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6 Effective Practices to Move Literacy Learning Forward

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

To become literate means to be able to read and write.

Becoming literate is a process that happens over time. For many, formal literacy instruction happens once school starts, so the first year of school is fundamental in setting the scene for learners to flourish. There is so much to learn in the first year that we must maximise time spent in the classroom so all children get off to a good start. Many children will only become literate with explicit, systematic instruction; for some, this instruction is paramount because they will only become literate with it. Some children come to school with few literacy experiences from home, so we should do all we can to facilitate effective, engaging instruction that will move literacy learning forward. The curriculum is an ever-moving train, and there is little time to fill gaps once the wheels of school are moving.

Here are six practices that move the dial on literacy learning so children can thrive at five and feel successful as they move through the primary stage.

1 Start with what children know.

Children come to school knowing a lot about language. This is a good starting point and tells the child that what you bring, we value. Starting our literacy journey from our speech shows children that their speech sounds may be different from that of their friend, but the same letter symbol or symbols represent the same thing. It shows that even if how we say speech sounds differ, the spellings remain a constant. Teaching initial sounds first makes their speech visible on the page as we create words using letters and sounds. We also develop the skills of segmenting to build and write words, and when we read the words back, we are decoding the words and blending to read.

2 Work from simple to complex

In the beginning, working with a few frequent letters helps all learners experience success from the start. Students learn that the letters of the alphabet all have a first sound. Word building is an effective way to teach initial sounds in the context of words. Building simple CVC words links sounds to letters, which builds the essential skills of segmenting and blending. A cumulative sequence ensures continuous reinforcement of previously learned letters and sounds. Almost all students need repeated practice. After the initial code, first consonant digraphs followed by vowel spellings with a good helping of common prefixes and suffixes is a great start. Check out my post about why many programs start with the letters SATPIN.

3 Use decodable texts as a bridge to fluency.

Decodable books have become very popular, but a text is only as decodable as the teaching and learning before the reading.

The first books a student reads should be transparent to the learner so that they can build skill, enjoyment, and confidence. All children thrive with books with letters, letter combinations and words they already know. Still, we should also be reading together so students can experience beautiful picture books, amazing non-fiction and a whole host of other texts in between.

4 Teach how to write

Some children love to write. Last year I met an amazing little girl in a classroom I visit regularly. Every week I was met with another thrilling story, list, card, and recount. All were carefully crafted in the corner of the room the brilliant teacher had set aside for children to produce their own creations. Only some know they can write from such an early age, and some are put off because they know they can't spell or maybe they need the words. Many children find writing difficult because they need to gain the skills and code knowledge to get their ideas down on paper. Explicit writing instruction linked to the scope and sequence is crucial to help children become writers. These sentences should start orally, so children know what they want to get on the page. Check out my blog post about first writing.

5 'If you can't say it, you can't write it.'

A daily dictation helps set the scene for future sentence work. Providing scaffolds for writing reduces the demands of the task, so students feel successful. We can also include spelling instruction so that children see how words work from the start. Reading instruction has moved forward, and I hope that most classrooms now teach how to decode when children come across an unknown word. However, spelling instruction still lags behind, and the weekly spelling test and rote memorisation of high-frequency words is still alive and well in many schools.

6 Make links to create meaningful spelling instruction.

Linking phonology and morphology will move spelling instruction forward.

To begin, the initial sounds have a 1:1 correspondence. Spelling in the Foundation stage is still hard for the students, but it is transparent. Once we move past the initial code, we must discuss the why of spelling as we move along the sequence. Why do some words appear to have letters, but I don't say a sound? Just think of all those pesky 'ough' words. The GH wasn't just thrown in for good measure. If we explicitly teach spelling in conjunction with reading, many more children will leave primary school literate. They will then be ready to face the new adventures and challenges of high school with a smile rather than the anxiety of not knowing and the feeling that everyone else can do it and I just can't.


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