Speech Pathology & Literacy

While Speech Pathologists are quite known for working with clients who stutter and have lisps, many people do not realise that we provide assessments and intervention for literacy difficulties (Speech Pathology Australia, 2024) [SPA]. 

What is literacy? 

Literacy refers to the ability to read, write and spell.

Unlike speech and language, literacy is not a biologically innate skill because the printed word is a human invention (Snow, 2020). Therefore, a child needs explicit, targeted instruction to learn these skills. 

Why is supporting literacy development important? 

  • Children with low literacy skills in kindy/grade 1, fail to ‘catch up’ by Grade 3-7 when compared to typically developing peers (McLeod et al., 2018). 
  • Low literacy levels have short- and long-term impacts on academic success, employability, and mental health (Huang et al., 2020; DeWalt et al., 2004; Boyes et al., 2019).

Given these facts, consider the data released by the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (2019) [NAPLAN]. Around 25% of year 9 students performed below the expected standard for reading. When compared to other countries, reading standards have dropped among Australian children (Thomson et al., 2017).

How do Speech Pathologists help?

Toward the end of 2016, SPA (2024) updated the Clinical Guidelines for Speech Pathologists working in the field of childhood literacy.

According to these updated guidelines, Speech Pathologists:

  • Assess, diagnose, and intervene in the area of literacy.
  • Facilitate early preventive action through direct literacy and language instruction. 
  • Advocate for students who need extra support within classroom environments.
  • Provide direct literacy instruction. 
  • Raise awareness of the impact of literacy difficulties.
  • Train and support parents and caregivers.


What are some of the early foundational literacy skills a child needs to access the school curriculum?

Most people may be surprised to learn that a child develops emergent literacy skills from birth, long before school entry (Kaderavek & Justice, 2004).

Emergent literacy skills are important foundational skills necessary for later literacy development (Paul et al., 2018). These skills are nurtured implicitly and explicitly within the home/daycare environment through shared book reading, play and signages within the environment (e.g., Exit signs, McDonald’s, names on their favourite toy or chocolate bars) (Treiman & Bourassa, 2000).  

These skills follow a developmental process and consist of: 

  • Print Knowledge: This is the earliest developing skills where a child becomes aware that written text has meaning and is an alternative means of communication (Justice & Ezell, 2004). 
  • Alphabet knowledge: This skill refers to child’s ability to name the alphabet and the sounds each letter represents and is an adult-directed task.  
  • Emergent writing: A child’s ability to write individual letters or his or her name. 
  • Print Conventions: The knowledge that text follows a directional sequence from left to write in English. 
  • Phonological Awareness: These skills include understanding how words are made up of individual sounds (e.g. s/a/t) and how they can be manipulated and changed to create new words (e.g. s/i/t/). Phonological awareness skills help children to recognise the sounds in language (phonology) and how different letters and sounds create words.
  • Phonemic awareness: The ability to identify, segment and manipulate sounds in spoken words. This is a critical skill which enables a child to link and spoken sound to its written form (Gillon, 2018). Phonological awareness skills follow a developmental pattern, with skills stabilizing by age 4 (Gillon, 2018).  

Print knowledge, alphabet knowledge and Phonological awareness skills are important early literacy skills that eventually enables a child to read (Justice & Vukelich, 2008; Gillon, 2018). 

Reading and spelling:

Learning to read involves firstly decoding texts and then understanding its meaning (Metsala & Ehri, 2013). Spelling involves converting spoken words into written form. Reading and spelling development are interlinked because developing one skill influences development in the other and vice versa (Metsala & Ehri, 2013). 

To spell a child needs the following skills:

  • Phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge skills. 
  • The ability to break sounds apart called segmenting (eg., s/a/t)
  • The ability to blend sounds e.g., /s/a/t/= ‘sat’ 
  • The ability to manipulate sounds e.g. change ‘sat’ to ‘sit’ 
  • Fine motor skills and visual abilities for reading and writing.

To read, children need to be able to do the following:

  • Recognise letters and identify the sounds they represent.
  • Blend sounds together to make a word.
  • Recognise whole words – ones that cannot be sounded out such as ‘was’
  • Understand the meaning of words.
  • Remember a string of words and understand their meaning in a sentence.
  • Relate and reference different sentences to each other. 

To write, children need to:

  • Think of a word or sentence.
  • Break the word or sentence into separate parts.
  • Break each word into its individual sounds.
  • Choose the accurate letters that represent the sound.
  • Write a series of letters in the appropriate sequence for the word. 
  • Form a series of words to make a sentence and link a series of sentences to make a paragraph/text.
  • Remember to use punctuation and grammatical structures. 

All of these skills are highly complex, and require children to use their language comprehension skills, word knowlege, and world knowledge (Hirsch, 2013).

We have more blogs on the topic of literacy…

To know more, about how decoding & language comprehension work together in reading – click here!

To know more about how speech clarity effects reading & spelling – read here!


When to seek help: 

From Prep-Year 1, children are expected to have basic reading, writing and spelling skills. However, as previously mentioned, learning to read, write and spell is a complex task and does not occur naturally. Some children may experience literacy difficulties for many reasons. Here are some reasons to seek help:

  • Difficulties with alphabet recognition.
  • Poor phonological awareness skills.
  • A family history of literacy difficulties.
  • Language difficulties (e.g. unable to tell you what they want or follow directions). 
  • Speech difficulties (e.g. unable to produce sounds or speak clearly). 
  • Vocabulary difficulties (e.g. limited word variety, difficulties understanding word meanings, naming difficulties). 
  • Low engagement in literacy-related activities (e.g., chooses not to read a book, retell stories). 
  • Reluctance or behavioural difficulties around literacy tasks.


What can parents do to help children develop literacy skills: 

Children from a literacy-rich home environment have better outcomes at school than children who do not (Terrell & Watson, 2018).

Things to do for parents to facilitate early literacy skills that support later reading:

  • Frequent shared book reading: The adult and child interact while reading a book. The adult draws the child’s attention to the different letters and their corresponding sounds and the vocabulary.
  • Facilitate print-rich environments: signs, alphabet and sound charts, books with the child’s interests (e.g. dinosaurs).
  • Provide them with writing materials. 
  • Plan play-based literacy activities like, drawing, labelled picture cards, making shopping lists, games on the iPad.

Children should see a speech pathologist early if they are having difficulty learning to read, write and spell. If you have any concerns about your child’s literacy development, please contact us at [email protected] or on 3265 4495. 


Written by Sharlet Edwards
Certified Practicing Speech Pathologist


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