Supporting improvement in literacy and numeracy

A student’s literacy and numeracy skills underpin their future workforce participation and productivity, and can also impact on their long-term social and health outcomes.

Image: A range of tools and approaches are used

Why literacy and numeracy matters

Students currently enrolled in NSW schools will navigate a vastly different world of work to most of the adults in their lives. Our students are entering rapidly changing, technology-rich, global and highly competitive job markets.

Students need to be positioned to thrive in this environment, and to see opportunities as well as to meet challenges.

While literacy and numeracy skills are explicit in English and mathematics, all learning areas require discipline-specific literacy and numeracy knowledge and skills.

Literacy is strengthened, made specific and extended in other learning areas, and the use of mathematical skills across the curriculum enriches the study of each curriculum area and contributes to the development of a broader and deeper understanding of numeracy.

The growth of new technologies and new industries has led to an increasing need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) expertise in the workforce.

For educators, the future is not an abstract concept. We can see the future daily in the faces of the young people in our classrooms. Now, more than ever, we need to be planning for their future.

We know the fundamentals of education will not change. Literacy and numeracy are, and always will be, the foundations of learning. Therefore, the teaching of discipline-specific literacy and numeracy skills are cross-curricular responsibilities of all teachers P-12.

Key principles for whole school literacy and numeracy improvement

The School Excellence Framework (SEF) states that in schools that excel, ‘all teachers understand and explicitly teach literacy and numeracy to students at all levels of achievement, in all subject areas, with success that can be measured by improved student progress and achievement data’.

The teaching of literacy and numeracy is a core responsibility of all teachers in your school. Improving literacy and numeracy skills for all students requires a collective focus, where all members of your school work together to adopt a whole school approach, supporting the explicit teaching of literacy and numeracy across each key learning and subject area.

Some key principles underpin this.

The school leadership team:

  • are lead learners and demonstrate a clear understanding of which initiatives and strategies are most effective in achieving sustainable improvements in student performance
  • identifies those teachers having a wide repertoire of teaching practices which they expertly employ to suit their classroom context, their purposes and the needs of their students, and support them to provide instructional leadership/mentoring in teaching literacy and numeracy across the school
  • provides staff with research-based resources that are used equitably and strategically to address the literacy and numeracy needs of the students
  • ensures that students can clearly articulate their learning goals, specifically in literacy and numeracy, through having a clear vision of the expectations, where they are at and where they need to go next in their learning
  • ensures that there is effective, collaborative engagement with parents and carers about their child’s literacy and numeracy development
  • embeds systems for student literacy and numeracy data to be shared at transition stages, from year to year and between each school setting.

All teachers:

  • hold high expectations for all learners, and share a vision of accountability and responsibility for student learning
  • prioritise teaching time for literacy and numeracy with strategies embedded in all curriculum areas
  • engage in targeted quality professional learning that further develops their capabilities to teach literacy and numeracy, effectively meeting the needs of all learners - including EAL/D, refugee, Aboriginal students, students with disability and additional needs, and high potential and gifted students
  • understand the minimum curriculum requirements and the minimum standard required for student literacy and numeracy development for each year level
  • use data to inform explicit programming and targeted teaching, including differentiation and formative assessment of literacy and numeracy skills
  • monitor and track student progress, and support students identified as needing additional support/ extension
  • provide quality feedback and utilise assessment practices, including tracking of students through frameworks and progressions, to support teacher decision-making and student progress.

Literacy and numeracy priorities

Literacy and numeracy form the foundations students need for deep learning across the curriculum and the development of skills essential to everyday life.  

From 2022, a focus on 5 new priorities for improving literacy and numeracy will ensure all NSW public schools have access to the support they need to give students every opportunity to achieve their best.  

The 5 priorities for improving literacy and numeracy, which are based on strong evidence and research, identify the most important levers to improve student outcomes.  

  • There is a whole school and system approach to literacy and numeracy achievement from preschool to Year 12.  
  • School leadership is focussed on improving student literacy and numeracy.  
  • All teachers use effective practices to improve student literacy and numeracy outcomes through curriculum.  
  • Schools and systems use data to inform literacy and numeracy improvement.  
  • Families are supported as partners in their children’s literacy and numeracy development. 

