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What is early literacy development?

Literacy describes the understanding and use of language in written form - reading and writing skills. Children who experience spoken language difficulties are at higher risk of literacy difficulties.

As part of typical literacy development, children will develop a range of pre-literacy skills which bridge the gap between spoken language and written language skills. These include phonological awareness and print awareness. Some skills are developed prior to school while others will be acquired during the first year of education.

Strong phonological awareness and print awareness skills are required for children to develop phonics skills. Phonics describes the knowledge of the connection between letters and the sounds they make. Phonics enables us to read and write words and sentences. Phonological awareness and print awareness difficulties are two of the first red flags for possible delays in acquiring phonics and literacy skills.

What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness describes a child’s awareness of spoken sounds and their understanding of how they can be arranged and changed to create words. This includes:

  • breaking up words into syllables and sounds
  • counting syllables in words, e.g. ‘animal’ has three syllables
  • identifying sounds in words, e.g. ‘dog’ begins with a ‘d’ sound
  • rhyming words
  • alliteration
Child In Speech Therapy Appointment
Toddler Sitting On Ground

What is print awareness?

Print awareness describes a child’s awareness of written letters and their understanding that they represent spoken language. This includes:

  • knowing how to hold a book the correct way
  • knowing that a book is read from front to back
  • knowing that text is read left to right in English
  • knowing that the text represents the story being told
  • knowing that everyone reading the same book reads the same words
  • differentiating between text and pictures
  • recognising different letters, numbers, and punctuation

What are the stages in typical literacy development?

Three years old

  • Knows that text is read left to right in English
  • Learns and sings the alphabet song
  • Recognises their own name when written
  • Recognises a few specific words in environmental print, e.g. road signs
  • Draws simple shapes (e.g. lines, circles) that form parts of letters
  • Attempts to write own name with support
Img Child With Musical Bells
Two Children With Adult Doing Craft

Four to five years old

  • Recognises and names some letters
  • Identifies the sounds that some letter makes, especially those in their name
  • Reads picture books for pleasure, using prior knowledge and memory to understand and recall details
  • Identifies events in books which they have also experienced
  • Knows the alphabetic principle that words are made up of letters and that the letters represent sounds
  • Consistently differentiates between writing and drawing
  • Copies what someone else is writing
  • Attempts to write words by drawing shapes and symbols that are intended to be letters

Six years old

  • Recognises and writes their name independently
  • Knows where to start reading a text
  • Knows all the letter names
  • Knows the sounds for all singe consonant letters
  • Reads and writes simple words that follow simple English spelling rules
  • Recognises and writes a small bank of words learnt by sight
  • Enjoys independently reading simple short stories and books with pictures
  • Answers simple questions about what they have read

Seven to eight years old

  • Knows sounds for all vowel and double consonant (i.e., digraph) letters
  • Reads and writes longer words that follow more complex English spelling rules
  • Recognises and writes a growing bank of words learnt by sight
  • Combines words when reading and writing to form sentences and stories
  • Enjoys independently reading novelettes and novellas, often without pictures
  • Answers more complex questions about what they have read
Group Of Teenage Girls Sitting Down Chatting
Children Drawing On Easel

What are the signs of a literacy delay?

Some of the signs of a literacy delay may include:

  • Difficulties learning letters or phonics
  • Difficulties reading words and sentences in books
  • Difficulties understanding what has been read
  • Difficulties retelling what has happened in a story
  • Difficulties spelling words when writing
  • Difficulties recording ideas in written form
  • Writing that is ungrammatical or leaves out key words
  • Writing that does not make sense or does not share any information
  • Writing where events are missing or are not in the correct order
  • Refusing to read or write
  • Difficulties with academic progress
  • Poor grades in English or other language-heavy subjects such as history or science

What are dyslexia and dysgraphia?

Dyslexia describes significant difficulty learning to read and dysgraphia describes significant difficulty learning to spell and write; some children have both conditions. Dyslexia and dysgraphia are types of “specific learning disorders”. Traditionally, this meant that these difficulties with reading and/or writing occurred in isolation, in the absence of other disabilities or diagnoses, such as intellectual disability or developmental language disorder. However, the understanding of neurodiversity has developed recently, and it has become widely acknowledged that dyslexia and dysgraphia may co-occur with other intellectual, learning, and/or language difficulties and that a dual diagnosis may be appropriate for some children.

How is a literacy delay treated?

The treatment options for literacy delays are individualised for each child depending on the outcome of their assessment. Our speech pathologist will work with each family to develop a therapy plan with number of goals, actions, and strategies to address your child’s literacy delays.


