You'll find basic definitions of important primary-school literacy terms below. For a much more detailed, parent-friendly guide to how children are taught about each of these concepts in English, as well as examples, click on the link in the word.
An adjective is a word used to describe and give more information about a noun, which could be a person, place or object.
An adverb is a word which modifies a verb, which means that it tells you how, when, where or why something is being done.
Often used in poetry, alliteration is the repetition of an initial letter or sound in closely connected words.
Apostrophes are punctuation marks used to show possession and to show contraction (also known as omission).
Articles are words which tell us whether a noun is general (any noun) or specific. There are three articles: 'the' is a definite article and 'a' and 'an' are indefinite articles.
Argument text is a piece of writing which expresses points of view 'for' or 'against' the subject.
Biography and autobiography
Blending sounds means looking at a word and, rather than saying the separate sounds that make it up, linking the sounds together and saying the whole word in one go. Blending is an essential phonics skill which children are taught as part of learning to read.
A book report or review is your child’s written critique of a book. Book reports tend to focus on describing what the book is about, while reviews are more concerned with your child’s opinion of the book.
Brainstorming is a process in which a question or problem is posed, then a group of people give ideas which are noted by a person who writes them down on paper or a board for the group to see.
Clauses are the building blocks of sentences, groups of words that contain a subject and a verb. Clauses can be main or subordinate.
The comparative form of an adjective or adverb is used to compare one person, thing, action or state to another. Examples of comparatives: sadder, lighter, more famous, worse, more angrily. The comparative is usually formed by adding the suffix -er.
A conjunction is a type of connective ('connective' is an umbrella term for any word that connects bits of text). Co-ordinating connectives include the words and, but and so; subordinating connectives include the words because, if and until.
Consonant and consonant cluster
The alphabet is made up of 26 letters, 5 of which are vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and the rest of which are consonants. A consonant is a sound that is made by blocking air from flowing out of the mouth with the teeth, tongue, lips or palate. Two consonants which appear next to each other are known as a consonant cluster.
Contracted words or contractions
Contracted words are short words made by putting two words together. Letters are missed out in the contraction and replaced by an apostrophe, for example I'm (I am) or it's (it is).
Narrative or creative writing involves writing stories with a structure, using knowlege of grammar and punctuation to present them correctly.
CVC / CCVC / CVCC words
A CVC word is a word that is made up of a consonant, vowel and consonant. CCVC words are made up of a consonant, a consonant, a vowel and a consonant. In CVCC words the sequence is: consonant, vowel, consonant, consonant.
Decoding is the process of seeing written words on a page and being able to say them out loud.
A determiner is a word that introduces a noun and identifies it in detail. Determiners can be articles (a, an, the), demonstratives (this, that), possessives (your, his), quantifiers (some, many), numbers (six, sixty).
A digraph is two letters that make one sound. Digraphs can be made up of vowels or consonants.
Direct and indirect speech
Direct speech is a sentence in which the exact words spoken are reproduced in speech marks (quotation marks or inverted commas). Indirect speech or reported speech is when the general points of what someone has said are reported, without actually writing the speech out in full.
DUMTUMS are a way of reminding children how to present their work. The letters stand for: Date, Underline, Miss a line, Title, Underline, Miss a line, Start.
Encoding is the process of hearing a sound and being able to write a symbol to represent that sound.
Exception words are words in which the English spelling code works in an unusual or uncommon way. Children learn to read and spell common exception words throughout their time in primary school, particularly in Reception, Y1 and Y2.
An explanation text describes a process. These non-fiction texts are usually written in the present tense, with numbered points and diagrams or pictures to make the process clear.
Extended writing is when children are given a set amount of time to produce a piece of writing unaided. An extended writing session often marks the end of a unit of literacy teaching.
A fable is a story that features animals, plants or forces of nature that have been anthropomorphised (given human qualities) and ends with a ‘moral’.
Figurative language uses words and ideas to suggest meaning (as opposed to literal language, which communicates in a plain and obvious way). In primary school, forms of figurative language studied include metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole and onomatopoeia.
A grapheme is a written symbol that represents a sound (a phoneme). This can be a single letter, or could be a sequence of letters (ai, sh, igh, tch, for example).
Guided reading is a regular, time-tabled session in which teachers work with a small number of children in the classroom to analyse a text in detail, making sure each child can read each word and discussing meaning of the text with them.
