Early literacy approaches support the development of foundational skills. This guide outlines key practices for supporting literacy in early learning settings.
A view from above of children in a early learning setting on the floor looking at a handwritten book with images.

Promote children's early language and communication skills 

Early Years Learning Framework | All outcomes

The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) defines literacy as ‛the capacity, confidence and disposition to use language in all its forms’. It can include talking, listening, viewing, reading, writing, music, movement, dance, storytelling, visual arts, media and drama. Children develop a wide range of literacy skills in the early years, from infancy through to the start of school, which form the foundation for reading, writing and communicating. Early literacy approaches aim to promote the development of these foundational skills.

Early childhood educators and teachers play an essential role in providing opportunities for children to learn early literacy concepts. The EYLF encourages early childhood educators and teachers to support positive attitudes in relation to language and literacy, as well as knowledge and skills. As all the EYLF outcomes are interconnected, early literacy also helps children to develop a strong sense of identity, wellbeing, and be connected and contribute to their world. When children use language (verbal and non-verbal), they can express who they are, create connections with others and start to influence the world around them. Fostering early literacy is therefore an important part of developing the whole child, and improving wellbeing and belonging.

This guide lists evidence-based practices for promoting early literacy in ECEC settings. Some of the examples offered may not apply in all contexts and/or may be more suitable for particular learners or age groups.

Key practices

This means making the most of moments throughout the day to support learners’ skills and interest in literacy.

  • Oral language skills are the foundation for literacy, so simply talking with children is a highly effective strategy. Engage in back-and-forth conversations with learners, modelling language use, and asking questions about their experiences or current activity that encourage them to think and express their ideas1,2 (for example, ‘I really want to know more about this – can you tell me more?’).
  • Create language-rich environments that help learners develop a love of language from infancy.3 As well as talking with children, fill the learning environment with books, visual representations of print, writing materials and literacy props. Help children explore these resources, posing questions to develop and extend their thinking.4
  • Play provides a wonderful opportunity for children to talk to each other and develop their early language and literacy skills.5 Notice opportunities to extend children’s learning during imaginative play – for example, if learners are stuck in their play not knowing what to do next, you can extend their thinking by helping to create pretend scenarios or problems for children to solve (‘What if we did…?’), or encourage them to see different uses for familiar props (‘What if we used this…?’).
  • Encourage families to read books to their child and engage their child in conversations at home.6 Seek to understand families’ language backgrounds and how they use language in their lives. Children’s first languages are valuable resources for their literacy development, so explore ways to incorporate them into your program.

1 Pullen & Justice, 2003
2 Whorrall & Cabell, 2016
3 Hall et al., 2015
4 Piasta, 2016
5 Hall et al., 2015
6 Sénéchal & Young, 2008

Plan activities that allow you to extend on children’s learning, either in groups or in individual interactions with learners.

  • Experiment with opportunities to plan activities that support learners’ language development. For example, engage learners in storytelling and shared reading activities.7 When reading a story, have conversations with learners about features of stories, relating them to learners’ own experiences, and enacting stories through play.
  • Support learners’ vocabulary by repeating and defining new words (for example, words that you read in a book), talking with children about the words, using props to illustrate word meanings and providing extension activities to further explore a new word.8 
  • Support learners’ decoding skills by using activities that combine a focus on alphabet knowledge (letter names and sounds - for example, 'This is the letter B - it makes the sound /b/.') and phonological awareness.9 For example, you can show learners picture cards with different animals (bear, dog, bat) and help them to recognise which ones have the same first sound and identify the letter that makes the sound.10 Singing and rhyming activities also help children to notice the sounds in words. Use phrases like ‘Snug as a bug in a rug’ or make up rhymes about things you’re doing.

7 Pesco & Gagne, 2017
8 Wasik et al., 2016
9 Piasta & Wagner, 2010
10 Piasta, 2016

Develop your knowledge of early literacy to support learners’ development and keep track of their progress.

