Evidence for Learning: Early literacy approaches

Early literacy approaches

Moderate impact for very low cost based on extensive evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Early literacy approaches aim to improve young children’s skills, knowledge or understanding related to reading or writing. Common approaches include:

  • storytelling and group reading;
  • activities that aim to develop letter knowledge, knowledge of sounds and early phonics; and
  • introductions to different kinds of writing.

Early literacy strategies may have components in common with Communication and language approaches and may also involve Parental engagement.

The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF) version 2.0 recognises literacy as vital for children’s learning and can include many modes of communication from movement and storytelling to writing. Early literacy approaches are aligned with the EYLF Learning Outcome 5: Children are effective communicators’.

  • Early literacy approaches typically increase children’s learning by about four months. Approaches that develop literacy skills and knowledge can have an important effect on early reading. The evidence for the positive impact of early literacy approaches is extensive.

  • Early literacy interventions seem to have impacts that transfer to other areas of the learning program such as mathematics, where the average impact is + two months’ progress.

  • Targeted small group interventions may be particularly effective, especially for students experiencing disadvantage.

  • Careful monitoring of progress in reading is particularly important to target approaches effectively. For example, moving from knowledge of letter names and sounds to early phonics.

Early literacy approaches have consistently been found to have a positive effect on early learning outcomes. The early literacy approaches included in this Toolkit led to an average impact of four additional months’ progress, and some studies found that learning was improved by as much as six months.

However, early literacy approaches should not be seen as a panacea. Though long-term positive effects have been detected in some studies, for a majority of strategies these benefits appear to fade over time. This suggests that a single intervention is unlikely to be enough to close the gap in learning outcomes and that interventions need to be appropriate to a child’s age and carefully consider their progression.

There is evidence that combining multiple early literacy approaches may be more effective than any single approach. This is because improvements in one specific area, such as knowledge of letter names and sounds, does not always lead to improvements in other areas too. It may therefore be beneficial to put a range of approaches in place to target different skills. Combining this with regular evaluations of children’s literacy skills can help you to select the right approaches for the age and developmental stage of the children, and target any areas of weakness.

In the Australasian context, considerable research has evaluated the effects of a broad range of literacy interventions delivered in early learning settings. Approaches have largely focused on children’s oral language, phonemic and phonological awareness, as well as explicit reading instruction. Findings suggest such interventions are effective in boosting children’s literacy skills – particularly for children who are experiencing disadvantage.

Studies indicate that involving parents in implementing early literacy strategies can be beneficial. One example is shared reading approaches. Some of these approaches cross over with those summarised in the Toolkit entry on parental engagement.

  • The majority of studies focus on reading outcomes within literacy. There is much less evidence about early writing.

  • While there are fewer studies that measure outcomes outside of literacy, there is evidence of positive impact transferring to maths outcomes (+ two months).

  • The most successful approaches were conducted up to five times a week. It is important to balance literacy provision with other aspects of early childhood education, such as early numeracy approaches.

All children appear to benefit from early literacy approaches, but there is some evidence that certain strategies, particularly those involving targeted small group interaction, may have particularly positive effects on children experiencing disadvantage.

Early literacy approaches have the potential to prepare children for reading and writing. To give these strategies the best chance of succeeding, you could consider:

  • Ensuring that your early literacy strategy is comprehensive, and combines approaches that will support the development of skills, knowledge and understanding.
  • Using assessments to identify children’s current level of development, and monitor progress in learning.
  • Using targeted small group support to address areas of challenge for children experiencing disadvantage.

Research indicates that knowledge of children’s development and current understanding are an important precursor to putting an early literacy strategy in place. Using professional development to support the introduction of new early literacy interventions is associated with increased learning.

The median cost of early literacy approaches and interventions are estimated as very low. Costs include resources such as books and other print materials. Costs may vary between low and very low where professional development is needed or to enable intensive small group support where additional staff may be required.

The security of the evidence around early literacy approaches is rated as extensive. 73 studies met the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit.

One challenge with the evidence base is that early literacy approaches are often only one part of multi-component interventions or learning programs, which can make it hard to attribute changes to the early literacy approach, or to identify which aspects of that approach are most important.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies73
Review last updatedFebruary 2023