Effective Literacy Teaching in the Early Years of School: A Review of Evidence

Kathy Hall. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

Learning to read and write is arguably the most important curricular aspect of early years education. This chapter explores the literature on effective literacy teaching in the early stages of schooling, where early years is defined as ranging from five to eight years. The focus is not so much about the relative effectiveness of various teaching methods, instructional programmes, teaching materials, or the ‘natural’ development of literacy in young children as it is about what characterizes teacher expertise in the intentional promotion of literacy in the early years classroom.

There is now considerable (Roskos and Christie, 2001; Bissex, 1980; Bussis et al., 1985; Teale and Sulzby, 1986; Geekie et al., 1999; Adams, 1991; Snow et al., 1998), though not total (Gee, 1999), agreement in the research field regarding how young children acquire literacy and develop as readers and writers, but this consensus does not extend to literacy pedagogy which still remains quite controversial (e.g. Raphael and Brock, 1998; Foorman et al., 1998; Taylor et al., 2000a; Hall, 2003). More fundamentally, what constitutes literacy is also a contested issue (e.g. Gee, 1999). Moreover, the specific area of effective literacy teaching or expertise in the promotion of literacy, however ‘effective’ is defined, has a short history. Although reviews of instructional research exist (e.g. Hiebert and Raphael, 1996; Roehler and Duffy, 1996; Raphael and Brock, 1998), much of the available research up to the 1990s did not involve detailed observations of teachers in practice. Only six years ago Pressley et al. (1996) reported a gap in the literature, and in 1998 Wharton-McDonald et al., with particular reference to the early years, noted that ‘There is a lack of systematic study of effective literacy teachers, a lack of understanding of their practices and perspectives’ (102). However, since the 1990s several researchers have begun to determine what exemplary literacy teaching looks like and it is primarily this relatively new and recent line of enquiry that is of particular interest here.

While the chapter primarily draws on and foregrounds the smaller body of research on effective literacy teachers and their teaching, it also draws on the more general scholarship on literacy teaching that provides theoretical and empirical insights in order to describe the role of teachers in fostering effective early years literacy education. My goal is to integrate a variety of empirical perspectives on literacy to develop an understanding of literacy teaching in the service of an increasingly pluralistic society. The empirical studies discussed in the review all bear on early years classrooms even though several studies incorporated higher grades or classes in their design, in addition to early years classes. The organization of the chapter reflects the kinds of questions that guided the initial search of the literature:

  • What characterizes the practices of effective early years literacy teachers and how is ‘effective’ defined?
  • How are these teachers distinguished from their less expert colleagues?
  • What theoretical perspectives appear to underpin their practices?
  • What are the critical areas in need of further study?

Characterizing and Distinguishing Effective Early Years Literacy Teaching

The body of empirical research reviewed here derives mainly from the US, but also from the UK, and to a lesser extent New Zealand. The overarching message is that effective literacy teachers integrate two major aspects of the subject. What seems to be key is the integration and balancing of the learning of the codes of written language with uses and purposes of literacy that are meaningful to the learner (Knapp et al., 1995; Pressley et al., 1996; 2001; Wharton-McDonald et al., 1998; Pressley, 1998; Medwell et al., 1998; Morrow et al., 1999; Taylor et al., 1999; 2000b; Rankin-Erickson and Pressley, 2000; Block, 2000; Block, et al., 2002; Au, 1997; Tharp, 1982; Wilkinson and Townsend, 2000). On the one hand, they provide extensive opportunities for their pupils to read and respond to children’s literature and to write for a variety of authentic purposes. On the other hand, they attend to the codes of written language: sound-symbol correspondence, word recognition, spelling patterns, vocabulary, punctuation, grammar, and text structure.

The Research of Michael Pressley and others

I will illustrate further with reference to the first significant series of studies in terms of scale and scope about effective early literacy teaching. This US-based work was initiated and led by Michael Pressley in the mid 1990s, beginning with an interview survey of kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 2 teachers (Pressley et al., 1996). It proceeded to a more fine-grained, qualitative analysis of outstanding and more typical grade 1 teachers in New York. This research involved observational literacy assessments of pupils, in-depth teacher interviews, close classroom observations, and cross-case analyses of classrooms where achievement was high, i.e. in which the pupils were reading grade-level books, end-of-year writing was extended and mechanically sound relative to other first-graders, and task involvement during literacy lessons was high (Wharton-McDonald et al., 1997; 1998). So the definition of ‘effective’ and ‘outstanding’ teaching here bears on pupils’ high literacy achievement as revealed by their ability to read and write at a minimum level expected for their grade. It then tested the findings emerging from this ethnographic study in a national investigation of effective teaching in five different areas of the US using a similar range of methodological data-gathering techniques and cross-case analyses methods, and involving 30 ‘outstanding’ and ‘more typical’ teachers (Block and Pressley, 2000; Pressley et al., 2001).