  • Understand how learners develop early literacy skills and the developmental trajectories of these skills in early childhood, from infancy through to school. This content knowledge will allow you to scaffold learners’ literacy development effectively.11,12
  • Know how to assess what learners know and can do, and use this information to reflect on each child’s learning and make sure your interactions with learners are closely linked to their abilities and needs.13 A range of techniques can be used to gather information about learners’ language and literacy skills, including observing children’s interactions and play, talking with children and formative assessment.
  • Work with your educational leader to identify priorities for professional learning about early literacy, and seek support on how to learn, apply and reflect on your early literacy practices.14 Structured professional development is most effective for learning specific teaching strategies, which can then be adapted and incorporated into child-centred programs.15,16

11 Cunningham et al., 2009
12 Campbell, 2018
13 Dunphy, 2010
14 Elek & Page, 2019
15 Ciesielski & Creaghead, 2020
16 Markussen-Brown et al., 2017

Further reading

Campbell, S. (2020). Teaching phonics without teaching phonics: Early childhood teachers’ reported beliefs and practices. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 20(4), 783–814. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468798418791001

A literature review and single study that examines early childhood teachers’ beliefs and knowledge about phonics learning in prior-to-school settings in Australia (with children aged five years and younger). In the first phase of this study, 283 early childhood teachers completed a survey on their knowledge and beliefs about early phonics learning and teaching, and phase 2 involved in-depth interviews with three early childhood teachers. The findings show that many early childhood teachers don’t believe in the effectiveness of explicit and intentional phonics instruction and were more likely to engage in holistic, play-based, and incidental phonics experiences with young children. Teachers were also less knowledgeable about phonics than other areas of early language and literacy learning. The author highlights that explicit phonics instruction can be achieved through literacy-rich environments and play-based learning. They recommend that further learning and professional development is beneficial to ensure best practice through stronger alignment between children’s literacy development and teachers’ beliefs about literacy teaching.

Chambers, B., Cheung, A. C., & Slavin, R. E. (2016). Literacy and language outcomes of comprehensive and developmental-constructivist approaches to early childhood education: A systematic review. Educational Research Review, 18, 88–111. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2016.03.003

A systematic review of 32 studies published on early childhood programs, between 1990 and 2015. To be included in the review, each study had to evaluate educational programs for groups of children between the ages of 3 and 5, use randomised or matched control groups, run for at least 12 weeks, and include valid measures of literacy and language. The authors analysed these papers to identify effective approaches capable of improving literacy and language outcomes for pre-schoolers. This paper identifies two key components of effective programs:

  •  programs that balance early literacy skills (such as phonemic awareness, phonics) with developmental child-initiated activities show positive effects
  •  lower effects are observed for programs that focus on child-initiated activities but do not incorporate teaching of phonemic awareness and phonic skills.

Ciesielski, E. J., & Creaghead, N. A. (2020). The effectiveness of professional development on the phonological awareness outcomes of preschool children: A systematic review. Literacy Research and Instruction, 59(2), 121–147. https://doi.org/10.1080/19388071.2019.1710785

A systematic review of 15 studies published on preschool children's phonological awareness improvement following educator professional development, between 2003 and 2019. To be included in the review, papers needed to assess children’s phonological awareness skills, use an experimental or quasi-experimental design, and provide enough information to allow effect sizes to be calculated. The authors analysed these papers to determine the components that make professional development effective. This paper identifies four key components of effective professional development:

  •  early childhood educators benefit from training in phonological awareness instruction
  •  programs that are highly structured, providing specific, defined activities including scope, sequence and wording are more successful
  •  programs using scripted activities or highly detailed lesson plans are more effective
  •  most effective trainings offered shorter segments (for instance, hours rather than days) on a regular basis.

Cunningham, A. E., Zibulsky, J., & Callahan, M. D. (2009). Starting small: Building preschool teacher knowledge that supports early literacy development. Reading and Writing, 22(4), 487–510. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-009-9164-z

This paper provides a synthesis of existing literature on the knowledge base of early childhood educators for supporting reading and writing development. It then presents empirical research exploring 20 American preschools teachers’ knowledge base. This paper finds that preschool teachers within the study sample:

  • lack the disciplinary knowledge required to promote early literacy
  • tend to overestimate what they know, creating a potential obstacle for future learning opportunities.

Dunphy, E. (2010). Assessing early learning through formative assessment: Key issues and considerations. Irish Educational Studies, 29(1), 41–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/03323310903522685

A literature review synthesising research on formative assessment of early learning and development with children aged birth to six years. The authors find that educators and teachers can develop rich pictures of children’s early learning through collecting information about children’s learning, documenting that information, reflecting on it and using the information to support and extend learning. A narrative or story approach which document particular instances of learning can be a particularly useful strategy for reflecting on and communicating children’s learning. The paper also highlights the knowledge and skills educators need to engage in formative assessment, including an understanding of how children learn and awareness of diversity among children.

