↑ Return to Teacher tips

Emergent Literacy

What Is Emergent Literacy?

The research and theoretical developments of the last decade have dramatically altered how we view young children’s movement into literacy (Teale & Sulzby, 1986). The term literacy relates to both reading and writing and suggests the simultaneous development and mutually reinforcing effects of these two aspects of communication. Literacy development is seen as emerging from children’s oral language development and their initial, often unconventional attempts at reading (usually based on pictures) and writing (at first, scribbling) — hence the term emergent literacy. Within an emergent literacy framework, children’s early unconventional attempts at reading and writing are respected as legitimate beginnings of literacy.

How Young Children Become Readers and Writers

The research in the area of emergent literacy suggests that the roots of both reading and writing are established in the oral language experiences of very young children (Glazer, 1989; Strickland & Feeley, 1991).

Home Experiences

Children learn much about reading and writing as pre-schoolers by observing the reading and writing that occurs in their families. They then begin to reading and writing as part of their home experiences (Heath, 1983; Taylor, 1983). They come to realize that the print that is part of their environment communicates messages that fulfill a variety of important functions.

Modeling Through Storybook Reading

Recent research clarifies the extreme importance of reading storybooks to young children both at home and in school. Very early, children begin to imitate that reading — at first by relying exclusively on picture clues and memory. With increased experience they begin to focus on the information that print conveys (Snow, 1983; Sulzby, 1985; Teale, 1987).

Early Writing Forms

Research has also shown that young children are strategic in early forms of writing. They begin by using scribbles and progress through increasingly accurate representations of the relationship between letters and the sounds for which they stand. As children think about how to represent the sounds of words through their writing, they are building skills that will be useful for reading as well (Barnhart, 1986; Dyson, 1985; Teale & Sulzby, 1986).

Concepts, Strategies and Skills Needed to Become Effective Readers

Functions and Value of Print

Perhaps the most important concept that children need to develop is what is frequently referred to as the functions of print. When children understand this concept, they have begun to understand that printed language is related to oral language, that print is a form of communication, and that print and books are sources of enjoyment and information (Brown, 1991; Heath, 1982; Schicken- danz, 1978; Teale & Sulzby, 1989). Children who do not understand the functions and value of reading are unlikely to become successful readers.

Oral Language and Listening Skills

Oral language is the critical foundation upon which reading and writing build. Glazer (1989), Strickland (1991), and Teale and Sulzby (1989) have all discussed the critical importance of oral language as it relates to beginning reading and writing. Learning the meanings of thousands of words and developing an understanding of the way words are ordered to make sense (syntax) are extremely complex processes that take place in oral language development and transfer to reading and writing. Cognitive activities, such as understanding cause-and-effect relationships or chronological order, that are established through listening and communicated through speaking are the same cognitive processes used in reading.

All children who enter kindergarten have some foundation of oral language skills that can serve as a foundation for their reading and writing. Oral language skills can be expanded and further developed through listening activities, especially the reading aloud of stories, and eventually through reading experiences (Galda & Cullinan, 1991; Glazer, 1989).

There is a strong, significant relationship between listening comprehension and reading comprehension. Listening to stories is an excellent vehicle for expanding oral language patterns, for extending thinking skills, and for building vocabulary (Eller, Pappas, & Brown, 1988; Ellery, 1989; Leung & Pikulski, 1990).

Understandings About Language

To grow as readers and writers, young children must develop other understandings about language, often referred to as metalinguistic awareness. They must, for example, develop a concept of what a word is, both printed and spoken, and know how it is different from numbers, letters, sounds, and sentences. They must learn that print is read from left to right and from top to bottom (Downing, 1989; Yaden, 1989).

Learning Letter-Sound Associations

To grow as readers and writers, children must also develop an understanding of what Adams (1990) refers to as the alphabetic principle. When first introduced to print, children often think that the printed word is a concrete representation of an object. For example, they expect cat to be a longer word than mouse because cats are bigger and longer than mice (Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982; Schickendanz, 1989). Instead, they need to develop the idea that spoken words are composed of identifiable sounds and, further, the idea that letters of the alphabet represent those sounds. In order to develop an understanding of the alphabetic principle, they must become familiar with letter forms (Adams, 1990; Barr, 1984; Schickendanz, 1989) and with the idea that spoken words have identifiable sounds in them — referred to as the concept of phonemic awareness (Adams, 1990; Griffith & Olson, 1992; Lundberg, Frost, & Peterson, 1988; Tunmer & Nesdale, 1985).

Importance of a Rich Literacy Environment

All of these understandings and skills need to develop in classrooms that present a rich literacy environment, one filled with books, posters, art, children’s work, and so forth (Morrow, 1989).

