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Explicit Instruction – What Does This Mean?

Children reading in classroom

I started my career as an occupational therapist. My job was to help people relearn how to do things in their everyday life after experiencing an illness or disability. To do this I had to do two things: firstly, I had to analyse the task to establish exactly what the person needed in order to be able to carry out the task and secondly I had to find out what they could and could not do. Only then could I develop a plan to help them master the task. I have applied this same approach – task analysis and assessment of skills and knowledge – to the process of teaching and learning literacy skills.

Mastering a skill of any sort usually involves learning strategies and techniques with lots of practice to hone the skill so that it can be used in different situations. Think about how we teach young children to play a sport. Children who want to play football for example, spend a lot of time learning the skills of ball handling, working with others and understanding the rules of the game. With those skills in place, they are then ready to start playing a game of football.

Whether children start playing football as pre-schoolers or come to the game later, they still have to master these skills and learn the rules of the game. Practice sessions continue to teach and refine these skills and budding footballers spend a lot of time honing their skills so that they can use them automatically and efficiently in a game.

This approach to teaching a sport works well when teaching literacy. Writing and reading are complex processes. Just like a game of football, they require the ‘player’ to master a range of skills and knowledge and to understand how to use them. Just like in football, some children pick up the skills effortlessly and master them with only a small amount of practice. Others take longer, and some decide that football is not for them because the skills required seem too hard to master. Being able to read and write is not like football – playing football is optional, learning to read and write is not. The way we teach children to read and write has to be successful. We need to explicitly teach the skills and knowledge they need to learn if they are to become successful readers and writers.


So what does explicit instruction mean for literacy?

It means understanding what is involved in learning to read and write. It means finding out what skills and knowledge students already have and where they have gaps. It means using assessment to drive instruction – to teach the skills and knowledge students have not mastered but need to learn. Sometimes this means whole class instruction and sometimes it means giving students the extra instruction and practice they need in small groups or individually.


Explicit instruction to close the gaps

I wrote Catch Up Your Code’ and Sort Out Your Syllables’ to address gaps in literacy knowledge for students in upper primary and secondary classrooms. From Year 5 and beyond, students are required to read more and more complex texts in subject areas that are often new to them. The language is more formal, and many words are multisyllabic, abstract and technical. Students who have not mastered the ability to decode automatically and efficiently will struggle. It is estimated that the average fifth year student encounters about ten thousand new words – described as an “orthographic avalanche” that overwhelms most of those without adequate decoding skills.


Teach decoding explicitly

If decoding is not automatic, the skills and knowledge needed must be taught explicitly. First and foremost, students need an in-depth knowledge of how the alphabetic code of English works. ‘Catch Up Your Code teaches this. To decode efficiently, students must recognise graphemes and be able to pronounce them in different ways. Once they have a conscious understanding of the diverse nature of grapheme-phoneme relationships, they can use this knowledge as a foundation for learning to decode unfamiliar multisyllabic words.

That’s where Sort Out Your Syllables’ comes in. Students use their knowledge of the code for the vowel sounds of English, to find and pronounce syllables in unfamiliar words. These two areas of knowledge and skill – alphabetic code knowledge and strategies for decoding multisyllabic words – will dramatically improve decoding skills in the upper years. If decoding isn’t efficient by Year 5, it will not become so, without explicit instruction that targets gaps in knowledge and skills.


Sorting vowel spelling patterns – the key to finding syllables in words

These Year 7 and 8 students are working collaboratively to learn about the nine types of vowel spelling patterns they will find in syllables.

Sorting spelling patterns activity on classroom deskSorting vowel patterns activity on classroom desk


Teach the skills for writing explicitly

From Year 5 onwards, students are required to write longer, more complex scripts in different writing genres. The expectation is that they should have mastered the foundation skills for writing: to write speedily and legibly, to spell most high-frequency words correctly, to use spelling strategies to spell most words close to correctly, to write in paragraphs, to use punctuation correctly, to proofread their writing for spelling and punctuation errors, to revise and edit their work to improve the content. Unfortunately, many students who find handwriting and correct spelling a challenge will struggle to master the other higher-order skills of writing, regardless of their potential to write as well as they can speak.

The way to improve writing skills is to explicitly target the areas that need improvement, starting with the foundation skills. If handwriting is a major challenge by Year 5, students may be best to use a digital device to avoid illegible handwriting hindering their writing progress.

If they struggle to spell words correctly, a range of strategies are needed. Firstly, students need to be able to write every sound of English in at least one way and they also need knowledge of the diversity of the code. ‘Catch Up Your Code’ teaches this. They need to know how to write multisyllabic words they can say but not spell. Sort Out Your Syllables’ teaches this.

They then need to learn about the spelling system of English – the rules and conventions that affect why words are written the way they are. Once they are fluent in getting words on the page in a form that can easily be read – even if they are not all spelt correctly – they can then be taught strategies for punctuation and paragraphing, authorship, proofreading and editing. All the skills for writing need to be taught explicitly, starting with those that build the foundation for authorship.



Explicit instruction for literacy is simply targeting the knowledge and skills that research has shown to be essential for students to learn to read and write, and ensuring they are taught in a logical, sequential and direct way. It doesn’t matter whether students have just started school or have been at school for a while – everyone benefits from explicit instruction.

Use assessments to find out what students know and can do. Teach what they need to learn.
Check they have learned it. Leave nothing to chance.


The way we teach has to ensure all students become successful readers and writers. Teaching skills and knowledge explicitly is the best way to ensure this happens.