These studies included mostly children from middle-to lower-middle-income communities and incorporated pupils from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but they appear not to have represented well the very lowest-income groups, a point I will return to later. Exemplary teachers were nominated by supervisors according to pre-specified criteria, which prioritized their success in raising pupils’ literacy achievement levels. However, a major strength of this work is that such nominations were only the starting point and the research team’s final samples were based on a subset of teachers whose pupils demonstrated consistently higher levels of achievement in reading and writing and of task engagement in literacy activities (Wharton-McDonald et al., 1998; Pressley et al., 2001). Researchers themselves assessed pupil achievement and on-task engagement using qualitative measures. For example, in the national study, teachers selected as most effective were ones where more than 90% of their pupils were engaged in productive reading and writing more than 90% of the time; where, by the end of the year during which they participated in the study, their pupils were reading picturebooks with several sentences per page; and where their pupils’ written compositions were coherent, quite well structured, and several pages long. The outcomes from this series of studies are highly consistent, with the findings of the second study being confirmed by the more broadly based third one. Moreover, findings from a survey of instructional practices of special education teachers nominated as effective teachers of literacy (Rankin-Erickson and Pressley, 2000: 218) were ‘strikingly similar’ to the findings in Pressley et al. (1996) which was based on a sample of primary teachers nominated as outstanding. Taken together, all these studies offer a consensus on what exemplary literacy teachers do in their classrooms and how they do it. In addition, the findings from one smaller-scale, qualitative study of the reading practices of four outstanding early years teachers, nominated as effective, in New Zealand are also in line with the US evidence (Wilkinson and Townsend, 2000).

Exemplary teachers offer a variety of literacy experiences to their pupils from partner reading, shared reading, independent reading and book choosing to explicit instruction using familiar and new texts, and from daily writing in journals and workshop settings to mini-lessons about the mechanics of writing based on children’s needs. Guided reading lessons typically incorporate mini-lessons on phonics and phonemic awareness, the use of new and familiar text, the introduction and use of new vocabulary. These teachers show their pupils how to use a range of reading cues (grapho-phonic, picture, syntactic and semantic cues) in the context of ongoing reading and writing activity and explicit methods are used for the development of comprehension. The teaching of the mechanics of writing, such as punctuation, occurs in the context of real writing and teachers increasingly emphasize the process of writing such as planning and revising as pupils move from kindergarten to grade 2.

The most effective teachers consciously integrate the teaching of skills with authentic literacy experiences. Indeed integration, as already noted, would appear to be a salient feature of their practice. This means that pupils are encouraged to apply their literacy skills in a variety of reading and writing situations. Literacy for these teachers permeates the curriculum. Writing, for example, is integrated into content areas or other curriculum areas and also thoroughly integrated into reading. The books pupils read and the topics for writing are connected and there is much emphasis on oracy. The researchers conclude that the ‘extremely strong presence of themes taught through cross-curricular connections was one of the most extraordinary characteristics of outstanding first-grade literacy instruction’ (Morrow et al., 1999: 469).

The grounded theoretical nature of the research orientation used in this line of enquiry allowed the researchers to describe, in ways that have high ‘relatability’ for practitioners, how these teachers balanced different aspects:

In addition to – and often as part of – explicit skills instruction, the high-achievement teachers provided many opportunities for students to engage in authentic reading and writing activities. Students in these classes read many books alone, in pairs, and with the teacher. They heard good literature read aloud. They used books to search for information on topics of interest. They wrote letters and notes, recorded plant growth in their gardens, and described the growth and development of the chicks hatching in their classrooms. All of these activities were meaningfully linked to ongoing themes and instruction in specific skills. (Wharton-McDonald et al., 1998: 114)

The classrooms are organized for whole-group, small-group, paired, and one-to-one teaching. But perhaps more significantly, these teachers make extensive use of scaffolding whereby they tune into their learners’ thinking; have a grasp, through careful monitoring, of their pupils’ conceptions and misconceptions; and then intervene with assistance as necessary. They demonstrate a keen awareness of their pupils’ thinking and are able to intercede at just the right moment to ensure the acquisition of some skill or concept. They are expert in seizing the ‘teachable moment’ and they are not tightly bound by the planned lesson (Block, 2000). Arguably, for this reason they are also especially adept at pitching pupils’ work at what might be described as a level of ‘easy difficulty’ for individual pupils. The researchers noted, ‘we observed time and time again the most effective teachers making sure that students were reading books just a little bit challenging for them’ (Pressley et al., 2001: 47). They are experts at differentiating tasks according to pupil need. Similarly, Wilkinson and Townsend (2000) reported that their effective teachers continually sought opportunities to move students along a gradient of difficulty with an appropriate level of interactive support. What enabled the New Zealand teachers to achieve such a close fit between the tasks they set their pupils and their learning needs was a combination of their thorough knowledge about their learners (obtained through close observations and running records) and their extensive knowledge of children’s literature and the texts that were generally in use in the classroom.

