Emergent literacies

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Emergent literacy is a term that is used to explain a child's knowledge of reading and writing skills before they learn how to read and write words.[1] It signals a belief that, in literate society, young children—even one- and two-year-olds—are in the process of becoming literate.[2] Through the support of parents, caregivers, and educators, a child can successfully progress from emergent to conventional reading.[3]

The basic components of emergent literacy include:

  • Print motivation: Being interested in and enjoying books.
  • Vocabulary: Knowing the names of things.
  • Print awareness: Noticing print, knowing how to handle a book, and knowing how to follow words on a page.
  • Narrative skills: Being able to describe things and events and to tell stories.
  • Letter knowledge: Understanding letters are different from each other, knowing their names and sounds, and recognizing letters everywhere.
  • Phonological awareness: Being able to hear and play with the smaller sounds in words.[1]

Emergent literacy is of critical importance in early education in light of research showing that children learn skills that prepare them to read years before they start school.[1]


Traditionally, society has considered reading and writing in their formalistic senses, and viewed children as being knowledgeable about literacy only when they were capable of identifying written words without picture clues, and spelling words that adults could read.[4]

In 1966, New Zealand researcher Marie Clay introduced the concept of emergent reading, using it to describe the earliest behaviors and concepts young children employ in interacting with books even before they are capable of reading in the conventional sense.[5] The 1970s and early 1980s saw robust research activity in children's early language development, early childhood education, and reexamination of the concept of reading readiness. This work resulted in Teale and Sulzby assembling a book authored by various leading researchers of the time that proposed reconceptualizing what happens from birth to the time when children reading and write conventionally as a period of emergent literacy.[6]

Since then, an extensive body of research has expanded the concept, illuminating that a child's literacy development begins well before formal introduction in school, and can be influenced by social interactions with adults, exposure to literacy materials, and the use of engaged learning activities.[3] While the concept of reading readiness suggested that there was a point in time when children were ready to learn to read and write, Clay's notion of emergent literacy suggested that there were continuities in children's literacy development between early literacy behaviors and those displayed once children could read independently.[7] Clay also emphasized the importance of the relationship between writing and reading in early literacy development. Until then, it was believed that children must learn to read before they could learn to write.[8]

Emergent literacy skills[edit]

Print motivation[edit]

This component relates to a child's interest in and enjoyment of books.[1] A child with print motivation might enjoy being read to, playing with books, pretending to write, and going to the library.[9] Children who enjoy books are more likely to want to read, and to keep trying, even when it is hard.[10]


The component "vocabulary" relates to the knowing of the names of things.[1] Children with rich vocabularies are at a tremendous educational advantage, since studies show that vocabulary is the best predictor of reading comprehension at the end of second and third grades and is otherwise linked to overall academic achievement.[11]

Print awareness[edit]

This component relates to noticing print, knowing how to handle a book, and knowing how to follow words on a page.[1] It includes knowing that books are organized from left to right, the words are read from left to right and top to bottom, and how to tell words from letters.[12] These skills are invaluable to a child's literacy development because without these skills, a child will have difficulty learning how to read and write.[12]

Narrative skills[edit]

This component relates to the ability to describe things and events and to tell stories.[1]

Letter knowledge[edit]

This component relates to the understanding that letters are different from each other, knowing their names and sounds, and recognizing letters everywhere.[1][13]

Phonological awareness[edit]

This component relates to being able to hear and play with the smaller sounds in words.[1] It involves rhyme recognition, syllables, onset, and rime. Types of phonological awareness include: phonemic awareness, syllable awareness, word awareness, and sentence awareness.[14]

Lessons and activities[edit]

Emergent literacy lessons may focus on one emergent literacy skill or blend them. Below are examples of emerging literacy games and activities that each focus primarily on one emergent literacy skill.

Building vocabulary
Sorting games can help children build vocabulary skills by asking them to identify defining characteristics of the items being sorted. Special Connections, a teaching resource website provided by Kansas University, suggests a shoe sorting game in which each child takes off one of his or her shoes. The children work together to sort the shoes by different characteristics, thus building vocabulary related to color, types of fasteners (buckle, velcro), shoe type (sandal, gym shoe), etc. This activity could work with other objects such as legos and pasta. The full activity is available online.[15]
The Hanen Centre outlines another strategy for teaching vocabulary to promote emergent literacy.[16]

Letter recognition
Letter recognition games help children learn the letters of the alphabet. In one simple game, the teacher writes each letter of the alphabet on a separate notecard and passes them out to students. The students then have to arrange themselves in alphabetical order. This game is provided by Special Connections, a teaching resource website provided by the University of Kansas, and is available online.[17]

Phonological awareness
One type of phonological awareness game involves rhyming, which helps children identify similar sounds in words.[18] In one rhyming game, the teacher can present three different "consonant-vowel-consonant" words and ask children which word does not rhyme. For example, cat, log, and dog.[19] The full activity and other similar rhyming activities are available online.[20]

Other activities include: songs and chants; word play, games, rhymes and riddles; Storybooks, poetry, nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss; Oral Storytelling; Clapping, jumping, manipulating letters, blocks. Everything should be playful, engaging, interactive, social, deliberate, and purposeful, stimulate curiosity, and encourage experimentation with language and comprehensive language and literacy programs.[21]