Elek, C., & Page, J. (2019). Critical features of effective coaching for early childhood educators: A review of empirical research literature. Professional Development in Education, 45(4), 567–585. https://doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2018.1452781

A systematic review of 53 studies that identify features of effective coaching for early childhood educators. To be included in the systematic review, each study had to include coaching components for early childhood educators and use an experimental or quasi-experimental design. The authors find that observation, feedback, goal setting and reflection are the elements of successful coaching programs for early childhood educators. To use coaching to change practice, the authors recommend: 

  • aligning coaching content with educators’ skills, characteristics and contexts
  •  developing environments that enable educators to set their own goals, apply their new skills, and reflect on their practice.

Hall, A. H., Simpson, A., Guo, Y., & Wang, S. (2015). Examining the effects of preschool writing instruction on emergent literacy skills: A systematic review of the literature. Literacy Research and Instruction, 54(2), 115–134. https://doi.org/10.1080/19388071.2014.991883

 A systematic review of 22 studies published on writing interventions in preschool, between 1990 and 2013. To be included in the review, each study had to be an experimental or quasi-experimental study involving writing as part of an intervention, be conducted in a Head Start, day care, or state funded preschool with children ages 3 to 5 years, and not be limited to a particular subgroup. The authors analysed these papers to investigate the effect of preschool writing instruction to improve emergent literacy skills of children. This paper identifies that:

  • Preschool writing instruction enhanced children's early literacy outcomes
  • Environments rich in print and language experiences hold promise as a means to promote lengthier and more complex literacy-related play
  •  educators who provide guidance or scaffolding and embed explicit instruction within the context of authentic writing activities are likely to facilitate young children's early literacy development.

Markussen-Brown, J., Juhl, C. B., Piasta, S. B., Bleses, D., Højen, A., & Justice, L. M. (2017). The effects of language- and literacy-focused professional development on early educators and children: A best-evidence meta-analysis. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 38, 97–115. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2016.07.002

A meta-analysis of 25 studies about the effects of professional development in language and literacy on improving outcomes for children. The authors found that:

  • participating in professional development may improve how educators promote language and literacy in their physical environment and in their teaching programs and child interaction, however it does not increase their knowledge of language and literacy development
  •  participating in a structured professional development course has greater influence on educators changing their classroom processes, and coaching was associated with larger effects for changing process and accessing materials
  • including a number of different components in a professional development session may have greater benefit than focusing on one concept in high intensity or long duration sessions.

Pesco, D., & Gagné, A. (2017). Scaffolding narrative skills: A meta-analysis of instruction in early childhood settings. Early Education and Development, 28(7), 773–793. https://doi.org/10.1080/10409289.2015.1060800

A meta-analysis of teaching designed to foster children’s narrative skills in preschool and kindergarten settings. The authors found that:

  • verbal scaffolding of children's knowledge in the context of storybook reading is the preferred teaching approach to develop narrative skills (for instance, engaging in dialogue about various features of stories, including grammar, internal states of characters, cause and effect relationships and relationships to children's own experiences)
  •  children benefit from narrative story telling
  •  verbal strategies combined with non-verbal ones, such as engaging children in enacting stories of in telling stories with props, showed stronger effects for improving outcomes related to expression.

Piasta, S. B. (2016). Current understandings of what works to support the development of emergent literacy in early childhood classrooms. Child Development Perspectives, 10(4), 234–239. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12188

A systematic review of literature from 2006 to 2016 about supporting the development of emergent literacy in children prior to starting kindergarten (before the age of five). The review found that systematic and intentional instruction is an effective practice, particularly for children at risk of later reading difficulties. For this to happen, adults need to be involved and act intentionally to affect children’s learning as literacy related play or literacy rich environments on their own are not enough to have a positive impact on learning outcomes.  The review also highlighted evidence related to professional development to find that professional development is successful when it accompanies  specific curricula, or when it is focused on specific, discrete emergent literacy practices.

