Overview of Literacy Learning

From Term 1 2017, Victorian government and Catholic schools will use the new Victorian Curriculum F-10. Curriculum related information is currently being reviewed and may be subject to change.

For more information on the curriculum, see:
The Victorian Curriculum F–10 - VCAA

​In this section you will find a comprehensive overview of literacy learning for students in Victorian schools and how this​ applies in the classroom.

Key messages

The following key messages should be at the forefront when undertaking literacy development activities:

  • students’ oral language is the foundation for learning to use language and using language to learn across the stages of schooling and within all domains
  • a range of theories and research are required to best support all students to improve literacy
  • every teacher is a teacher of literacy
  • a balanced and integrated approach to teaching literacy is essential
  • assessment is the beginning place for supporting literacy learning through matching teaching strategies to individual student needs by placing the leaner at the centre of curriculum planning.

Linking theories and practice

The following extracts are taken from Literacy Teaching and Learning in Victorian Schools Paper No. 9 Part A (August 2006) Introduction.

… practitioners need to seek out a connective web that bonds various theories and research approaches, moving beyond the confines of a single model …

… a single theoretical perspective cannot address all the issues faced by teachers and students in complex and diverse classrooms.

Schools need to provide education for students with diverse abilities, cultural backgrounds and life circumstances. To ensure the best literacy learning outcomes for all students, schools need to take views of literacy teaching and learning from multiple perspectives and informing theoretical frameworks.​

Monitoring, assessing and differentiating

The process of meeting individual learning needs is based on monitoring, assessment and differentiation of teaching strategies and learning programs. Wray et al (2000) found that effective teachers:

  • are diagnostic in the ways in which they approach assessing and monitoring children’s reading and writing
  • are able to generate explanations as to why children read or write as they do
  • are able to focus on possible underlying causes of the children’s reading and/or writing difficulties
  • are able to offer reasons for their conclusions to make these detailed judgements quickly
  • have very clear assessment procedures, including focused observation and systematic record-keeping.

Careful and frequent monitoring of student progress based on such assessment procedures allows effective literacy teachers to set tasks according to an individual student’s abilities; to provide appropriate levels of additional support; and to increase demands as student’s literacy skills improve (Hall & Harding, 2003; Pressley, 2002; Wray et al., 2000).

Scaffolding learning – Vygotsky, Bruner and Rogoff

There are three main theorists in the field of scaffolding learning – Vygotsky, Bruner and Rogoff – whose work has had a profound influence on this resource. This section describes each of their theories in detail.

The theorists

Lev Vygotsky

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky has made major contributions to our understanding of the relationship between language and learning . Vygotsky stresses that ‘to speak is to engage’ in the social practice of thinking.

Consider the following quote from Vygotsky: ‘Thought is not expressed but completed in the word” (1987: 282).

Vygotsky’s work was not well known in the west until it was taken up by other psychologists and translated into English. It has had a significant influence on education and has led to the development of two key concepts for learning and teaching: The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding.

Zone of proxi​​​mal development

Graph: Zone of proximal development: Vygotsky 

Vygotsky was particularly interested in the ways children were challenged and extended in their learning by adults. He argued that the most successful learning occurs when children are guided by adults towards learning things that they could not attempt on their own.

Vygotsky coined the term ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ to refer to the zone where teachers and students work as children move towards independence. This zone changes as teachers and students move past their present level of development towards new areas of knowledge.

Jerome Bruner

The term ‘scaffolding’ grew out of Vygotsky’s work and was developed by the psychologist Jerome Bruner. Bruner used the term to talk about the way caregivers assist young children in learning by:

  • the joint construction of language
  • gradually withdrawing their support as children gain independent mastery of the language.

Frances Christie points out that the term ‘scaffold’ is a metaphor taken from the building industry. It refers to the way scaffolds sustain and support people who are constructing a building. The scaffolds are withdrawn once the building has taken shape and is able to support itself independently (Christie 2005, 42-43).

It is extremely important when children start school that teachers foster patterns of talk that scaffold students to explore new ideas, learn things and move on to a new ‘Zone of Proximal Development’.

