Defining and Understanding Early Literacy


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From a young age, children have an interest in communication. They enjoy listening and connecting through conversation and eye contact with parents and caregivers. These everyday interactions are both enjoyable for young children and supportive of their literacy development.

What we do throughout the day in our role as caregivers and educators can provide children with building blocks toward early literacy. Classroom set-up, materials offered, and interactions with teachers are all elements of planning that bring opportunities for literacy development.

What is Early Literacy?

Zero to Three’s article, Early Literacy, explains that early literacy does not just mean “early reading…Early literacy theory emphasizes the more natural unfolding of skills through the enjoyment of books, the importance of positive interactions between young children and adults, and the critical role of literacy-rich experiences.” This means that we focus on learning experiences, rather than formal instruction that teaches children to read. Pushing children to read at too young of an age is not developmentally appropriate, and may damage children’s natural interest and drive to enjoy reading and writing on their own.

Scholastic’s article on early literacy, reminds us that “literacy development is less about a limited critical period and more about windows of opportunity that extend across early childhood.”

Early Literacy Skills Prepare the Way for Reading

Learning to read starts long before elementary school. The foundations of these skills start in early childhood; supportive learning opportunities at a young age will set children up for later success in school and into adulthood. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s article, Early Beginnings: Early Literacy Knowledge and Instruction, shares that “early literacy skills have a clear and consistently strong relationship with later conventional literacy skills, such as decoding, oral reading, fluency, reading comprehension, writing, and spelling. Even before children start school, they can become aware of systematic patterns of sounds in spoken language, manipulate sounds in words, recognize words and break them apart into smaller units, learn the relationship between sounds and letters, and build their oral language and vocabulary skills. These are all skills that the National Early Literacy Panel found to be precursors to children’s later growth in the ability to decode and comprehend text, to write, and to spell.”


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How to Incorporate Early Literacy Instruction into the Daily Schedule

According to NAEYC’s article, The Essentials of Early Literacy Instruction by Kathleen A. Roskos, James F. Christie, and Donald J. Richgels, there are 8 “Essential Early Literacy Teaching Strategies” for young learners. These specific strategies are not only enjoyable and interesting to children but are backed by research in early literacy and later reading achievement. The article notes that “linking literacy and play is one of the most effective ways to make literacy activities meaningful and enjoyable for children.”

  1. Rich teacher-talk: This refers to engaging children in meaningful conversations. These conversations can be in large or small groups or in one-on-one conversations. Discuss topics that challenge children’s minds and encourage thought and reflection.

  2. Storybook reading: Reading aloud to a group of children at least once per day, gives the children an opportunity to learn from enjoyable stories and information books. During and after reading, discuss the books and themes of the story.

  3. Phonological awareness activities: Activities, games, and stories that involve rhyme and alliteration increase children’s awareness of the sounds of language. Discuss some of the similarities and differences in the words that you are reading to help children notice when patterns are present.

  4. Alphabet activities: ABC books, magnet letters, alphabet blocks, and puzzles promote identification of letters of the alphabet.

  5. Support for emergent reading: Classroom design and curriculum can encourage children to read. Having a library center with a variety of fun and interesting options will make children excited to find a book. When children express interest in favorite books, read them repeatedly to familiarize them with the story and encourage independent reading.

  6. Support for emergent writing: Similar to strategy 5, a classroom writing center that offers a variety of pens, pencils, and paper will encourage children to use emergent forms of writing, such as scribble writing, random letter strings, and invented spelling. Functional writing opportunities that are connected to class activities (e.g., sign-up sheets for popular centers, library book check-out slips) also give children an opportunity to write with purpose and intention.

  7. Shared book experience: While reading the text, draw children’s attention to basic concepts of print such as the distinction between pictures and print, left-to-right, top-to-bottom sequence, and book concepts (cover, title, page).

  8. Integrated, content-focused activities: Create opportunities for children to investigate and discover topics that they find interesting. This emergent curriculum model will keep children engaged and interested.

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