Evidence-based practices to improve literacy and numeracy

There are 3 key CESE documents that provide a research-based foundation for your school to consider when planning for effective practice - not only in literacy and numeracy, but across all curriculum areas.

Key documents

The Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) document:

The main findings are:

  1. Intervene early and maintain the focus.
  2. Know what students can do and target teaching accordingly.
  3. Have clear and transparent learning goals.
  4. Focus on teacher professional learning that improves the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

These themes are explored through the lens of 2 additional CESE documents:

Focus questions

The following focus questions are based on the drivers of improvement and effective practices that are common to all NSW government schools that have achieved high growth.

Quality matters early

The first 3 years of schooling are critical for students to develop the literacy and numeracy skills that they will carry into upper primary and secondary school. Initial early identification of student strengths and areas requiring development, the choice and implementation of effective interventions used to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes, and effective teaching, can address and mitigate the effects of disadvantage and reduce performance gaps within your school.

A sustained focus is important

Your school’s early intervention strategies need to be followed by sustained, high-quality learning experiences with clear monitoring and tracking processes to sustain student improvement.

Focus questions
  • Have we identified explicit whole-school goals and are they embedded across stages and faculties?
  • Have we implemented and effectively resourced whole-school planning sessions and regular staff meetings to plan, discuss, support and evaluate progress towards achieving goals?
  • Have we implemented and effectively resourced cross-stage/ faculty project teams, for example focusing on literacy and/or numeracy to support learning programs and assessment tasks at a whole-school level?
  • Do we have effective structures and processes in place to help all our teachers ‘put a face to the data’ – ensuring that our student data, while aggregated for planning, maintains a focus on individual students and their needs?

Targeted teaching can reduce achievement gaps

Differentiated instruction is an effective strategy for lifting the performance of all students. This applies equally to your more capable students and students requiring greater learning support. Early intervention, and sustained ‘point in time’ tiered intervention are essential practices that need to be in place throughout all stages of schooling.

Intervention and differentiation strategies which are implemented in a continuous, planned way across your entire student cohort, are a means of not only delivering the year level curriculum, but extending the skills and knowledge of all of your students in every class regardless of their starting point.

Focus question
  • Have we implemented and effectively resourced the use of extensive, point in time data collection, including formative and summative assessment, to track learning outcomes in the classroom and to guide teaching practice to ensure all students’ skills are being extended?
Formative assessment helps target teaching

Through the planned and continuous monitoring and tracking of student learning, your teachers are able to identify concepts and skills with which their students are having difficulty, and in turn, plan to teach or reteach these concepts and skills in a targeted way to ensure mastery. Conversely, areas in which your students may require further challenge in order to keep them performing at their highest levels may also be targeted.

Focus question
  • Are we planning, resourcing, implementing and monitoring our initiatives to ensure that all of our teachers are:
    • using effective processes to track student learning
    • developing and documenting differentiation strategies when planning to target concepts, skills and understandings to ensure all students skills are being extended?

Learning progressions support explicit teaching

In order to improve your students’ literacy and numeracy skills, an effective and evidence-based whole school approach to setting learning goals is vital. Clear and transparent learning goals can be set at both the school and classroom level by tracking student progress.

An effective, clearly articulated approach is especially important in secondary schools, where the planned development of literacy and numeracy skills is often described as ‘everybody’s responsibility’. Moving from this aspiration to an embedded whole-school approach that impacts every classroom and every teacher’s practice, requires an intentional, well-articulated and well-resourced plan to build the capabilities of all teachers so that they confidently and intentionally develop the literacy and numeracy skills of each of their students.

Focus question
  • Have we ensured that explicit learning goals based on syllabus outcomes and learning progressions are presented for our students in a way that clearly:
    • show what the learning expectations are
    • show their current level of achievement
    • inspire and encourage them to pursue higher levels of achievement?
Explicit teaching improves student learning

Explicit teaching practices involve all of your teachers clearly showing students what to do and how to do it, rather than having students discover or construct this information for themselves. When introducing any explicit teaching, teachers need to ensure that they explicitly communicate the learning intention of the lesson and what success means for those intentions. Teachers need to clearly articulate what they want students to learn in terms of the skills, knowledge, attitudes and values within any particular unit or lesson.