What distinguishes outstanding teachers from their more average colleagues is their ability to incorporate multiple goals into a single lesson. The researchers termed this ‘instructional density,’ saying this was one of the most striking characteristics of practices in high-achievement classes (Wharton-McDonald et al., 1998). In contrast, these teachers’ counterparts spend time on activities that are less cognitively complex and less literacy relevant; their lessons are typically of a single teaching goal; and they do not deviate as much from their intended plan to seize an incidental learning opportunity.

The more effective teachers overtly model what they wish their pupils to do. For instance one teacher was observed writing on a chart how she had helped her mother prepare Thanksgiving dinner before asking pupils to write about a time when they helped someone. Similarly, the effective teachers model comprehension by making predictions about what might be in the text that they read to pupils, and they identify questions and major messages that the text suggests as the reading occurs (Morrow et al., 1999). They also exhibit excellent classroom management, including the coordination of support and special teachers; they are well planned; they carefully monitor their pupils’ literacy activities, for example as they write; they have well-established routines that children understand and work within; and pupils are expected to be self-regulated and independent (Pressley et al., 2001).

Recently published research by Block et al. (2002) based in seven English-speaking countries sought to identify the qualities of teaching expertise that distinguished highly effective instruction at different grade levels. Highly effective kindergarten teachers, for instance, are described as ‘masterful guardians, catching, cradling, and championing every child’s discoveries about print’ (2002: 189). Interestingly, when their pupils do not learn in their initial attempt, these teachers repeat those literacy experiences again, and again, reusing the same text and context – unlike their counterparts at preschool and grade 1 levels. Highly effective kindergarten teachers believe that frequent repetition enhances background knowledge and facilitates ‘ah ah’ connections with print. These teachers are described as having ‘exceptional talents in creating classrooms that are inviting, print-rich, and home-like’ (2002: 189). Highly effective first-grade teachers are expert ‘reteachers’: they distinguish themselves in their ability to teach literacy all day, motivating pupils by varying the breadth, depth and speed of literacy lessons, teaching up to 20 different skills in a single hour.

What the literature, so far, shows is the complexity of excellent literacy teaching; that expertise involves the smooth interweaving of a whole host of elements; and that outstanding literacy teachers do not adhere to one particular method of teaching.

UK-Based Research

UK-based research on effective literacy teaching converges strongly with the above. Descriptive of the range of primary classrooms, and thus not only confined to early years classrooms, the research commissioned by the government’s Teacher Training Agency and carried out by Jane Medwell, David Wray, Louise Poulson and Richard Fox compared the teaching of a sample of teachers whose pupils made effective literacy gains with a more random, comparison (validation) sample of teachers whose pupils made less progress in reading (Medwell et al., 1998; Poulson et al., 2001; Wray et al., 2001). The ‘effective’ teachers were chosen from a list of teachers recommended as effective by advisory staff. The key criterion used by the research team for their selection from this list was evidence of above-average learning gains in reading for the their pupils. The research design incorporated questionnaires, close observations of and interviews with 26 teachers, and a quiz to test teachers’ knowledge. It is worth pointing out that this research was carried out in England at a time when there was unprecedented central governmental interest in literacy pedagogy and a highly prescriptive framework for the promotion of literacy was being developed (see Hall, 2001).

Effective literacy teachers in England generally seek to contextualize their teaching of language conventions to maximize its meaningfulness to pupils. This means that letter-sound correspondence, word recognition, and vocabulary, for example, are taught within the context of interacting with whole texts – often shared texts like ‘big books.’ Effective teachers are distinguished by their explicitness of the functions of what their pupils are learning in literacy and why what they are learning is necessary and useful for them. Other UK research by Lynda Graham (2001) on how reluctant writers overcome their difficulties confirms the significance of meaningfulness, integration of reading, writing, and oracy, and collaboration and sharing texts. Although not specifically on effective teachers, her ethnographic work offers teacher explanations for their pupils’ success as writers. Another aspect that Graham’s teachers advanced to explain their children’s writing progress was small-group work – a feature identified in several studies as important for literacy achievement (see below).

