to church activities. Teachers can use a profile sheet as children enter the early childhood service or talk to parents about what the child enjoys at home, as well as providing suggestions of literacy activities that might suit families to do at home. 

Using different kinds of story reading promotes all kinds of emergent literacy skills. One approach to story reading involves print referencing, in which teachers focus on the print and emphasise aspects of print during the reading. Another is a dialogic style of reading where teachers engage in dialogue with children around the book, questioning, predicting events, and explaining new words. Books that are full of rhyme and rhythm are helpful for developing phonological awareness. Working with small groups may be more effective than running a large group mat-time and, wherever possible, teachers should commit to reading to children every day and ensure that all children get equitable opportunities for sharing books with an adult.  

If children have a strong foundation in their first language, it is easy to build English on top of it. It is important that teachers encourage children’s home language(s) and build on these to support their understanding of English. They should find out about children’s skills in their home language by talking with parents (using a translator if necessary) about things such as whether children recognise the symbols that are used in the home script, whether they are interested in hearing stories, and if they use some of the words that they hear in those stories.  

The learning outcomes in Te Whāriki’s Communication strand can help teachers to think about methods of data collection for recording children’s progress. Some data collection might be spontaneous, such as when you see a child writing a letter or hear children using the language of a story you’ve read, but otherwise teachers will need to actively seek data on children’s literacy development. A digital portfolio for literacy can be useful for collecting audio, video and photographs, and revisited every three to six months to determine children’s progress.  

By Professor Claire McLachlan


Professor Claire McLachlan

Professor Claire McLachlan is Dean, School of Education at Federation University Australia. She completed her Ph.D at Massey University on the topic of emergent literacy in kindergartens. She has written and researched this topic for the last 30 years and still finds it fascinating. She was also a member of the writing team for the revision of Te Whāriki.

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