Literacy overview

Literacy is the ability to independently speak, listen, read and write for effective communication. As students develop literacy skills, they learn to read and create texts. They also learn to understand, analyse and think critically about a range of different print and digital text types.  

Literacy is used for personal enjoyment, to learn about the world and to allow us to be involved in the community. 


The Big Six of Literacy

Learning to read and write is a complex process that involves the integration of six key elements. Evidence-based research suggests that the explicit teaching of these ‘Big Six' components is the best way for children to learn to read and write.

1. Oral language

Oral language includes the development of a complex range of listening (receptive) and speaking (expressive) language skills. Both sets of skills are equally important.

Oral language forms the basis for learning to read and write. Involving children in rich conversation strengthens their oral language growth, which in turn supports reading and writing development.

2. Phonological and phonemic awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to identify the sounds in spoken language. It involves hearing, recognising and manipulating the different parts of speech, including syllables and rhymes.

Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness and is a crucial component in early reading and writing development. Phonemic awareness involves hearing sounds (phonemes) and identifying these sounds within words. As students develop their phonemic awareness, they learn to blend, segment and manipulate speech sounds.

  • Read a short outline of the continuum of phonological and phonemic awareness skills, with advice on effective phonemic awareness instruction.
  • Access the Literacy Hub’s professional learning topic on getting started with a phonics progression, which explores phonemic awareness.
3. Phonics

Phonics is the matching of sounds (phonemes) to letters (graphemes). It is also the term used for the teaching of reading and spelling by learning about the relationships between letters and sounds. Phonics instruction involves explicitly teaching students about the 44 sounds in English and the various ways they can be represented by the 26 letters of the alphabet.

Evidence shows that the most effective way to teach phonics is to use a systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) approach. This approach is:

  • systematic: it explicitly teaches letter–sound correspondences in a sequence from simple, common code to complex, less common code
  • synthetic: it explicitly teaches children to blend (or synthesise) sounds together to read words.

It is crucial for young readers to understand phonics in order to be able to decode words and access texts.

4. Fluency

Fluency is being able to read aloud accurately, smoothly and with appropriate expression. Fluent reading only develops after students have built a solid knowledge of phonics and can easily decode the words on the page.

The three main components that contribute to fluent reading are:

  • accuracy
  • automaticity
  • prosody (expression).

Fluency is a key factor in becoming an independent reader because fluency and comprehension are tightly linked. Once a student can read a text fluently, they are able to devote their full attention to making meaning from the text.

5. Vocabulary

Vocabulary refers to the bank of words that a person knows. Having a rich, broad vocabulary is linked to reading and writing success.

Carefully choosing words to teach, and then explicitly teaching these words, enables students to build an abundant vocabulary. Students must be taught the meaning of new words and be given the opportunity to practise using the words multiple times and in different contexts.

As students develop their vocabulary, they can access and use more complex, precise and technical words. This strong word knowledge is crucial to reading comprehension.

6. Comprehension

Reading comprehension involves decoding the words on the page and making meaning from them. This is the aim of reading and the reason we read. Comprehension includes understanding information, following a storyline, recognising an author’s message, analysing a text and making inferences.

Being able to independently read and comprehend a text is the outcome of the other five components of the Big Six of Literacy. To be able to comprehend a text fully, students must have:

  • the ability to efficiently decode the words
  • background knowledge
  • vocabulary knowledge
  • an understanding of the semantic and syntactic structures of the text.

When these things are in place, a student can interpret a range of written, visual and multimodal texts.

  • Explore the Literacy Hub’s 12 free digital shared reading texts and accompanying teacher resources. These can be read aloud with a class or small group to support knowledge-building and comprehension.

Teaching practices

In recent decades, experts have conducted thousands of scientific studies about how children learn to read. The findings of this research form the evidence base that is known as the Science of Reading, a comprehensive body of knowledge that informs teachers and school leaders about what works in literacy instruction and guides teaching practices. 

This evidence informs us that when planning and implementing literacy instruction, the gradual release of responsibility model is an effective framework to follow. This model begins with the teacher fully directing the learning; then, through guided practice, the students gradually become more independent. This model can be broken into three main sections: 

  • explicit instruction (I do)  
  • guided practice (We do)
  • independent practice (You do). 

See the Literacy Hub’s professional learning topic on instructional models to learn more. 

Explicit instruction (I do)

During the first stage of explicit instruction (I do), the teacher directly and explicitly teaches new skills, concepts or knowledge. The teacher might do some or all of the following:

  • clearly explain to students what they are learning
  • model the process or steps in the new learning
  • teach new knowledge, facts and concepts
  • demonstrate skills
  • explain what to do using worked examples.

Identifying a topic sentence within a paragraph is an example of explicit instruction. The teacher can explain what a topic sentence is, model the process of finding one in a paragraph, and then encourage students to join in through guided practice to identify another example. Students then move to independent practice, identifying topic sentences in their own reading material.

  • Explore the Literacy Hub’s 12 free digital shared reading texts with accompanying teacher resources. The informative texts in this series can be used for tasks such as identifying topic sentences.
Guided practice (We do)

During guided practice (We do), students practise or apply their new knowledge and skills. The teacher scaffolds the learning by checking for student understanding and providing further explanation or demonstration.

During guided practice, the teacher might do some or all of the following:

  • ask for student input, ideas and information
  • guide students to complete further worked examples
  • use formative assessment to decide how much support students need as they practise
  • incorporate checks throughout the lesson to ensure students understand the content and are demonstrating skill development.

During guided practice the teacher gradually reduces the amount of scaffolding needed as the students become more proficient.

Shared writing and interactive writing are examples of guided practice. During shared writing, the students help the teacher construct a piece of writing on a chart. This provides students with early, guided practice of the concepts being taught: the teacher writes and has control over the work, and the students are supported to practise the concept or skill without errors.

Interactive writing involves the teacher ‘sharing the pen’, so that students can add punctuation and write words and sentences while being guided by the teacher.

Independent practice (You do)

During independent practice (You do), students work through tasks on their own using skills and knowledge they have learned.

The teacher plays a vital role by:

  • starting this stage only when they are confident students can work independently
  • continually monitoring students’ progress against set objectives
  • providing positive feedback, support and guidance where required
  • including tasks to extend students as they are ready to apply their learning in new contexts.

Reading decodable texts is an example of independent practice. After students have been explicitly taught a new letter–sound correspondence, and have worked with the teacher to decode and encode words containing this new phonic code, they are ready for independent practice.