Emergent Literacy
By Ruth A. Wilson, Ph.D.

When my daughter, Carol, was four-years-old, I worked as a volunteer two days a week in a small parochial school’s library. One of the reasons I chose this volunteer position over other possibilities was that Carol could accompany me to work. While I checked books in and out and conducted “story time,” Carol spent her time looking at the books in the library and listening to me read stories. One day, Carol said she wanted to read to me. She chose a book and started to read. I was surprised to see that she was really reading the words. How, I wondered, had she learned to read?

My other daughter, Gwen, was in the first grade at the time and was being taught to read primarily by the “phonics method”—i.e., learning to identify letters and associating letters and sounds. Gwen worked diligently through multiple worksheets and sets of flashcards. Gwen was learning to read, but Carol, who had never been exposed to reading instruction was reading, too. Unknown to me at the time was that both Gwen and Carol started learning how to read long before they ever went to school.

Defining Emergent Literacy
Dictionaries sometimes define literacy as the ability to read and write (Lancy, 1994). Discussions about the topic sometimes suggest that people fall into one of two categories—those who are literate and those who are illiterate. Issues related to literacy, however, aren’t so clearly defined. Perhaps a good starting point for discussing some of these issues is with the understanding that illiteracy, as a distinct state, does not really exist. It is more accurate to think of the literacy development of any individual as being on a continuum of increasing competence, with no one being at the point of zero.

From the moment of birth—or perhaps even sooner—children begin the process of “reading” their surroundings and learning the intricacies of language. This is a part of literacy development, which certainly precedes reading instruction. As expressed by David Lancy, Editor of Children’s Emergent Literacy, becoming literate “occupies every waking moment throughout childhood” (Lancy, 1994, p.2). Becoming literate, in this view, is a dynamic process, through which literacy-related competencies grow and change. Over time and with appropriate stimulation, the competencies required for reading and writing emerge.

Emergent Literacy Versus Reading Instruction
Few would argue the benefits of reading to children during their early years as a way of fostering language development. Reading to children is, in fact, a major way of teaching literacy. Moffett (1994), in an effort to honor the practice of reading to children, referred to the activity as the “lap method” of teaching literacy. Associating the word “method” with literacy, however, is not meant to suggest that we adopt any one approach or combination of approaches to foster emergent literacy. Approaches and methods may fall within the realm of reading instruction, but are not consistent with the concept of emergent literacy. Formal reading instruction, especially if introduced too early and if focused on “skill and drill,” can actually interfere with emergent literacy.

Literacy is much broader than reading; and ways of achieving literacy-related competencies go beyond “methods of instruction.” Literacy development can, in fact, be supported in a wide range of settings and activities, some of which involve no print at all (Dickinson & Beals, 1994). There are many unacknowledged ways of learning to read and write. Some of these ways fall into the category of “folk practices,” that is, practices associated with what many parents and children often do at home. In most instances, there is little thought to teaching literacy. In addition to reading to children, other “folk practices” which foster literacy include “playing” with different sounds (i.e., as cooing, rhyming words, and making animal sounds) and conversing about a topic of mutual interest. According to Moffett (1994), even activities as “crawling and drawing, chatting and imitating” teach literacy (p. xix).

Does this suggest that literacy will occur spontaneously and that it only needs to be awaited and signaled? No, literacy does not occur in a vacuum. “Literacy emerges in individuals only when they are immersed in a community of literacy” (Moffett, 1994, p. xviii). As the focus of a community is on people versus materials, commercial or “teaching” materials (such as worksheets, basal readers, and skill-building programs) have little to do with emergent literacy. Human interactions like sharing a picture book, telling a story, and talking about experiences are central to emergent literacy.