Like the US work, and also based on observational evidence, Medwell et al. found that their effective teachers use short, regular teaching sessions to promote word recognition which involve them modelling to their pupils how sounds work. They use a wider range of texts than their validation colleagues. They tend to use grammar to describe language whereas their colleagues tend to use grammar to prescribe rules for the use of language.

They also adopt very clear assessment procedures involving focused observation and systematic record keeping. They are adept at differentiating the support they offer pupils during the completion of tasks. While effective teachers in England might set all pupils in the group or class the same task and expect them to achieve the same learning outcome, the more effective teachers offer struggling readers and writers more or different support to achieve this outcome. In the light of this, it is not surprising that more effective teachers are also more ‘highly diagnostic’ in their interpretations of their pupils’ written work; they are better and quicker than their validation colleagues at offering explanations as to why children read or write as they do.

Medwell et al.’s cross-sectional samples could not be considered particularly representative of teachers working with pupils from ethnic minority groups or from areas of poverty: they were not designed to be so. Other research on teacher effectiveness has shown that different pupils benefit from different types of teaching (e.g. Good and Brophy, 1991) and research from the field of literacy confirms this (Au, 1980; Au and Carroll, 1997; Moll et al., 1992).

Research Based on More Diverse Populations

In this regard, research conducted at the US-government-funded Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA) (Taylor et al., 1999; 2000b; Taylor, 2000; Adler and Fisher, 2001; Hiebert and Pearson, 2000) and research by Knapp et al. (1995) are especially insightful. Although not so focused on what specifically characterizes effective literacy teachers and their teaching, some studies of school effectiveness in urban areas of the US (e.g. Designs for Change, 1998; Puma et al., 1997) also provide insights about distinctive teacher practices that are especially relevant to success with low-income catchments and more ethnically diverse populations. And finally, the ongoing longitudinal work of Kathy Au in Hawaii (Au, 1997; Au and Carroll, 1997), though again not specifically designed to explore effective teachers’ practices, provides valuable insights into effective literacy teaching with minority ethnic groups.

A national study of effective schools and accomplished teachers at CIERA sought to understand the practices of accomplished teachers in schools that were beating the odds, or more precisely, that were achieving unexpectedly high results (Taylor et al., 1999; 2000b). Based on 14 high-achieving, high-poverty, inner-city schools and 70 teachers of kindergarten to grade 3 (i.e. five-to eight-year-olds), this research used a range of quantitative and qualitative data-gathering methods and cross-case analyses determining similarities and differences across settings, especially across effective and ineffective settings. Two teachers from each class, kindergarten to grade 3, were observed and achievements in reading (word recognition, accuracy, fluency and comprehension) were measured by the researchers at the beginning and end of the school year. Michael Knapp et al. (1995) investigated 140 ‘high-poverty’ grades 1-6 classrooms across three US states also using a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches including the testing of pupils. The results of both studies are largely consistent and in line with the other US and UK evidence, but some additional and specific insights merit some discussion and integration with the previous literature.

First, reading is a priority for teachers in the most effective schools and the most accomplished teachers devote more time to reading activities (including independent reading and writing in response to reading) than the moderately and least effective schools (Taylor et al., 1999; 2000b). Pupils of effective teachers read more and write extended texts about topics they care about. Creativity and self-expression are important (Knapp et al., 1995). They spend more time on task and, apparently, enjoy what they do (Taylor et al., 2000b).

Secondly, accomplished teachers are distinguished from their counterparts in spending more time in small-group teaching which includes teacher-directed text activity, literature circles, and explicit teaching in phonics, comprehension and vocabulary. This is not altogether surprising when one considers the likelihood that the small-group context allows for activities to be personalized as well as differentiated or targeted more directly at pupils’ needs and for teaching to be repeated as needed so children can internalize and better understand. Previous research on early reading demonstrates that whole-class phonics instruction, for example, is not likely to be effective for the majority of children (Juel, 1994). As Connie Juel (1996) concludes, based on a study of what makes one-to-one tutoring effective, providing verbal interaction and tasks that are differentiated according to need is simply not as easy in the whole-class setting. But it is also important to note that in the CIERA study the greater time allotted to small-group teaching is a collaborative decision that is made at school level – could only be made at school level – by all four of the most effective schools (Adler and Fisher, 2001). This small-group work is characterized by regular, special education, and by resource teachers working together to provide small-group teaching. Much like the effective small-group teaching in the New Zealand study (Wilkinson and Townsend, 2000) groups are similar-ability based, although the accomplished teachers in the study refer to it as ‘instructional-level grouping,’ the composition of which changes frequently in the light of assessments and continuous monitoring. Previous literacy research (e.g. Allington, 1983) shows that similar-ability grouping meant that those consigned to the lower-ability groups were frequently given work that was low in cognitive demand. But in the CIERA study pupils in the lower ‘instructional-level group spent as much time on higher-order activities as did average achievers’ (Taylor et al., 2000b: 156). The authors point out that the success of this strategy is due not merely to the accomplished teachers but to school culture, i.e. to the school-level decisions that led to flexible deployment of teaching staff together with a common assessment system that ensured flexible movement between groups. Indeed one of the substantive strengths of the CIERA study is its linkage of school and classroom effectiveness measures. What comes across from the evidence is that the classrooms of the most effective teachers are more discursive, conversational and dialogic places to be: one gets a sense of negotiation, tentativeness, and power-sharing, yet there is explicitness, clarity about expectations, and a sense of security for children.