Patterns of talk are important because language is the principal resource available to teachers and students for achieving their educational goals. It is used to negotiate understandings, clarify issues, explore difficulties and assess progress. It is also drawn on to interpret and explain the other modes of student communications such as pictures, charts, videos and graphs.

Barbara Rogoff

Barbara Rogoff is an American educator and researcher who focuses on the social and collaborative nature of learning and the different forms of guidance that an adult provides a child.

Rogoff’s detailed observations of the relationships between adults and children provide important insights into the most effective approaches for literacy teaching.

Rogoff’s research focuses on what adults and children do when they are engaged in a learning experience. This is useful when considering effective teaching approaches in literacy.

Rogoff emphasises:

  • the importance of communities of learning that foster collaborative relationships between the adult and the child
  • the role that language plays in mediating learning and how this learning becomes internalised and is then translated into action in other times and places
  • the significance of guidance which can be explicit and clear, or tacit and implied
  • the ‘space’ in which learning takes place: either proximal (close) or distal (at some distance from the learner).

Children take part in the activities of their community, engaging with other children and with adults, in routine and tacit situations, as well as explicit collaboration (both in each other's presence and in otherwise socially structured activities).

A child is prepared for participation in future events through the process of participation.​

Scaffolding terminology


This refers to the kind of learning that takes place in communities. Rogoff refers to large social organisations such as the family and the school that apprentice the child into various social practices, such as reading and writing.

Much of this apprenticeship entails explicit teaching, but also includes the tacit learning that takes place in communities where children witness adults using literacy practices as part of their day-to-day interactions with others.

Children’s cognitive development is an apprenticeship. It occurs through guided participation in social activity with companions who support and stretch children’s understanding of and skill in using the tools of culture.

Guided participation

This refers to the close, interpersonal encounters between parents and children, and teachers and individual students. Rogoff refers to guidance as the:

  • explicit and tacit guidance that adults direct towards a child
  • the purposeful and focused attention that adults then devote to the child in these kinds of social activity.


This refers to when an individual takes what they have learnt and transfers this learning to another time and place. The independent nature of this learning is emphasised. A good example is when a teacher has guided a small group of students and then provides them with the opportunity to apply their new knowledge about language when speaking, listening or writing.

Eight areas of literacy knowledge – Munro

  1. Building relevant oral language to support literacy
  2. Awareness that texts are written for a range of purposes
  3. Word meaning and vocabulary knowledge
  4. Orthographic and morphemic knowledge
  5. Reading aloud to achieve fluency and phrasing
  6. Literal, critical, inferential and creative comprehension outcomes
  7. Recognising and using the forms, linguistic structures and features of written texts
  8. The use of metacognitive and self-management strategies

(Munro, J. 2003)

The Four Resources Model – Luke and Freebody 1999

Effective literacy draws on a repertoire of practices that allow learners, as they engage in reading and writing activities, to:

  • break the code of texts - (code breaker)
  • participate in the meanings of text - (meaning maker)
  • use texts functionally - (text user)
  • critically analyse and transform texts – (text analyst).

Break the code of texts

This is about recognising and using the fundamental features and architecture of written texts including: alphabet, sounds in words, spelling, conventions and patterns of sentence structure and text.

Participate in the meanings of text

Participating in the meaning of text involves understanding and composing meaningful written, visual and spoken texts from within the meaning systems of particular cultures, institutions, families, communities, nation-states and so forth.

Use texts functionally

Using texts functionally is about traversing the social relations around texts; knowing about and acting on the different cultural and social functions that various texts perform both inside and outside school and knowing that these functions shape the way texts are structured, their tone, their degree of formality and their sequence of components.

Critically analyse and transform texts

Critically analysing and transforming texts involves understanding and acting on the knowledge that texts are not neutral, that they represent particular views and silence other points of view, influence people's ideas; and that their designs and discourses can be critiqued and redesigned, in novel and hybrid ways.

(Luke and Freebody, 1999)

Genre teaching and learning cycle for writing – Rose

This cycle can be used for any piece of writing related to any domain of the Victorian Curriculum.

The teaching and learning cycle has three steps:

  • joint deconstruction
  • joint construction
  • individual construction.

Joint deconstruction

The teacher uses a selected text to guide the students to:

  • recognise the purpose of the text and the intended audience
  • the stages in the text (e.g. for narrative — orientation, complication, resolution)
  • the language features.

