Literacy Terms Defined for Parents {FREE Printable Version Included!}

Literacy Terms Defined for Parents

*This post is continually updated and maintained with current links and information! :)

Do you ever find yourself a bit confused at all the literacy terms there are out there for reading and writing? I know I totally did when I was first introduced to them. Today, I hope to shed a little light on many of the literacy terms you may find in your curriculum or while searching on a website/blog. I’m organizing them by category and then each term will be listed and defined in alphabetical order. If I have an example, I’ll link to that as well (to prevent this post from getting too long). There is also a FREE printable version included at the bottom of this post. Hang on because here we go!

General Literacy Terms

  • balanced literacy– A term used to describe a reading program that integrates several reading methods so that you’re not leaning too heavily on one side of teaching. For example, a balanced program integrates reading AND writing as well as phonics AND sight words. It’s not an either/or. All are included.
  • book awareness– An awareness of how books “work”. Where is the cover? Where is the title? How should he hold the book while reading? {Read more HERE}
  • developmental literacy– A method of teaching that looks at the child’s level of development and teaches at that level versus just saying, “Well, he’s in 4th grade. I should work with him on 4th grade skills.” A child might be in 4th grade, yet working on a 2nd grade level developmentally. {Read more HERE}
  • dyslexia– A language processing issue that can make it difficult for the student to: 1) Hear sounds in words {see phonological awareness below}, 2) recognize “known” words quickly, affecting fluency, 3) figure out unknown words, 4) spell, and 5) comprehend text. {Read more HERE or visit my Struggling Readers Pinterest board for multiple articles about dyslexia.}
  • emergent reader– A child who has learned the basics, like letters and their sounds and is ready to begin the early stages of reading. My Reading the Alphabet curriculum was created for my early emergent reader.

5 Days of Multi-Sensory Activities for Teaching Reading | This Reading Mama

  • multi-sensory teaching– Using as many of the five senses to teach a concept. The goal is to help learning become meaningful for that particular student and that the learner will connect with the literacy skill or text in a meaningful way. {Read more HERE}
  • phonics– Understanding the relationship between written letters and the sound(s) that they make
  • pre-reader– A child that does not fully understand that print has meaning. For example, a pre-reader does not fully understand the relationship between the written letter and that it makes a sound (phonics)
  • print awareness– The awareness of how print works. For example, moving from left to right as the child writes or knowing the difference between an upper case and lower case letter {read more HERE}
  • reading level– In my opinion, kids need to be able to read the words AND comprehend the text in order for you to say that they are indeed reading on a particular level. For example, if Suzy can read the words on a 4th grade level, but cannot remember what she has read (this is a re-occurring thing), I would not say that Suzy is reading on a 4th grade level. Reading equals thinking and if the child isn’t getting any meaning from the text, she is simply barking the words. In January of 2014, I have an e-book coming out to help parents find that “just right” level for their child! I can’t wait to share it with you! For now, you can read more a little about this HERE in my post on struggling readers. Although it refers to struggling readers, it applies to all readers.
  • reversals– Reading SAW for was or spelling with a b instead of a d. Reversals are VERY common in early literacy {K-2nd grade} and do not necessarily mean the child is dyslexic. {Read more HERE}

Sight Words: When They Just Don't Stick | This Reading Mama

  • sight words– A sight word is any word that a child has learned by sight. While the most common sight words can be found in Fry’s list as well as the Dolch word list, a child’s name could also be considered a sight word for that particular child. {Read more: Teaching of Sight Words, When Sight Words Just Don’t Stick}

Phonological Awareness Terms

  • phoneme (a.k.a. phonogram)– The smallest sounds (not necessarily letters) in a word. For example, the word cat has three phonemes: /k/-/a/-/t/. But, sheep also has three phonemes /sh/-/ee/-/p/. Keep in mind you are only counting sounds, not letters.
  • phoneme blending– The ability to take the small sounds (phonemes) in a word and blend them together to make a word. For example, if you said, “/k/-/a/-/t/”, with the three sounds separated a bit, can you your child blend them together a little quicker to know it was the word cat?

