Key literacy knowledge and skills for students in Prep to Year 2 (ages 5-8)

This page discusses the key literacy knowledge and skills that students in Prep to Year 2, including those with learning difficulties, need to successfully master the fundamentals of literacy.

When children enter school, they bring a wide range of prior experiences with language in verbal, visual and written forms. Their prior experience with language, especially oral language, provides an important basis for literacy learning.

In the first three years of school, students learn the foundational skills in reading, writing and spelling. Oral language in particular plays a key role in learning to read and write.

Focussed teaching strategies that are explicitly delivered can be used to teach students these foundation skills and support the identified needs of students with reading and related literacy difficulties in the following areas:

  • phonemic awareness (as part of phonological knowledge and skills)
  • phonics knowledge (grapheme-phoneme correspondence knowledge)
  • letter and letter-sound knowledge
  • word decoding (segmenting sounds inside a word and blending them back together
  • oral reading fluency
  • word encoding (spelling)
  • ongoing expansion of oral language comprehension
  • written letter formation.

Teaching should be tailored to each student's individual needs and based on rigorous and comprehensive assessment data.

Phonological knowledge and skills

Phonological knowledge is important for both word recognition skills and reading comprehension. It can be broken down into:

  • phonological awareness, the more elementary aspect
  • phonemic awareness, the more complex aspect that is necessary when learning to read.

Key skills include:

  • Phonological awareness:
    • recognising and expressing simple rhymes
    • detecting syllables within words.
  • Phonemic awareness:
    • segmenting graphemes into phonemes
    • blending phonemes together into words
    • manipulating phonemes in words.

Students with difficulties in phonological and phonemic awareness will not automatically detect, recognise and use frequently occurring sound patterns, which restricts their ability to decode and read words.

Many children enter school with phonological awareness. Nevertheless, it is important that these skills are taught as part of a developmental sequence. Teaching strategies include:

  • building phonological awareness as necessary through:
    • detecting rhyme
    • generating rhyme
    • detecting syllables within words.
  • teaching phonemic awareness, ideally in the context of teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondence knowledge
  • pairing phonemic awareness and early word decoding and encoding.

Phonics knowledge (grapheme–phoneme correspondence knowledge)

In order to read and spell, students need to be able to automatically map a grapheme to its corresponding phoneme. This will ultimately allow students to master the English writing system.

Letter and letter-sound knowledge

Key skills for letter and letter-sound knowledge include:      

  • recognising letters and linking them with their names and sounds
  • identifying letters in a text
  • writing letters in lower and upper case 
  • predicting a word in a sentence using its first letter.
  • knowing that there are 26 letters in the alphabet but there are 44 sounds in English
  • knowing that speech sounds (phonemes) and print map on to each other
  • recognising a grapheme and its corresponding phoneme, for example that the grapheme:
    • ‘b’ represents the phoneme 'b' in the word 'bat'
    • ‘sh’ represents to the phoneme 'sh' in the word 'wish'
    • ‘oa’ represents the phoneme 'o' in the word 'coat'.
  • decoding: segmenting out the graphemes in a word and blending them back together to read the word, for example:
    • the word 'bat' is segmented out to ‘b’ - ‘a’ - ‘t’ and blended back together to read it.
    • the word wish is segmented out to ‘w’ - ‘i’ - ‘sh’ and blended back together to read it.
  • knowing the names of letters and being able to write these down.
  • knowing that there are upper and lower case forms for each letter and being able to use the correct form.

Word reading

Students have difficulty reading words for different reasons. Some may lack sufficient phonological and phonemic awareness, others may have difficulty learning to map graphemes (for example, 'b', 'bb' and 'oa') to their corresponding phonemes.

Some students may also struggle to efficiently recall the sounds that graphemes represent. This is sometimes referred to as poor 'rapid automatised naming' and difficulties may extend to slow retrieval of words, names and numbers.

It is important to determine where the problems are for individual students so that the right support can be provided. Some students will struggle with all aspects of word reading.