A haiku is a form Japanese poetry that has three lines. There can be any number of words, but there must be 5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second line and 5 syllables in the third line. Haikus don't usually rhyme.
High-frequency words are some of the most common words in the English language. A number of them don’t follow phonetic rules, so they must be learned individually by heart. Children start to learn to read and write high-frequency words in Reception, and are given more words to memorise in KS1 and KS2.
Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. Some homophones are pronounced the same way and spelled the same way but have different meanings; others are pronounced the same way but are spelled differently and have different meanings.
An information text is a non-fiction text which gives information about a particular thing. Information texts are sometimes called non-chronological reports, because they are reporting information about something without mentioning the order of events.
An instruction text is a non-fiction text such as a recipe or manual. Instruction texts include lists of items and numbered points detailing how to carry out a certain activity.
Interactive whiteboards are the size of a usual class whiteboard, but are connected to a teacher's computer, so whatever the teacher is doing on the computer will appear on the interactive whiteboard.
While most verbs form their different tenses according to an established "formula", some verbs do not form their tenses in a regular way and are called irregular verbs.
A kenning uses a two-word phrase in the place of a one-word noun in poetry (for example, sea-farer instead of sailor).
Learning objective / WALT
A learning objective is what the teacher wants the children to have learnt or achieved by the end of the lesson. Learning objectives are sometimes referred to as WALT (stands for We Are Learning To).
A letter sound is literally the sound we make when we are reading a written letter of the alphabet.
A letter string is a group of letters that appear in a word. For example, the letter string str is contained in each of these words: string, straight, strike, strain.
Look, Cover, Write, Check
Look, Cover, Write, Check is a strategy used to help children learn to spell. When learning a new word, children are asked to: look at it, cover it over with a piece of paper or their hand, write the spelling again next to the word and finally uncover the spelling to check if they have got it right.
A metaphor is a comparison which is not literally true. It suggests what something is like by comparing it with something else with similar characteristics (for example, my brother is a piglet).
Mini-whiteboards are A4-sized wipe-clean surfaces which come with a whiteboard pen. Children are usually provided with a mini-whiteboard each, and use it to write on in the classroom.
A modal verb is a special type of verb which changes or affects other verbs in a sentence. Modal verbs are used to show the level of possibility, indicate ability, show obligation or give permission.
Modelled writing is when a teacher writes a passage of text in front of the class. It differs from shared writing in that the teacher does not ask for the input of the class.
A multi-clause sentence is another term for a complex sentence.
A mystery story is one in which an unexplained event (often a crime) has occurred and the reader discovers how events unfolded by reading the text.
Myths and legends
A myth is a traditional, ancient story that is fictional. Myths were often written to explain natural phenomena and quite often involved gods and fantasy creatures. A legend is a story which takes place within human history. Legends are widely believed to be rooted in the truth, but will have evolved over time and taken on fictional elements.
A non-chronological report is a non-fiction report which is not written in time order. Explanation texts, recounts and instruction texts are non-chronological reports.
Any text that is not a story is non-fiction. Non-fiction texts studied at primary school include instruction texts, recounts, information texts, explanation texts, persuasive texts, biography, journalistic writing and argument texts.
A noun is a naming word. It is a thing, a person, an animal or a place. Nouns can be common, proper, abstract or collective.
The object of a sentence is the thing or person that is involved in an action, but does not carry it out ("The cat chased the mouse.").
Onomatopoeia is a word that names a sound, but also sounds like that sound. For example: boom, honk, pop, crack, cuckoo, crack, splat, tweet, zoom, sizzle, whizz, buzz, hiss, rip.
A paragraph is a section of writing consisting of one or more sentences grouped together and discussing one main subject.
Past continuous (or progressive)
Personification is a type of figurative language which gives an object human characteristics (emotions, sensations, speech, physical movements).
Persuasive text is non-fiction text which aims to make the reader do something. Adverts, posters and travel brochure are all kinds of persuasive text.
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound.
Phonics is a method of teaching children to read by linking sounds (phonemes) and the symbols that represent them (graphemes, or letters). Phonics is the method used in primary schools in the UK today to teach children to read.
A play script is a piece of writing written for the stage. It is likely to include a list of characters, may be divided into acts (which are then divided into scenes) and contain dialogue and stage directions.
A prefix is a string of letters that are added to the beginning of a root word, changing its meaning.
Prepositions are linking words in a sentence. We use prepositions to explain where things are in time or space.
