Evidence for Learning: Early literacy approaches

Early literacy approaches

The summary below presents the research evidence on early literacy approaches in the Australasian context.

The Early Childhood Education Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of communication and language approaches on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on communication and language approaches. In contrast to the Early Childhood Education Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by early learning professionals and young learners. This information is valuable for early learning centres interested in finding out more about particular examples of communication and language approaches that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

Fraser Mustard Centre generated this evidence summary on behalf of CoLab (a partnership between Telethon Kids Institute and the Minderoo Foundation) in July 2019.

Early literacy approaches seek to enhance the knowledge and skills young children need to learn to read and write. Common approaches include activities that teach knowledge of letters and their sounds, storytelling and book reading, and introduction to letter and name writing. Approaches can be delivered in an early education setting or the home environment through caregiver engagement.

In the Australasian context, considerable research has evaluated the effects of a broad range of literacy interventions delivered in early learning settings including preschool and the early years of school. Approaches in these settings have largely focused on children’s oral language, phonemic and phonological awareness, as well as explicit reading instruction.

Evidence suggests such interventions are effective in boosting children’s literacy skills, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Fielding-Barnsley & Hay, 2012; Fried, Konza, & Mulcahy, 2012; Greaney & Arrow, 2012; Moore, Hammond, & Fetherston, 2014). For example, Wheldall and colleagues (2017) demonstrated large gains in literacy performance for successive cohorts of children between 2005 – 2011 that received MiniLit, a program of structured reading instruction for small groups of disadvantaged children at risk of reading failure. Carson and colleagues (2013; 2018) found that a classroom-based intervention focused on phonological awareness and letter sound knowledge instruction can be beneficial for the literacy skills of all children. The question of whether the effects of such interventions are sustained over time however, remains (Jesson & Limbrick, 2014; O’Connor, Arnott, McIntosh, & Dodd, 2009). For instance, Henning and colleagues (2010) found while classroom-based oral language and phonological awareness intervention had a short-term positive impact on children’s early literacy skills, these effects were not maintained two years later.

Overall, although each of these interventions have demonstrated positive impacts, collectively, the evidence suggests a combination of approaches focused on developing a broad range of children’s early literacy skills (Rowe, 2005), rather than a single intervention focused on one aspect of early literacy (e.g. phonemic awareness), is most effective. Further, although evidence in the Australasian context is limited, international research also indicates adequate training and professional development of teaching staff is essential for effective delivery of such interventions.

A number of programs have also focused on improving children’s literacy skills through intervention in the home environment, particularly through the promotion of shared book reading between caregivers and children (Barratt-Pugh, 2018; Brown, Byrnes, Raban, & Watson, 2012; Freeman & Bochner, 2008; Hill, Forster, & Ward, 2014). Overall, although these types of programs can promote children’s interest in reading and the frequency of shared book reading in the home, these effects have not translated to improved literacy outcomes. For example, Goldfeld and colleagues (2012) conducted a randomised controlled trial in relatively disadvantaged areas in Melbourne to evaluate Let’s Read, a book distribution and literacy promotion program provided to parents during the first four years of their child’s life. Although caregivers believed the program was effective, results did not demonstrate benefits to children’s later literacy skills.

It has been argued that to be effective, programs must encourage caregivers to do more than just read to their children (Hood, Conlon, & Andrews, 2008; Sim, Berthelsen, Walker, Nicholson, & Fielding-Barnsley, 2014). In an exploration of home literacy practices across different socioeconomic status (SES) groups, Neumann (2016) found despite similar reading frequency across groups, low SES caregivers were teaching their children about letters and words less frequently than high SES families, and this translated to poorer print skills for these children. Results highlight the need for greater focus on print-based strategies, including instruction around letter names and sounds, as well as shared reading in fostering the range of literacy skills children require to learn to read and write.

