The concept of emergent literacy refers to the process through which a child develops an understanding of the functions of language, symbols and print. This process is based on meaningful experiences and interactions with language that begin at birth and continue throughout the conventional literacy phase that is usually achieved early in elementary school. Emergent literacy theory assumes that children acquire knowledge of language, reading and writing before they enter school. This knowledge includes sound/letter awareness, letter knowledge, phonological awareness, awareness of the concept and functions of print and the recognition of text structures.
Keywords Alphabetic Phase; Conventional Literacy; Conventions of Print; Early Childhood Education; Early Literacy; Emergent Literacy; Emergent Reading; Emergent Writing; Functions of Print; Graphemes; Invented Spelling; Language-Rich Environment; Letter Knowledge (Letter Recognition); Literacy; Phonemes; Phonemic Awareness; Phonological Awareness; Purpose of Print; Reading; Reading Readiness; Symbolic Tools
The concept of emergent literacy refers to the process through which a child develops an understanding of the functions of language, symbols and print. This process is based on meaningful experiences and interactions with language that begin at birth and continue throughout the conventional literacy phase that is usually achieved early in elementary school. Emergent literacy theory assumes that children acquire knowledge of language, reading and writing before they enter school.
Emergent literacy is considered to be on the continuum of literacy achievement and is achieved prior to conventional literacy (transitional reader) and fluency (Johnson, 1999). According to Gunn, Simmons and Kameenui (1995), it "differs from conventional literacy as it examines the range of settings and experiences that support literacy, the role of the child's contributions (i.e., individual construction), and the relation between individual literacy outcomes and the diverse experiences that precede those outcomes" (p. 2).
The term emergent literacy has been broadened to include the development of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and thinking skills. Practical examples of emergent literacy include:
• A child holding a copy of a picture book and telling a story (related or unrelated to the pictures in the book);
• A child holding and turning the pages of "the three little pigs" even though she is reciting the story of "little red riding hood;"
• A child drawing pictures of a trip to the zoo that he took recently with his family;
• A child rhyming words;
• A child pointing to a picture of a cow when asked, "where is the cow?"
Emergent literacy theory involves a number of cognitive processes, including both reading and writing. Hence, it must be evaluated in terms of the developmental processes put forth by noted authorities Piaget and Vygotsky. As children experience literacy and engage in structured and incidental literacy activities, they devise their own ideas about literacy, which are consistent with Piaget's. As emergent literacy theory and assessment is also founded upon the observation of specific behaviors in children that have been modeled by teachers, parents and other adults, it is also consistent with the findings of Vygotsky (Johnson & Sulzby, 2001).
The concept of emergent literacy and its importance to early childhood development and later learning informs the curriculum in most early childhood education programs. The International Reading Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (1998) state that the years between birth and age 8 are the most critical time for literacy development. There is increasing evidence that the skills developed in early childhood and preschool impact success in elementary school. Both large national and small local studies have revealed that the cognitive skills of preschool-aged children are connected to their ability to become successful readers in kindergarten and first grade (Molfese, Modglin, Beswick, Neamon, Berg, Berg, & Molnar, 2006). Providing an experience- and language-rich environment that fosters the development of these comprehensive literacy skills is important to ensure that children achieve fluency in reading.
According to noted authorities Teale and Sulzby (1986), the concept of reading readiness was first introduced in the early part of the twentieth century. Prior to that time, research on literacy development centered on learning achieved in the elementary school years. Proponents of the theory of reading readiness posited that the years prior to a child's entry into elementary school were actually an important time of preparation for the child's acquisition of literacy skills and the activities associated with developing those skills were essential to a child's later learning.
The introduction of the concept of reading readiness by the National Committee on Reading in 1925 marked the inception of two distinct views of literacy development that dominated the field of early literacy theory and research for almost 40 years (Teale & Sulzby, 1986). One view held that reading readiness was a direct result of the maturation process and had more to do with "nature" while the other believed that early experiences with language and text influenced the rate at which readiness was achieved.
Reading readiness resulting from the natural maturation process (nature) was the predominant belief from the 1920s into the 1950s. Proponents believed that the intellectual skills required for reading developed automatically as a child aged and that parents and teachers should postpone reading instruction until such time as the child had reached the appropriate age at which that maturity was achieved (Teale & Sulzby, 1986).
The idea that reading readiness was influenced more by environment and experience gained popularity during the mid-1950s. Supporters of this viewpoint believed that a child's experience with language and books had a strong influence on the child's acquisition of literacy skills and reading readiness and that those experiences could accelerate the rate at which reading readiness was achieved (Teale & Sulzby, 1986). Because of this trend in the research, parents were advised to engage children in language-rich experiences and early childhood educators introduced more structured language experiences and direct literacy instruction into their curriculum.
The 1960s introduced numerous studies examining the reading readiness paradigm that held that children's ability to read and write developed only when formal reading instruction began in the kindergarten (Saracho & Spodek, 2006). The term emergent literacy was first introduced by New Zealand researcher Marie Clay in 1966 to describe the behaviors demonstrated by young children imitating reading and writing activities with books and writing materials (Ramsburg, 1998 as cited in Johnson, 1999). Teale and Sulzby (1986), in their acclaimed book Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading, defined the term more broadly with their assertion that reading, writing and oral language develop interrelatedly and concurrently rather than sequentially. They explain the concept of emergent literacy to be inclusive of all of "the skills, knowledge and attitudes that are presumed to be developmental precursors to conventional forms and the environments that support these developments" (Teale & Sulzby, 1986, p. 849). Thus, the term now includes reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking, and the assessment of emergent literacy skills includes evaluations of all aspects of early literacy.
Other Terms Used
Today, a variety of terms to describe the preschool phase of literacy development are used interchangeably:
• Emergent literacy,
• Emerging literacy,
• Emergent reading,
• Emergent writing,
• Early reading and
• Symbolic tools are among them (Roskos, Christie & Richgels, 2003).
It is widely recognized and accepted that the young child's understanding of print and symbols as a tool for making meaning and communicating combines several of the emergent literacy skills. A young child who writes a story with scribbles and drawings and then reads the story to others understands that those marks on the page have meaning. Children to whom books are read listen to stories and make meaning of them through their bodies and minds. These relationships between reading, writing, speaking and listening provide the foundation for later learning. "These relationships are situated in a broader communication network of speaking and listening, whose components work together to help the learner negotiate the world and make sense of experience" (Thelen & Smith, 1995; Lewis, 2000; Siegler, 2000 as cited in Roskos et al. 2003, p. 5).
In the United States, children are typically inundated with print prior to their entry into school. Most preschoolers are provided a wide array of language and literacy-rich experiences in their everyday living environments, which stimulates the development of their literacy skills. Saracho states, "Initial reading instruction should be provided in a natural context to help children learn to read and write in a meaningful context" (Saracho, 1993 as cited in Saracho, 2006, p. 2). This encourages children to quickly generate the prerequisite skills necessary for achievement when presented with formal reading instruction (Saracho, 2006).
Developmental Phases of Emergent Literacy
Literacy development in children begins at birth with initial exposure to oral language and continues throughout childhood. According to Johnson (1999), between the ages of 2 and 3 "children begin to produce understandable speech in response to books and the written marks they create" (p. 2).
The literacy skills of 3 through 4 year-old children develop rapidly. Children developed skills as independent "readers" by telling favorite stories by looking at the pictures on the pages. Over time, children are able to tell the story more fluently and with inflection (Johnson, 1999; Roskos et al. 2003). At this age, children also rapidly develop writing skills as they make scribbles, learn letter writing and are able to write random strings of letters to which meaning is attributed (Johnson, 1999).
Formal reading and...
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