Early literacy approaches

Early literacy approaches aim to improve young children’s skills, knowledge or understanding related to reading or writing. Common approaches include: storytelling and group reading, activities that aim to develop letter knowledge, knowledge of sounds and early phonics, or introductions to different kinds of writing. Early literacy strategies may have components in common with Communication and language approaches and may also involve Parental engagement.

How effective is it?

Early literacy approaches have been consistently found to have a positive effect on early learning outcomes. Early literacy approaches evaluated to date led to an average impact of four additional months’ progress, with the most effective approaches improving learning by as much as six months.

All children appear to benefit from early literacy approaches, but there is some evidence that certain strategies, particularly those involving targeted small group interaction, may have particularly positive effects on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, early literacy approaches should not be seen as a panacea. Though long-term positive effects have been detected in some studies, for a majority of strategies these benefits appear to fade over time, suggesting that a single intervention is unlikely to be enough to close the gap.

There is evidence that a combination of early literacy approaches is likely to be more effective than any single approach. For example, some studies suggest that it is possible to develop certain aspects of literacy, such as knowledge of the alphabet or letter names and sounds, without improving all aspects of early literacy. It is likely to be beneficial to put a range of activities in place, and to use these in combination with regular assessments of early literacy skills, knowledge and understanding.

Studies indicate that involving parents in developing early literacy strategies can be beneficial, and ensuring that training and professional development is provided for staff when new approaches are introduced is likely to increase impact.

How secure is the evidence?

There is extensive evidence related to the impact of early literacy approaches, including a number of meta-analyses and high quality individual studies. One challenge with the evidence base is that early literacy approaches are often only one part of multi-component interventions or curricula, which can make it hard to attribute changes to the early literacy approach, or to identify which aspects of that approach are most important. 

In addition, in common with a number of areas of early years education, the most robust evidence collected to date has been collected in the USA. Testing some of the most promising early literacy approaches from overseas in the UK would be valuable.

For full references and effect sizes, please click here.

What are the costs?

Overall, the costs of early literacy approaches are estimated as very low. Research indicates that knowledge of children’s development and current understanding are an important precursor to putting an early literacy strategy in place, and using professional development to support the introduction of new early literacy interventions is associated with increased learning. As a result, some assessment and professional development costs are included in this estimate. Other resources such as books and other print materials are also likely to be necessary.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. How will you ensure that your early literacy strategy is well-balanced, and combines approaches that will support the development of skills, knowledge and understanding?

  2. Do you use assessments to identify children’s current level of development, and monitor learning?

  3. When you introduce new early literacy approaches, do staff receive sufficient training and professional development?

  4. How do you use targeted small group support to help areas of challenge for disadvantaged children?