Focus questions
  • Have we implemented and effectively resourced structures and processes to ensure that all of our teachers are effectively using explicit instruction to show our students what success looks like?
  • Are all of our teachers consistently breaking down the steps required to achieve success? How are we monitoring if this is having a positive impact on student learning?
  • Are all of our teachers consistently showing students exemplars of success, for example, sharing work samples that meet achievement benchmarks? How do we know this is happening?
  • Are all of our students receiving quality instruction through rigorous and relevant teaching strategies? Is learning time effective? How do we know this is happening?

Quality professional learning improves teaching quality

High-quality teaching is the greatest in-school influence on student engagement and outcomes. Effective professional learning ensures that all of your teachers are enabled to deliver at their highest levels and improve student outcomes in literacy and numeracy. High impact professional learning deepens each teachers’ content knowledge and their knowledge about how students best learn that content.

Professional learning within your school needs to be:

  • seen as an integral part of achieving whole school priorities
  • linked to clear and relevant student outcomes
  • supported by the wider school community.
Focus questions
  • Are we identifying strategic opportunities for professional learning that directly relate to school goals and provide tangible skills and materials that can be used in the classroom?
  • Have we put in place identified opportunities and processes to share professional learning and internal expertise across our school?
  • Have we implemented and effectively resourced structures and processes to ensure that all our teachers can effectively apply professional learning in the classroom?


Experts in the classroom provide instructional leadership to the whole school

Teachers learning from each other through sharing experiences and expertise builds the capabilities of all staff. The model of instructional leadership adopted is of less importance than the skills and experience of the people involved, the level of competence and confidence they have in their respective roles, their willingness to embrace change, and the relationships they develop.

Focus questions
  • Have we put in place and effectively supported structured opportunities for effective collaboration among staff where all our teachers are sharing work samples to ensure consistency in teacher judgement?
  • Have we provided and effectively supported the use of easily accessible platforms for all our staff to share and collaborate on teaching resources and practices, and have we included strategies such as the use of templates and exemplars that facilitate differentiation and assessment?
  • Have we put in place structured opportunities for effective peer coaching and support programs, promoting and developing improved teaching practice?


Teaching writing has far-reaching benefits for all students

Writing is recognised as a tool that promotes content learning across all disciplines and year levels. There is a substantial evidence base for the importance of explicitly teaching writing. For these reasons, a school-wide approach to the teaching of writing should be considered when you are developing your Strategic Improvement Plan (SIP).

Implementing a whole-school approach to explicitly teach writing will require each curriculum area, stage or faculty to explicitly teach and assess the requirements of writing that are specific to their curriculum or syllabus, as a means of deepening student knowledge and understanding.

Teachers who have extensive knowledge about the teaching of writing can achieve significant gains in student writing and overall literacy results. This requires teachers to have a skills set that includes understanding theory and research related to teaching writing, the capability to analyse the practice and the experience of writing. This is a set of skills that may need to be developed further. In developing your SIP, you may need to consider professional learning that equips all teachers with the tools to identify and teach to the full spectrum of writing development year levels and subject areas as a means of improving student learning outcomes.


Effective teachers use data to understand and plan for their students’ needs

Professional learning in data analysis, and the tools and techniques to effectively utilise data within the classroom, develops within your staff the technical expertise to make the best use of data and evidence of learning. This enables teachers to have a greater understanding of their students’ needs and can lead to improvements in teaching practice.

The interpretation and use of assessment information by teachers who have received data analysis professional learning has been shown to result in student achievement gains accelerating at twice the expected rate.

Focus questions
  • Have we implemented and effectively resourced structures and processes to ensure that all our teachers are effectively using student data to identify learning needs, develop learning targets and monitor student progress in attaining these targets?
  • Have we in place and have we effectively supported structured opportunities for all of our teachers to share work samples and ensure that assessment expectations are consistent and that a culture of high expectations is promoted across our school?

Learn more

Find out more about School Excellence in Action.


  • Teaching and learning


  • Literacy
  • Numeracy

Business Unit:

  • School Performance – South
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