Featured Products:

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Sort Out Your Syllables


About the Author
Joy Allcock (M.Ed). Independent Literacy consultant, facilitator of teacher professional
development throughout New Zealand and internationally. Presenter at NZ and international literacy conferences (IRA, ASCD/ACEL). Author of a range of literacy resources for teachers and students ( Leader of Shine Literacy Research Project (designed and evaluated by Massey University –


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Alphabetic Code Knowledge – The Key To Unlocking Written English

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We are faced with unprecedented challenges in education at the moment. Teachers are juggling face-to-face teaching and distance learning and wondering what they should do to maximise learning opportunities for their students. John Hattie has some wise advice.

“We should focus on the things that can have the greatest impact and stop being distracted by the things that don’t matter.”


So what can we do to have the greatest impact on our students’ literacy outcomes?

We live in an age of information, with language the key to participation. Priscilla Vail 1 says, “For our society to function, for people to make productive use of the tidal waves of information available through electronics, we need the skills of sorting, prioritising, and organising which language offers. For individuals to participate and grow, we need well-honed communication skills.”
Vail was referring to the need to develop rich oral language skills and these are of course the foundation for all communication, whether it be spoken or written.

From birth, children begin the life-long journey of learning how to use language to communicate – a process that is innate in humans. They are exposed to written forms of language from an early age, but most do not begin the task of learning to use written language until they go to school. Learning how print works is not innate – it has to be taught.

Written languages fall broadly into two types – logographic languages, which use visual images to represent words (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, for example) and phonologic languages, which use symbols to represent the sounds that make up spoken words (English, Spanish, German, for example). Some phonologic languages have one-to-one relationships between sounds and symbols (Spanish, Italian, Finnish, for example) and others have diverse relationships (English, French, for example). Young children learning to read and write the language they speak must therefore learn to understand the symbols that represent either the words they speak, or the sounds that make up the words they speak.

Written English is a complex sound-symbol language. There are many different ways that sounds (phonemes) can be written (the /k/ sound for example – cat, kite, soccer, pack, queue, quay, school), and many different ways that the symbol (graphemes – letters and letter patterns) can be pronounced (chips, chef, school; apple, apron, was, water, fast, for example).

Understanding that words are made up of sounds and that sounds can be written using letters and letter patterns is an understanding of the alphabetic principle. Learning how phonemes and graphemes map to each other is learning about the alphabetic code. In some languages this is a relatively straightforward task. In English it is much more difficult because of the diversity that exists between how letters and letter patterns are pronounced and how sounds are written.

For anyone learning to read and write English, understanding how the alphabetic code works is essential. It is not something that is easy to ‘pick up’ through exposure to print. The way the code works must be explicitly taught. Phonics programmes are typically used to teach the alphabetic code in the early years. There are a large number of phonics programmes available and used in our schools and they vary in their accuracy and efficacy. It is often difficult for teachers to know how to evaluate the efficacy of such programmes and what to do if they do not produce the desired results.

I have been helping students learn how the alphabetic code of English works for more than 20 years. This is what I have learned.

    • Teach from sound to print – use what children already know (the sounds in words) to teach what they don’t know (the English code that forms written words).
    • Teach phonemic awareness skills – so that children can take words apart and put them back together again as they use their knowledge of the alphabetic code to read and write words that they do not yet have in their print memory.
    • Teach the alphabetic code beyond the early years.
      There are close to 300 graphemes that represent the 43 phonemes of English. Many of these are not in words that young children meet in the first two years at school. We cannot teach everything that students need to know about the alphabetic code in the first two to three years.

A lack of knowledge of how the alphabetic code works has a negative impact on reading and writing.
When you are reading, if you come to a word that is unfamiliar, you need to use your knowledge of the code and your phonemic awareness skills to link to the sounds that make up the word to sound it out. If you want to write a word you cannot spell, you need to sound it out and write the code for the sounds that make up the word. Fluency with reading and writing is negatively impacted by a lack of knowledge of the alphabetic code and poor phonemic awareness skills.

Catch Up Your Code is a book that has been written to quickly address the gaps in code knowledge for students from Year 4 to adults. By Year 4, students have been exposed to a lot of print and they will have a large bank of words they know both orally and in their written form. However, despite having lots of words in their print memory, many students are still unable to use the alphabetic code because they do not have conscious knowledge of it.

Catch Up Your Code uses a simple but effective strategy that helps students (and teachers!) think differently about how words work. Students are asked to think of words that contain a target sound and to write these words and find the code for the target sound. They quickly learn about the diversity of the code and begin to discover some of the conventions about how and when it is used. They learn to sort, prioritise and organise what they already knew, as well as what they have just learned about how the alphabetic code is used to represent spoken words.

Alphabetic code knowledge is the foundation for learning to read and write English. It is fundamental to becoming a successful reader and writer. Students cannot have gaps in this knowledge. They must have a deep knowledge of how it works and strategies that help them use this knowledge as they read and write unfamiliar words.

Using Catch Up Your Code for 10 minutes a day for a term will consolidate the code knowledge your students already have and fill in the gaps of what they don’t know, so that they have a deep knowledge base to refer to as they tackle reading and writing texts that are more and more complex.

Knowledge of the alphabetic code does matter. If you can find 10 minutes a day to use a simple but effective strategy for increasing students’ knowledge of the foundation of written English, it will have a significant impact on their reading and writing outcomes.

1 Vail., P., L. (1996). Words Fail Me. How language works and what happens if it doesn’t. Modern Learning Press. Rosemont. NJ.

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About the Author

Joy Allcock (M.Ed). Independent Literacy consultant, facilitator of teacher professional
development throughout New Zealand and internationally. Presenter at NZ and international literacy conferences (IRA, ASCD/ACEL). Author of a range of literacy resources for teachers and students ( Leader of Shine Literacy Research Project (designed and evaluated by Massey University –


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