Understanding Literacy Development in Young Children

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Three-year-old Emma is playing house with Jacob at her preschool. They have a doll in a cradle in front of them. Emma picks up a book and sits in a rocking chair facing the doll and Jacob. She begins telling the story of The Three Bears as she turns the pages of the book, even though she is actually holding Goodnight Moon.

From a traditional reading readiness perspective, this activity might not have been labeled as reading since Emma is not actually reading the story of The Three Bears. However, because Emma is read to regularly both at home and at preschool, she has become familiar with the act of reading. She is able to practice the literacy skills she has observed her parents and her teacher using. From the emergent literacy perspective, such activity is considered a developmentally appropriate reading behavior.

This article provides a historical perspective on the shift in our understanding of literacy development in young children from reading readiness to emergent literacy, describes the elements of the emergent literacy perspective, and offers suggestions for promoting the literacy development of young children.

Historical Perspective on Literacy Development: Reading Readiness

In their review of the literature on literacy development, Teale and Sulzby (1986) note that from the late 1800s to the 1920s the research literature on reading and writing focused only on the elementary school years. In the 1920s, however, educators began to recognize the early childhood and kindergarten years as a "period of preparation" for reading and writing. In 1925, the National Committee on Reading published the first explicit reference to the concept of reading readiness.

The introduction of this term gave rise to two different lines of research on preparing children for reading (Teale & Sulzby, 1986). While one group believed that reading readiness was the result of maturation ("nature"), the other group thought that appropriate experiences could accelerate readiness ("nurture"). These differing viewpoints underscore the philosophical differences that have characterized much of the research on children's development through the years.

Reading Readiness from the "Nature" Perspective. The dominant theory from the 1920s into the 1950s was that reading readiness was the result of biological maturation. From this perspective, it was believed that the mental processes necessary for reading would unfold automatically at a certain period of time in development (Teale & Sulzby, 1986). Researchers argued that good practice would provide an environment that did not interfere with the predetermined process of development in the child. Thus, educators and parents were advised to postpone the teaching of reading until children reached a certain age.

Reading Readiness from the "Nurture" Perspective. During the late 1950s and 1960s, the dominant theory shifted from reading readiness as maturation toward readiness as the product of experience. Proponents of this viewpoint argued that if children had the appropriate experiences, their reading readiness could be accelerated. Teale and Sulzby (1986) identify several factors which contributed to this shift:

* a growing reliance on reading readiness workbooks and tests during the first years of school, which had been used by the maturationists as an intervention tool;
* increased research on young children which was demonstrating that preschoolers knew more than had generally been believed;
* the adequacy of American education was being questioned since the Soviet Union was the first country to travel in space; and
* supporters of social equality argued that "large numbers of minority children had culturally disadvantaged backgrounds and had to wait until they got to school to overcome the disadvantage (p. xii)."

In response to this shift in thinking, educators and parents were encouraged to use more direct instruction and structured curriculum in early childhood and kindergarten programs in order to prepare children for reading. In reading readiness programs children were considered ready to read when they had met certain social, physical, and cognitive competencies (Morrow, 1997).

The Shift to an Emergent Literacy Perspective

Starting in the 1970s, researchers began to challenge traditional reading readiness attitudes and practices. One of the pioneers in examining young children's reading and writing was Marie Clay (Teale & Sulzby, 1986). Clay (1966) first introduced the term emergent literacy to describe the behaviors used by young children with books and when reading and writing, even though the children could not actually read and write in the conventional sense. Whereas the concept of reading readiness suggested that there was a point in time when children were ready to learn to read and write, emergent literacy suggested that there were continuities in children's literacy development between early literacy behaviors and those displayed once children could read independently (Idaho Center on Developmental Disabilities, 1996).

Clay (1975) 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.

From the growing body of research on literacy development, Clay's concept of emergent literacy has evolved to include several elements.

* Literacy development begins before children start formal instruction in elementary school (Teale & Sulzby, 1986). For example, by age 2 or 3 many children can identify signs, labels, and logos in their homes and in their communities (Idaho Center on Developmental Disabilities, 1996).
* Reading and writing develop at the same time and interrelatedly in young children, rather than sequentially (Idaho Center on Developmental Disabilities, 1996; Teale & Sulzby, 1986). Literacy involves listening, speaking, reading, and writing abilities (as aspects of both oral and written language).
* The functions of literacy (such as knowing that letters spell words and knowing that words have meaning) have been found to be as important a part of learning about reading and writing during early childhood as the forms of literacy (such as naming specific letters or words). Children learn to read so they can read to learn (Council for Exceptional Children, 1996; Idaho Center on Developmental Disabilities, 1996; Teale & Sulzby, 1986).
* Children have been found to learn about written language as they actively engage with adults in reading and writing situations; as they explore print on their own; and as they observe others around them engaged in literacy activities (Idaho Center on Developmental Disabilities, 1996; Teale & Sulzby, 1986). For example, when hearing Goodnight Moon for the 100th time, children are not just memorizing the words, but actually learning about the meaning of the words and about how words tell a story.
* Children have been found to pass through general stages of literacy development in a variety of ways and at different ages (Idaho Center on Developmental Disabilities, 1996; Teale & Sulzby, 1986).

Suggestions for Promoting Literacy Development

As the research on literacy development continues to emerge, it is important to translate the findings into practical suggestions for supporting early literacy development. The following is a list of suggestions which can promote early literacy development for newborns to preschoolers.


* Introduce cardboard or cloth books with brightly colored pictures. Try to select books that reflect the child's own experiences such as books about daily life, family members, animals, or food (National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), 1997).
* Read books that have rhyme, rhythm, or repetition such as nursery rhymes since the sound of the language is especially important to infants who cannot yet focus on pictures very well (McMahon, 1996).
* Help increase vocabulary by playing "What's that?" or "Where's the ball?" when reading books together (NAEYC, 1997).
* Point out words on signs at the park, at the zoo, when walking or driving. Explain what the words mean as you name them (NAEYC, 1997).
* If the infant becomes restless or fussy while reading, put the book away so that the child does not develop a negative association to reading (McMahon, 1996).

Toddlers and Preschoolers

* Provide a rich literacy environment by purchasing books for children; taking the children to the library; subscribing to newspapers and magazines; and providing such materials as checks, menus, or greeting cards for play at reading and writing (Barclay, Benelli, & Curtis, 1995; NAEYC, 1997).
* Add simple stories with a basic plot and one central character to nursery rhymes and favorite books as toddlers' language abilities allow for greater listening capacity and understanding (McMahon, 1996).
* Provide a warm, accepting atmosphere for reading and writing by responding to children's requests for reading and rereading favorite stories. Also, respond to questions and comments about print inside and outside the home such as packages at the grocery store, road signs, and menus at restaurants (Barclay, Benelli, & Curtis, 1995; NAEYC, 1997).
* Capitalize on your child's developing interests and take short trips which relate to those interests as well as reading and rereading stories about similar events or places (NAEYC, 1997).
* Create an environment that is supportive of early writing by making sure paper, crayons, pens, pencils, and markers are available. Let toddlers help you write shopping lists (Barclay, Benelli, & Curtis, 1995; NAEYC, 1997).
* Allow preschool-age children to carry out the steps written in recipes (NAEYC, 1997).


It is never too early to begin reading to a child (McMahon, 1996). By reading to infants, parents can help their children develop an understanding about print at an early age as infants learn to make connections between words and meaning (NAEYC, 1997). By engaging children at an early age in reading and allowing children to observe those around them engaged in reading activities, parents can help foster a lifelong passion for reading that leads to benefits in all areas of development as the children grow older.

Additional Resources

ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication

The Parents' & Teachers' Guide to Helping Young Children Learn: Creative Ideas from 35 Respected Experts edited by Betty Farber. Published in 1997 by Preschool Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-881425-05-3.

READY*SET*READ Early Childhood Learning Kit


Barclay, Kathy; Benelli, Cecelia; & Curtis, Ann. (1995). Literacy begins at birth: What caregivers can learn from parents of children who read early. Young Children, 50 (4), 24-28.

Clay, Marie. (1966). Emergent reading behaviour. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Clay, Marie. (1975). What did I write? Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann Educational.

Council for Exceptional Children. (1996). Reading: The first chapter in education. [Online]. Available: [NPIN Editor's note (04-25-02): this URL has changed:] [1998, March 3].

Idaho Center on Developmental Disabilities. (1996). What is emergent literacy? [Online]. Available: [2000 April 6].

McMahon, Rebecca. (1996). Introducing infants to the joy of reading. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 24(3), 26-29.

Morrow, Lesley Mandel. (1997). Literacy development in the early years: Helping children read and write. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1997). Helping children learn about reading. [Online]. Available: [1997, September 25].

Teale, William, & Sulzby, Elizabeth. (1986). Emergent literacy: Writing and reading. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Credits: National Parent Information Network

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prasanna - 2 weeks ago
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realy it helped me a lot to understand early grade literacy. #1
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