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Understanding the Literacy Learning Progressions

The Literacy Learning Progressions describe the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students draw on in order to meet the reading and writing demands of the New Zealand Curriculum.

The theoretical basis Click heading to expand

The theoretical basis

The theoretical basis for the Literacy Learning Progressions is described in the Ministry of Education handbooks Effective Literacy Practice in Years 1 to 4 and Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8.

The progressions have been designed on the basis that there are three main aspects to the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students need to acquire.1

  • Literacy learners need to learn the code of written language. This learning includes phonological awareness, knowledge of the alphabetic principle and of phoneme–grapheme relationships, knowledge of how words work, and automatic recognition or spelling of familiar words (automaticity).
  • Literacy learners need to learn to make meaning of texts. This learning includes the use of background knowledge (including knowledge relating to their culture, language, and identity), vocabulary knowledge, knowledge of how language is structured, knowledge about literacy, and strategies to get or convey meaning.
  • Literacy learners need to think critically. This includes analysing and responding to texts and bringing a critical awareness to reading and writing.

Developing expertise Click heading to expand

Developing expertise

Learning to read and write is a complex, cumulative process. The theoretical basis described in the handbooks brings together three related concepts:

  • the pathway to literacy is developmental;
  • social and cultural practices shape literacy learning;
  • students take individual and multiple pathways in their learning.

Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8, page 21

Students’ participation in various language and literacy practices at home and in early childhood settings means that they will all bring literacy knowledge, skills, and attitudes to their school learning. They build on their existing expertise and use their developing knowledge and skills in different ways.

However, there are particular skills and items of knowledge that all students need to master in order to develop their independence and fluency sufficiently to engage successfully with the range of texts and tasks required, across the curriculum, at various points in schooling. These essential skills and items of knowledge, which have been described as “constrained skills”,2 include, for example, knowing how to read from left to right and being able to identify the letters of the alphabet and produce the appropriate sounds for each letter. The ways in which the constrained skills are developed follow a similar pattern for most students; they are often mastered over a short period of time. On the other hand, “unconstrained” skills and knowledge, such as those used for comprehension, are more dynamic and continue to develop over a lifetime.

The Literacy Learning Progressions alert teachers to what their students need to know and be able to do at particular points in their schooling. Without this knowledge and these skills, the students’ further development will be limited.

The progressions also highlight students’ developing awareness of a widening range of strategies and their increasing control of these strategies. To support their students in developing metacognition, teachers need to understand the idea that a learner’s knowledge and skills can be “under control” and used by the learner within the classroom context independently, that is, largely by themselves (Davis, 2007). It is important that students are actively taught to be aware of the literacy expertise they are using and of how they are using it, so that they can deliberately select from their repertoire of literacy knowledge and skills and apply them in more and more contexts in different areas of the curriculum. This metacognitive awareness enables them to become independent readers and writers.

Throughout schooling, transition across learning settings can disrupt students’ developing literacy learning. Transition points include the transition between home and school and the transition from one level of schooling to another, as well as transitions across different language settings and between intervention programmes and the classroom. The progressions highlight specific shifts in curriculum demand at these points, but teachers also need to be aware of the risks involved when the continuity of students’ literacy learning is interrupted at these times.

However, transitions can offer opportunities as well as risks. For example, teaching and learning are more effective when teachers recognise and build on the range of literacy expertise that culturally and linguistically diverse students bring into the classroom.

The role of oral language Click heading to expand

The role of oral language

The Literacy Learning Progressions take account of the significant role of oral language in thinking and learning. Students not only need to learn the language of the classroom in order to participate in every curriculum activity; they also specifically draw on their oral language knowledge and skills to develop their expertise in reading and writing. Oral language knowledge includes knowledge of vocabulary and of the forms and features of texts.

The relationship between oral language and literacy learning is strongly reciprocal. Children draw on their oral (or signed) language when they learn to read and write and, in turn, their progressing literacy learning enriches and expands their oral language and their metalinguistic awareness.

