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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Competencies that underpin children's transition into early literacy

Ian Hay
Ruth Fielding-Barnsley
Professor Ian Hay is Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Tasmania. Dr Ruth Fielding-Barnsley is a Senior Lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology in the area of Special Needs education

The following article summarises the authors' paper of the same title appearing in the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, June 2009.

The quality of children's transition into literacy is a major predictor of their later academic achievement. Evidence indicates that children with delayed language development cannot quickly or efficiently process all the linguistic and non-verbal information needed to interact appropriately with teachers, peers and others (Barrett & Hammond, 2008; Catts & Kamhi, 2005). As a result they have more difficulty than other children in settling into school and classroom routines, in attending to tasks, and in developing school attachment. They are also less likely to interact positively with peers, especially in terms of advanced play and problem-solving communication. These social difficulties limit opportunities for dialogue, creating a further hindrance to language development.

A low socioeconomic status (SES) background has been identified as a significant risk factor in terms of children's development of language and social proficiency (Boetsch, Green & Pennington, 1996; Snow & Powell, 2008). However, there is also a growing belief that appropriate early language and learning experiences can act as a protective factor that promotes the cognitive and social development of young children (Cashmore, 2001; Elias, Hay, Homel & Frieberg, 2006; Hawkins & Catalono, 1992; Paul, 2007).

There are a number of interacting influences on children's transition into literacy. Evidence identifies children's oral language competencies as a key factor among these influences, which also include children's grasp of the concept of print, their expressive vocabulary, their sentence and story recall skills, and their receptive and expressive language, phonological awareness and letter-naming skills. Two studies have recently explored the nature of the competencies that underpin young children's transition into early literacy. The following article, a summary of a paper in the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, reports on the studies, and examines the relationships between children's language development, their alphabetical knowledge as an indicator of initial reading, their in-class behaviour, and their SES.

The studies

The first of the two studies examined the expressive and receptive language skills and the classroom behaviour of 157 children attending four preschools in low-SES communities in Queensland. At the end of their final year of kindergarten, the students were assessed using three instruments. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test PPVT-3 (Dunn & Dunn, 1997) was used to identify children's receptive vocabulary levels, and the Hundred Picture Naming Test (Fisher & Glenister, 1992) to identify their expressive vocabulary levels. The third instrument, the Rowe and Rowe Behavioural Rating Inventory (1997), involved teacher ratings of students' classroom behaviour, inattention and restlessness, and was selected to examine possible correlations between language difficulties and antisocial behaviour suggested by Beitchman et al (2001).

The second study, an extension of the first, involved 457 Year 1 students (mean age 5 years 3 months) from a cross-section of SES categories. Students' expressive and receptive vocabulary were assessed using the vocabulary measures used in the first study, but students' classroom behaviour was assessed using the SWAN Rating Scale for Attention (Swanson et al, 2005), a teacher reporting questionnaire that provided a more detailed measure of students' conduct.


Three findings from the data stand out. The first was that students' expressive and receptive language scores and their alphabetical knowledge were closely linked, and that children's language skills were also significantly linked to attentiveness, organisation and the ability to remember daily tasks. The second was that students in low-SES community schools achieved lower alphabetical and expressive and receptive language scores than those in middle- and high-SES schools. Finally, the data indicated that a considerable number of students, approximately 15%, were entering Year 1 with some deficit in language skills. Once again, students in low-SES schools were the most likely to experience these language deficits, with one in four found to be below recommended developmental benchmarks for expressive language. In contrast, only one in twelve students in middle-SES schools, and no students in high-SES schools, demonstrated expressive language deficits. Similarly, one-third of low-SES children achieved receptive language scores below benchmark levels, as did one in five students in middle-SES schools, while no high-SES children entered primary school with receptive language deficits.


The results of this study confirm a high correlation between children's early alphabetical knowledge, in-class behaviour and expressive and receptive language, suggesting what Morrow and Tracey (2007) call a reciprocal relationship between children's spoken and written language. The study therefore highlights young children's need for opportunities to develop the language skills that will be drawn on in the classroom.

The findings provide further evidence that early literacy difficulties are more prevalent among children in low-SES communities, which calls for measures to address this discrepancy. It should be added, however, that not all children from low-SES communities have these difficulties; neither are children from higher SES communities immune from language or reading acquisition problems. Rather, the diversity of early literacy profiles across and within different schools points to a need for a variety of teacher-led interventions and programs.

In addition to factors such as enhancing vocabulary, alphabetical, syntactic and semantic knowledge, such programs need to ensure that all young children can understand their teachers' language of instruction, are able to follow classroom directions, and interact well with teachers and peers.

Accommodating learners with language deficits may require teachers to modify existing school literacy programs, or engage specialists such as speech language pathologists. Children with low expressive and receptive language skills require more exposure to language: they need more occasions to practice using language in conversation and greater engagement with texts (Hay et al., 2007). In addition, as children with low language achievement tend to have deficits in organisation and attention, increased teacher cueing and prompting, and shorter but more frequent instructional periods may be needed (Moats, 2000; Hay & Fielding-Barnsley, 2006).