Present continuous (or progressive)
A pronoun is a word used to replace a noun. Examples of pronouns are: he, she, it, they. Pronouns can be personal and possessive.
Reading comprehension means understanding what is being read and being able to engage with a text on many levels, understanding its layers of meaning.
A recount is a non-fiction piece of writing that gives details of an event that has happened. Diary entries, newspaper articles and letters are all forms of recounts,
A relative clause is a type of subordinate clause that adapts, describes or modifies a noun by using a relative pronoun (who, that or which).
Rhyme is the repetition of similar sounds in words, usually at the end of lines in poems and songs.
A root word is a basic word with no prefix or suffix added to it. By adding prefixes and suffixes to a root word we can change its meaning.
'Scaffolding' learning means providing a framework on paper that will support a child in learning a particular skill.
A sentence is one word or a group of words that makes sense by itself (a grammatical unit). Sentences begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop, a question mark or an exclamation point. Sentences usually contain a subject (doing something) and a verb (what is being done).
Shared writing is a process teachers use o help children to understand how to write a particular kind of text. It involves a teacher producing some text on the board with input from the class.
A simile is a comparison phrase which finds similar characteristics in two objects and compares them, always by using the words 'like' or 'as'.
Simple, compound and complex sentences
A simple sentence has a subject and one verb. A compound sentence is formed when you join two main clauses with a connective. A complex sentence is formed when you join a main clause and a subordinate clause with a connective.
A spider diagram is a planning tool used to help children make notes on a particular subject.
A digraph is two vowels which together make one sound (as in the words tail, boat, found or read). When a digraph is split by a consonant it becomes a split digraph, sometimes known as 'magic e'.
Standard English is the "correct" form of English, taught in schools and used in formal written communication.
Story map / Story mountain / Story flowchart
Story maps, mountains and flowcharts are diagrams used in the classroom to help children analyse the plot and the structure of a text.
A story setting is the location in which a story takes place. The setting could anywhere, from a park to a home to an alien planet.
The subject of a sentence is the thing or person who is carrying out the action described by the verb ("The cat chased the mouse.").
The subjunctive is a verb form used to express things that could or should happen, for example: If I were to go... / I demand that he answer!
A subordinate clause needs to be attached to a main clause because it cannot make sense on its own, although it contains a subject and a verb.
Success criteria / WILF
A success criteria is a list of features that a teacher wants the children to include in their work during the course of a lesson. It is sometimes known as the WILF (What I'm Looking For).
A suffix is a string of letters that go at the end of a word, changing or adding to its meaning. Suffixes can show if a word is a noun, an adjective, an adverb or a verb.
The superlative form of an adjective or adverb is used to compare one person, thing, action or state to all the others in its class. Examples of superlatives: saddest, lightest, most famous, worst, most angrily. The superlative is usually formed by adding the suffix -est.
A syllable is a single, unbroken sound of a spoken (or written) word. Syllables are sometimes called the ‘beats’ of a word.
Synonyms are words with the same or similar meanings.
Talk partners are pairs of children who discuss topics in the classroom. The use of talk partners is a common technique in the primary-school classroom.
Text-marking is highlighting, circling, underlining or labelling the features of a text. The purpose of text-marking is to make children aware of how different texts are set out and which features are used.
Time connectives are words or phrases which tell the reader when something is happening. They can also be called temporal connectives.
A traditional tale is a fairy story or fairy tale, a story that has been told and re-told for many years and almost everyone knows. Examples of traditional tales are Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood.
A trigraph is a single sound that is represented by three letters, for example tch, igh in fight or ear in bear.
Verbal reasoning is a form of problem-solving based around words and language. Verbal reasoning tasks include solving word problems, following written instructions to come up with a solution, spotting letter sequences and cracking letter- and number-based codes.
Verbs and powerful verbs
A verb expresses a physical action, a mental action or a state of being. Powerful verbs are descriptive, rich words.
Verb tenses tell us the time when an action took place, in the past, the present or the future.
The alphabet is made up of 26 letters, 5 of which are vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and the rest of which are consonants. A vowel is a sound that is made by allowing breath to flow out of the mouth, without closing any part of the mouth or throat.
Word banks are lists of words to support children with their writing. These will vary according to the age of the child and the task given.
A writing frame is a blank diagram used to show children how to set out their writing and to remind them to include certain features.
Have we missed any literacy terms that you'd like to see explained? Email requests for new glossary entries to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You'll find maths and numeracy terms and vocabulary explained in our Primary numeracy glossary for parents.