Someone's Been Sleeping in My Bed! Supporting Emerging Literacy
By Margaret Humadi Genisio, Ph.D.

Jennifer, a preschool teacher, had finished reading the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears to her class. It was now free play time, and Jennifer watched the children as they spontaneously extended the plot of the story into the classroom. In the kitchen area David and Kenzo were “making a big batch of porridge.” Carlos built “baby bear’s chair” out of blocks, and then sat on it so that it collapsed. Later, at nap time, David was overheard to say in a deep, father bear voice, “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed!”

Well before learning to read and write, children create and act out adventures they have heard told or read to them (Soundy & Genisio, 1994). By understanding their role in these adventures, early childhood professionals can strengthen play, encourage adventure in language, and support children’s emerging literacy (McCord, 1994).

While communication attempts become more obvious as a child grows, children actually begin communicating at birth. Long before the child utters words, we recognize that language is developing (Edelsky, Altwerger, and Flores 1992, p. 17). In anticipation, we sing, talk, and read to the child.

Emerging literacy is the natural progression of communication from oral language to reading and writing (Salinger, 1995). In emerging literacy, emphasis is given to what the young child decides to do to become literate. It is the child who decides when progress is comfortable and when to attempt new tasks and activities. To support emerging literacy we must accept the child’s “natural” and “joyful” ways of learning (Fisher, 1991).

Self-Esteem and Emerging Literacy
There is a strong link between positive feelings of self-esteem and emerging literacy. We can enhance feelings of security by providing children with opportunities to become familiar with books, reading, and other fun language activities.

Children are eager to listen to and read the adventures found in good books. By exposing children to books on a regular basis and telling them stories, we provide fertile ground for idea generation in the imaginations of young children. New ideas help children create play time adventures. Inviting children to act on these new ideas increases the likelihood of future reading success.

We know that learning to read is a risk-taking activity that involves experimentation and challenge (Salinger, 1995). When we encourage children to experiment, and challenge them during play by revisiting and retelling stories, we are laying the groundwork for future success in literacy (Sulzby, 1985). Providing a safe, challenging, and open environment encourages the development of positive self-esteem and confidence. In turn, positive self-esteem increases later success in reading (Fitzgerald, Spiegel, and Cunningham, 1991).

A Supportive Environment
Goodman (1986, p. 8) suggests that children learn language best when it is “real and also natural, when it is sensible and interesting, part of a real event, has social utility, has a purpose for the learner, and when the learner has the power to use it.” The child who finds enjoyment, choice, and freedom to explore, flourishes in language and the development of literacy. Consider the progress a young child can make in an unstructured environment. Without “lessons,” parents model literacy in their daily routines and their child mimics their behavior. This procedure should continue at preschool.

By modeling new learning paths, early childhood professionals can help children build on what they can do and what they enjoy. For instance, children naturally enjoy talking while playing. Teachers of young children can support this natural activity by suggesting new activities to the child and then allowing the child to participate at his or her own pace.

Enhancing Natural Learning
Children who have been regularly read to will use the new ideas from stories in their play. Children under the age of three engage in solo expressive activity and express little interest in drawing others into their play (Salinger, 1995). By listening to children under three play by themselves, we become keenly aware that story time has provided the seeds for many new ideas. The child under three focuses on experimentation with words and props for his or her own enjoyment and satisfaction.

After the age of three, children may begin to share ideas and join with other children in play (Salinger, 1995). At this stage, play with story ideas may involve retelling, play acting using costumes and props, drawing, or even building with blocks. The child’s focus is on creating interactive meaning and carefree experimentation. The story may be revised or it may be retold in its original format.

Every classroom should have space reserved for language experimentation and the development of story ideas. This space should be as comfortable as the home environment. Select a low traffic area which is quiet and which has comfortable places to sit. Children will make this area their own as they work through stories and adapt them.

