Concepts of print (emergent literacy)

The awareness of how print works including emerging knowledge about books, print, and written language, and how we use them.

Concepts of print in English

Concepts of print can be described as a "set of rules" that are followed by readers and writers so that the text can be understood in the intended way. Concepts of print demonstrate to children the logistics of reading and writing, which allow the processes of literacy to take place.

For example:

  • understanding that print relays a message
  • knowledge about book orientation and directionality of print
  • book handling (e.g. holding a book right way up, turning pages)
  • emerging knowledge of the alphabet
  • awareness of books, pages, words and letters

Children who are learning about books and reading need to know these concepts so that they are able to understand the rules and begin to understand the message.

Examples of concepts of print

Concepts of print are important for emergent reading and writing.

The main understandings or elements of concepts of print for English include:

  • the concept of text
  • concept of book
  • the idea of directionality
  • mechanical features
  • alphabet knowledge

(Clay, 2013; Justice & Ezell, 2004; Piasta et al., 2016).

From a very young age children engage in writing and drawing to represent real things (Bradford and Wyse, 2010). Children can distinguish between drawing, writing, and numbers based on their understanding of the concepts they represent (Lancaster, 2007; Wells Rowe & Neitzel, 2010).

Using verbal and non-verbal cues to direct children’s attention during reading affects their later print knowledge and literacy skills (Justice & Ezell, 2004).

Similarly, calling children’s attention to the sound structure of words during reading promotes their phonological awareness (Piasta et al., 2016). Shared reading with embedded vocabulary instruction also helps children to make meaning from print, especially when reading is coupled with extension activities (Piasta et al., 2016).

Diagram with examples of concepts of print.

Concept of text

  • Understanding that print relays a message

Concept of book

  • Book handling - holding the book the right way up
  • Front cover, back cover
  • Title, author, illustrator, blurb


  • Beginning at the front of the book, ending at the back
  • Turning pages left to right
  • Concept of top and bottom of a page - beginning at the top of the page and ending at the bottom of the page
  • Reading pages from left to right
  • Reading words from left to right
  • Return sweep - reading left to right then sweep back to the beginning of the following line of text


  • Knowledge that words are separated by spaces
  • Recognising the difference between symbols including, alphabetic letters vs. numerals vs. punctuation
  • The purpose of punctuation and capital letters
  • Understanding that most printed words are read the same way each time (for example, the letters w-o-u-l-d will always say 'would')

Alphabet knowledge

Alphabet knowledge is also considered a concepts of print component. This includes:

  • knowledge of the names of each letter
  • knowing the order of the alphabet
  • recognition of each upper and lower case letter
  • knowing the difference between letters and words

The metalinguistic awareness of knowing the difference between a "word" and a "letter" is also important for alphabet knowledge. This is because children need these metalinguistic terms to talk about the concepts they are grasping, as they begin to recognise familiar words and letters.

It should be noted that children are not required to have an extensive knowledge of the sounds that letters make (phonics) before transition to primary school.

However, being able to recognise and name letters (alphabet knowledge) is a very useful emergent literacy skill, encouraged in language and emergent literacy learners. The development of alphabet knowledge before school (along with phonological awareness and oral language) is an important predictor of early reading success.

Part of the mechanics of concepts of print includes the recognition of letters. Once children have a grasp of the concept of letters and their names, then the letter shapes can be associated with their sounds.

Phonological awareness is the knowledge of how the sound system (phonology) works (for example, syllables, rhyming, individual speech sounds in words).

While alphabet knowledge (part of concepts of print) is the ability to recognise and name upper and lowercase letters, phonics is the knowledge of sound-letter patterns: what sounds letters make.

Alphabet knowledge is a crucial precursor to early phonics knowledge.

For more information refer to:

Outcome 4: learning

Children resource their own learning through connecting with people, place, technologies and natural and processed materials

  • explore the purpose and function of a range of tools, media, sounds and graphics

Outcome 5: communication

Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts

  • view and listen to printed, visual and multimedia texts and respond with relevant gestures, actions, comments and/or questions
  • explore texts from a range of different perspectives and begin to analyse the meanings
  • actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways
  • recognise and engage with written and oral culturally constructed texts

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work

  • view and listen to printed, visual and multimedia texts and respond with relevant gestures, actions, comments and/or questions
  • develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them
  • begin to be aware of the relationships between oral, written and visual representations
  • begin to recognise patterns and relationships and the connections between them

Getting started

General ideas

Build a print rich environment:

  • use labels, alphabet posters, word walls, reading corners

Incorporate print (with images) in everyday situations, including routines, transitions, mealtimes, and nappy changes:

  • use labels, posters, signs, instructions, recipes

Provide print-based play materials to enhance planned and spontaneous play:

  • use labels, pretend money, name tags, signs, newspapers, books, lists, menus, diagrams, directions

Use a poem or a song that children are familiar with and highlight the features of a text in different colours.

This leads to discussion about the purpose of these features. For example:

  • capital letters (highlight green)
  • full stops (highlight yellow)

Read a storybook to model and/or identify features of a text while reading, for example differences between words and letters, directionality, return sweep, front and back cover of book.

Read books with different font types/sizes, bold, exclamation mark, question mark and capital letters.

Ideas for alphabet knowledge

  • Make letter shapes out of playdough, clay, or other materials
  • Use magnetic letters (or writing) for recognising initial sounds of objects
  • Bingo
  • Go fish with alphabet cards
  • Upper/lower case letter matching
  • Early handwriting experiences - letter formation
  • Alphabet soup
  • Circle time - recognising cards or 3D letters from a 'mystery bag'
  • What am I drawing? - draw a letter on each other's back; children need to guess the correct letter
  • Read a familiar poem or story - highlight one or more familiar words, letter or letters of the alphabet within the story

Experience plans and videos

For all age groups

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)