Examples of therapy goals include:

  • Phonological awareness skills such as rhyming words, segmenting and blending words, and identifying sounds in words
  • learning new letters and their sounds (particularly the long vowels in English as these are tricky)
  • reading or writing a range of words that may or may not follow the rules of English
  • applying reading and spelling rules to words (such as magic ‘e’ or hard/soft ‘g’)
  • applying strategies for reading and spelling both familiar and unknown words
  • learning high frequency and sight words
  • understanding what has been read
  • answering questions about a text or story
  • writing sentences and stories
Teenage Girl Smiling
Young Adult Sitting At Table

Therapy goals are individualised to each child and are continually adjusted according to your children’s progress and needs.

While therapy sessions with a speech pathologist will support your child’s development, many children will display progress at a quicker rate with access to therapy strategies and activities on daily basis. These strategies should be implemented across all their regular environments such as home, sports training, music lessons, arts and crafts, shopping, restaurants, and cinemas. For this reason, a portion of each therapy session is dedicated to training families to facilitate their child’s literacy at home. As children receiving literacy therapy are typically of school age, this usually includes activities to complete during set “homework” time each day.

The number and frequency of therapy sessions will depend on:

  • your child’s current abilities
  • the severity of their literacy delays
  • type of therapy being implemented
  • their progress in response to this therapy
  • the family’s familiarity and confidence with the home strategies and activities

Therapy sessions run for either 30, 45 or 60 minutes and take place weekly, fortnightly, or monthly. They may be scheduled in therapy blocks or on an ongoing basis. They also include additional administration time for the therapist to plan activities, document progress, and write reports.

Speech therapy sessions may also be offered via telehealth if this is the family’s preference and they live regional or remote.

Government funding programs such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) or a GP Management Plan may assist families to access services.

What can parents do to prepare their child for learning literacy?

The Prep curriculum is focused on teaching children to read and write and thus, it is not expected that children have these skills prior to entering Prep. However, you can ensure that your child is as ready as possible to learn literacy by developing their speech, language, pre-literacy (phonological awareness and print awareness) and motor skills. As these skills are required for literacy development, it is best to remediate any difficulties, if possible, before your child starts school to minimise any impact on their literacy skills. It is also important that your child’s hearing and vision is checked to ensure that there are no difficulties which can impact their literacy development. Parents are welcome to book appointments with our audiology, speech pathology and occupational therapy teams if they are concerned about their child’s hearing, speech/language and/or motor skills respectively. Vision concerns can be directed to your optometrist.

Girl With Baha At Group Program

Some of the strategies that can help prepare your child to learn literacy include:

  • Reading books together with your child, regardless of their age. Babies and older children who can read still enjoy being read to by others for pleasure
  • Encouraging your child to look at picture books by themselves even if they cannot read yet
  • Encouraging your child to try drawing and writing letters
  • Providing opportunities for your child to recognise and write their name
  • Encouraging your child to continue to practice reading, writing, and drawing even if they make mistakes
  • Practising reading and writing in everyday scenarios such as when you are at the grocery store or driving to school

These strategies can also be used for school-aged children who are experiencing a literacy delay.

Child In Speech Therapy Lesson With Clinician

When to seek help from a speech pathologist?

Your child’s teacher will be able to provide you with initial information on your child’s literacy progress. Further details of your child’s literacy development can be obtained via a comprehensive reading and writing assessment with a speech pathologist.

When there is concern at school regarding a child’s literacy progress, they are often provided with additional literacy teaching to accelerate their progress. This often takes the form of group lessons following a specific literacy program (e.g., Minilit, PAL, THRASS, Reading Recovery, Toe-by-Toe). For some children, this type of support is sufficient for them to catch up; for others, it is less beneficial. If a child does not make sufficient progress with group lessons, then more individualised services are required. The Speech pathology team at Hear and Say can provide this more intensive support via individual literacy therapy sessions.


Parents are encouraged to seek advice from a speech pathologist as soon as they have concerns regarding their child’s literacy development as services at school can be limited and the window for a child to develop adequate literacy skills for today’s school curriculum is short.

The role of a speech pathologist in the literacy domain is to collect assessment information on a child’s strengths and challenges in order to guide therapy. This does not include making diagnoses of dyslexia or dysgraphia. Parents are encouraged to seek support from an educational psychologist if they would like to explore whether their child would meet the criteria for one of these diagnoses. Details of local educational psychologists can be obtained from the Australian Psychological Society.

When to seek help from an occupational therapist?

Some children have difficulties with writing because they are still developing the motor or visual skills required. They may have difficulties with holding pencils in the correct way, applying sufficient pressure to the paper, writing in a straight line, copying information from the board, and writing for extended periods of time without becoming tired. Our occupational therapist can support children to develop the motor coordination and visual perception skills required for writing.

Occupational Therapist Appointment With Child

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