Thirdly, the most effective teachers explicitly build on children’s personal and cultural backgrounds (Knapp et al., 1995) and teachers in the most effective schools reach out more to communicate with and involve parents (Taylor et al., 1999; Designs for Change, 1998; Puma et al., 1997). This suggests a view of literacy that involves social and cultural interactions at home and at school, a view that recognizes that some children have home cultures that differ from the culture of the school and that such cultural conflict may impede literacy learning (e.g. Dyson, 1998; Heath, 1983; Hicks, 2001; Schmidt, 1995). The effective teachers’ emphasis on the sociocultural aspect is in line with previous, longitudinal research in classrooms (Au, 1992; 1997), and in line with a perspective on literacy learning that does not separate cognitive and affective aspects. Au’s work, for example, has demonstrated the benefits of bridging the gap between school and community literacies (Tharp, 1982). She has researched the Kamehameha Elementary Education Program (KEEP) in Hawaii for over two decades, a programme based on Vygotskian theory and, more specifically, on the idea that pupils from diverse and poor neighbourhoods have rich funds of knowledge and community literacy practices. The success of this programme suggests that a culturally responsive curriculum is important for improving literacy among pupils who do not come from middle class backgrounds – pupils whose home and community culture may not align with the traditional school culture of literacy.

The fourth insight is entirely in line with previous studies. While explicit word recognition strategies are taught in all schools, what distinguishes the most accomplished teachers is their additional ‘coaching’ of pupils (as opposed to telling or recitation which is more evident among the least accomplished teachers) in how to apply their word recognition skills to their everyday texts (Taylor et al., 2000a). This contrasts with most teachers who tend to teach word recognition skills in isolation from their application to real texts (Taylor et al., 1999; 2000b; Knapp et al., 1995; Designs for Change, 1998; Puma et al., 1997). A major distinguishing feature of the most successful first-grade teachers, Knapp et al. claim, is that ‘skills are taught as tools to be used immediately (or very soon) in the work of making sense of the printed page, not be mastered for their own sake without applications to the act of reading’ (1995: 74). And when skills are taught separately they are integrated into games and there is much emphasis on recognizing learning patterns through rhyme and story.

The limited number of research studies on effective literacy teaching in the early years that could be included in this review means that conclusions have to be viewed as exploratory. However, the consistency across the findings permits their integration under three interrelated headings: curricular, organizational and pedagogical. Table 26.1 highlights the range of practices that distinguish the most effective literacy teachers. The effective literacy teacher is not someone who has a single identifying approach but rather is someone who weaves and interweaves several literacy goals and literacy practices through attending to a variety of curricular, organizational and pedagogical matters. Effective teachers appear to approximate to a ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ model (Collins et al., 1989). This model focuses on learning through guided experience, it highlights the cognitive and metacognitive processes involved in expert performance, and in this way learners are made sensitive to the details of expert performance. It also embeds knowledge, skills and strategies in their social and functional contexts. It is clear that outstanding literacy teachers in the early years of school build upon the variety of rich language acquisition strategies which children have informally developed outside of school. They appear to act on the Hallidayan theory that meaning is the driving force in literacy growth. In other words it is from an understanding of what language does (semantically and pragmatically) that children learn its form (both syntactically and graphophonemically) (see Harste et al., 1994, for a full account).

A discussion of theories of literacy learning is beyond the scope of this chapter, but it is worth noting that the cognitive apprenticeship model does not preclude an emphasis on decontextualizing knowledge (Collins et al., 1989), albeit applied in context ‘soon’ or even immediately. However, that effective teachers are adept at seizing the ‘teachable moment,’ and that they closely observe and act on children’s literate practices as they occur in a variety of classroom contexts, suggest that they also draw on a kind of situated learning theory that emphasizes the creation of learning contexts for which literacy can be used to meet the demands of a situation. In this view, activities create the context that stimulates learners to construct their own knowledge (Rogoff, 1982; Neuman and Roskos, 1997).