Children benefit from being read to. Benefits include the following:

  • enhancement of children’s listening and speaking vocabulary;
  • increased familiarity with the way a story progresses (i.e., the story pattern);
  • increased ability to comprehend and talk about stories;
  • familiarity with children’s books;
  • development and enhancement of a gradually increasing attention span (Dickinson & Smith, 1994; Salinger, 1995).

You can notice deliberate intention to read expressed by young children’s reading-like behaviors. Young children often pretend to read (Pappas, 1993). Look for the following reading-like behaviors:

  • careful, considered book selection;
  • holding a book correctly while looking at and turning the pages;
  • telling a story while holding a book;
  • pointing at words while paraphrasing the story (this indicates that the child is aware that words are “units of meaning”);
  • using interesting intonations.

These behaviors should be encouraged and modeled by the early childhood teacher.

By providing time for children to watch you enjoying a book or magazine, and by reading aloud in a small group, you are showing the children that reading is important and are encouraging them to continue their reading-like behaviors.

Children love it when teachers read to them because this experience approximates the same intimacy that the child experiences at home with his or her parents (Salinger, 1995). To get children more involved in the story, ask them to make predictions about the plot before the story is read aloud. Children’s predictions will be confirmed during readings and misunderstandings can be clarified by further questioning (Salinger, 1995).

Provide personal reading time for children during the morning and afternoon. By designating specific, short periods of time for selecting books and reading, you demonstrate that you value reading. Designated reading periods should occur at high points during the morning and afternoon, as opposed to using reading as a means to “quiet down” the children.

Story Patterns
As children listen to stories they become familiar with story patterns--how stories progress. This awareness is closely linked with emerging literacy (Morrow, 1993). An awareness of the story pattern enhances listening and prediction skills. Awareness of story patterns also increases interest and self-confidence (Salinger, 1995). When a child creates an original story he or she makes use of story patterning to build suspense and prepare for an exciting ending. Responding to stories through art and writing also enhances literacy skills (Morrow, 1993).

Most children’s stories have a pattern that soon becomes familiar. The pattern reveals a main problem, an attempt to resolve the problem, consequences that occur as the story unfolds, and a final resolution. As the child becomes familiar with the pattern, suspense is enhanced as predictions are made and the resolution is imagined and guessed at. If the child has been involved in interactive readings, suspense rises as the child’s ideas and guesses are validated.

Being familiar with the pattern of a story aids children in dramatic reading. When the excitement rises in the story, engage the children in a discussion about the story. For example, in the story, The Three Little Pigs, the question, “What do you think happened next?” is best asked just at the point the wolf is about to blow down the first house.

Story Pattern of The Three Little Pigs
Problem: Pigs want to be safe from wolf.
Attempt: Pig one builds a straw house.
Consequence: Wolf blows house down.

Problem: Pigs still want to be safe from wolf.
Attempt: Pig two builds a twig house.
Consequence: Wolf blows house down.

Problem: Pigs still want to be safe.
Attempt: Pig three builds a brick house.
Consequence: Wolf cannot blow house down.

Resolution: Pigs are safe and wolf gets caught in chimney.

Self-Directed Play
Immediately following the reading of a story, children often incorporate characters and plots into their play. You may observe that children hold conversations with characters from the story or pretend to be a favorite character (Soundy & Genisio, 1994). Providing starting materials (items which were used in the story or remind children of the story) enhances and prolongs children’s involvement. For instance, a stuffed toy dog might encourage children to act out a recently read story about a pet saving a child’s life. It might also help initiate a discussion on the children’s own pets. Any item which will encourage children to talk is useful. Props should, however, leave something to the imagination (Soundy & Genisio, 1994).

Recounting is verbally describing familiar events and experiences. Recounting provides children with opportunities to talk about things such as the birth of a new baby, a birthday party, or a family event (Genisio & Soundy, 1994). The choice of topic can often be left to the child. A small audience of one to three friends, listening and then being invited to share, helps to extend the experience.

Steps for recounting:

1.       Target an exciting event shared by one or more children, such as a grandparent’s recent visit or a class shared birthday party.


