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Growth in literacy and numeracy in the early years

Growth in literacy and numeracy in the early years

Research 7 minute read

Children’s literacy and numeracy skills in the year prior to school and the first year at school reveal wide variation. Marion Meiers and Kate Reid explain.

Growth in literacy and numeracy in the early years

Research in Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia is following the literacy and numeracy development of 200 students from the year prior to school through Foundation, Year 1 and Year 2. A particular focus is on the transition to school, which is one of the major transitions in schooling, along with moving from the early years to middle primary, and upper primary to secondary.

The Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study: Transitions from Preschool to School (LLANS: TPS) gathers information about what children know and can do in one-to-one interviews with an ACER researcher or classroom teacher in their classroom, based on literacy activities related to a picture story book and numeracy activities in game-like contexts with hands-on materials.

The study builds on ACER’s earlier work on the Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study (LLANS), which followed a national sample of 1000 children from school entry to Year 6 from 1999 to 2005. This research informed the current study.

Children’s experiences in the early years establish a sound foundation for learning throughout primary schooling and beyond. Children begin formal schooling with wide variation in their literacy and numeracy knowledge and skills. It is important to focus on the understanding and experiences of children in the year prior to school. This helps us to understand the distribution of achievement among children prior to school and at school entry, and to highlight the factors involved in successful transition from the year prior to school through to the first years of school.


Monitoring the development of children’s literacy learning in the early years of school involves finding appropriate strategies for identifying the literacy knowledge and skills of young learners, and ways of comparing individual achievement with general patterns of development.

Data collected addresses children’s knowledge and skills in alphabetic knowledge, concepts about print, comprehension of stories read aloud, reading fluency and writing. Interviews were conducted in participating schools in the second half of the year before school and in the second term of the Foundation year at school. The same students have been interviewed in second term in Year 1.

An ACER researcher or classroom teacher engaged each child in everyday literacy activities such as listening to a picture story book aloud and discussing it with the child, asking prompting questions. Parent surveys provided information about children’s literacy activities at home and in everyday contexts.

Children in both the year prior to school and the first year of school demonstrated a wide distribution of literacy achievement. In the year before school, a small number of children wrote words or groups of words, and more (63 per cent) were able to write their own name. Many were familiar with the genre of picture story books. There was a varying capacity to interpret events, characters’ motives and actions, and to make inferences about reasons for key events. A small number could read some words from the picture story book.

In the year before school, 49 per cent of children knew where to start reading the story. This rose to 77 per cent among students at the start of Foundation. More than one third (38 per cent) of preschoolers could say a word that rhymed with tall and wall.


Young children have a wide range of numeracy skills. There is significant growth in informal numeracy skills in the years prior to school. Much can be done in the years prior to school to encourage the development of children’s numeracy both at home and in early learning centres. LLANS: TPS enhances the understanding of the range of numeracy skills that children are developing prior to school. The numeracy activities used in the interviews in the year prior to school incorporated hands-on materials such as colourful picture cards, counters, straws and toy animals.

Among the children interviewed in the year prior to school, 91 per cent could show their age on their fingers, whereas only 10 per cent could write a legible number 14. Most children could recognise numbers 1 to 9, count a group of five, and count accurately from one to 10. Numbers larger than 10 were more difficult, yet more than half of the children interviewed counted accurately from one to 20, counted 14 objects, and put 11 objects in a box.

Approximately one third of children answered simple addition (for instance 2 + 3) and subtraction problems (for instance 7 – 5) in story contexts.

Most children (81 per cent) could identify the heaviest of three identical containers, whereas only 31 per cent could work out how many small squares were needed to cover a large square.

By the start of Foundation, almost all children (90 per cent) could count accurately from one to 20 and recognise the numbers 1 to 10. Children began to work more confidently with larger numbers, with more than half naming the numbers 15, 29 and 74.

Building on the research

ACER’s work on the original LLANS project has been developed and adapted for use in other contexts. The Early Start program in Queensland and the Best Start school-entry assessment in New South Wales draw on ACER’s research-based model of one-to-one interviews based around activities using picture story books and hands-on tasks to assess the development of literacy and numeracy skills in the early years.

What next?

These results have implications for planning teaching programs in the first year of school. The information generated from the one-to-one interviews provides valuable insights into what children know and can do, and raises the important question ‘What next?’. Individually and in teams, teachers can plan the next steps for their students’ learning – steps that will enable all students to continue to make progress in their learning.

There are also implications for the kinds of experiences that are available for children in the years prior to school. Easy access to books, lots of time when parents read aloud to their children, and lots of talk in the home context in the years prior to school are activities which provide a strong foundation for future learning. Parents and early childhood educators can encourage young children’s informal mathematical knowledge through activities such as counting, comparing and classifying, and by finding opportunities to link everyday experiences with mathematics.

The children in this study will be interviewed by their teachers again in 2015, when they will be in Year 2. The data from the four linked assessments, from preschool through to Year 2 will be analysed, and a report on the findings made available late in 2015. The report will identify key implications of the study for planning teaching to help all students make progress in their learning in the important early years of school.

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