With regard to these students, teachers may also need to take even greater care to keep their language simple and clear. At the same time they must continue to ensure that children have opportunities to extend and advance their language development through oral language experiences that include gestural as well as verbal expression, develop vocabulary and build background knowledge, and involve listening to others talk in order to improve oral comprehension. Struggling learners may also need greater emphasis on early oral language, alphabetical and phonological awareness activities, which may include chanting rhymes and poems, singing songs and clapping sounds heard in words.

Schools could also work directly with parents in low-SES communities to encourage them to engage their children in the types of oral language interactions that will be found in the classroom. These approaches may involve modelling appropriate dialogues and conversations, and could be practised using a supportive storybook reading environment, where parents discuss with their child the content and context of a story. This sort of interaction can help improve children's vocabulary knowledge, syntactic and semantic knowledge, their knowledge of the conventions associated with reading text, and the social skills involved in turn-taking. In addition, such activities will help children connect reading with positive social interactions and attention while encouraging parents' involvement in their child's reading.

Schools should provide parents with information about their child's potential achievement, as well as about community and school services and personnel that may assist their child's learning. These may include support teachers, guidance officers, speech and language pathologists, and school and community counselling services. Schools should also encourage teachers and parents to select books and texts that can develop children's alphabet knowledge, phonemic awareness and vocabulary. Alphabet books, for example, help children to link phoneme awareness with alphabet knowledge. The process of writing alphabet letters, practising inventive spelling, and copying and saying words can enhance children's basic decoding and phonemic awareness skills.

There are no easy methods to advance the early literacy experiences of children, particularly those from low socioeconomic communities, but a better understanding of the language and learning profiles of children is a positive initial step. Appropriate interventions can enhance children's language development, furthering their reading and social development, and protecting and nurturing their self-esteem and intrinsic motivation.


Barrett, E., & Hammond, L. (2008). Early childhood education of children with specific language impairments. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 13, 145–160.

Beitchman, J.H., Wilson, B., Johnson, C.J., Atkinson, L., Young, A., Adlaf, E., et al. (2001). Fourteen-year follow-up of speech/language-impairment and control children: psychiatric outcomes. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40, 75–82.

Boetsch, E.A., Green, P.A., & Pennington, B.F. (1996). Psychosocial correlates of dyslexia across the life span. Developmental and Psychopathology, 8, 539–562.

Cashmore, J. (2001). Family, early development and life course: common risk and protective factors in pathways to prevention. In R. Eckersley, J. Dixon & B. Douglas (Eds.), The Social Origins of Health and Well-being (pp. 216–224). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Catts, H.W., & Kamhi, A.G. (2005). The Connection Between Language and Reading Disabilities. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dunn, L.M., & Dunn, L. (1981). Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Version 3. Circles Pines, MI: American Guidance Services.

Elias, G., Hay, I., Homel, R., & Freiberg, K., (2006). Enhancing parent-child book reading in a disadvantaged community. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 31.

Fisher, J., & Glenister, J.M. (1992). The Hundred Pictures Naming Test. Hawthorn, Vic: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Hawkins, D., & Catalono, R. (1992). Communities that Care. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hay, I., & Fielding-Barnsley, R. (2006). Enhancing the early literacy development of children at risk for reading difficulties. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 3, 117–124.  

Hay, I., Elias, G., Fielding-Barnsley, R., Homel, R., & Frieberg, K. (2007). Language delays, reading delays and learning difficulties: Interactive elements requiring multidimensional programming, Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40, 400–409.

Moats, M.L. (2000). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Baltimore: Brookes.

Morrow, L.M., & Tracey, D.H. (2007). Best practices in early literacy development in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade. In L. B., Gambrell, L.M. Morrow, & M. Pressley (Eds.), Best Practices in Literacy Education (3rd ed.) (pp. 57–82). New York: Guilford Press.

Paul, R. (2007). Language disorders: From infancy through adolescence (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MI: Mosby.

Rowe, K.J., & Rowe, K.S. (1997). The RBRI User’s Manual: Teacher- and Parent-Administered Inventories for the Assessment of Child Externalizing Behaviours, for Use in Clinical, Educational and Epidemiological Research. Melbourne: Centre for Applied Educational Research, University of Melbourne and Department of Paediatrics.

Snow, P.C., & Powell, M.B. (2008). Oral language competence, social skills and high-risk boys: What are juvenile offenders trying to tell us? Children and Society, 22, 16–28.

Swanson, J., Schuck, S., Mann, M., Carlson, C., Hartman, K., Sergeant, J., et al. (2005). Categorical and dimensional definitions and evaluations of symptoms of ADHD: The SNAP and the SWAN Ratings Scales. Retrieved May 2, 2006, from www.adhd.net/SNAP_SWAN.pdf.


Subject Headings

Primary education
English language teaching
Early childhood education
Transitions in schooling