This report presents the findings of ERO’s review of literacy teaching and learning in early childhood services. It includes information about how services value and promote literacy, what literacy teaching and learning is occurring in early childhood services, and how services know if literacy practices and outcomes for children have improved. The intent of the evaluation is to generate insights and understanding of literacy teaching and learning in early childhood education. This can then be used for improving and refining literacy programmes in early childhood services, and across the education sector as a whole (Chelimsky & Shadish, 1997; Patton, 1997).

Good literacy practices support strong learning foundations

When children can understand, enjoy, engage with, and use oral, visual and written language and symbols they are better able to express their individual identity and become active participants in a literate society (Hamer & Adams, 2003: p.13). Literacy learning supports children’s language development and their later achievement in other learning areas such as mathematics, science and social sciences. A 2008 Ministry-funded literature review identified that good quality literacy teaching practices in early childhood services contributed to later literacy success (Mitchell et al, 2008). Other New Zealand longitudinal research has identified that differences at school entry in ‘literate cultural capital’ may predict future reading achievement (Tunmer, Chapman & Prochnow, 2006).

Recent New Zealand research suggests that some children may be disadvantaged when they go to school, when their early literacy experience is not closely matched to the pedagogy and practice of school (McLachlan, 2006: p.33). Emergent or early literacy is very much a social practice that develops in social contexts rather than through formal instruction. Early childhood educators therefore need to consider and incorporate home and community literacy practices into their teaching and learning programme. When home literacy practices greatly differ from primary school literacy practices, children can experience difficulties (Martello, 2007). Effective literacy practices in early childhood services can help build a bridge between early literacy practices in the home and literacy practices at school.

Literacy in the early childhood curriculum

New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, promotes a socio-cultural perspective, which informs literacy practices in early childhood services.

While Te Whāriki does not specifically advise educators how to promote or teach early literacy, Strand 4, Communication-Mana Reo, does state that the languages and symbols of children’s own and other cultures are promoted and protected in an environment where children:

  • develop non-verbal communication skills for a range of purposes
  • develop verbal communication skills for a range of purposes
  • experience the stories and symbols (pictures, numbers and words) of their own and other cultures
  • discover and develop different ways to be creative and expressive (Ministry of Education, 1996: p.16).

In a broader sense, Te Whāriki promotes literacy learning through its principles, which seek to empower children to become literate through activities that are meaningful and engaging. It encourages a holistic view of literacy where infants, toddlers and young children engage with literacy in ways that reflect their growing expertise, and that incorporates their home literacy practices.

Te Whāriki briefly outlines the skills, knowledge and experiences that children are likely to have when moving from an early childhood service to school. These include:

  • language skills for a range of purposes
  • experience with books
  • development of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar
  • awareness of concepts of print
  • enjoyment of writing
  • playing with, and using, words
  • opportunities to hear and use te reo Māori and other community languages (Ministry of Education, 2006: p.73).

Part C: The Strands of Te Whāriki, expands on how these are included in the teaching and learning programme, in particular, Goals 2 and 3 of the Communication-Mana Reo Strand.

The learning outcomes for Goal 2 of the Communication-Mana Reo Strand include children developing:

  • language skills in real, play and problem-solving contexts
  • language skills for increasingly complex purposes
  • a playful interest in sounds and words, rhythm, rhyme and alliteration
  • increasing knowledge and skills in syntax and meaning
  • an appreciation of te reo Māori
  • confidence that their first language is valued
  • the expectation that verbal communication is a source of delight, comfort and amusement, and is used to communicate ideas and information, and solve problems
  • the inclination and ability to listen and respond.

The learning outcomes for Goal 3 of the Communication-Mana Reo Strand include children developing:

  • an understanding that symbols can be read, and thoughts, ideas and experiences represented visually
  • familiarity with print and its uses
  • familiarity with stories and literature valued by their community
  • an expectation that words and books can delight, amuse, comfort, illuminate, inform and excite
  • experience with technology and resources used for reading and writing
  • their ability in creating stories and symbols.

In addition to these learning outcomes, three other strands of Te Whāriki also contribute to literacy teaching and learning. The Exploration/Mana Aotūroa Strand includes pretend, symbolic, and dramatic play, and using information; the Contribution/Mana Tangata Strand includes listening to and discussing others’ points of view, and empathy; and the Belonging/Mana Whenua Strand acknowledges the importance of home and community in children’s learning.

Kei Tua o te Pae (Books 16 and 17) (Ministry of Education, 2009b and 2009c) gives educators further guidance on developing and assessing literacy in the early childhood setting. Literacy is defined as a repertoire of oral, visual and written practices, including:

  • observing and listening in - for example, listening to stories, or making a shopping list
  • playing with symbol systems and technologies - for example, playing with letters and sounds, or making marks
  • using the symbol systems and technologies for a purpose - for example, concepts of print and letter-sound relationships, or retelling poems
  • critically questioning or transforming - for example, inventing oral, visual and written accounts, or questioning conventions (Ministry of Education, 2009b: pp17‑20; Ministry of Education, 2009c: pp5-6).