Key skills for word reading include:

  • phonological, semantic and phonemic skills for letter combinations
  • reading and spelling new letter patterns and combinations in a range of literacy contexts
  • consolidating and automatising knowledge and reading of letter patterns.

Students struggling to master the basics of word decoding do not need a different intervention from their peers. They will benefit from the same explicit teaching using a systematic phonics program/approach but with much greater intensity and dosage (Tier-2 intervention).

For example, when teaching one-syllable words (for example, consonant-vowel, vowel-consonant, consonant-vowel-consonant, vowel-consonant-consonant structures) struggling students should be presented with a small group of letters only (for example, the s – a – t – p – I – n group, which is often used in various systematic phonics programs) and taught how to hear them in short words, identify them, segment phonemes in words containing only those sounds, blend words containing only those sounds and learn to manipulate those sounds.

This should be taught to mastery before moving to the next 'set' of sounds.

For example:

  • The word is at
  • This becomes pat
  • This becomes pan
  • This becomes pin
  • This becomes pit
  • This becomes sit.

Reading fluency

Reading fluency (the quality of a student’s oral reading; reading out loud) is an important part of literacy and can provide insights into a number of areas of students’ strengths and challenges in reading. Features of oral reading fluency include:         

  • reflecting punctuation such as full stops, commas, lists etc.
  • using voice inflections such as a rising inflection for a question and a slight lowering of inflection at the end of a sentence or long clause
  • the use of rhythm, phrasing, intonation and use of voice (for different characters/moods).

Students who read 'through' punctuation markers may not have a strong understanding of what they are reading. Students who read with a monotonous voice may be focusing on a lot of decoding words and don't have the 'reserve' to put into reading with fluency and 'interest'.         

When listening to a student reading an extended text out loud, monitor for accuracy (number of errors, compared to number of correct words read) and the rate (number of words read per minute). Many standardised tests have inbuilt sub-tests with normative data that can assist you. For more information visit Literacy tests and what they assess.         

The most valuable strategies you can use as a teacher include:          

  • modelled reading to students and alerting them to aspects of your own reading fluency
  • choral reading or 'read with me' activities. This can be done throughout the day such as when reading an instruction from the board
  • asking students to repeatedly read a text and encouraging them to listen and monitor themselves
  • pair-share reading (ensuring that no student will feel embarrassed).

If students have persistent problems with oral reading fluency, it is important to determine the underlying cause. Often the problem will be related to difficulties with decoding and word reading. For some students, their oral reading fluency may be compromised by a restricted vocabulary and/or limited familiarity with written text grammar and structure.         

Repeated practise of reading out loud at a student's independent reading level is key to developing fluency. The goal is for decoding to become easy and automatic, so they can free up their attention to focus on the meaning of the text.

Writing and spelling

Writing is a complex task. Beginning writers must be taught:

  • how to map a speech sound (phoneme) to its corresponding grapheme and write the grapheme
  • to use their segmenting and blending knowledge for words to write the word.

Ideally, students will be asked to write words containing phonemes and graphemes that they are simultaneously learning as part of reading instruction.

Writing instruction, just like reading instruction, should start small and simple and progressively extend students' knowledge of the English writing system.

Students need to be able to:

  • identify between upper- and lower-case letters
  • know a large bank of graphemes that can be used to represent phonemes, for example:
    • that 'b' and 'bb' both represent the same phoneme
    • that the 'k' phoneme can be written as 'c', 'k' or 'ck' and that many rules are available to tell them which version to select.
  • how to spell a large bank of regular, irregular and exceptional words (of which there are very few, contrary to popular belief).

Writing also involves learning the mechanics of writing: perceptual and fine motor skills such as learning how to form clear letters, where on a page to write letters, developing handwriting and writing consistently, smoothly and easily. Transcription is also important and includes aspects such as spelling, punctuation, legibility and spatial organisation.