Print motivation
Since print motivation involves a child's interest and enjoyment of books, there are a variety of activities that parents and teachers can share with children to help promote print motivation. Examples include:

  • Read often and make it enjoyable
  • Read when you[who?] and the child are in a good mood, so the experience is a positive one
  • Change your voice when you read aloud
  • Keep books accessible to children
  • Stop reading when a child becomes tired or loses interest

Print motivation tips adapted from the Loudon County Public Library.[9][22]

Print awareness
Print awareness is a child's understanding of the parts of a book and how a book works. The State Library of Louisiana suggests an activity in which a child shares the parts of a book with an adult. For example, the teacher or parent could ask the child to point out different parts of the book and its contents, such as the front cover; the title; the first line of the book; a word; a letter; and the back cover.[23]

George Mason University suggests additional family activities. These include: Make a book with your children. You might include familiar photographs with labels under each photo, or children might illustrate the book by themselves. Parents could write the words as the children dictate the story. Or, when going out to a restaurant, show the menu to your children and point to the words as you read to them. Let them choose what they want to eat and make it an interactive experience. This will help children understand how print is connected to real life. Additional activities can be found online.[12][24]

Narrative skills
Children can build narrative skills by describing something that happened to him or her, even something as simple as taking a bath. Parents and teachers can promote narrative skills by prompting children for further detail. Other activities to promote narrative skills in both babies and toddlers are available from the Loudon County Library.[25]

See also[edit]

Children's Literature

Further reading[edit]

  • Brügelmann, H./ Brinkmann, E. (2012): Supporting individual routes to literacy: Developing concepts and skills before school by using print in meaningful contexts.[26]
  • Ferreiro, E./ Teberosky, A. (1982): Literacy before schooling. Heinemann: Portsmouth/ London (span. 1979).
  • McGee, L.M., & Richgels, D. J. (2012): Literacy's beginnings: Supporting young readers and writers. Pear-son/ Allyn and Bacon: Boston et al. (6th ed.).


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Emergent Literacy". Provo City Library at Academy Square. [dead link]
  2. ^ "Learning Point Associates - Emergent Literacy". Emergent Literacy. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. [dead link]
  3. ^ a b "Learning Point Associates - Critical Issue: Addressing the Literacy Needs of Emergent and Early Readers". Emergent Literacy. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. [dead link]
  4. ^ "What is Emergent Literacy". Academics. Lews-Clark State College. [dead link]
  5. ^ Clay, Marie (1967). Reading: The Patterning of Complex Behaviour. Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann Educational. 
  6. ^ Teale, William H.; Sulzby, Elizabeth (1986). Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. 
  7. ^ "What is emergent literacy?". Idaho Center on Developmental Disabilities. Retrieved 18 April 2011. 
  8. ^ Clay, Marie (1975). What Did I Write?. Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann Educational. 
  9. ^ a b "??". Library.loudoun.gov. Retrieved 2015-04-24. (registration required (help)). [dead link]
  10. ^ "Print Motivation". Scribd.com. Retrieved 2015-04-24. [dead link]
  11. ^ "Shoot for the SSTaRS Strategy". The Hanen Centre. 
  12. ^ a b c "Emergent Literacy: Concepts about Print". George Mason University. [dead link]
  13. ^ [1][dead link] Archived November 17, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ Fouts, Lauren. "Emergent Literacies: Phonological Awareness". George Mason University. Retrieved 18 April 2011. [dead link]
  15. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20060903012942/http://www.specialconnections.ku.edu/cgi-bin/cgiwrap/specconn/main.php?cat=instruction&section=main&subsection=ra/shoe. Archived from the original on September 3, 2006. Retrieved April 17, 2011.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  16. ^ Weitzman, Elaine. "Shoot for the SSTaRS: A Strategy for Teaching Vocabulary to Promote Emergent Literacy". The Hanen Centre. Retrieved 18 April 2011. 
  17. ^ [2] Archived September 3, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  18. ^ [3] Archived July 1, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  19. ^ "Phonological Awareness". Phonologicalawareness.org. Retrieved 2015-04-24. 
  20. ^ "Phonological Awareness". Phonological Awareness. Retrieved 2015-04-24. 
  21. ^ Fouts, Lauren. "Emergent Literacy Phonological Awareness". George Mason University. Retrieved 18 April 2011. [dead link]
  22. ^ "??". Library.loudoun.gov. Retrieved 2015-04-24. (registration required (help)). [dead link]
  23. ^ "Print Awareness Activities" (PDF). State.lib.la.us. Retrieved 2015-04-24. 
  24. ^ Iantosca, Elena. "Emergent Literacy Concepts About Print". George Mason University. Retrieved 18 April 2011. [dead link]
  25. ^ "??". Library.loudoun.gov. Retrieved 2015-04-24. (registration required (help)). [dead link]
  26. ^ "Supporting individual routes to literacy: Developing concepts and skills before school by using print in meaningful contexts. | Hand Brügelmann". Academia.edu. 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2015-04-24.