sorting by initial sounds- a phonemic isolation activity

  • phoneme isolation– The ability to isolate a certain sound in a word. For example, I can ask my child, “What sound do you hear at the beginning of mop? This requires the child to isolate one sound and pull it out from the word: /m/. See our beginning and ending letter sound sorting activity. It helps kids isolate phonemes.
  • phoneme manipulation– The ability to “play” with sounds in a word by blending, isolating, and/or segmenting them. For example: “If you take the /m/ off of man and put a /p/ on the front, what word would it make?” (answer: pan). Doing this requires the child to isolate the m sound, separated it from the word, add the /p/ and then blend the word back together. The easiest stage of phoneme manipulation is with the initial or first sound of the word (like the example I just gave). Harder examples include: asking the child to change man into mat (take off the last sound, add a different sound) or man into mutt (take off the middle sound, add a different vowel sound).
  • phoneme segmentation– the ability to take the entire word and break it into separate phonemes (or small sounds). For example, if the child wants to spell frog, can he separate the sounds /f/-/r/-/o/-/g/ and write a letter to represent each one? Beginning spellers typically hear and spell the first and/or last sounds before moving to the middle sounds. This is a normal part of spelling development. I have a free printable pack for phoneme segmentation here.
  • phonemic awareness– The ability to hear the small sounds (or phonemes) in a word. Phonemic awareness plays a HUGE role in reading and writing! {Read more HERE}

counting syllables in com-pu-ter

  • phonological awareness– The ability to hear sounds within a word. This is the larger umbrella under which phonemic awareness falls. My Reading the Alphabet curriculum focuses a lot with phonological awareness and beginning phonemic awareness, as these are the building blocks for reading.
  • rhyming words– a part of phonological awareness. Two words that begin differently, but have a similar sound at the end. For example: play, day, sleigh, weigh, stay, etc. Note: rhyming words are not always spelled the same.
  • syllables– a part of phonological awareness. I call these the “big parts” of a word with younger kids. For example, words like cat, mop, and fun only have one big part (or syllable), while words like button, able, and under have two. {Read more HERE} You can also see how we counted syllables with LEGO bricks here.

Phonics Terms

  • ambiguous vowels– These are vowel combinations that can make more than one sound, like the oo in book and moon OR sounds that can be represented by more than one vowel combination, like the sound of /ah/ in tall, caught, or cost.


  • blend (consonant)– A blend is when you take two letters, put them together (side-by-side) in a word, and you hear both sounds. A few examples include: bl, gr, st, or nd. Set 4 of my BOB Book printables has a lot of work with blends. The image you see above comes from that set. I also have a FREE Blend BINGO game I created to help kids play with blends.
  • consonant– Consonants include the letters: b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y, and z (although some of these letters can act as vowels, too). Consonants are frequently referred to just with the letter C in curriculum and on sites.
  • decode– The ability to look at letters and figure out the “code” of the letters so that it makes a word.
  • digraph (consonant)– A consonant digraph is when you take two letters, put them together (side-by-side) in a word, and you hear only one sound. Examples include: ch, gn (less common), sh, th, wh, wr.
  • digraph (vowel)– Two vowels found side-by-side in a word that make one sound (unless you are from the south and you can make these vowel digraphs into 3 or 4 sounds). Examples include: ai, ee, oa, or, aw.
  • inflected endings– Endings put on the end of base words such as: -s, -es, -ed, or -ing.
  • long vowel– A vowel that makes it’s sound of its letter name. For example, in the word cat, the a does not make the letter name sound, but in the word name, it does. In spelling instruction, long vowels are typically taught after short vowels because, although its easier to hear the vowel sounds, the spelling patterns are less predictable than short vowel patterns.
  • nonsense words (pseudo-words)– A word that resembles a real word in English, but it isn’t real. Examples include: gake, frot, or shup but NOT braj, xog, or chiv. Nonsense words are used to see if the child can apply the “rules” of phonics without giving the child the crutch of a real word. (Sometimes kids are very good at knowing words by sight, but you want to purely assess if they can decode unknown words. Nonsense words can help you do that.)
  • onset– The first part of a word before the vowel. Examples include: b in bat, sk in skate, or t in toy.
  • phonogram– See phoneme in the section above
  • prefix– A group of letters before a (base) word that changes the word’s meaning. Some common examples are: un-, de-, in-, non-, or ex-. Prefixes have meanings themselves, too. For example, un- means not. If the meaning of the word doesn’t change, it is not considered a prefix. For example, in the word uncle, the un- is not a prefix, but a part of the word itself.
  • r-controlled vowels– Vowels followed by an r that “control” them. They are often referred to as bossy r vowels. The five most common r-controlled vowel combinations are ar, er, ir, or, and ur.