Barratt-Pugh, C. (2018). Growing Better Beginnings: Evaluation of the Kindergarten Better Beginnings Family Literacy Program. Retrieved from https://www.better-beginnings.…

Brown, P. M., Byrnes, L. J., Raban, B., & Watson, L. (2012). Young Learners: The Home Literacy Environments of Australian Four-Year-Olds. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 26(4), 450 – 460. doi:10.1080/02568543.2012.712086

Carson, K. L., Bayetto, A. E., & Roberts, A. F. B. (2018). Effectiveness of Preschool-Wide Teacher-Implemented Phoneme Awareness and Letter-Sound Knowledge Instruction on Code-Based School-Entry Reading Readiness Communication Disorders Quarterly. doi:10.1177/1525740118789061

Carson, K. L., Gillon, G. T., & Boustead, T. M. (2013). Classroom Phonological Awareness Instruction and Literacy Outcomes in the First Year of School. Language, Speech, and Hearing Sen/​ices in Schools, 44, 147 – 160. doi:10.1044/0161 – 1461(2012/11 – 0061)

Fielding-Barnsley, R., & Hay, I. (2012). Comparative effectiveness of phonological awareness and oral language intervention for children with low emergent literacy skills. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 35(3), 271 – 286.

Freeman, L., & Bochner, S. (2008). Bridging the gap: Improving literacy outcomes for Indigenous students. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 33(4), 8 – 16.

Fried, L., Konza, D., & Mulcahy, P. (2012). Paraprofessionals implementing a research-based reading intervention. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 17(1), 35 – 54. doi:10.1080/19404158.2012.674052

Goldfeld, S., Quach, J., Nicholls, R., Reilly, S., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Wake, M. (2012). Four-year-old outcomes of a universal infant-toddler shared reading intervention: The Let’s Read trial. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 166(11), 1045 – 1052.

Greaney, K., & Arrow, A. (2012). Phonological-based assessment and teaching within a first year reading program in New Zealand. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 35(1), 9 – 32.

Henning, C., Mcintosh, B., Arnott, W., & Dodd, B. (2010). Long-term outcome of oral language and phonological awareness intervention with socially disadvantaged preschoolers: the impact on language and literacy. Journal of Research in Reading, 33(3), 231 – 246.

Hill, S., Forster, J., & Ward, C. (2014). Babies and books: A longitudinal study into family reading practices with children from birth to three years. Retrieved from Adelaide:

Hood, M., Conlon, E., & Andrews, G. (2008). Preschool home literacy practices and children’s literacy development: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100(2), 252 – 271.

Jesson, R., & Limbrick, L. (2014). Can gains from early literacy interventions be sustained? The case of Reading Recovery. Journal of Research in Reading, 37(1), 102 – 117. doi:10.1111/1467 – 9817.12017

Moore, W., Hammond, L., & Fetherston, T. (2014). Strengthening vocabulary for literacy: an analysis of the use of explicit instruction techniques to improve word learning from story book readalouds. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 19(2), 153 – 172. doi:10.1080/19404158.2014.964992

Neumann, M. M. (2016). A socioeconomic comparison of emergent literacy and home literacy in Australian preschoolers. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 24(4), 555 – 566. doi:10.1080/1350293X.2016.1189722

O’Connor, M., Arnott, W., McIntosh, B., & Dodd, B. (2009). Phonological awareness and language intervention in preschoolers from low socio-economic backgrounds: A longitudinal investigation. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 27, 767 – 782. doi:10.1348/026151008X372492

Rowe, K. (2005). Australia’s National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Retrieved from https://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1030&context=resdev.

Sim, S. S. H., Berthelsen, D., Walker, S., Nicholson, J. M., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (2014). A shared reading intervention with parents to enhance young children’s early literacy skills. Early Child Development and Care, 184(11), 1531 – 1549. doi:10.1080/03004430.2013.862532

Wheldall, K., Wheldall, R., Madelaine, A., Reynolds, M., & Arakelian, S. (2017). Further evidence for the efficacy of an evidencebased, small group, literacy intervention program for young struggling readers. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 22(1), 3 – 13. doi:10.1080/19404158.2017.1287102

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Early child/​childhood education; preschool; kindergarten; early literacy; pre-literacy; literacy intervention; literacy development; literacy skills; read/​reading; write/​writing.