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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Developing knowledge for literacy learning

Developing knowledge for literacy learning

The knowledge that students need to develop for literacy learning includes background knowledge and literacy-related knowledge.

Background knowledge

Successful readers and writers do much more than process information. They bring their experience and existing knowledge, accumulated both in and out of school, to their reading and writing in order to construct meaning and develop new understandings.

As already discussed, children’s knowledge is built within social and cultural settings, and there are socially determined patterns of knowledge. However, each learner’s body of knowledge is unique; there are multiple pathways by which learners become literate.

The knowledge and experience that learners bring to their reading or writing, including the vocabulary they have developed, give them a starting point for connecting with a text or clarifying the ideas they seek to convey. Introducing a topic for shared writing or a text for guided reading by inviting conversation about the pictures and content, for example, helps young learners to make connections with what they already know.

The diversity among students in our schools presents a challenge for teachers – to identify and build upon the knowledge that all their students bring to the classroom. Teachers should always be aware that what the learner brings to the learning task is as important as what the teacher teaches.

Literacy-related knowledge

From their earliest attempts at reading and writing, children develop their literacy related knowledge. As they begin formal instruction at school, they need to know how texts work (see below). They need to learn that spoken language is made up of sounds and words, to learn the spoken and written forms of the letters of the alphabet, and to understand that these relate to the sounds of spoken language (see pages 32–37). They also need to know about the visual features of print (see page 34).

Knowledge of how texts work

When children have frequent experiences of reading and writing, they begin to realise that there is a relationship between what they hear and the written text they create or read. Through listening to and talking about stories or through creating them, children learn the importance of sounds, of particular words, and of the flow and rhythm of language and story structure. They learn that words and the ways people say them can evoke an emotional response. They learn that texts can delight and inform and that it is worthwhile to listen to, to read, to view, and to create them.

Children learn that:

  • texts have meaning and purpose 
  • texts have a particular structure, according to their purpose 
  • print is a written form of spoken language 
  • the conventions of print are consistent 
  • written text is constant.

This knowledge enables children to develop certain expectations and to make predictions about the form and structure of the text that they are going to read or write. Their knowledge of the purposes and structures of texts increases as they progress, enabling them to develop an analytical and thoughtful perspective as readers and writers.

Using sources of information in texts

Learners need to know how to use the sources of information in texts, along with their prior knowledge and experience, to decode and encode written English, make meaning, and think critically.

The three interrelated sources of information in written language that readers and writers use are:

  • meaning (semantics) – the meanings of words and of images, such as pictures and diagrams, in their context 
  • structure (syntax) – the grammatical structures of phrases and sentences 
  • visual and grapho-phonic information, that is, the features of the printed letters, words, and punctuation – the visual aspects of the print itself.

These sources of information need to be considered in relation to one another.

Meaning: semantic sources of information

Children build up knowledge of words and their meanings through their experiences of spoken language in everyday life. Words acquire meaning in relation to the child’s experience. Before they start school, children have absorbed the meanings of many words. They have learned the names of the people, objects, and events in their lives, and they have also learned to interpret subtle differences in meaning, for example, between “Sit up”, “Sit down”, and “Sit still”.

Most will have a sense of English idiom (if English is their first language) and will understand that “Hang on a minute” does not imply holding on to anything.

Children who experience rich conversations with adults, siblings, and peers and who hear lots of stories and rhymes meet a great number of words in different contexts and build up a store of words they can use fluently. Some children’s exposure to language may be more limited, and their vocabulary development may be slower. A child usually comes to understand what particular words mean through experience, but teachers can help to expand children’s awareness of how words work by discussing the precise meanings of words as they arise in classroom activities, by planning text-based experiences (see chapter 5), and by encouraging quality conversations (see pages 88–89). Such experiences enable children to build a growing range of words that they will recognise in their reading and use in their writing.

Using illustrations with text helps learners to build meaning. Children’s first writing is often captions for pictures; this develops their concepts about how pictures and words work together. The illustrations in a book may carry crucial information to help a young reader understand unfamiliar content and settings, or they may provide a subtext that offers a different perspective. In many factual texts, the photographs, illustrations, and diagrams are essential features for readers seeking a full understanding of the information.

Structure: syntactic sources of information

Children learn and develop language patterns from infancy. Well before a baby can distinguish or articulate a word, its babble imitates the “tune” of the language it hears. Later, as children learn to talk, their grammatical structures are mostly correct. Sometimes when they apply rules to make their meaning clearer, the results don’t fit the irregularity of the English language but still demonstrate learning progress. For example, saying “Daddy rided”, rather than “Daddy rode”, shows an understanding of the standard form of the past tense in English.

Knowing the structure or syntax of a language helps readers to predict a word or the order of words in a sentence. A child who is using syntactic information knows what type of word is missing in the sentence “The dog ---------- over the wall.” The language of most five-year-olds enables them to use syntax well in predicting and checking the accuracy of words they read in their first language. Similarly, when children begin to write, they try to record what they might say. They are governed by syntax because the words we hear, speak, read, and write are organised into grammatical sequences. Children’s understandings of written language structure increase progressively through planned literacy activities.

Visual and grapho-phonic sources of information

Visual sources of information for readers are the visual features of the print itself. Visual information in a text includes letters, letter clusters, words, sentences, and the conventions of print, such as direction, spaces between words, the shapes of letters and words, and punctuation marks. It does not include illustrations.

The term “grapho-phonic information” encapsulates the idea that the information used to decode a printed word or to write a word is partly visual or graphic (the learner recognises the printed shape) and partly aural or phonic (the learner recreates the sounds of letters and words). The learner draws on prior knowledge to remember which visual configuration goes with which sound. Refer to page 32 for information about phonics and to pages 35–37 for information about letter-sound relationships.

When they write, students must attend to the detail of each word. They add to their store of knowledge about how certain visual shapes relate to certain sounds as they look closely at the features of letters and notice combinations of letters that occur often.

The term visual information refers to visual aspects of print, such as letters, words, spaces between words, and punctuation marks. The term visual language is used to describe signs, symbols, illustrations, gestures, and so on that are used to communicate meaning.

Integrating the sources of information in reading and writing

Fluent readers and writers draw on their prior knowledge and use all available sources of information simultaneously and usually unconsciously. Beginning readers and writers need to be taught to draw on these sources and to use them efficiently.

Hayley was reading the sentence “At last the wolf woke up”. She read fluently until the written word “woke”, which was unfamiliar. She recognised that the sentence structure required a verb and that the word began with “w”, so she tried “walked”. The next word, “up”, was familiar, and Hayley realised that “walked up” would not make sense in this context, so she self-corrected to “woke up”.

Students learn to use and integrate the sources of information effortlessly in their reading and writing when they have:

  • a wide range of enjoyable books to hear and read 
  • varied writing experiences 
  • planned, explicit instruction by the teacher 
  • many opportunities to develop their oral and written language 
  • many opportunities to practise reading and writing an increasing range of texts that become progressively more challenging.

Further discussion and examples of effective instruction that enables learners to use and integrate the sources of information, along with their prior knowledge, may be found in chapter 4, Instructional Strategies, and chapter 5, Engaging Learners with Texts.

Note: Students learning English as a new language find it more difficult, initially, to use semantic and syntactic information in English. They are still developing their knowledge of the language that is associated with given contexts in written English and of the patterns of the English language. It is important that they are encouraged to develop such knowledge through oral language activities and supported in learning how to use visual and grapho-phonic information to decode and encode words so that they can read, write, and experience success.

Published on: 08 Apr 2016