This page discusses the key literacy knowledge and skills that students in years 7-10, including those with learning difficulties, need to be successful users of literacy.
As students move into secondary school, they will continue to encounter more sophisticated, nuanced and dense text types that they are required to read and understand. To do so, students rely on:
- expanding oral language skills
- self-regulation and self-monitoring while reading
- a growing background knowledge base to bring to text.
Their vocabulary becomes more specialised as they encounter more technical and discipline-specific terms (such as Tier-3 words) and concepts, and they will be required to engage with a large variety of text types.
The demands of writing also increase as students are required to write across varying genres (scientific reports, quoting from literary texts, etc.), use specific conventions (essay formatting, referencing, topic sentences) and conventions with greater precision and detail.
Students are now expected to be increasingly independent in how they engage with literacy activities. Students with learning difficulties at this level require one or more of the following:
- assessment to identify areas of strength and weakness to determine how best to support the student
- reasonable adjustments to certain tasks to ensure that the student can access the curriculum (for example, audio-recording of instructions where needed, completing some assessments verbally rather than in written form)
- explicit intervention and multiple opportunities for scaffolded practice of the requisite literacy skills where gaps have been identified. Some students may require a modified curriculum, but this decision should be made with great care and with the support of a multidisciplinary team.
Word reading and spelling
It is expected that students in this age range (13–16 years) can read fluently and comprehend without difficulty. To support students’ reading of increasingly complex and varied text types, explicit teaching of the relevant background knowledge (for example, photosynthesis, quadratic equations, alliteration) along with Tier-3 (discipline-specific) vocabulary is taught (for example, oxygenic, algebraic expression, consonant). Students also need to be taught to interpret a variety of academic terms such as ‘define’, ‘contrast’ and ‘imply’. While the complexity of individual words increases, students at this level are also expected to be able to read and spell a larger range of words correctly and automatically. These demands can be particularly challenging for students with learning difficulties or for those who have not been equipped with foundational knowledge and skills.
In secondary school, each subject is likely to have its own specialised Tier-3 vocabulary. You can teach students who have word reading difficulties to:
- learn the phonological and phonemic skills for reading and spelling these new words. It is important that they learn how to segment words, read and say them with accuracy. For example, to break the word ‘miniature’ down as ‘mini’ – ‘a’ – ‘ture’.
- learn the phonic skills for reading these new words. They need to know how to blend the sound patterns together after segmenting a word into parts.
- automatise these reading skills. It is important that students can quickly recognise and say common and uncommon letter clusters, for example, ‘mini’.
- identify morphemes in words to assist with understanding. For example, in the word ‘miniature’, smallness is implied.
At this age, students who are having reading and/or spelling difficulties need additional support to stay on top of academic demands. Reading and spelling difficulties will not resolve themselves without this targeted support.
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.
Morphology and morphemes
All words, including those that make up the specialised language secondary students will encounter in their subject areas, are comprised 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.
Students need to be able to recognise these parts in words. They need to know how to say these parts rapidly and transfer them to read other words. For example, ‘tele’ and ‘pathy’ = telepathy.
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.
Focused teaching for reading comprehension
By the time they reach adolescence, most students have acquired adequate phonological and phonemic knowledge to support their ongoing literacy learning.
Teaching strategies to support a student's development within this area of knowledge, include:
- explicit vocabulary instruction
- a knowledge-rich curriculum to provide students with the requisite background knowledge needed to understand texts
- explicit support for ongoing oral language growth
- explicit modelling and teaching about writing conventions
- using strategies such as morphological structure of the words and their context to work out the meanings of unfamiliar words in the text
- working out the meanings of a text by inferring, questioning and summarising
- linking meaning across sentences and paragraphs reviewing, consolidating and responding to the text.
This teaching and learning sequence can be applied to a range of text types at the student's independent reading level. This allows the focus of the teaching to be on the student's comprehension of the text rather than their word reading skills.
Students with literacy learning difficulties may still demonstrate underdeveloped phonological and phonemic skills. This means that they are likely to have read a lot less over time than their peers. Reading advances students' vocabulary, background knowledge and oral language skills. Therefore, the group of struggling readers will have had far less opportunity to develop these skills as they have engaged with text far less.
Other students may have adequate decoding skills but have difficulty reading for meaning due to
Developmental Language Disorder .
For these students, the focused reading and comprehension teaching strategies for lower levels can be used to support development of these crucial skills.
For more information, visit
focused teaching years 7-10 (ages 13-16) and
focused teaching Prep to Year 2 (ages 5-8).
Supporting positive engagement with literacy
It is particularly important that students in secondary school have positive experiences with literacy learning. For students who have experienced literacy learning difficulties, reading and writing can be seen as a source of frustration and feelings of failure.
One way to support your students is to help them see evidence of their progress in learning to read and spell words. Teaching students how to monitor and track their successes will help them to develop a greater sense of self-efficacy.
This can be developed while students engage with different literacy activities and does not need to be separate from learning. For example, you can connect a student's interests to the types of texts they are reading or practise using dialogue that models the value of literacy for students during class.
Encourage students to take risks, for example, to experiment with new words in their writing and to be curious about learning them.
Teaching students to manage and self-direct their learning
Students are more likely to engage positively with literacy activities, such as reading and writing, when they are provided with tasks that they can manage.This is particularly important as students enter secondary school and transition increasingly to greater expectations of self-directed learning.
A helpful strategy for students from upper primary to secondary levels is to use self-talk to plan how they will learn, monitor progress and review and consolidate what they have learned. You can teach students this skill explicitly by asking them at the end of a session to reflect on their learning. This process will also help students recall and be able to use their literacy knowledge.
You can find more information on
Helping students to become independent learners.