  • rime– The part of the word that comes after the onset. Many rimes are predictable, meaning they are usually spelled the same. The words play, day, jay, and gray all share the same rime: ay. For this reason, I love to have kids spell and read using word families (or rimes). {Read my recent guest post HERE}
  • schwa– A sound in the English language that sounds like the short u sound /uh/, but it is made during a syllable that is not stressed or emphasized. For example, in the words away, another, and again, the schwa sound is found at the beginning of the word. Schwa is usually represented with an upside down letter e.
  • short vowel– Short vowels do not make their letter name sounds like long vowels. Vowels are typically pronounced with their short sound when there is only one vowel in the word or syllable and it is followed by one or more consonants. While there are some exceptions to this (like told or truth), most words do follow this generalization. Examples of short vowel words include: well, hot, sand, or six.
  • suffix– Letters put on the end of a (base) word that changes its meaning. Examples include, but are not limited to -ed, -ly, -ful, or -less.
  • syllable juncture– The point at which two syllables come together in a word. Studying various kinds of syllable junctures helps readers understand how to decode/read words. For example, sample is divided between the m and p while robot is divided between the first o and the b.  The division of the syllables affects vowel sounds within the syllables.
  • vowel– Vowels include the letters: a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y (my) and w (flew). Vowels can be long, short, or make ambiguous sounds (like oo). Vowels are typically represented by the letter V in curriculum or on websites, like here: CVC.
  • word families– Words that rhyme and have rimes that are spelled the same. They have different onsets (beginning letters), but the same rime (word chunks). An example of this are the words dog, frog, log, clog, etc. Emergent readers are prime candidates for learning phonics by way of word families! {Read more HERE}.
  • word study– The study of word patterns in the English language. Instead of teaching phonics as a list of isolated rules (that are so often broken), phonics is taught by looking at and analyzing words that are spelled similarly and coming up with generalizations that apply to that group of similar words. For example, why don’t give, love and have contain long vowels? These words aren’t rule breakers! When studied as a group, students realize there’s a generalization for them. {Read more about word study HERE}.

Fluency Terms

  • accuracy (word)– The ability to read the word correctly the first time. Word accuracy is important for fluency and comprehension.
  • automatic– When a reader can look at a word and read it within one second of seeing it. Word automaticity is important for fluency and comprehension.
  • echo reading– The adult reads a portion of the text with fluency first, then the child copies the adult
  • expression– Another term used for prosody {see below}

Modeling and Teaching Fluent Reading | This Reading Mama

  • fluency– Fluency includes reading rate (or speed/word automaticity), word accuracy, and prosody. Being able to read with fluency has a direct impact on comprehension! {Read more HERE}
  • intonation– Using the sound of your voice to convey meaning. For example, your voice inflects up a bit at the end of asking a question {a part of prosody}.


