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Describing growth in early reading skills
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Describing growth in early reading skills

Research 8 minute read

A presentation at Research Conference 2021 will demonstrate how the identification of essential skills and concepts in the curriculum might assist all students to make excellent progress in their learning.

One of the major findings of a recent review of the NSW curriculum was that many syllabus documents are overcrowded and that, because of time constraints, important ideas can often only be taught a superficial way.

If a criticism of many current syllabuses is overcrowding to the point where important ideas, although present, can be obscured, then one solution is the clear identification and articulation of ideas that should be prioritised in the classroom.

The identification of essential skills and concepts offers a way to add focus to existing curricula structures by encouraging thoughtful reflection of how different pieces of content might be taught in the context of one or more overarching fundamental concepts.

In addition to providing a way of addressing the issue of overcrowding, the identification of essential skills and concepts forces one to be clear in defining them: what are they, and what is their justification? How do they relate to the learning area as a whole? Can we articulate the key ways in which growth occurs in these essential concepts?

The essential skills and concepts of reading

The development of proficiency in reading comprehension is broadly similar across languages. In all languages, proficiency in reading comprehension initially develops in relation to texts that are read aloud to learners. Later, these skills are applied (and further developed) in relation to texts that are read independently.

So too in all languages, reading comprehension begins with the initial realisation that text contains meaning, passes through the capacity to understand short written texts presenting familiar ideas, and moves on to the capacity to understand and critically reflect on a broad range of sometimes long and complex written texts with layers of subtle meaning that present unfamiliar ideas and draw upon a wide vocabulary.

Figure 1 shows the five essential skills and concepts of early reading that have been identified through a review of existing bodies of work.

Figure 1: The essential skills and concepts of early reading

Representation & Fluency

Text form & purpose

Critical perspectives

Interpreting meaning


Listening to & discussing texts

Independent reading

Segmenting, blending and manipulating sounds

Phoneme-letter mapping

Conventions of print



Fluency, text complexity and vocabulary

Text types and purposes

Text structure and organisation

Metalanguage for text forms and parts of speech

Ethical perspectives

Evaluating text quality

Logical analytic skills

Reputational evaluations

Recognition of implied bias

Text comprehension (see independent reading)

Using the vocabulary, syntax and grammar of written texts

General knowledge

Making connections

Identifying key ideas

Comparing and contrasting

Summarising and generalising

Making inferences

Identifying supporting evidence

Recognising the intended effect of words

Recognising lost meaning

Search criteria

Search strategies

Competing information


While these essential concepts have strong support, they are sometimes difficult to identify in existing materials, particularly in the case of curricula and syllabus documents, which tend to outline a great deal of detailed content, without identifying which ideas are critical. In addition, much of the existing work does not adequately address the description of growth in the concepts identified. 

The importance of descriptions of growth

Students in most Australian classrooms differ widely in their levels of proficiency. Given the broad range of proficiency present in a classroom, if the syllabus were followed exactly, some students would be taught material that is beyond their current level, while others would be taught material they have already mastered. 

Key to ensuring that students make progress is the identification of where students are in their learning according to the essential skills and concepts, and the targeting of teaching accordingly.

In order to make this identification, however, it is necessary first to clarify and understand what it means to develop proficiency in a learning area. So, as well as identifying the essential skills and concepts in a domain, it is necessary to also clarify what growth in these essential skills and concepts might look like.

Figure 2 shows a description of the beginning levels for one early reading concept.

Figure 2: Description of growth for Text form and purpose

Level 1

Use contextual clues such as location and images, to identify familiar book/materials (no word reading skills at this level). 

Level 2


Recognise the purpose of a few highly familiar texts (e.g. labels, signs, well-known books read aloud for enjoyment) 

Level 3

Listen to short, simple texts and orally identify obvious features (e.g. how likely the events in a story are) when clues are clear. 

Explain the purpose of very familiar visual conventions, in illustrated texts (e.g. thought bubbles). 

Recognise the purpose of a few familiar texts read aloud when this is very obvious (e.g. to tell a story; sing a song; find a character in different images). Note this depends on exposure to these texts

Level 4

Recognise the purpose and prominent elements of the form of a range of familiar texts read aloud (e.g. stories; information texts; recipes; lists; phone texts). Note this depends on exposure to these texts 

These descriptions are evidence-based, developed from valid and reliable assessment data that have identified a ‘typical’ trajectory of reading comprehension development. Therefore they can provide teachers with confidence in the data they are using to target areas of learning, and to identify how students progress over time.

ACER is currently developing instructional materials to accompany the descriptions of growth for each of the essential concepts of reading. These materials will demonstrate how explicit articulation of the early reading essential skills and concepts can help teachers determine where their students are in their learning and target their teaching accordingly, an essential element in ensuring all students make excellent progress.

Find out more:

The conference paper ‘Making excellent progress in early reading: How can the identification of essential skills and concepts help?’ by Dara Ramalingam, Prue Anderson, Sandra Knowles, Danielle Anzai and Greta Rollo, was presented at Research Conference 2021 in August. Watch the presentation as part of our Research Conference On Demand package. More >

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