Reading comprehension

Difficulties with reading comprehension and writing composition are typically caused by two broad factors:         

  1. poor, slow or non-automatic decoding.
    These students need to be taught to decode to mastery and with speed, accuracy, and fluency.
  2. oral language difficulties.
    These students need targeted support to accelerate their speaking and listening skills which could include:
  • answering in full and complete sentences with correct grammar 
  • vocabulary expansion so that students have a large bank of Tier 2 words (docx - 213.53kb) that they need to read texts
  • learning to understand and use more sophisticated grammatical features such as:
    • active versus passive voice
    • how subordinate conjunctions work 
    • how appositives work.
  • teaching students about literal language and non-literal language (such as metaphor, simile, idioms, humour)
    • literal language example: The rain is heavy today
    • non-literal language example: It’s bucketing down today.

Oral language comprehension

Oral language comprehension refers to the ability to take in and process spoken information to make meaning. Vocabulary and grammatical knowledge, such as understanding verb agreement, prefixes, suffixes and complex sentence construction, are all key to strong oral language comprehension.          

Students draw on their oral language knowledge and skills when interpreting a written text. They use their vocabulary, what they know about sentences, paragraphs and texts more broadly to understand what they are reading.          

How students interpret texts also produces new opportunities for them to learn new skills and knowledge. Teaching students how to expand or add to what they know through reading is vital, especially when supporting students with learning difficulties.          


Developing oral language abilities

You can develop a student’s oral language knowledge and skills through:         

  • stand-alone activities that focus on specific knowledge or skills related to sentence comprehension, vocabulary, listening comprehension and a student’s use of grammar and text genres.
  • explicit oral language instruction embedded into everyday teaching, such as when reading texts out loud. For example, if a student has difficulty comprehending the meaning of a word or sentence, the focus of the activity should shift to teaching that knowledge or skill. This approach helps scaffold students to better use oral language and to transfer and apply oral language more generally as they read.

All students will benefit from both methods of developing oral language abilities, however, students with learning difficulties will particularly benefit from activities that focus on specific knowledge and skills in isolation.         

For more information visit Speaking and listening.         


Selecting texts to teach oral language knowledge and skills

The texts used to develop students' oral language abilities should be selected carefully. They should provide a broad range of conventions and genres and should differ from each other in complexity and purpose. This will assist in building a knowledge-rich curriculum.          

Fiction and non-fiction texts are suitable. It may even be possible to pair a fiction and
non-fiction book on a similar topic. This is valuable for building background knowledge.

Selecting texts to teach reading comprehension

Written texts have several features that determine whether a reader will find them difficult to understand.
For any written text used to teach reading comprehension, the:

  • topic content and genre should be (at least somewhat) familiar. If not, you can spend some time pre-teaching the requisite information. For example, if you are reading a fantasy book with students, this genre can be explained. If you are reading elements from the Guinness Book of Records, this genre can also be explained and modelled.
  • sentence and/or paragraph meanings should contain a variety of simple and more complex sentence types. Review the text before you teach and identify any sentences or larger sections that you think may be difficult to understand. You can then prepare to pre-teach the structures or other elements that you expect will be difficult.
  • the vocabulary should generally be known but there are likely to be some unfamiliar words. You can pre-teach key vocabulary and reinforce this knowledge as you read the text.

It is recommended that the texts selected to teach students more about oral language or about text and genre type are more advanced in complexity than the texts students can read themselves. This is because these books are not designed to teach students how to read, but to enrich a student's language knowledge and their insights about different text types. Both will assist students' reading comprehension indirectly.

Teaching students how to form an interpretation of a text

The focus here is to teach students how to interpret the contents of the text. This may include known and unknown vocabulary, language structures that are easier or less easy to understand, information about a known or unknown topic, as well as elements of literal and non-literal language.

Familiarise yourself with the text. From this preparation, you may determine things you want to pre-teach (for example, vocabulary, idioms, background knowledge) and questions to include while reading to the students, such as ‘I wonder why the author wrote …?’, which requires students to make some predictions, judgments or call on prior knowledge.


Teach students to analyse a text and decide its likely topic, genre and purpose. For example, by looking at any pictures and reading the title or blurb for guidance.        