Joint construction

The teacher and students engage in the joint construction of a new text talking explicitly about:

  • the purpose of text and the intended audience
  • their language choices
  • the development of the stages in the text
  • if the purpose is effectively achieved.

To do this the teacher and students draw on:

  • previous knowledge about texts gained from reading and writing
  • new knowledge gained from the joint deconstruction of the model text.

Individual construction

Students use their knowledge of stages in the text, language features and the purpose of the text and intended audience, to write their own.

(Rose 2005)

Assessment advice

Assessment definition

Assessment is the ongoing process of gathering, analysing and reflecting on evidence to make informed and consistent judgements to improve future student learning.

Purposes of assessment

Assessment for improved student learning and deep understanding requires a range of assessment practices to be used with three overarching purposes:

  • Assessment FOR learning – occurs when teachers use inferences about student progress to inform their teaching
  • Assessment AS learning – occurs when students reflect on and monitor their progress to inform their future learning goals
  • Assessment OF learning – occurs when teachers use evidence of student learning to make judgements on student achievement against goals and standards.

For more information see Assessment Advice

Integration of literacy and the Victorian Curriculum

Integrating the teaching of literacy across different fields of knowledge is an important part of effective literacy teaching.

Pressly (2002) and Hall and Harding (2003) emphasise the need for strong connections across the curriculum so that literacy is also an integral part of other contents areas.

For the teacher, it maximises both time and opportunity to teach literacy in purposeful ways. For the student, it makes literacy more relevant and initiates the student into diverse literacy practices.

Literacy teaching and learning are not discrete pursuits. They are undertaken for a purpose which is to make explicit to both teachers and students when literacy is integrated into other curriculum areas and when connections are made between school and out of school literacy practices.

English Developmental Continuum F–10

The English Developmental Continuum F–10 provides evidence based indicators of progress, linked to powerful teaching strategies, aligned to the progression points and the achievement standards for the AusVELS English Domain. The English Developmental Continuum F-10 will be realigned to the Victorian Curriculum.

These teaching strategies are designed to support purposeful teaching of individuals and small groups of students with similar learning needs. It is intended that teachers use the strategies in the context of their own classrooms, text or topic being taught.

The English Developmental Continuum F–10 will assist teachers to:

  • deepen understandings of the English domain
  • monitor individual student progress towards achievement of the standards in English
  • enhance teaching skills to enable purposeful teaching
  • identify the range of student learning levels within their English classes
  • develop a shared language to describe and discuss student progress.

View the English Developmental Continuum F-10

Supporting improvement in literacy in Victorian schools

  • literacy is everybody’s responsibility
  • learning in all domains of the Victorian Curriculum contributes to the development of literate learners
  • supporting literacy improvement for every student requires a strategic approach.

Beliefs and expectations about effective literacy learning and teaching include that:

  • every teacher is a teacher of literacy
  • teacher knowledge about literacy is essential
  • a balanced and integrated approach to teaching literacy is essential
  • the diversity of student literacy needs must inform teaching
  • early and sustained intervention is critical at all stages of learning
  • effective literacy instruction requires systematic use of student data.

View online:

Literacy Teaching and Leanring in Victorian Schools Paper No 9 (docx - 674.17kb)

Literacy Teaching and Learning in Victorian Schools Paper No 9 (pdf - 335.09kb)

Evidence-based Research for Expert Literacy Teaching Paper No 12  (docx - 1.51mb)

Evidence-based Research for Expert Literacy Teaching Paper No 12 (pdf - 605.18kb)

Four premises for effective teaching of literacy

Evidence based research findings suggest that there are four basic premises for effective teaching of literacy. Teachers should:

  1. plan for time on task
  2. plan to teach phonics
  3. have balance in their programs
  4. make connections across the areas and in and out of school practices.

Plan for time on task

Research shows that the time children spend reading and writing affects the acquisition of literacy skills. While the research is divided on the most effective ways to organise time to promote student interest in reading in addition to skills – from the implementation of singular focused literacy hours or simply time and activities across the day – the allocation of substantial time is a starting point.