Effective Literacy Teachers’ Theoretical Perspectives

So far attention has tended to focus largely on the characteristic classroom practices of exemplary early years teachers of literacy. A fuller understanding of their expertise is facilitated through an examination of the thinking and perspectives they bring to bear on their decision making in the classroom. Some of the above studies together with other, smaller-scale studies shed light on this.

Table 26.1 Distinguishing characteristics of effective literacy teachers’ practices


  • Their pupils read more and write more extended text
  • Their pupils read and write about what matters to them
  • Word recognition, vocabulary, spelling, comprehension and writing skills are explicitly taught through application
  • They teach their pupils multiple cues for word recognition
  • These teachers offer greater variety in literacy experience: partner reading, shared reading, independent reading, book choosing, explicit teaching using new and familiar texts, writing for a variety of purposes, collaborative writing


  • Excellent class management, incorporating routines that support pupil independence, thorough planning, and strong emphasis on literacy-rich classroom environments, on specific feedback about progress, and on positive reinforcement
  • These teachers spend more time on cognitively demanding and literacy-relevant tasks
  • They coordinate support staff to maximize curricular integrity and task differentiation according to pupil need
  • They provide organizational variety: small-group teaching, pair work, one-to-one and whole-class teaching
  • They spend more time on teacher-directed, similar-ability, small-group work, the composition of which changes frequently due to careful monitoring
  • They establish close links with parents and community


  • Integration and balance: reading and writing are integrated by these teachers, so pupils write in response to texts read; thematic approach is used to integrate the content areas; balance between reading good quality literature, writing for meaningful purposes and learning the conventions of print; literacy knowledge and skills are applied to real texts as they are learned
  • Teacher models literate behaviour to make learning and thinking explicit for pupils
  • More extensive scaffolding of pupil learning and providing the right level of support, and monitoring and giving feedback as pupils complete tasks
  • More emphasis on self-regulation and pupil independence
  • Greater use of opportunistic/incidental teaching; instructional density; and multiple goals for a single lesson
  • Explicit building on children’s cultural backgrounds

Research conducted on effective teachers during the 1960s and 1970s focused almost exclusively on the teacher behaviours in the classroom that related to pupil achievement (e.g. Rosenshine and Furst, 1973; Brophy, 1973; see Hoffman, 1991, for a review in relation to literacy). The largely behaviourist perspective underpinning this line of enquiry meant that little or no attention was paid to the teacher as critical decision maker. The constructivist thinking underlying the more recent literature, however, does consider the significance of the teachers’ prior beliefs and knowledge and their reasoning behind their practices. The more recent studies seeking to illuminate expert literacy teaching practices incorporate data on teacher thinking about and explanation for their actions. This information is typically elicited through semi-structured interviewing, that is conversations about lessons just observed or about samples of their pupils work, although questionnaires have also been used (e.g. Poulson et al., 2001). In addition, since experts in a profession tend to have a privileged understanding of what they do and are able to give valid and accurate accounts of the decisions they make (Wharton-McDonald et al., 1998), highly competent literacy teachers are extremely well positioned to provide insights into the nature of effective teaching.

What additional insights then are available about outstanding early years teachers’ literacy practices? The first point to be made here is that the most effective teachers exhibit continuity between their pedagogical philosophies and their practices.

A questionnaire survey within the UK study, designed to assess teachers’ orientations to different literacy perspectives, found that there are differences in theoretical beliefs between effective teachers and the comparison or validation sample (Poulson et al., 2001). First, the effective teachers of literacy show a higher level of consistency between their theoretical beliefs and choice of teaching activities than the comparison sample. The effective teachers claim to be more committed to principles of whole language in their teaching of reading, that is, they place more emphasis on their pupils making sense of text, on authentic as opposed to decontextualized texts, on literacy processes, and on writing for a range of purposes. Differences between the two samples in relation to orientation to writing are less clear-cut. There are also differences between the validation teachers and the effective teachers regarding what they think children need to know about reading and writing. While all emphasize the importance of coming to grips with the codes of written language, the more effective teachers accord much more status to children recognizing the purposes and functions of the literacy tasks they are set.

