Key literacy knowledge and skills for students in years 3-6 (ages 9-12)

This page discusses the key literacy knowledge and skills that students in years 3-6, including those with learning difficulties, need as they transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

As students move into middle and upper primary school, the types of reading and texts become increasingly complex. 

Students with learning difficulties may require additional practice or teaching of foundational knowledge in reading and viewing, writing, and speaking and listening.

Learning must be cumulative and incremental. Intervention that is provided early is going to be far more beneficial than waiting to see if a student will catch up.

Word reading and spelling

Students in this age range (9–12 years) should be able to read, write and spell many words including a large bank of everyday words (Tier 1 words) along with words of increasing length and phonological complexity. This results from having mastered the alphabetic code (grapheme-phoneme correspondence knowledge) and skills described in Key literacy knowledge and skills for students in Prep to Year 2 (ages 5-8) before attempting to learn more sophisticated word reading strategies.


By Year 3, students should be proficient decoders and reading age-appropriate text with accuracy and fluency. This shows that they have mastered the alphabetic code and have commenced building a bank of mental orthographic patterns that assist with reading efficiency.

Students who are still decoding in a rather mechanical and laboured way need to be provided with additional support/intervention so that they do not continue to fall behind their peers. Reading is now a means to learning.    

For most students, intervention will need to target phonics knowledge and building automaticity and fluency in reading. Spelling should be supported alongside reading intervention since reading and spelling are inverse processes of each other.


Morphology and morphemes

English is a morphophonemic language. This means that words are always made up of phonemes (the sounds inside a word) and morphemes, the building blocks of words. Every morpheme contributes to word meaning.

  • Some morphemes are stand-alone words (for example, cat, happy, the, jump) and some morphemes add additional meaning to words (for example, plural ‘s’ in ‘cats’, prefix ‘un’ in unhappy, past tense ‘ed’ in jumped).
  • Morphemes can also signal meaning such as:
    • ‘milli’, which refers to ‘thousand’, as in millimetre, milligram
    • ‘hyper’, which refers to ‘extra’, as in hyperthermia, hyperextend
    • ‘dys’, which refers to ‘bad’ or ‘abnormal’, as in dysentery, dysfunction.

A vast majority of words in English have multiple morphemes. Therefore, students also need to understand how morphemes work inside words, how to read and understand an increasing number of morphemes and how to spell them. Word study lessons can include explicit instruction on sets of morphemes.


A key challenge here is the unstressed, neutral vowel or the ‘schwa’. The standard rule is that every syllable has a vowel but not all syllables in a word are ‘stressed’. The vowel of a stressed syllable in a word is clearly articulated and the vowel of an unstressed syllable is articulated as the schwa vowel. Here are some examples:

The word is ‘kitchen’. It has:

  • two syllables
  • one stressed syllable, ‘kit’
  • one unstressed syllable, ‘chen’. In this syllable the letter ‘e’ is articulated as the schwa (try saying the word out loud and producing ‘chen’ with the actual short ‘e’ sound. It should sound ‘wrong’ to you).

The word is ‘kangaroo’. It has:

  • three syllables
  • two stressed syllables, ‘kang’ and ‘roo’
  • one unstressed syllable, ‘a’ (say it out loud using the neutral schwa vowel and then the ‘a’ as in ‘apple’ sound).

The schwa vowel is difficult because it does not have corresponding grapheme to represent it. By mid-primary school, most of the words that students say, read and write will be at least two syllables; often more. Therefore, this concept needs to be explicitly taught as students need to learn how to respond to it in their pronunciation, reading and writing of these words. The schwa can have a direct influence on how students read and spell multisyllabic words.

Some students have difficulty saying, reading and/or spelling multisyllabic words.

For example, students may jumble up the syllables of a longer word and say them accurately. They may misarticulate or mix up syllables or letters within syllables and have difficulty using the correct stress pattern. Students who are still making word articulation errors such as saying ‘hostibal’ for ‘hospital’ or ‘alumbance’ for ambulance are at risk as saying these words incorrectly can lead to reading and spelling difficulties. These students should be closely monitored and provided additional support as necessary.

Students who have not been taught about the schwa vowel are likely to struggle to accurately read multisyllabic words, particularly if they don’t have the word in their vocabulary. Longer words are harder to read due to their length and because they typically have one or more unstressed vowels.

Students may make errors such as decoding all syllables in the word as stressed and not knowing how to self-correct, or they may miss or jump over one or more syllables of a word. For example, a struggling reader may read the word ‘elephant’ as:

  • elephant with all three syllables stressed (try it for yourself)
  • or perhaps as ‘elphant’ or ‘ephant’.

Students who have not been taught about the schwa vowel are also likely to struggle with spelling. This is because the spoken form will ‘seem’ different to the written form. Take the word ‘elephant’ again. A student who has not mastered the concept of schwa is likely to have difficulty when determining what vowel letter to use for the second syllable (which is ‘le’).

It is vital that teachers understand how the schwa vowel works in the English writing system so that they can explicitly teach this to students and provide corrective and accurate feedback when the error(s) seem to be a misunderstanding of the schwa vowel.

Oral language

Students in the 9–12 age range will be expanding their oral language skills mainly through their own reading, having books read to them and through classroom instruction. Their grammatical knowledge will now encompass structures such as:

  • longer, more sophisticated, complete sentences: the use of conjunctions to form compound and complex sentences such as: (a) ‘I played footy last year but I broke my ankle just before finals’, and (b) ‘I played footy last year even though mum and dad were unhappy about it.’ Sentence (a) is a compound sentence and (b) is a complex sentence.
  • the use of active and passive voice such as: (a) ‘The cat chased the mouse’, and (b) ‘The mouse was chased by the cat.’ Sentence (a) is active voice and sentence (b) is in the passive voice. 
  • correct use of tense.

Students will also be building their vocabulary to include an increasing number of Tier-2 words that are typically found in written text compared to the spoken form. For example, the sentence ‘She has a high temperature’ is typically of spoken language and contains Tier-1 words only. The sentences ‘She has an elevated temperature’ and ‘She is febrile’, contain Tier-2 words (in bold). These are more reflective of what is found in written text.

It is vital that a student’s bank of Tier-2 words continues to grow as these words are critically important for their reading comprehension and writing skills.

Writing and spelling

Writing at this level becomes more complex, as students demonstrate an increasingly sophisticated understanding of written texts and their purposes, grammar and punctuation.

As they approach the end of primary school, students can use banks of known words and less familiar words to create detailed texts for a variety of purposes and audiences. They make considered choices with respect to grammar and from an expanding vocabulary to enhance cohesion and structure in their writing. They also use accurate spelling and punctuation for clarity, provide feedback on the work of their peers and can make and explain editorial choices based on agreed criteria.

Teaching strategies include:

  • modelled writing
  • shared writing
  • interactive writing
  • guided writing/writing conferences
  • independent writing
  • language enrichment.

Focused teaching for reading comprehension

Teaching at this level should focus on a student’s comprehension of the text rather than their word reading skills.

Teaching strategies include:

  • deciding the likely topic of a text
  • reading and comprehending sentences
  • working out meanings of unfamiliar words in the text
  • working out the meaning of the text by inferring, questioning and summarising
  • linking meaning across sentences and paragraphs
  • reviewing, consolidating and responding to the text.

For more information visit Focused teaching years 3-6 (ages 9-12).