  • miscues– Miscues are mistakes kids make while reading. Miscues include, but are not limited to, substituting other words for the word in the text or omitting words that in the text. What do you do when a child miscues? You may want to read HERE.
  • prosody– using your voice to express the meaning of the text. Prosody includes things like: intonation, grouping words together in meaningful phrases, or using the punctuation to group words together. When someone reads with prosody, it sounds more like they are talking rather than reading.
  • reading rate (words per minute)– How quickly did the child read the passage? A simple way to calculate words per minute is to take the number of words in the passage and multiply it by 60.  Divide that number by the actual time in seconds it took for the child to read that passage. So if the passage was 200 words long, and Samantha read it in 2 minutes, her words per minute would be 100 words per minute. And just a side note: reading quickly isn’t always a good thing if kids are more focused on how fast they can read versus the meaning of the text.
  • re-reading– Going back and reading a text again that you’ve already read. There are several reasons to re-read. Reads might go back and re-reading for meaning (like if it didn’t make sense the first time). I ask readers to re-read entire (shorter) texts or passages sometimes just to work on fluency. {Read more about re-reading HERE}
  • self-corrections– When a child goes back and corrects a mistake in her reading.
  • silent reading– When a child reads silently to himself. Younger children tend to whisper read instead of reading in complete silence. Silent reading is a part of balanced literacy. Books that the child reads during silent reading should primarily be books that he can read with independence (for example, books that the child has already read with you).

Comprehension Terms

  • Bloom’s Taxonomy– A way to classify different kinds of thinking. Bloom’s starts out at the basic level (knowledge) and moves up into higher order thinking, like synthesis and evaluation.

Comprehension Strategies ~ Reading Equals Thinking | This Reading Mama

  • comprehension strategies– The strategies proficient readers use as they are reading. Some examples of comprehension strategies include: asking questions, making predictions or creating mental images. For a complete list and description of each, read HERE}
  • context (in context)– When reading is done in context, it is done within the text. Words are kept in their context. Instead of pulling individual words out for study, words are figured out by using the context of the sentence or passage.
  • explicit questions– Questions that directly come from the text, the reader can go back and find the answer word-for-word. These kinds of questions would be on the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • fiction– A story or text that is made up. Fiction can be realistic or fantasy. (I hesitate to say that fiction is “not true”, because lots of fiction does include facts, like historical fiction.)
  • implicit questions (higher order thinking questions)– Questions that require the reader to read between the lines, the answer is not in black and white, but rather implied. These kinds of questions invoke the child to dig a little deeper and for that reason, I like to use them more than explicit questions. {Read more about asking questions HERE}
  • main idea– The way I always describe main idea to kids is: What is the story ALL about? Main idea does not include small details, but the big picture and can usually be summed up in one or two sentences.
  • non-fiction– Text that is not made up and is based on facts. Non-fiction includes more than a science or history book. A recipe is non-fiction. The ingredients on the cereal box are non-fiction. The rules to a card game are non-fiction.
  • out of context– Pulling words out of context means that you take the word (or words) from the text and study them separately, apart from the text itself. There are several reasons it is good to do this, but HERE are my top 5.
  • picture walk (preview)– This is an activity done before reading takes place. The reader looks through the pictures of the text and predicts what he or she thinks is happening. This is a great way to activate prior knowledge and to give the child a purpose in reading. Students using non-fiction texts can preview the text by looking at the table of contents, charts, or photographs to predict what the text will be about.
  • plot– The rise and fall in action from a story. Scholastic has a plot diagram to demonstrate plot in a fiction text.

Before They Read Part 1: Connecting New Content with Prior Knowledge | This Reading Mama

  • prior knowledge (background knowledge)– Also known as schema. What does the reader already know about the subject before even reading the text. Comprehension is much easier if the reader has prior knowledge of the subject before reading. You can read more about that HERE. If the child does not have the prior knowledge, the adult can build prior knowledge by making learning hands-on and tangible.
  • retell/summarize– When a child retells what happened in the story, she is including only the important parts of the story. Retelling requires the reader to determine what’s important/not important from the text and retell it in a way that makes sense to the listener. {Read more about Teaching Young Readers How to Summarize or Using Fiction Text Structure to Retell}. Summarizing non-fiction can get even trickier {refer to text features/text structure below}
  • story elements– Story elements are the basic features that make a story be a story such as characters, setting, problem, and solution. These story elements work together to form the plot.