Teach early years students to read texts in detail by:       

  • reading each sentence out loud, explaining what it tells them, paraphrasing and visualising what is written
  • working out the meanings of unfamiliar words through context or using word parts (for example, roots, prefixes and suffixes)
  • linking sentence meanings or working out the main idea in each paragraph
  • summarising what they know about the text’s topic having read it
  • predicting or inferring what the text may tell them next.


Bring together what students knew about the text already and what they have learned from reading it.        

Review and consolidate what they have read. Test their interpretation with more common or ‘correct’ interpretations of the text, for example, through verbal or written comprehension questions or a think sheet linked to the learning intention and success criteria.       

Teaching students to respond to texts

The first step in demonstrating comprehension is building an interpretation of a text that has been read.         

The second step is using this interpretation. For example, you might ask students to retell the ideas that appeared in the text, answer comprehension questions, act out what is written or undertake an activity based on the text. These are opportunities for students to demonstrate that they have successfully understood the text.         

Different levels of comprehension can be demonstrated:

A literal understanding of what is said explicitly and directly in the text

This can be demonstrated through tasks that require students to answer who, what, when, where, why, and how questions about events that happened in the text.         

Understanding that goes beyond what is stated explicitly and directly in the text

The student uses what they know to make inferences about what they read. This is called inferential comprehension or reading between the lines. This is demonstrated in tasks that ask students to infer possibilities about characters, events or outcomes.         

Understanding where students use what they know to make predictions or judgements about a text

This is referred to as evaluative comprehension. Students might evaluate, analyse or judge a character’s actions or motives, the point of view that is being presented or the likelihood of a certain outcome. This can also relate to the evaluation of the features of an author’s writing style or text. For example, when discussing how a text is organised or word choice.         

It may be necessary to differentiate and provide appropriate scaffolding for students with learning difficulties to engage with these tasks.         

  • Provide additional preloading to students you anticipate will struggle to comprehend the texts compared to their peers. This may include introducing and rehearsing key vocabulary, background knowledge etc. well in advance of the lesson.
  • Select short texts that are initially at a readability level one level below their comprehension ability level. Most students with literacy difficulties still benefit from hearing and engaging with texts read out loud by the teacher. You can use the same books for all students but provide preloading and/or differentiate in terms of the questions you ask of them. It is important to avoid a growing gap between the language skills of students who struggle compared to those progressing as expected.
  • Help students develop their short-term memory. You can do this by having students practise reading, recalling and repeating sentences or ideas from short texts. As they improve, gradually build up the length of the sentences and the number of ideas the student needs to recall.
  • Teach students to explicitly link questions with sentences they hear or read. This will help students with learning difficulties learn to recognise information relevant to who, what, when, where, how and why questions.
  • For example, when students hear or read the sentence, 'The cat ate the fish', you can ask them, 'What type of questions does this sentence answer? Who, what, when, where, how or why?' Over time, students will begin to automatically associate information in texts with the relevant comprehension questions.
  • Some students may have verbal retrieval difficulties and benefit from being asked recognition questions before they are asked a recall question. For example, after reading a text you might ask, 'Was the cat black, brown or ginger?' before asking, 'What colour was the cat?'
  • Show students sets of pictures that illustrate an event or situation in a text changing. Ask them to put the pictures in order so they retell the text and then tell you the story that the pictures show.
  • Have them match analogous questions that use different language (such as questions that are asking the same thing, but with different words). You can also ask students to say their answer in two or more ways.
  • After reading or listening to two or three sentences in a narrative, ask students, 'What do you think might happen next?' It is important they understand that you do not know what the answer is and that they are guessing based on what has already been read and the picture or 'story' you have in your mind.
  • Introduce inferential comprehension gradually. Familiarise students with verbs that ask them to infer (for example, What might…? How could…? What if…? How should …?). Use pictures and ask them to suggest how the events depicted in the picture could change, what the picture might look like in five minutes time or what could have happened five minutes before.

You can find sample lessons and guidance on teaching literal, inferential and evaluative comprehension on the Literacy Teaching Toolkit.