Appropriate Literature for Young Readers

Guidelines for Literature Choices

Numerous writers and researchers have provided guidelines for the types of literature that are most appropriate for emergent readers (Brown, 1991; Cullinan, 1989; Holdaway, 1980; Strickland & Feeley, 1991).

The characteristics that are seen as most important:

Interest and Appeal

    The literature should be interesting and appealing to young children and use the lively, interesting language that reflects natural language patterns.

Developmentally Appropriate Themes and Topics

    The literature should be about topics and experiences that are familiar to young children or about topics and experiences that a teacher can help young children understand without undue difficulty. Selections that are overly complex or abstract, or that require understanding of complex literary devices, are not developmentally appropriate.


    Selections that use predictable text are particularly recommended for emergent and beginning readers. Some books are predictable because there is a close association between the illustrations and the text in the book; others are predictable because of pronounced rhyme; and some are predictable because of recurring phrases. Predictable texts aid students in their attempts to recognize words and build their confidence as readers.

Teacher Enthusiasm

    Literature about which the teacher is particularly enthusiastic should be included. Enthusiasm for a book is contagious.

Shared Reading: An Effective Instructional Model

Basis for Shared Reading Model

The shared reading model was developed by Holdaway (1979). It builds from the research that indicates that storybook reading is a critically important factor in young children’s reading development (Wells, 1986). The storybook reading done by parents in a home setting is particularly effective (Strickland & Taylor, 1989). However, in school, in most cases, a teacher reads to a group of children rather than to a single child. The shared reading model allows a group of children to experience many of the benefits that are part of storybook reading done for one or two children at home (Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982; Schickendanz, 1978).

The shared reading model often uses oversized books (referred to as big books) with enlarged print and illustrations. As the teacher reads the book aloud, all of the children who are being read to can see and appreciate the print and illustrations.

Repeated Readings

In the shared reading model there are multiple readings of the books over several days. Throughout, children are actively involved in the reading (Yaden, 1988). The teacher may pause in the reading and ask for predictions as to what will happen next. Because many of the books include predictable text, the children often chime in with a word or phrase. Groups of children or individual children might volunteer or be invited to read parts of the story. Through repeated readings and the predictable text, children become familiar with word forms and begin to recognize words and phrases (Bridge, Winograd, & Haley, 1983; Pikulski & Kellner, 1992).

Purposes for Rereading

The repeated readings of the same story serve various purposes. The first reading is for enjoyment; the second may focus on building and extending comprehension of the selection; a third might focus attention on the interesting language and vocabulary; a fourth might focus on decoding, using the words in the selection as a starting point for teaching word identification skills (Yaden, 1989).

Benefits of Shared Reading:

  • Rich, authentic, interesting literature can be used, even in the earliest phases of a reading program, with children whose word-identification skills would not otherwise allow them access to this quality literature.
  • Each reading of a selection provides opportunities for the teacher to model reading for the children.
  • Opportunities for concept and language expansion exist that would not be possible if instruction relied only on selections that students could read independently.
  • Awareness of the functions of print, familiarity with language patterns, and word-recognition skills grow as children interact several times with the same selection.
  • Individual needs of students can be more adequately met. Accelerated readers are challenged by the interesting, natural language of selections. Because of the support offered by the teacher, students who are more slowly acquiring reading skills experience success.

The Role of Writing in Emergent Literacy

Reading and writing are mutually supportive and interactive processes. Good readers tend to be good writers, and good writers tend to do well in reading (Strickland, 1991; Teale & Sulzby, 1989). Both reading and writing require that the beginning reader focus on and think about print and the relationship between letters and sounds.

Both reading and writing introduce children to the elements that are parts of stories (e.g., characters, settings, conflicts, and resolutions). Familiarity with story elements contributes to the understanding of stories and to reading achievement.

Invented/Temporary Spelling

Based on her extensive review of the research, Adams (1990) concludes that invented spelling promotes the development of beginning reading skills. Chomsky (1979), Choate and Castle (1989), Cunningham and Cunningham (1992), Ehri (1988), and Richgels (1987) have also cited the benefits of using invented spelling, now often referred to as temporary spelling, for reading and writing.

Clarke (1988) compared students who were encouraged to use invented spelling with those who were not encouraged to use invented spelling in their writing during the school year. Those encouraged to use invented spelling wrote significantly longer, more elaborate stories. On posttests these students also scored significantly higher in spelling and reading.

Clarke’s results are significant. They suggest that children who are encouraged to use invented spelling develop better word analysis skills, probably because they have had greater opportunities to practice and apply what they know about letter-sound associations in their writing. These results should also help to eliminate the fear of some parents and even teachers that children who use invented spelling become poor spellers. There is no basis in the research literature for this fear; the evidence, instead, clearly favors the use of invented spelling.