Piasta, S. B., & Wagner, R. K. (2010). Developing early literacy skills: A meta‐analysis of alphabet learning and instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(1), 8–38. https://doi.org/10.1598/RRQ.45.1.2

A meta-analysis of 37 studies that examined the effects of instruction on children’s alphabet knowledge. To be included in the analysis, studies needed to include alphabet training and assessing alphabet outcomes. The authors found that:

  • larger effects on alphabet learning were often noted when (a) the alphabet components being taught closely matched the desired outcome of learning (for example, letter sound instruction had larger impacts on children’s letter sound knowledge than letter name instruction) and (b) alphabet and phonological awareness instruction was combined
  • pure alphabet instruction did not have significant effects on outcomes except when it included letter sound knowledge
  • longer instruction times and instruction in a small group were more effective in promoting letter sound knowledge than other types of instruction. The authors noted, however, that interpretation of these analyses is impacted by the small number of available studies.

Pullen, P. C., & Justice, L. M. (2003). Enhancing phonological awareness, print awareness, and oral language skills in preschool children. Intervention in School and Clinic, 39(2), 87–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/10534512030390020401

A literature review of research in the area of emergent literacy and provides strategies for developing these in the preschool classroom. The authors identify phonological awareness, print awareness and oral language development as the precursors to formal reading. Drawing on their research review, the authors develop strategies to promote the development of literacy skills in each of these domains which can be easily incorporated into everyday activities in early childhood education and care. They highlight the importance of educators and teachers finding opportunities throughout the day to promote emergent literacy.

Sénéchal, M., & Young, L. (2008). The effect of family literacy interventions on children’s acquisition of reading from kindergarten to grade 3: A meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 880–907. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654308320319

A meta-analysis reviewing 16 intervention studies that tested the impact of parent-child reading activities on the development of children’s reading skills. The authors found that:

  • parents have a positive impact on their children developing reading skills
  • parents who worked with their children in using specific literacy strategies had more of a positive effect on reading skills than those who listened to their children reading
  • the studies that examined parents reading to their children did not show any significant improvement in reading skills.

Wasik, B. A., Hindman, A. H., & Snell, E. K. (2016). Book reading and vocabulary development: A systematic review. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 37, 39–57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2016.04.003

This systematic review examines 36 empirical studies on effective book reading practices in early childhood. To be included, studies had to have an adult reading the book, be focused on children aged 3 to 6 years old, have an experimental or quasi-experimental design and be peer reviewed. The purpose of the review was to examine the strategies most useful for children learning words. The authors found that book reading contributed to children's vocabulary development but only to a certain point, with children typically learning less than 25% of the words taught during book reading. It was also found that adult-child interactions during book reading are critical for vocabulary learning. Children learn more words when adults ask questions and engage children in discussion about target words.

Whorrall, J., & Cabell, S. Q. (2016). Supporting children’s oral language development in the preschool classroom. Early Childhood Education Journal, 44, 335–341. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-015-0719-0

A review of research related to the importance of supporting the oral language development of preschool children (in the prior-to-school years). The paper suggests that educators and teachers can help to develop oral language skills through high quality talk and everyday conversations. The authors offer strategies early childhood educators and teachers can use to increase high-quality conversations with children during non-teacher directed activities (such as during child-led play and activities, and during mealtimes). Conversations in these settings can help to promote oral language development by focusing on the interests of the children, while using sophisticated vocabulary, exploring topics that challenge children’s thinking, and using open-ended questions.

The following illustrations of practice focus primarily on children in their pre-primary school year:

Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Problem solving in the block corner

This resource provides an example of a teacher developing students’ literacy skills and engaging in formative assessment.

This video shows a teacher in Victoria working with 3 and 4-year-old children. The video shows how the teacher understands how to monitor children’s learning to tailor the learning program to meet the social, emotional and cognitive needs of each learner. Her literacy activities help students understand storytelling elements through adding stories to their drawings. Her program also involves outdoor literacy experiences, through labelling plants in the garden. The teacher’s formative assessment strategies are also highlighted, which involve ongoing communication with families, taking running records, collecting work in portfolios and developing learning stories.

Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – How many syllables in hippopotamus?

This resource provides an example of a teacher developing students’ reading skills and alphabet knowledge.

This video shows a teacher in regional Victoria working to develop literacy skills in 4 and 5-year-old children. The video explores development of literacy skills over a school year, starting with children looking at recognising their name and moving onto more complex reading as their skills develop. The video features children looking at letters and sounds to make meaning.  The teacher wants her students to develop a love of stories and literacy and she seeks to prioritise students’ voices in all her learning experiences to create a collaborative learning environment.  

Keywords: ECEC

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