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

Learning about print

All literacy learners need to: develop concepts about print, learn to read and write letters and words, learn about visual language in texts (including electronic texts), develop a sight vocabulary, learn to relate sounds to print and to relate parts of words to sounds, and apply their knowledge of letter-sound relationships to their reading and writing. All students need explicit instruction to ensure that they develop this essential learning. Those who start school with less experience of print than others in the class may need more intensive instruction.

Developing concepts about print

Emergent readers and writers of English texts need to acquire a knowledge of the essential conventions of print (that is, the conventions of written text). They learn that:

  • print contains a message 
  • text is written and read from left to right with a return sweep to the left for the next line 
  • there is a one-to-one match between each spoken and written word 
  • sentences start with capital letters and end with full stops 
  • print on the left-hand page is read before that on the right-hand page 
  • the print on a book’s cover and title page gives the title and other details, and the cover picture generally suggests what the book is about 
  • illustrations convey meaning and relate to the text on the page.

Learning to read and write letters and words

As they learn about letters and words, students need to focus on such aspects as:

  • the characteristics of letter formation, including dots, tails, crossbars, and curves 
  • differences in letter orientation, such as in “d” and “b” 
  • the various forms of such letters as “a” (or “a”) and “g” (or “g”) 
  • the shape of significant letters, such as the first letter of a child’s name 
  • upper-case and lower-case forms of letters 
  • the shape and length of individual words, such as “hippopotamus” and “book”.

Although students may develop much of this knowledge through text-based experiences, teachers will need to teach and reinforce many aspects by explicit instruction. This may occur in a mini-lesson (see page 90) to meet an immediate need that has arisen, but learning should normally occur within a programme of planned reading and writing activities.

In the early stages of reading and writing, children tend to refer to letters in a variety of ways. To provide a consistent identifier, teachers should use the letter names when referring to letters.

Learning about visual-language features of texts

As students learn to recognise various visual-language features of texts, they can apply this knowledge to constructing meaning in their reading and conveying meaning in their writing. Students need to know about:

  • the effects of the layout of words, pictures, and captions 
  • the way pictures can confirm or convey information 
  • the meaning of signs and symbols, such as road signs and logos 
  • the significance of the icons on a computer screen 
  • the meaning of keyboard symbols, such as arrows.

Electronic forms of text have particular visual-language features. When we read or write electronic forms of text, we draw on our prior knowledge and on the same sources of information as in printed text: syntax, semantics, and grapho-phonic and visual information. However, some conventions and text features are specific to electronic presentation, especially menus, icons, visual symbols, and complex ways of integrating graphics and text. Students need guidance in how to navigate electronic text, just as they do for finding their way through tables of contents, indexes, and other print features when reading or for using them in writing.

Developing a sight vocabulary

It’s essential for young readers and writers to develop a sight vocabulary, that is, a store of words that they recognise automatically. At first, students will learn to recognise high-frequency words and personal-interest words.

The development of a sight vocabulary is a key factor in enabling beginning readers to move on. A store of sight words frees the reader from having to process every single word and allows them to work with phrases and sentences. When learners can recognise or write words immediately, they are free to concentrate on meaning as they read or write. Having a store of sight words also helps learners to acquire further sight words. (See the section on page 36 about relating parts of words to sounds.)

However, even the most experienced reader will need to use word-level information at times – for example, when meeting unfamiliar technical terms. And, for beginning readers, reading accurately takes priority over reading fluently. Gradually, with guided practice, they will learn to recognise most words in a text automatically. Learners acquire a vocabulary for reading and writing through:

  • reading texts that use high-frequency words repeatedly 
  • frequent shared writing sessions where high-frequency words are used repeatedly 
  • repeated readings of easy and familiar books 
  • writing or dictating their own texts to share with the class and their family, using both familiar and new vocabulary 
  • adapting familiar texts in their writing, using similar vocabulary and structures 
  • reading and writing notices, labels, notes on the message board, and signs 
  • constructing charts of words with common sound or spelling patterns; “playing” with words in games, rhymes, and songs.

Relating sounds to print

Children’s conversations with adults and with one another are a critical component of literacy learning. Because oral language is such a powerful influence in early literacy development, teachers need to create purposeful opportunities for children to talk.

Emergent readers and writers need to recognise that the stream of sounds they hear in speech is made up of separate words. In written form, there are gaps between the words. Some children will begin to notice these separate words and gaps early, during storybook reading sessions at home or at school. When they see writing modelled at home or at school, and when they write themselves, they consolidate their understanding of words and how they are put together.

Teachers can develop children’s awareness of words, letters, and sounds by drawing attention to these features when reading to them and during shared reading and writing – for example, by focusing on words and phrases that rhyme or have the same first letter or sound. Young children are highly motivated by such activities because they are enjoyable and are often familiar from their early childhood experiences.

Useful activities include:

  • reading rhymes and singing songs 
  • listening to and practising stories that have repetitive patterns or unusual sounds 
  • playing oral word games.

Relating parts of words to sounds

When competent readers meet an unknown word, they tend to break it into sound patterns or look within it for words or word parts that are familiar. Beginner readers usually focus on the initial letter of a word, but it’s often useful for them to try to identify parts of the word rather than concentrating on individual letters. Children are often able to work out unknown words by distinguishing between the first part of the word (the onset) and the rest of the word (the rime) as in b-oat, d-og, s-ocks. Once children gain a repertoire of known words, they are better able to recognise familiar patterns in words and can use these patterns to help them solve, pronounce, and write new words. For example, a writer who knows “lunch” is able to work out “munch” by using the spelling pattern that represents the rime “unch”. This chunking of information is generally much more successful than trying to sound out a word letter by letter or thinking of one letter at a time when writing. (See also the section on spelling, on pages 144–148.)

Writing and letter-sound relationships

Children’s early writing requires them to consider both direction and the details of letters and words that they may not have noticed when they were “reading” texts. As children begin to write, they draw on everything they know about letters and sounds within words (their phonemic awareness and their knowledge of phonics) to match their written words with spoken words. Using approximations in spelling is an important feature of this process.

Children’s early writing provides invaluable opportunities for learning about relationships between letters and sounds (phonics). Beginning writers are constantly engaged with the problem of how to write down spoken language – how to represent its sounds and how to spell words. Clearly articulating each sound in a word helps children to make connections between the sounds, the letters, and their own knowledge of spelling patterns.

Children are likely to recognise whole words in speech and reading before they can write them. As they write, they use a variety of methods to attempt unknown words. These include employing phonics (using letters to represent the sounds they hear) and using features such as spelling patterns and regular endings, from words they already know, to help them spell unknown words. This growing knowledge of spelling (orthographic knowledge) contributes greatly to children’s fluency in writing.

As they become fluent and experienced readers and writers, children recognise an increasing range of patterns, and they become aware that different letters or letter clusters can represent the same sounds. More sophisticated word study further on involves exploring word families, prefixes, suffixes, and irregular spellings.

Published on: 08 Apr 2016