2.       Gather several interested children to a quiet area appropriate for talking.


3.       Have each child recount the highlights of the event. Highlights should include the beginning, middle, and end of the event. This should take one to two minutes.


4.       Invite interested listeners to join in for an additional minute of discussion following the recounted event. Children express their interest in a variety of different ways including animation, talk, art, writing, and asking questions. These actions may erupt quickly with several very eager children chiming in at once. Supporting this interest will encourage children to share more in the future.

When the focus is placed on cultural events and family traditions of the children, diversity is valued. Appreciation of the similarities, and the uniqueness, of families becomes a valuable experience that can be enhanced through the choice of appropriate books and media (Genisio & Soundy, 1994).

As the facilitator, resist the temptation to finish the child’s sentence, or to add a word or two while the child is talking. It is always better to provide a sincere and accepting attitude. Wait patiently while the child is thinking. This means looking directly at the child while he or she is talking. Nod your head affirmatively and offer an expression that suggests understanding. Using language to recount familiar events becomes increasingly easy with practice (Edelsky, Altwerger, & Flores, 1992). Reading books about related topics extends the mood.

Laura’s Recounting
Tanya, a preschool teacher, knew that four-year-old Laura had recently had a birthday party at her house. Talking about the party after it was over (recounting) helped Laura to remember the fun and to organize her thoughts.

Tanya: “Laura, your birthday was so much fun! Let’s talk about it!” Tanya suggests Laura sit by her in a comfortable place. They sit in an area where pictures taken at the party have already been displayed. Tanya has gathered books about parties, family picnics, trips, and visits. As Laura positions herself to recount, Tanya motions to two of Laura’s friends to come closer.

Laura: “I like to blow out candles and my mom came over. I liked the pinata when it fell down.

”Tanya: After a pause the Tanya extends the conversation by looking directly at Laura and asking, “What happened when the pinata fell down?

”Laura: “The candy all fell down and I grabbed it up. The pinata was a pig. We hit it with a stick. My grammy came from Texas for my party. I like M&Ms the best.” Laura continues to talk for about a minute.

Tanya: “Is there anything else you would like to tell about your party?

”Laura: “No, I’m done.

”Tanya: “Well, you certainly had a fun party! Would anyone else like to tell about their favorite birthday party?” The other children take turns speaking for a total of about four minutes.

Retelling involves relating a familiar story, either in the same way it was originally told, or in a new and different way. Retelling stories increases and prolongs children’s enjoyment of them.

Steps for retelling:

1.       Reread familiar and loved literature as part of the daily routine. Note which stories are children’s favorites. Encourage children to reread these books.


2.       Model retelling for the children. Focus on telling the story in your own words. Avoid reading it.


3.       Encourage children to use props while retelling a story.


4.       Encourage retellings through art. Have children talk about their pictures and other art work. Point out the details and color to the children.

Jimmy’s Retelling
Arnie, a toddler teacher, reads aloud a story about a boy and girl who go fishing with their father. After the story is finished, Arnie retells the story to the children using effective voice intonation and stuffed animals as props. As he retells the story, he slightly alters the plot so that children notice the changes. The retelling takes only a few minutes. The altered plot elicits the children’s comments and ideas.

Arnie encourages the children to tell the story and add something new to it. Providing a sense of surprise for the other children is great fun. Jimmy retells the story from the perspective of the fish, using a plastic fish as a prop. “Please don’t catch me,” Jimmy squeaked in his fishiest voice. “I don’t want to be eaten.” The other children laughed and thought the new twist on the story was very funny.

Children are natural learners who use language in dramatic ways during free play. Children often pretend that they are their favorite characters from their favorite stories. To provide children with additional ways to explore language, provide daily opportunities for reading, self-directed play, recounting, and retelling. The more experiences children have with these activities, the more enhanced language experimentation there will be!

Margaret Humadi Genisio, Ph.D., is a professor of reading at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She was recently awarded a Barbara Bush Foundation grant for a unique family literacy program she developed called, “Breaking Barriers With Books.” She is also the editor of the State of Wisconsin Reading Journal, WSRA Journal.

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