Plan to teach phonics

The information on instruction in phonics provided in the review shows that it is important at some stage in reading development for children to have knowledge of phonics. The research is divided on the form of phonics instruction and the timing of such instruction. However, teachers should be developing programs that incorporate sound and letter association from an early stage.

Have balance in their programs:

Effective literacy programs, particularly for the early years, have balance in instructional approaches incorporating phonics, and reading and composing text. Balanced programs enhance interest in reading for students while improving literacy skills.

Make connections across the areas and in and out of school practices

Literacy is not a practice in isolated classroom activities. Teachers need to support literacy practices across difference discipline areas and link the children’s literacy practices for home and outside school activities with school learning.

Literacy Teaching and Learning in Victorian Schools Paper No 9 (docx - 674.17kb)

Literacy Teaching and Learning in Victorian Schools Paper No 9 (pdf - 335.09kb)

Effective literacy teaching

The following extracts are taken from Literacy Teaching and Learning in Victorian Schools Paper No. 9 Part A (August 2006)

Effective literacy teachers use a variety of strategies to motivate students to engage in literacy activities and to keep students on task. These strategies include setting time limits for literacy tasks, regularly refocusing students’ attention to the task at hand and encourages students to self-regulate their activity. (Hall and Harding, 2003; Wray et al, 2000)

Classroom environments:

excellent classrooms are very busy academically, with students doing a great deal of actual reading (that is, in contrast to reading related activities, such as completing worksheets) and writing. (Pressley 2002)

Teaching practices

Effective literacy teachers:

  • balance direct teaching of skills with authentic literacy activities
  • use wide variety of teaching practices and approaches.

(Hall & Harding 2003)

Effective literacy teachers teach literacy. They:

  • use a variety of teaching practices and approaches, such as modelling; scaffolding; whole class, small group and individual instruction; questioning; monitoring; and coaching
  • explicitly teach reading, comprehension and writing as well as technical processes, such as phonic knowledge, spelling, grammatical knowledge and pronunciation.

Effective literacy teachers engage their students in literacy activities. They:

  • make literacy meaningful by explaining and demonstrating the uses and purpose of literacy and literacy activity
  • employ strategies that maintain student focus
  • make connections between students’ current literacy knowledge and what is being taught.

Literacy and students from low socio-economic backgrounds

Equity guidelines:

There are large variations in outcomes between students within schools and between schools with similar student populations.

In response to this, the Department of Education and Training has committed to a mission of ensuring the provision of high-quality education and training that:

  • raises achievement
  • reduces disparity
  • leads to opportunities.

This funding is targeted at schools with a significant number of students from low socio-economic backgrounds, and with lower than expected student outcomes in literacy and numeracy.

Socio-economic background has been identified as a key predictor of student success. Consequently, Equity funding supports programs in these schools that focus on students at risk of not achieving success at school, with particular emphasis on improving student achievement in literacy and numeracy.​

Literacy and socio-economic disadvantage

The development of literacy is a fundamental educational goal. Teachers play a vital role in enabling students to become literate and so attain the potential to become a life-long learner.

There have been many studies that have shown that literacy levels are significantly lower among students from low socio-economic backgrounds. Recent data shows that there is a significant correlation to the socio-economic background of the student and the student’s NAPLAN (National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy) data.

Literacy, language awareness and reading can be taught effectively. Research shows that the human brain is wired to learn oral language but it is not wired to learn to read. Yet reading skills form the basis of all school level learning.

Research indicates that a student’s future academic success can be predicted by his or her reading level at the end of grade three. (Wolfe and Nevills 2004).

Reading takes explicit teaching and explicit practice in the home. Students from low socio-economic backgrounds often require extra teaching of the function of reading. Programs that include the teaching of phonemic awareness, alphabetic awareness and oral language are the most complete system of teaching the ability to read.

Typically, students from low socio-economic backgrounds have been brought up in a household where casual and intimate language registers are the norm. They have not learned (through immersion or through explicit teaching) how to use the consultative or the formal language register. Frozen language register is known of but not employed in the upbringing of the child from a low socio-economic background.

The classroom operates from middle class norms and utilises consultative and formal language registers. In order to effectively teach students from a low socio-economic background, teachers need to explicitly teach the use of language registers in both subject matter and in behaviour management.