Non-Fiction Text Features and Text Structure | This Reading Mama

  • text features and text structure– Text features and text structures go hand-in-hand in helping young readers know what is important and not so important to the text. There is A LOT of meat with text features and text structure, so you may want to read my two articles: Fiction Story Elements and Text Structure & Non-Fiction Text Features and Text Structures. You may also be interested in my 5 day series on Teaching Text Structure (with BOTH fiction and non-fiction information AND FREE printable organizers!}
  • theme– The theme is what the author wants you to walk away with from the text. Often the author wants readers to learn a lesson for life such as be kind or act responsibly. Fables are a great medium for teaching theme, as fables all have a moral or lesson to be learned.

Writing Terms

  • conventional spelling– Spelling words the correct way.
  • copy work– Asking a child to copy words, phrases, or sentences to practice grammar, handwriting, and/or phonics skills. Many people will select passages from a text that the adult and child just read together as copy work. Once the child copies the work, he is supposed to read it aloud to practice fluency as well.
  • developmental spelling– Understanding that spelling is a process. A preschooler’s spellings will look much different than the spellings of an older child. You can find links explaining what spelling looks like in each stage HERE.
  • dictation Used mainly with children in the pre-writing stage or when a child wants to write something for which he is not developmentally ready. The child tells the adult what he wants his sentence(s) to say and the adult writes the words in front of the child. The adult then reads it back to the child. Although this is a great strategy for pre-writers, it is effective for older reluctant writers, too!
  • fine motor– In order to hold a pencil and write, the muscles in the hand need to develop strength. Fine motor activities such as tweezer work, beading, playing with playdough, building with Lego bricks, or scissor practice can help to strengthen those muscles. You can find all kinds of fine motor work activities on my Fine Motor Pinterest board.
  • handwriting– Letter formation or writing. All young writers should begin writing their letters from the top down instead of the bottom up when making vertical strokes. Right-handed children should also drag their pencil from left to writing when making horizontal strokes while left-handed children should drag their pencil from right to left. Forming letters this way facilitates dragging the pencil versus pushing the pencil to write.
  • invented spelling– When a child does not spell the word conventionally, but makes up a spelling of the word instead. I love invented spellings because they tell you so much about what a writer understands about how words work. {See how we use invented spelling HERE and read my article Invented Spelling: The GOOD, the Bad, and the Ugly here}
  • pencil grip– The way a child holds his or her pencil while writing. Correct pencil grip may not be used right away when kids first start writing and that’s okay! For more about correct pencil grip, read HERE.
  • shared writing (interactive writing)– This is a highly effective writing strategy, especially for struggling writers, in which the adult and the child share the pencil (see it in action here). The adult writes most parts (maybe the parts that are too difficult for the child) and the child writes what he can. For example, if a child knows a few basic sight words, the parent would let the child write those words if they come up in the writing as they work together. While the adult is writing, she is modeling what good writers do. It might sound like, “I am going to put some space between this word and this one so my reader knows these are two different words.” (More info to come on this later this spring!)

Simple Writing Lessons for Primary Grades | This Reading Mama

  • writing process– This is my favorite way to teach writing: as a process. This approach encourages kids to engage with writing like real authors do. It includes brainstorming ideas, writing rough drafts, revising, editing, publishing, and sharing work. If you have a primary-age student, you will WANT to read all the simple lesson ideas shared by The Measured Mom and I during a 12-week writing series called, Simple Writing Lessons.
  • writing prompts– Any time an adult gives the child his subject for writing. Writing prompts can be effective for giving young writers a springboard for more writing. They can also be effective for controlling vocabulary. For example, if your child was working on the sight word like, you might give him a prompt to practice that new word, such as “I like…”, and he completes the sentence. If you’d like some creative writing prompts for each month of the year, you can purchase the bundle pack HERE.

 photo FAQ-250sidebar_zps15918129.jpg

For more FAQ, please feel free to visit my FAQ post for parents.



Literacy Terms Defined for Parents-PV Want a printable copy of all these literacy terms and definitions? Click HERE or on the image above.

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  1. WOW! What an amazing resource!!! Thanks =)

  2. Wow! I attended a literacy workshop today and the terms information literacy, media literacy and technology literacy were also introduced!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  4. awesome list! :)

  5. Thank you so much – this is great information for beginning or struggling homeschooling parents! You always provide such great content!!

  6. This is great! I would love to give this list to parents of struggling readers.


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