Learning through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3, page 70

Statements drawn from the Ministry of Education’s oral language handbooks, Learning through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1 to 3 and Learning through Talk: Oral Language in Years 4 to 8, are threaded throughout the progressions as prompts for teachers to make connections to their literacy practice.

The reading progressions Click heading to expand

The reading progressions

The reading progressions describe the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students draw on when they use their reading as an interactive tool.

For the early years, the progressions focus clearly on the constrained knowledge and skills that students need in order to decode.

Even if we keep in mind the caveat that reading is more than word recognition, ... the active processing of sentences and paragraphs cannot occur unless the reader can recognize individual words reliably and efficiently. That is why learning to decode is so important.

When students have learned to process texts fluently, they can use more of their cognitive resources to engage with meaning, examine texts critically, and control reading strategies flexibly. Most students will have well-established decoding skills and be processing texts fluently after three years at school.

It is essential that students are able to use more unconstrained or dynamic knowledge and skills by year 6, when the texts and tasks of the curriculum are becoming more complex. Students at this level are expected to respond to texts in ways that relate to their purposes for reading. They are asked to think critically about the ideas and information in texts as they consider writers’ purposes, readers’ different perspectives, and the impact of texts on audiences.

Fluent readers can adjust their rate of reading to take into account factors such as their purpose for reading, the density of the text, and how much time they have.3

The writing progressions Click heading to expand

The writing progressions

The writing progressions describe the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students draw on when they create texts. Because of the role of writing as an interactive tool across the curriculum, there is a specific focus on purpose in the writing progressions. Students use their writing to think about, record, and communicate experiences, ideas, and information. The student’s purpose for writing will determine the process they use – there is no single, “correct” writing process. For example, it is not usually necessary for students to plan their writing when the purpose is to jot down thoughts or to record information.

In the early years, there is a focus on students getting their ideas and experiences down on paper. To do so, they need to begin encoding or spelling words.

Encoding and spelling are the same thing: they both describe a writer’s recording of the words they want to use in their writing. The word “encoding” is used, in the writing progressions, to connect to “decoding” in reading because students draw on the same set of knowledge and skills for both reading and writing as they learn to use the code of written language. Students develop their spelling through using their knowledge of phoneme–grapheme relationships, of how words work (morphology), and of common and reliable spelling rules and conventions.4 At the same time, they develop their automaticity in spelling as they increase the number of words in their visual memory that they can spell without stopping to think. The writing progressions refer to word lists published by the NZCER,5 although there are other similar lists of high-frequency words that teachers might use. The important point is that the words students learn are those that they want and need to write often and that they learn them in authentic and purposeful contexts.

As with decoding, once students can encode fluently, they can use more of their cognitive resources to convey meaning. The texts that they create will become more complex as the content (the subject matter they are writing about) becomes more specialised.

Reading and writing together Click heading to expand

Reading and writing together

Reading and writing are strongly reciprocal, not only in how they develop (see pages 123–124 in Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8) but also in how they are used. Many curriculum tasks will require students to use their reading and writing together to a greater or lesser extent.

In particular, there is a strong relationship between the way students develop their vocabulary in their reading and in their writing. “Knowing” a word or a phrase involves a complex network of connections (including collocations, connotations, and denotations), images, and understandings. Initially, students’ vocabulary knowledge is gained from their exposure to and use of oral language. They hear and learn the meanings of large numbers of words, storing them in memory and recalling their meanings when they hear them again. Some experts, cited on page 39 of The English Language Learning Progressions: Introduction (Ministry of Education, 2008a) have estimated that native speakers of English at primary school learn at least three or four thousand new words each year.

  • 1. The information in this section is adapted from Effective Literacy Practice in Years 1 to 4, page 24; Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8, page 25; and Snow et al., 2005, page 17.

  • 2. Refer to Paris, 2005.

  • 3. Refer to “A note on fluency in written language”, on page 24 of Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8, for more information about the concept of fluency.

  • 4. Refer to http://soundsandwords.tki.org.nz/ for further information about teaching sounds and words.

  • 5. Croft, C. with Mapa, L. (1998). See also NZCER (2005).


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