Literacy skills: What children need to know to develop their reading and spelling skills.

In a previous post Christine talked about some of the necessary language skills for 4 – 6 year old children. These skills are also required for reading and writing.

Children begin learning literacy skills long before they learn to read and write through enjoyable social interaction with adults.
What early literacy skills should children have before they start school??

Conversation – children’s ability to speak and understand speech is directly related to their literacy development.

Vocabulary – the more words children know the easier it is to learn new words and gain meaning from stories read.

Story comprehension – when children are read to regularly they learn about the structure of stories as well as learn new language.

Print knowledge – that letters of alphabet make up words, print is read from top to bottom of page and from left to right etc. That letters are how we write speech sounds down.

Phonological (sound) awareness – children need to be able to hear and understand that sentences break down into words, words break down into syllables and syllables break down into individual speech sounds (phonemes) Research has shown that children with strong phonological awareness skills are better readers.

Have a look at the link for helpful information on how to read with, not at, your preschooler –,-the-Hanen-Way.aspx

One of the assessments that Speech Pathologists use to look at a child’s phonological awareness skills is The Sutherland Phonological Awareness Test (SPAT). It provides Australian norms for acquisition of the below:

The following should all be mastered by the time children are 6-7 years old.

  • Syllable Identification e.g  “How many syllables/beats are in ‘banana’?
  • Identifying rhyming words e.g “does ‘cat’ rhyme with ‘bat'”
  • Production of rhyming words e.g. “Tell me another word that rhymes with ‘boat’”.
  • Identifying the first sound in words  e.g “Whats the first sound you hear in ‘dog’.
  • Identifying the last sound in words e.g. “Whats the last sound you hear in ‘pot’
  • Breaking up small words into sounds e.g. “What sounds are in the word ‘cat’ (c-a-t) and ‘top’ (t-o-p)”
  • Blending individual sounds to make words e.g. “What word does these sounds make –  ‘s-ee-d’

The following are the last to emerge and be mastered (up to 9 years)

  • Ability to take away the first sound in words e.g  “What does ‘fish’ say without the ‘f’?’
  • Breaking up words containing blends into individual sounds e.g ‘snake’ – s-n-a-ke ,’pram’ – p-r-a-m’.
  • Taking away the sounds in blends e.g “What does ‘snake’ say without the ‘s’?
  • What does ‘pram’ say without the /r/?

In addition to the above aspects of phonological awareness, children must also be able to recognise all of the letters of the alphabet and their accompanying sounds in order to develop literacy skills.

Children may not know all of the letters and corresponding sounds when they enter Prep, however they need to learn that there is actually 44 sounds and only 26 letters in the alphabet, so we sometimes have to put 2, 3 or 4 together to spell a sound. Some examples are:

  • “sh” in “shop”
  • “ou” in “out”
  • “igh” in “night”
  • “dge” in “fridge”
  • “eigh” in “eight”
  • “augh” in “caught”
  • English is a combination of many languages- so most sounds are spelt in more than one way (e.g. the vowel sound in “hear”, “beer”, “here” and “pier”) and many spellings represent more than one sound (e.g. the “ear” in “hear”, “learn”, “bear” and “heart”).

Some children can already read before they start school. By the end of Prep most children have learnt and understood the basics, however 1 in 5 still struggle and need help. There have been many articles recently about the way that literacy is taught in schools, for example,

So how should these beginning readers and spellers be taught?

Children should be introduced to a small number of sounds and letters and practise both reading and spelling small, simple words. Once they have the hang of those, a few more sounds and letters can be added, and then a few more, again practising reading and spelling. This methodology (synthetic phonics) continues until all the main patterns are covered and the child can confidently tackle any word.

How can I help my child?

* Increase their language skills by having lots of conversations

* Read books everyday! Sounds simple, but try to have daily ‘story time’. This builds their listening and speaking skills and vocabulary

* Point to the words on the book as you read them

* STRESS new words and explain what they mean. Put them into another sentence to demonstrate meaning. This builds vocabulary.

* Question time! Whilst reading the book, ask your child questions about the story. Use questions like “What do you think will happen next?”, “Why do you think that character did that?”

* When reading, talk about the book as well as the story. Point to the words. Talk about words, letters and sounds. Talk about rhyming words and clap out syllables in long words. Talk about ‘beginning sounds’ in words (e.g. “Mat, the word mat starts with an ‘m’ sound”)

* Talk to your child about daily experiences to develop their vocabulary. Ask them questions and answer theirs.

* Play with the alphabet and talk about it together. Look at alphabet books and puzzles, and play with magnetic letters on the fridge. Use movable letters to make small, simple words –  show how they can be swapped to make different words e.g. the sounds in “top” can be moved around to make “pot”, and you can change the “o” for an “i” to get “tip”.

* Help your child trace, copy and write letters. Children will need be be able to hold a pencil and form letters correctly.

* If your little one is ready to start reading on their own, start with simple decodable books that have a few sounds and spellings.  Somes great resources are Little Learners Love Literacy, Spelfabet, Fitzroy Readers and Speld SA has free downloadable phonics books. Tips: encourage children to sound out the word from the start of the word all the way to the end, not just the first letter then look at the picture and guess. Always talk about the sound a letter makes as opposed to its name, for example, “d” – “This is called a dee, its sound is d”. (don’t add a little vowel at the end, the sound is ‘d’ not ‘duh’, ‘s’ not ‘suh’ etc)

What if my child is still finding reading and spelling difficult?

Your child may need an assessment by the school Speech Pathologist or Educational Psychologist to determine if there is any underlying difficulties. Children struggle with reading for many reasons: attention difficulties, frequent school absences, anxiousness about reading, speech and language difficulties or a history of hearing loss, maybe because of frequent colds or ‘glue ear’. There may be a history of reading or spelling difficulties in the family or poor phonological awareness. It is best to not wait and see – if you are concerned speak to your child’s school or seek outside assistance if needed.

As always, please feel free to contact me regarding your child’s literacy – I am happy to answer any questions.


Please see information below on Speech Pathologists role in literacy: