4.3: Learning about literacy

Time allocation

45 minutes


  • Read the section below on literacy. 
  • Watch the video and answer the questions.
  • Read through the examples – have you tried any in your classroom?

The intended outcomes of this activity are for you to:

Learn that
3.9 To access the curriculum, early literacy provides fundamental knowledge; reading comprises two elements: word reading and language comprehension; systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective approach for teaching pupils to decode.
3.10 Every teacher can improve pupils’ literacy, including by explicitly teaching reading, writing and oral language skills specific to individual disciplines.
Learn how to
Develop pupils’ literacy, by:
3m. Demonstrating a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics, particularly if teaching early reading and spelling.
3n. Supporting younger pupils to become fluent readers and to write fluently and legibly.

Learning to read and write is an essential skill for modern life, yet a surprising fraction of adults in OECD countries have not yet mastered the basics… literacy problems are particularly serious in England, where younger adults perform no better than older ones… Poor literacy also drives low social mobility, since children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to start school with lower literacy skills.

How can this situation be improved? There is a solid evidence base that teachers and teaching methods can matter both for literacy… and for learning outcomes more generally.

Taken from Machin, McNally, & Viarengo, 2018.

Language provides the foundation of thinking and learning. Literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way that lets us communicate effectively and make sense of the world (National Literacy Trust, 2020). Without good literacy skills, a pupil will struggle to access the curriculum and hence be unable to learn effectively. This might show itself as:

  • Difficulty following instructions 
  • Poor comprehension when reading subject texts
  • Lack of fluency when reading aloud
  • Incoherent written or spoken explanations.

The long-term effects of weak literacy will impact a pupil far beyond school. At the everyday level, they will struggle with form filling, reading and understanding signs. The impact on their life chances can be profound, from limiting their career options and reducing their lifetime earning potential, through to poor health and lower life expectancy (Gilbert et al., 2018). 

The task of improving pupils’ literacy skills starts from the very beginning of education and continues all through secondary school. Even though “learning to read” is perceived as a task for teachers in early primary, the reality is that every teacher, across all subjects and all phases, can and should think carefully how they can improve pupils’ literacy. For example, all primary teachers will need to reinforce the fundamental knowledge of word reading (decoding) and language comprehension. For most secondary teachers, improving pupils’ literacy will mainly involve thinking about how you can improve reading, writing and speaking skills in relation to your subject discipline.

Consequently, it is important that all teachers have a clear understanding of the most effective ways to improve literacy. In terms of reading, the most effective approach is systematic synthetic phonics.

An introduction to phonics

Phonics is a way of teaching children how to read and write. It helps children hear, identify and use different sounds that distinguish one word from another in the English language. 

Written language can be compared to a code, so knowing the sounds of individual letters and how these letters sound when they’re combined will help children decode words as they read. 

Understanding phonics will also help children know which letters to use when they are writing words. 

The most widely used approach associated with the teaching of reading in which phonemes (sounds) associated with particular graphemes (letters) are pronounced in isolation and blended together (synthesised). For example, children are taught to take a single-syllable word such as cat apart to its three letters, pronounce a phoneme for each letter in turn /k/, /æ/, /t/ and blend the phonemes together to form a word.

Taken from, The National Literacy Trust

*Therefore, systematic synthetic phonics is an explicit, organised and sequenced approach, as opposed to phonics used incidentally or on a “when-needed” basis (EEF, 2018).


The final version of this video will be available from spring 2021, as the publication of this programme was fast-tracked in response to disruptions to this year’s initial teacher training.


“My turn, your turn”: synthetic phonics

Video Type

Talking head and classroom practice

Short Description

A teacher explaining what systematic synthetic phonics is and why it is effective in teaching pupils to decode

What should you focus on in this video?

  • How does the teacher break words down?
  • What do pupils need to do?
  • How might this be used with older children?

Video script

[Pupils on the mat with their classroom teacher who has a whiteboard with a picture of a sheep and the word spelled out]

Teacher: OK, we’re going to sound out this word, sh…eee…p…sheep. Now you say it.

Pupils: sh…eee…p…sheep.

[Cut to talking head of teacher]

Teacher: I use synthetic phonics to teach my pupils how to decode words it basically means helping them learn how to blend sounds. With synthetic phonics, we are teaching spelling too. We teach spelling as the reverse of reading. For reading, children see the word first and then say the sounds. For spelling, children hear the word first and then say the sounds. So, to spell, “dog”, children are not asked to look at the letters and remember them. They listen to the word, repeat it and say the sounds, d…o…g…dog. Then they write the letters for the sounds. Repeat the sounds slowly, as you write the letters on the board, d…o…g. Then point to the letters, say the sounds and blend them, to read the word and check all the sounds, d…o…g…dog. 

[Cut back to video of classroom practice and the teacher teaching the word “goat” using this method]



Systematic synthetic phonics

Video type

Talking head

Short description

Literacy expert explaining systematic synthetic phonics programmes

What should you focus on in this video?

  • What is a systematic synthetic phonics programme?

Video transcript

Literacy expert:

To teach synthetic phonics, schools must follow a systematic programme. There are several different programmes that can be chosen from. All systematic synthetic phonics programmes begin with letters that make lots of words. Here’s how one programme starts:

[Cut to screen]

s a t i p n

There are many different words that can be made from these letters.

[Cut to screen with these words]

at sat tat it its sit sits pit pat pits pats sip

sips sap saps pap pip pips tap taps tip tips spat

spit spits an tan pan in sin tin pin nit nits

nap naps nip nips nan ant ants pant pants tint

tints stint snap snaps snip snips spin span satin

Doing it in this systematic way gives children the building blocks they need to learn how to decode words.

Literacy really is the responsibility of every teacher. The evidence suggests that pupils benefit from a balanced approach to literacy that includes a range of approaches (EEF, 2018) and within this every teacher should make efforts to explicitly teach reading, writing and oral language skills, whatever their phase or subject. The table below provides some examples of approaches you could try in your classroom. You should familiarise yourself with these approaches in advance of your first training session for this Block. After the training session, you should choose one or more of these approaches to trial in your classroom. 

Reading and comprehension

  • 3n Supporting younger pupils to become fluent readers and to write fluently and legibly.
  • 3p Modelling reading comprehension by asking questions, making predictions, and summarising when reading.
  • 3q Promoting reading for pleasure (e.g. by using a range of whole class reading approaches and regularly reading high-quality texts to children).


What is the approach?

How do I make it work effectively?

Reciprocal Reading
  • This is the explicit practice of four core skills used for comprehension (predict, clarify, question, summarise).
  • As they read, students are invited to stop and practise these reading roles.
  • This can be built into any text and can be practised in whole class settings or ideally in small groups.


  • Predictor: what do you predict will happen next? 
  • Summariser: what has happened so far?
  • Clarifier: what does this word mean?
  • Questioner: what questions do you have?
  • Explain clearly to pupils, modelling it first yourself.
  • Give students feedback on their predictions, summaries, clarifications and questions.
  • Highlight the process.
  • Prepare some sentence stems for each.
  • Choose a text which is suitable for the level.
  • Use this approach regularly so pupils build up their skills.
Story Mapping
  • This can be used for any “story”, fiction or nonfiction, e.g. the “story” of the water cycle, or Jekyll and Hyde.
  • Teacher considers the text and key elements they want to draw attention to (e.g. characters, plot, setting, themes).
  • Teacher introduces the text and provides each pupil with a blank story map.
  • As they read, pupils complete the sections on their story map teacher can prompt with questions (e.g. what happened first?).
  • The class might review their story maps together to share ideas and make sure everyone has completed theirs with the key information.
  • Complete a whole-class story map to model the approach.
  • Pupils create their own story maps for homework.
  • Use part-complete story maps as a scaffold for some pupils.
  • Prompt pupils with lots of questions, “What did you notice?”, “Where could this go on our story map?”


  • 3n Supporting younger pupils to become fluent readers and to write fluently and legibly. Teaching different forms of writing by modelling planning, drafting and editing.


What is the approach?

How do I make it work effectively ?

Paired Writing
  • App
  • Pair students up in different ways, e.g. by ability.
  • Model the planning stage. 
  • The writing task builds on previous knowledge, e.g. from last lesson.
Shared Writing
  • Teacher acts as the scribe, writing or typing on the board or flipchart as the pupils give ideas.
  • Class works together to make suggestions for what to write and co-creates a model.
  • Teacher uses questioning throughout to encourage involvement, challenge ideas and ask students to explain why they are suggesting something (process).
  • Every pupil has four talk cards. Ask everyone to “spend” their cards by making four contributions to the task.
  • Pupils may want to write along, or share the co-written model after, or leave it visible as they write their own version.
  • Ask a pupil to tally contributions from the class under “ideas” and “edits”.

Oral language skills

  • 3r Modelling and requiring high-quality oral language, recognising that spoken language underpins the development of reading and writing (e.g. requiring pupils to respond to questions in full sentences, making use of relevant technical vocabulary).


What is the approach?

How do I make it work effectively?

Sentence stems to support discussion
  • Decide in advance of the lesson what you want pupils to talk about and what key language you would like them to use.
  • Prepare some sentence stems for this.
  • During the lesson, invite pupils to discuss an idea or concept using the sentence stems.

For example:

  • General: I agree with…; However…; Based on… we can conclude… 
  • Content specific: I think the character is feeling… because…; The data shows a relationship between… and…
  • Provide sentence stems for everybody or use as a scaffold to support some pupils.
  • Model the use of sentence stems. 
  • Prepare a bank of common sentence stems for display.
  • Sentence stems help pupils speak in full sentences.
  • Use this approach regularly so pupils’ talk improves over time.
Think, pair, share
  • Teacher poses a question to the class.
  • Pupils have a few minutes to think about their response (maybe jotting down some notes).
  • Teacher asks pupils to share their initial ideas with a pair and practise their answer.
  • Teacher asks a few pupils to share with the whole class.
  • Use sentence stems to help pupils structure their answers.
  • Giving practice time helps pupils to feel more confident.

Language and vocabulary

  • 3o Teaching unfamiliar vocabulary explicitly and planning for pupils to be repeatedly exposed to high-utility and high-frequency vocabulary in what is taught.


What is the approach?

How do I make it work effectively?

Explicit teaching (Robust vocabulary instruction)
  • Teacher identifies tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary in their subject (see below).
  • Teacher introduces the new word and provides a student friendly definition (e.g. simple language such as “Abolish means to get rid of something or end it.”).
  • Teacher uses the word in context (e.g. “The United States abolished slavery in 1865.”).
  • Teacher provides opportunities for multiple exposures (e.g. by sharing a variety of examples: My goal is to abolish world poverty. Should we have a debate on whether to abolish taxes?).
  • Teacher provides opportunity for repeated practice of newly learned vocabulary in talk, writing and reading (e.g. pupils use the new vocabulary in their next task).
  • Identify important vocabulary to teach explicitly, i.e that which pupils will encounter often or which are foundational to the subject.
  • Always provide lots of opportunities for pupils to use the new vocabulary, e.g. in sentence stems. Pupils have only “learned” a new word when they can recognise it orally, when written, and can write it and use it verbally themselves.
  • Revisit the new vocabulary in spaced intervals and interleave where possible.
Knowledge organisers
  • Teacher creates an empty knowledge organiser for pupils to use over a topic.
  • Each time the pupils encounter a new or important word, they add it to their knowledge organiser.
  • Sections might include: the word, a definition, examples of it being used, synonyms.
  • Create one of these for yourself to map all of the vocabulary pupils need to learn in the topic. 
  • Co-create a vocabulary knowledge organiser with the class.

Why is teaching vocabulary important and what is tiered vocabulary?

A wide and varied vocabulary is a key aspect of literacy. Knowing what words mean ensures that pupils can comprehend meaning – the more words they know, the more they will understand about a topic or be able to infer from a text. A robust vocabulary supports all aspects of communication: listening, speaking, reading and writing. There are some words which pupils will learn through hearing them repeated often (such as “no” and “cat”) and others which will need to be explicitly taught through systematic vocabulary instruction. We call these tier 2 and tier 3 words.

  • Tier 1: Words of everyday speech, familiar to most children. 
  • Tier 2: High-utility words likely to appear frequently in a wide variety of contexts — instruction in these words can add significantly to a pupil’s language ability.
  • Tier 3: Low-frequency words, domain specific, most likely learned in a subject context. 


Examples of tier 1 words are: book, hill, talk, cat, yellow. 

Examples of tier 2 words are: evaluate, report, beneficial, hilarious, pollution, impression. 

Examples of tier 3 words are: ion, metamorphic, tectonic, omniscient, continent. 

The EEF report for secondary school teachers recommends that they should prioritise teaching tier 2 and 3 vocabulary, which students are unlikely to encounter in everyday speech.  

  • Choose which words you will explicitly teach in your subject or phase.
  • Remember that these are most likely to be tier 2 and tier 3 words because they are more complex or subject specific and therefore less likely to be acquired through oral language. 
  • You should select these words when planning a lesson or sequence of lessons so that you have time to plan how you will teach them.

To do this you can use the robust vocabulary instruction in the table above.


The final version of this video will be available from spring 2021, as the publication of this programme was fast-tracked in response to disruptions to this year’s initial teacher training.

In this video, the teacher is using the reciprocal reading technique from the table of approaches above. Some pupils may be expert decoders and therefore able to read fluently, but unable to comprehend the meaning of the text. This approach is helpful because it allows pupils to articulate their ideas aloud to a group, exposing where there is confusion or lack of comprehension. It makes explicit the metacognitive strategies that readers use for reading comprehension: predicting, summarising, questioning and clarifying.

Watch this video of a teacher running a reciprocal reading group and consider the following questions:

  • How do the different roles of predict, clarify, summarise and question help the pupils with their reading comprehension?
  • How does the teacher manage the conversation and support reading comprehension?
  • How might this technique work in your subject?

Video script

A Year 3 reading group, four students and one adult reading The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

Teacher: “Before we start reading this book, Joe would you like to predict what the text is about? Remember to explain why you are making your prediction.”

Joe: “I predict this is going to be a story about a girl who has a pet tiger and they are best friends and have a birthday party for the tiger because the picture on the front shows the girl sitting with the tiger and there is a cake on the table.”

Teacher: “Oh interesting… OK, well let’s find out… Anna, can you begin reading please? As Anna reads, don’t forget to underline words or phrases that you might want to clarify.”

Anna: reads aloud as other pupils follow in their own text.

Teacher: “Thank you, Anna. Let’s stop there and check some things. Firstly, are there any words we need to clarify?”

Joe: “What does ‘grocer’ mean?”

Anna: “That’s the question I was going to ask what is a grocer? And who is a grocer boy?”

Teacher: “Good question – Mohammed, can you clarify the word grocer for us please?”

Mohammed: “I will try sounding the word out loud – ‘grocer’. Hmmm. That hasn’t really helped. Next, I’ll read the sentences and think about what would make sense: ‘And it can’t be the boy from the grocer because this isn’t the day he comes.’ Oh, maybe the grocer is a place? Because it says, ‘from the grocer’. I think I’ll ask a friend does anyone else know what a grocer is?”

No one is sure.

Teacher: “Well done Mohammed, a grocer is a place – a grocer is short for greengrocer. Nowadays you might get your vegetables from the supermarket but there are also shops dedicated to just vegetables called greengrocers. In fact, there is one on the main street outside – do you know it?”

Pupils: “Yes!”

Teacher: “A grocer-boy is like the shop-boy, the boy who works at the greengrocers. Grocer-boys used to deliver the vegetables to people’s houses so they didn’t have to go to the shops. OK, Harry, can you summarise what has happened so far?”

Harry: “First there was a little girl called Sophie and then the doorbell rang and it was the grocer and the milkman and the Daddy.”

Teacher: “Are you sure? Mohammed, can you clarify what happened when the doorbell rang?”

Mohammed: “The mummy didn’t know who it was because she asked if it was the milkman or the grocer or daddy, so we don’t know who was at the door.”

Teacher: “That’s right – do you see, Harry? The Mummy says ‘I wonder who that can be?’ Which means she doesn’t know who is at the door yet.”

Teacher: “Anna do you have any other questions for us before we read on?”

Anna: “Who do you think is at the door?”

Teacher: “Let’s ask Joe, our predictor. Joe, who do you think is at the door?”

Joe: “I think that maybe it is the grocer! Or maybe the Daddy lost his key. Or it could be the tiger!”

Teacher: “Well, let’s read on and find out…”


Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Preparing for Literacy Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from:

Gilbert, L., Teravainen, A., Clark, C., and Shaw, S. (2018) Literacy & Life Expectancy: An evidence review exploring the link between life expectancy in England through health and economic factors.  National Literacy Trust from

Machin, S., McNally, S., & Viarengo, M. (2018) Changing how literacy is taught: Evidence on synthetic phonics. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 10(2), 217–241.

Scott, C. E., McTigue, E. M., Miller, D. M., & Washburn, E. K. (2018) The what, when, and how of preservice teachers and literacy across the disciplines: A systematic literature review of nearly 50 years of research. Teaching and Teacher Education, 73, 1–13.

*Shanahan, T. (2005) The National Reading Panel Report: Practical Advice for Teachers. Accessible from: