The cumulative and growing research on literacy development in young children is rapidly becoming a body of
knowledge that can serve as the basis for the everyday practice of early literacy education (IRA & NAEYC
1998; National Research Council 1998; Yaden, Rowe, & MacGillivary 2000; Neuman & Dickinson 2001; NAEYC &
NAECS/SDE 2002). Although preliminary, the knowledge base outlines children’s developmental patterns in
critical areas, such as phonological and print awareness. It serves as a resource for designing early literacy
programs and specific instructional practices. In addition, it offers reliable and valid observational
data for grounding approaches to early reading assessment.
That we know more about literacy development and acquisition, however, does not let us escape a central
issue of all early education: What should young children be learning and doing before they go to kindergarten?
What early literacy instruction should children receive? What should it emphasize—head (cognition) or heart
(motivation) or both?
Real-life answers to these questions rarely point directly to this or that, but rather
they are somewhere in the middle, including both empirical evidence and professional wisdom. While we will
continue to wrestle with these complicated questions, we must take practical action so that our growing
understanding in early literacy supports the young child as a wholesome, developing person.
What then are the essentials of early literacy instruction? What content should be included, and how should
it be taught in early education settings? Our first response to these complex questions is described below in
a skeletal framework for action. We briefly define early literacy, so as to identify what young children need
to know and be able to do if they are to enjoy the fruits of literacy, including valuable dispositions that
strengthen their literacy interactions. Then we describe two examples of instruction that support children’s
reading and writing learning before they enter the primary grades.
With the imagery of Pip’s remark from Great Expectations in mind, we hope to show that well-considered
early literacy instruction is certainly not a bramble-bush for our very young children, but rather a
welcoming environment in which to learn to read and write.
Today a variety of terms are used to refer to the preschool phase of literacy development—
emerging literacy, emergent reading, emergent writing, early reading, symbolic
tools, and so on. We have adopted the term early literacy as the most comprehensive yet
concise description of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that precede learning to
read and write in the primary grades (K–3). We chose this term because, in the earliest
phases of literacy development, forming reading and writing concepts and skills is a
dynamic process (National Research Council 1998, 2000).
Young children’s grasp of print as a tool for making meaning and as a way to communicate
combines both oral and written language. Children draw and scribble and
“read” their marks by attributing meaning to them through their talk and action. They
listen to stories read aloud and learn how to orient their bodies and minds to the technicalities
of books and print.
When adults say, “Here, help me hold the book and turn the pages,” they teach children
basic conventions of book handling and the left-to-right, top-to-bottom orientation of
English. When they guide children’s small hands and eyes to printed words on the
page, they show them that this is the source of the reading and that the marks have
meaning. When they explain, “This says ‘goldfish’. Do you remember our goldfish?
We named it Baby Flipper. We put its name on the fishbowl,” they help children understand
the connection between printed words, speech, and real experience.
Children’s early reading and writing learning, in other words, is embedded in a
larger developing system of oral communication. Early literacy is an emerging set of
relationships between reading and writing. 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). Young children need writing to help them learn about reading, they need reading to help them
learn about writing; and they need oral language to help them learn about both.
Test Questions: (select
the most correct option)
The authors would describe well-considered early literacy
Children’s early reading and writing learning
Early literacy holds much that young children might learn. Yet we cannot teach everything and must
make choices about what content to teach and which dispositions to encourage. High-quality research
provides our best evidence for setting priorities for what to address and how.
Recent reviews of research indicate at least three critical content categories in early literacy:
oral language comprehension, phonological awareness, and print knowledge. They also identify at
least one important disposition, print motivation—the frequency of requests for shared reading and
engagement in print-related activities, such as pretend writing (Senechal et al. 2001; Layzer 2002;
Neuman 2002; Lonigan & Whitehurst in press).
Children need to learn mainstay concepts and skills of written language from which more complex
and elaborated understandings and motivations arise, such as grasp of the alphabetic principle, recognition
of basic text structures, sense of genre, and a strong desire to know. They need to learn phonological
awareness, alphabet letter knowledge, the functions of written language, a sense of meaning
making from texts, vocabulary, rudimentary print knowledge (e.g., developmental spelling), and the sheer
persistence to investigate print as a meaning-making tool.
Written language is harder to learn than oral Learning an alphabetic writing system requires extra work. Both
spoken and written language are symbol systems for representing and retrieving meanings. In spoken
language, meaning making depends on phonemes or sounds. As children gain experience with the language of
their community, they learn which words (or sequences of phonemes) stand for which concepts in that language.
For example, children learn that the spoken word table in English or mesa in Spanish
names a four-legged, flat-topped piece of furniture.
Writing and reading with an alphabetic system involve an extra layer of symbols, where the phonemes
are represented by letters. This means that beginners must both learn the extra symbols—the letters of
the alphabet—and raise their consciousness of the phonemes (because, while speaking and understanding speech, we
unconsciously sequence and contrast phonemes).
Speakers, for example, understand the two very different concepts named by the words nail and
lane without consciously noticing that those words are constructed from the same three phonemes
(/n/, /A/, and /l/), but in different sequences. When children learn to read, however, they must pay
attention to those three phonemes, how they are sequenced, and what letters represent them.
Invented spelling is a phonemic awareness activity that has the added advantage of being meaningful
and functional (Richgels 2001). Children nonconventionally but systematically match sounds in words that
they want to write with letters that they know. For example, they may use letter names and sounds in letters
names (/ch/ in H, /A/ as the name of the letter A, and /r/ in R) when spelling chair as HAR. Invented
spelling begins before children’s phonemic awareness is completely developed and before they know all the
names of the letters of the alphabet. With encouragement from adults, it develops through stages that culminate
in conventional spelling. The meanings of both spoken and written language serve real purposes in our daily lives (Halliday
1975). We usually do not speak without wanting to accomplish something useful. For example, we
might want to influence others’ behavior (“Would you turn that down, please?”), express our
feelings (“I hate loud music”), or convey information (“Habitual listening to loud music is a danger
to one’s hearing”). Similarly, with written messages we can influence behavior (NO SMOKING), express
feelings (IxNY), and inform (Boston 24 mi) while serving such added purposes as communicating across
distances or preserving a message as a record or a reminder.
These added purposes require that written messages be able to stand on their own (Olson 1977).
Written language is decontextualized; that is, the sender and receiver of a written communication
usually do not share the same time and space. The writer is not present to clarify and extend his or her
message for the reader. This means that young readers’ and writers’ extra work includes, in addition to
dealing with phonemes and letters, dealing with decontextualization.
Reviews of research indicate at least three critical content
categories in early literacy:
language is harder to learn than an oral Learning an alphabetic writing system.
spelling begins before children’s phonemic awareness is completely developed and
before they know all the names of the letters of the alphabet.
Historically, societies have found the extra work of writing and reading to be worthwhile. The extra
functions of written language, especially preserving messages and communicating across distances,
have enabled a tremendous growth of knowledge. Individual children can experience similar benefits if
teachers help them to acquire the knowledge and skill involved in the extra work of reading and writing
while always making real to them the extra purposes that written language serves. We must cultivate
their dispositions (curiosity, desire, play) to actively seek, explore, and use books and print. As they learn
what letters look like and how they match up with phonemes, which strings of letters represent which
words, and how to represent their meanings in print and retrieve others’ meanings from print, they must
see also how the fruits of those labors empower them by multiplying the functionality of language.
With speech, children can influence the behavior of others, express their feelings, and convey
information. A big part of motivating them to take on the extra work of reading and writing must be letting
them see how the permanence and portability of writing can widen the scope of that influencing, expressing,
and informing. Young children who can say “No! Don’t!” experience the power of spoken words to influence
what others do or don’t do—but only when the speakers are present. Being able to write No extends the exercise
of that power to situations in which they are not present, as morning kindergartners Eric, Jeff, Zack, and
Ben realized when they wrote NOStPN (No stepping) to keep afternoon kindergartners from disturbing
a large dinosaur puzzle they had assembled on the classroom floor (McGee & Richgels 2000, 233–34).
Unlike the very real and immediate sounds and
meanings of talk, print is silent; it is obscure; it is not of
the here and now. Consequently, early literacy instruction
must often be explicit and direct, which is not to
say that it must be scriptlike, prescriptive, and rigid
(Schickedanz 2003). Rather it should be embedded in
the basic activities of early learning long embraced by
early education practice and research. These include
reading aloud, circle time, small group activities, adult-child
conversations, and play.
Teachers can embed reading and writing instruction in familiar activities, to help children learn both the
conventions of print and how print supports their immediate goals and needs. The two examples below
show how what’s new about early literacy instruction fits within tried-and-true early education practice.
