The areas selected as starting points cover the following aspects of literacy:
- listening vocabulary
- phonological awareness
- sound–letter (phoneme–grapheme) relationships
- print and word concepts
- letter formation
- environmental print
- high-interest words.
These areas overlap and work together; they do not represent a hierarchy of skills, and learners may require more support for some aspects than for others.
Listening vocabulary refers to the words a person recognises when they hear them in spoken language. A well-developed listening vocabulary is a fundamental requirement for literacy and language learning at any age. Without a good understanding of many words ‘in the head’, a person will not be able to begin to decode or encode written texts, and will not develop reading comprehension. The information provided here will apply mainly, but not exclusively, to speakers of languages other than English who are not already fluent in English. For speakers whose mother tongue is English and who have a limited vocabulary, listening vocabulary can also be explicitly taught.
Return to top
Phonological awareness refers to a person’s ability to hear, recognise and manipulate the sounds that make up spoken words. It is a crucial aspect of learning to read and write. Without this awareness, learners will not be able to move beyond simple recognition or reproduction of whole words from memory. They will not have the tools with which to ‘crack the code’ of written language. Phonological awareness is about hearing sounds, not about reading or writing them. It is therefore an essential precursor to recognising the connections between the sounds heard and the letters that represent those sounds. Many speakers whose mother tongue is English and who struggle with reading and writing have not developed phonological awareness. ESOL learners may or may not require support for phonological awareness, depending on their mother tongue and their ability to hear and produce the sounds of English.
Return to top
Sound–letter (phoneme–grapheme) relationships
Sound–letter relationships involve an understanding of several related concepts or sets of knowledge to do with making connections between sounds and the letters that represent them (phoneme– grapheme relationships). This knowledge includes the alphabetic principle: that is, understanding that sounds (phonemes) in spoken words correspond to letters or groups of letters (graphemes) in the printed word. Reading and writing in English can present problems for both English mother tongue learners and ESOL learners because these phoneme– grapheme relationships are not always consistent. For example, there are several ways of representing the long ‘a’ sound (phoneme) with letters: -ay (eg. day), -a-e (eg. late), -eigh (eg. sleigh) and others.
Return to top
Print and word concepts
Concepts about how print works and an understanding of the conventions commonly used at the word level also underpin reading and writing. Print and word concepts refer to the rules or practices that govern the use of print and the written language, such as that lines are read from left to right and from top to bottom of the page, that words are made of letters, and that spaces are used between words. Some learners will be able to work within the first step of the Language and Text Features reading and writing progressions, but print and word concepts are included here to emphasise the importance of using whatever knowledge learners have about reading and writing as an initial step for instruction.
Return to top
Letter formation concerns a person’s ability to form letters. Learners need to be able to form letters so they can write down the words they want to record for themselves or convey to others. Forming letters may be challenging for some learners with English as a mother tongue who have limited writing skills, and also for ESOL learners who have little or no experience with the Roman alphabetic script that is used for English. Some learners will need support with letter formation before they are able to work at the first step of the writing progressions.
Return to top
Environmental print refers to the words and images found in the environment. It includes billboards, advertising, signs, icons and labels. Learners who have yet to develop basic reading skills may already have an extensive knowledge of environmental print (for example, they can recognise signs for McDonald’s and other common businesses, brand names of familiar products and many traffic signs). Learners who recognise even a small number of words will most likely be able to work within the first step of the Decoding and Vocabulary reading
progressions, but environmental print is included here to emphasise the importance of using whatever knowledge learners have about reading as an initial step for instruction.
Return to top
Learners who are not yet able to read and write words independently may recognise some highinterest words. These typically include words that are personally significant (such as their own name) and other high-utility words (very common or useful words that they recognise on sight).
Learners who recognise even a small number of words will most likely be able to work within the first step of the Decoding and Vocabulary reading progressions, but high-interest words are included here to emphasise the importance of using whatever knowledge learners have about reading as a starting point for instruction.
Listening vocabulary, phonological awareness and sound–letter relationships have been referred to as the ‘building blocks’ of reading and writing in phonemically based alphabets (in which the sounds of the spoken language are represented by letters) and they are not exclusive to English.1 They are just as important in, for example, te reo Māori as they are in Vietnamese, Turkish or English. Turkish, for instance, has very systematic spelling, with sound correspondences that facilitate the development of sound–letter relationships.2 Compared with other alphabetic languages, however, English is notoriously inconsistent in the ways in which sounds are represented.3 This inconsistency presents particular challenges for English mothertongue speakers, as well as for ESOL learners.
The challenge for learners with a background in a non-phonemic writing system will be even greater. For example, speakers of Mandarin (a non-phonemic script) will require explicit demonstration of how the sounds of English are (usually) represented by letters. They will need to recognise and understand the connections between the sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes) and how sounds combine to make words. Speakers whose mother tongue is English but who lack the knowledge and ability to form connections between sounds and letters may have struggled to master these connections for years without success.