Kei Tua o te Pae places a strong emphasis on children establishing a sound oral foundation, arguing that this is essential to success in reading and writing (Ministry of Education, 2009b: p.2).

Literacy as a socio-cultural practice

A socio-cultural approach embeds literacy learning in the meaningful activities children are involved in and acknowledges that children come to an early childhood service with knowledge about literacy learnt in the home and elsewhere.

One socio-cultural perspective promotes six elements of literacy:

  1. Children learn about literacies and how to ‘do’ literacy through participating in a range of activities in their family and community.
  2. Literacy practices are carried out in culturally specific ways and contribute to children’s developing sense of identity.
  3. Children have different understandings about what counts as literacy and how literacy is ‘done’.
  4. Literacy practices are carried out in specific ways for particular purposes.
  5. The pattern of literacy learning differs between children, as they become relative experts in different literacy events.
  6. Literacy practices are valued differently in different social and educational contexts (Barrat-Pugh, 2000).

Another socio-cultural perspective suggests that children encounter a variety of literacies and literacy practices from the different communities of which they are a part (Jones Diaz, 2007). This includes multi-literacies such as linguistic, visual, auditory, gestural and spatial forms.

A socio-cultural model of literacy acknowledges not only the context of the home and family, and the early childhood service, but also that of community and society. The curriculum, government policy, and cultural expectations all influence literacy practices (Hamer & Adams, 2002; Hamer & Adams, 2003). Hamer & Adams, authors of The New Zealand Early Childhood Literacy Handbook (2003), place children and their literacy knowledge and experiences at the centre of literacy learning. This learning is influenced by:

  • families
  • the home literacy environment
  • services and their early literacy knowledge and practices
  • the transition to school and formal reading and writing
  • other contexts such as libraries, the arts, social events, marae and church.

A socio-cultural approach to literacy sees literacy as including not only reading and writing, but also listening, talking, viewing, drawing and critiquing. The approach is also seen as a way in which people construct and communicate meaning by traditional means, through technology, critical thinking, and popular culture (Jones Diaz, 2007).

Te Whāriki, promotes a socio-cultural and holistic view of literacy teaching and learning. It encourages educators to consider the place of literacy in the physical environment, routines and planning, the role of the educator capitalising on learning opportunities, and the links between home, community, and the early childhood service (Hamer & Adams, 2002).

What literacy practices support strong learning foundations for children?

Children begin early childhood education with a wide range of literacy skills. Educators therefore need to be knowledgeable about socio-cultural processes involved in listening, reading, speaking, writing, and viewing, as well as about the pathways children take in developing these literacy skills (Tayler, 2006).

New Zealand and Australian research evidence suggests that children’s early phonological awareness and familiarity with books links to their later reading and writing skills (Hamer & Adams, 2003; Early Childhood Literacy Project, 1999; Nicholson, 1999). If these literacy and other practices are poorly developed or skills are missing prior to schooling, then this is an indicator of later reading difficulties (McLachlan, 2006; Tayler, 2006). ERO was therefore interested in the literacy practices that early childhood educators encouraged and promoted to support children’s successful transition to primary school.

New Zealand and international research indicates that particular literacy practices may help children in early childhood services strengthen their literacy competency so they can make a successful transition to formal schooling. These practices can be found in the range of literacy activities children engage in throughout the day. Table 1 shows the literacy knowledge and abilities that are enhanced through appropriate and meaningful literacy teaching and learning.

Table 1: Literacy knowledge, abilities, and activities

Literacy knowledge and abilities

Literacy activities

  • Alphabet knowledge
  • Letter-sound knowledge
  • Concepts about print
  • Concepts about books
  • Phonological awareness
  • Vocabulary knowledge

- Unusual words

- Narrative competence

- Using decontextualised language

  • Discourse skills
  • Phonemic awareness
  • Emergent writing
  • Rich oral language experiences such as:


- Language play

- Informal phonemic awareness activities

- Storybook reading

- Sings songs/waiata and nursery rhymes

  • Extended conversations including taking turns talking
  • Scribble making, letters, numbers, letter-like forms to represents things

Sources: (Teale, 2003; Espinosa, 2008; McLachlan, 2007)

In particular, rich oral language experiences are important to early literacy development (Teale, 2003; Ministry of Education, 2009b:p. 2). The quality of interaction between and among educators and children fosters language learning. Furthermore, encouraging children to express their views encourages independent thought and expression. (Mitchell et al, 2008: 36).

Effective educators have a toolkit of knowledge and strategies that can help develop literacy skills in children. Research indicates that educators need strong and in-depth knowledge of children’s literacy development (Hamer & Adams, 2003) and, in particular, an awareness of the importance of oral language as a pre-cursor to reading development. This requires them to know about language structures and how language learning develops (Cunningham, Zibulsky & Callahan, 2009). Educators also need to have a range of strategies for promoting literacy, and understand what this means for their practice. This knowledge helps educators to identify when children need help to gain the skills to learn and achieve in the formal environment of school.