Reading aloud has maximum learning potential when children have opportunities to actively participate and
respond (Morrow & Gambrell 2001). This requires teachers to use three types of scaffolding or support: (a) before-
reading activities that arouse children’s interest and curiosity in the book about to be read;
(b) during-reading prompts and questions that keep children actively engaged with the text being read; and
(c) after-reading questions and activities that give children an opportunity to discuss and respond to the
books that have been read.
Instruction can be easily integrated into
any of these three phases of story reading. This highly contextualized
instruction should be guided by children’s literacy learning needs and by the
nature of the book being read:
information books, such as Byron Barton’s Airport,
can teach children new vocabulary and concepts;
books, songs, and poems with strong rhymes, such as
Raffi’s Down by the Bay, promote phonological awareness;
stories with strong narrative plots, such as There’s an
Alligator under My Bed, by Mercer Mayer, are ideal for
generating predictions and acquainting children with
narrative structure, both of which lay a foundation for
The general benefits of play for children’s literacy development are well documented, showing that a
literacy-enriched play environment exposes children to valuable print experiences and lets them practice narrative skills (Christie & Roskos 2003). In the following
example, two preschoolers are playing in a restaurant activity center equipped with wall signs
(Springville Restaurant), menus, pencils, and a notepad:
Food server: Can I take your order?
Customer: [Looks over the menu] Let’s see, I’d like some cereal. And how about some orange juice.
And how about the coffee with that too.
Food server: We don’t have coffee. We’re all runned out.
Customer: Okay, well . . . I’ll just take orange juice.
Food server: [Writes down order, using scribble writing] Okay. I’ll be right back with your order.
(Roskos etal. 1995)
Here, the customer is using the literacy routine of looking at a menu and then placing an order. If the menu
is familiar and contains picture cues, some emergent reading might also be taking place. The food server is
using another routine—writing down customer orders— and is practicing emergent writing. In addition,
the children have constructed a simple narrative story, complete with a problem (an item is not available) and
a resolution (drop that item from the order).
A Vygotskian approach to developing mature dramatic play also illustrates the value of tangible play
plans for helping children to self-regulate their behaviors, to remember on purpose, and to deliberately focus
their attention on play activity—foundational cognitive skills of reading and writing (Bodrova & Leong 1998).
We have found that preschoolers often spend more time preparing for their dramatizations than they spend
acting out the stories. For example, one group of four year-olds spent more than 30 minutes preparing for a
pizza parlor story (organizing felt pizza ingredients, arranging furniture for the pizza kitchen, making play
money, and deciding on roles) and less than 10 minutes acting out the cooking, serving, and eating of the pizza
meal. One would be hard pressed to find another type of activity that can keep young children focused and
“on task” for this length of time.
literacy-in-play strategy is effective in increasing the range and amount of literacy behaviors during play,
thus allowing children to practice their emerging skills and show what they have learned (Neuman & Roskos 1992).
Evidence is also accumulating that this strategy helps children learn important literacy concepts and skills,
such as knowledge about the functions of writing (Vukelich 1993), the ability to recognize play-related print
(Neuman & Roskos 1993), and comprehension strategies such as self-checking and self-correction
(Neuman & Roskos 1997). Like storybook reading, the literacy learning potential of play can be increased when it
includes before, during, and after types of scaffolding as illustrated in “Guided Play to Explore New Words
and Their Sounds.”
We are gaining empirical ground in understanding early literacy learning well enough to identify essential
content that belongs in an early childhood curriculum. Increasingly, the field can articulate key concepts
and skills that are significant and foundational, necessary for literacy development and growth, research-based,
and motivational to arouse and engage children’s minds. The need to broadly distribute this knowledge is
great—but the need to act on it consistently and carefully in instructional practice is even greater,
especially if we are to steer children clear of the bramble bushes and on to be successful readers and writers.
Kathleen A. Roskos, Ph.D., is the director of the Ohio Literacy Initiative at the Ohio
Department of Education and is a professor at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
She coordinated Bridges and Links, one of the first public preschools in Ohio, and is
instrumental in the development of content guidelines in early literacy. Kathleen studies
early literacy development, teacher cognition, and the design of professional education
James F. Christie, Ph.D., is a professor of curriculum and instruction at Arizona State
University in Tempe, where he teaches courses in language, literacy, and early
childhood education. His research interests include children’s play and early literacy
development. James is the president of the Association for the Study of Play.
Donald J. Richgels, Ph.D., is a professor in the literacy education department at
Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate
courses in language development, reading, and language arts.
Illustrations © Diane Greenseid.
While reading, using prompts and questions will distract from the story being
on developing attention span should always be given high priority when reading
is a way children can show what they have learned.
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