The most accomplished teachers hold consistently high expectations for all their pupils. They define all their pupils as capable of becoming successful readers and writers and their practices bear this out (Wharton-McDonald et al., 1998; Block et al., 2002; Taylor et al., 2000b; Wilkinson and Townsend, 2000). The New Zealand teachers, for example, are described as holding a developmental view of ability, a notion of ability as ‘learnable’ and incremental rather than innate or immutable. Effective teachers also exhibit a keen awareness of purpose. The most effective teachers are strikingly different from their less effective colleagues in their detailed descriptions of why their pupils were allocated specific tasks (Block, 2000; Medwell et al., 1998). They talk about their philosophies with reference to specific children. While typically teachers can ‘talk the talk’ in that they tend to be familiar with the latest literacy terminology, the most effective teachers go beyond general terms and general descriptions and apply their theoretical understanding to individual children (Block, 2000).

Interestingly, these teachers know they are effective. In one study (Block and Pressley, 2000: 8-9) they allocated themselves the highest possible ranking in meeting the needs of pupils with special literacy needs and they could also explain how their teaching contributed to pupils’ literacy growth: they could cite, for example, ‘what part of their actions, instructional program, or teaching repertoire had scaffolded the success of individual students.’ Similar findings emerged from the UK research (Medwell et al., 1998). In the UK study the most effective teachers are described as being very specific about how literacy activities at the whole-text, word and sentence levels contribute to children’s meaning making. They are also found to have more detailed and well-developed knowledge about literacy: they are described by the researchers as having a ‘coherent belief system’ which appears to be related to their more considerable experience of in-service professional development.

On the basis of the above, the most effective teachers implicitly define their pupils as active, thinking, feeling sense makers, rather than mere rememberers or forgetters. They implicitly define themselves as powerful enablers whose task it is to understand what their learners already know and can do in various literacy contexts, to recognize what motivates and engages them, and to extend their literacy repertoires by building on their strengths. Becoming literate is implicitly defined as becoming increasingly adept at using literacy to do things for purposes that are valued by them and within their communities. We can also conclude that effective teaching involves evidence-informed practices, to use a fashionable phrase, with evidence not only about literacy learning per se but, fundamentally, about specific children’s literacy practices and dispositions.


The research reviewed here demonstrates that effective literacy teaching in the early years of school is about far more than ‘method.’ Rather it is a complex mix of philosophy, method, teacher development and school culture. Effective teachers are clearly eclectic in their approach to literacy teaching, and dichotomies such as phonics-oriented versus literature-based approaches seem not to be relevant to real-life contexts. The complexity of what effective literacy teachers do, which, to varying degrees, fits with what we know about the complexity of children’s early learning about written language (e.g. Adams, 1991; Snow et al., 1998; Roskos and Christie, 2001; Bissex, 1980; Bussis et al., 1985; Teale and Sulzby, 1986; Geekie et al., 1999; Kress, 1997; Dyson and Genishi, 1994) should lead us to question the validity of perspectives that seek to find a single best approach (Foorman et al., 1998; DfEE, 1998). The effective teaching of literacy cannot be packaged in teacher-proof scripts or prescriptive programmes on the assumption that ‘one size fits all.’

Children benefit from a combination of teaching approaches to become successful readers and writers and effective teachers know and act on this. This conclusion is not only justified via the research on teacher effectiveness reviewed here; it is also confirmed by research that focuses on different pedagogical approaches to literacy development. To illustrate, Sachs and Mergendoller (1997) showed that the kindergarten pupils in their study who had very little knowledge of literacy benefited more from a whole-language approach than from a phonics-oriented approach at that particular point in their learning. Juel and Minden-Cupp (2001) demonstrated that when teachers use the same approach with all first-grade pupils, its impact differs according to the children’s varying entry profile to that class. Those first-graders who already had considerable experience of and success in literacy activities benefited from an emphasis on real texts and good quality children’s literature and were disadvantaged by an emphasis on phonics training. The opposite was the case for lower-achieving pupils in the first grade: they benefited from an emphasis on phonics training. Once pupils appreciate that print carries meaning and once they master some initial skills, it seems that more direct attention to specific reading strategies is timely. The point of this illustration is that children in kindergarten (or any year/grade) are not homogeneous and teachers have to base their teaching on a knowledge of their pupils’ specific literacy strengths and weaknesses in order to maximize their effectiveness. And this is what effective literacy teachers are adept at doing. They recognize the need for careful differentiation. Moreover, our children are increasingly diverse, not just academically, but linguistically and culturally, making it highly unlikely that a single approach to teaching literacy can be found.

The CIERA research demonstrates that school and classroom factors interact to influence the quality of the child’s literacy experience. Further research needs to continue to explore the nature of the relationship between school-level and classroom-level decision making about literacy pedagogy. In addition, while it is clear that effective literacy teachers liaise closely with parents, the nature of this contact merits closer scrutiny, especially in diverse classrooms and in areas of poverty. The evidence shows, for example, that effective teachers explain to pupils the purposes of the literacy activities set for them. But perspectives about the functions of literacy may differ in different social and cultural groups. Metsala et al. (1996), for instance, found that middle-income parents are more inclined to see literacy as a source of entertainment, whereas lower-income parents tend to see it more as skill to be developed with consequent expectations about how they expect it to be fostered in school (see McCarthy, 2000, for a review). Moreover, children learn culturally appropriate ways of using language to construct meaning from texts in their early years at home. The evidence for the significance of shared understanding about community practices is persuasive. Teachers who are more effective with children from diverse cultural and language groups are likely to know more about their pupils and their pupils’ communities (McNaughton, 2001; Heath, 1983; Darling-Hammond, 1998). Currently we do not have sufficient evidence about how effective teachers interface with culturally and ethnically diverse families and how they build on young children’s home literacies. In the interests of fairness and democracy this kind of inquiry is urgently needed.

Only three years ago, Elizabeth Hatton (1999) argued, with reference to Australia, that there is ‘alarmingly little to go on in terms of what day to day life in schools is like,’ and in particular noted that there is little known about how teachers and schools address issues of social justice – her specific concern. Research on effective teachers, generally, and on effective early years literacy teachers in particular, is still in its infancy and future research needs to explore the extent to which the apparent current consensus in the field applies more globally. I should at this point note that a large-scale, government-funded investigation of what constitutes effective literacy teaching and learning practices in the early years of schooling is currently in progress under the direction of William Louden at Australia’s Edith Cowan University.

Research on literacy engagement (Guthrie et al., 1996), which combines the construct of self-regulation with intrinsic motivation, describes engaging classroom contexts as those that: focus on substantive themes rather than reading skills; allow choice of themes and texts and promote autonomy; offer explicit teaching of reading strategies; are collaborative, emphasizing social construction of meaning; create opportunities for self-expression and group interaction; and are coherent in that they integrate classroom activities and tasks. The theoretical perspective offered by Guthrie et al. is that these are the very classroom qualities that accelerate the development of literacy engagement. One can speculate, therefore, that the practices of the most effective early years teachers are those that turn out children who not only can read and write, but who do read and write inside and outside of school. Future research on effective teaching might usefully incorporate evidence of out-of-school literacy practices of the pupils of those deemed to be outstanding teachers to determine their impact beyond the classroom. Such research might usefully incorporate the learner’s voice more directly than the existing research.

Research and development programmes to improve schools in urban areas of poverty where children are not ‘beating the odds’ are already in progress, following the research conducted by CIERA. This is based on the expectation that the quality of classroom literacy teaching can be enormously enhanced through research-based intervention programmes. This work is certainly important and opportune, given the considerable consensus that exists within the research of literacy teacher effectiveness.

But the existing studies on literacy teacher effectiveness imply a model of literacy that is restricted largely to the interpretation and production of print. This brings me, finally, to the implicit theory of literacy and literacy acquisition underlying the studies of effectiveness reviewed in this chapter. Contemporary literacy practices suggest the need for pedagogic research that incorporates a fuller range of symbolic tools that are available to children to support meaning making, drawing especially on popular culture and information technologies (see Kress, 1994; Marsh, and Comber, in this volume). Research on children’s ways of using written language (e.g. Dyson, 1994; Kress 1997) which demonstrates the non-linearity of literacy development offers new perspectives for policy and practice. Dyson, for example, views written language development within a broad context of children’s development as symbolizers. She demonstrates how children’s use of written language is interrelated in complex ways with their use of other media and with the relationships they form through interaction with other people. Viewing written language development as part of the child’s developing symbolic repertoire and changing social relationships offers new ways of thinking about its development in the classroom. The talking, drawing, playing, storytelling and experiences with print all provide resources which teachers and children can draw on to build new possibilities. As Dyson notes, we do not yet understand how educators might build from such an array of resources.

It is arguable too that the studies reviewed here tend to set up a false tension between abstracting the codes of language and learning their application for meaningful purposes. The emphasis on the integration of the two in practice leaves intact the underlying assumption that somehow they are discrete entities that have to be integrated. The assumption seems to be that pupils have to be inculcated into the forms of written language through a kind of diligent apprenticeship: they are positioned as users of an existing system. The work of Kress, acknowledging that we are entering a new age of the image, invites a much more ‘serious engagement with form’ but ‘form as meaning’ as opposed to ‘form as formalism’ (1997: xvi). He accepts that there is an intrinsic relationship between the expression of a meaning and the form used to express it. And he sees children (and adults) as not merely users but transformers, makers and remakers of communication systems. How young children in early years classrooms act transformatively on the cultural resources of their environments and the implications of this for forms of teaching are aspects that merit a great deal of further investigation.