Make-believe among peers also plays an important role in emergent literacy. Pretending is, in fact, an ideal area in which children can develop literacy-related language skills. In pretend play, children use language to create imaginary worlds; and “the manner in which language is used when pretending has much in common with reading” (Dickinson & Beals, 1994, p. 38). Teachers and parents are thus encouraged to provide children time and settings in which they can use language with each other in a variety of sociodramatic play activities.

Another way to enhance emergent literacy skills in the home and school is to add “literacy objects” to the physical environments in which young children play. For example, in addition to a variety of books, a child’s library (or a book corner) might also feature such items as magazines, pamphlets, wall posters, and comfortable places for children to sit. Library cards and a librarian’s desk might also be added. Literacy items which might be added to a kitchen area include recipe cards, cookbooks, coupons, notepads, and pencils. “Literacy objects” in a child’s “office area” might include such items as assorted paper and envelopes, telephones and telephone directories, various forms and file folders, pens and pencils, and a calendar.

Block play, too, can serve as a foundation for literacy. While “reading and writing and playing with blocks...seem miles apart at first glance,” the addition of literacy props can provide young children with the opportunity “to build not only houses and highways but also a foundation for literacy” (Stroud, 1995, p. 9, 13). Even without the addition of literacy props, block play offers the literacy-related benefits of helping children understand symbolization, refine visual discrimination, develop fine-motor coordination, and practice oral language. Added benefits are realized, however, when literacy props are introduced into block play. Some literacy props which might be appropriately added to a block area include: a) books focusing on the general themes of block building and construction; b) blueprints of actual houses or other types of buildings; c) magazines featuring pictures of skylines, highways, and other types of physical structures; and d) a variety of writing materials, which children might use to make signs, banners, and building plans. A study by Stroud (1995) found such literacy props “to be promising in the development and practice of emergent reading and writing skills” (p.13).

Supporting Parents in Literacy-Related Activities at Home
While many parents may, indeed, naturally foster emergent literacy through certain “folk practices” mentioned earlier, some parents might assume that they should be doing something more or different to teach early reading. Other parents, who may be already trying to read to their children, may be making poor book selections and/or ignoring their child’s comments and questions about the reading (Bergin, Lancy, & Draper, 1994). Thus, it’s important for teachers to guide and support parents in fostering literacy at home.

Studies focusing on parents of successful readers found that they do more than simply read to their children (Green & Halsall, 1991; Halsall & Green, 1995). They also engage in specific strategies, which maximize the reading experience. Early childhood educators can play an important role in sharing such strategies with parents. They first wrote the strategies in simple language and added pictures demonstrating the strategies being implemented. They then shared these strategies with parents through workshops, printed materials, and videotapes. Following are examples of these strategies: a) Talk about the book with your child before reading it; b) Use an enthusiastic voice when reading aloud; and c) Let your child ask questions about the book.

Another program, through a family literacy project designed for parents with low literacy skills, developed an “activity log” of specific activities that parents can do to help their young children become successful readers. Parents were then asked to keep a weekly record of the activities they used. Both symbols and words were used on the “activity log” to make it easier for the parents to read. The log asked parents to record the number of times over a period of a week that they performed certain activities. These activities included: a) having the child share a book with the parent; b) watching the child draw or color and commenting on his or her work; and c) playing a game or singing with the child (Wilson, 1998).

No, emergent literacy does not occur in a vacuum. Yet, it does occur without direct instruction when conditions favor its development. Such conditions are far more dependent on human patterns of development than on the materials provided. In the interest of helping children develop literacy-related skills, it is highly recommended that early childhood educators shift the emphasis on learning from materials to people, and that we recognize the inexhaustible resources available in the numerous circumstances in which children have the opportunity of interacting with their peers and their elders (Moffett, 1994).

Ruth A. Wilson, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Special Education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Dr. Wilson’s area of expertise is early childhood special education, and much of her research has focused on language and literacy development during the early childhood years. She retired from teaching in August 1999 and now devotes much of her time to writing. 


Begin, C., Lancy, D.F., & Draper, K.D.Parents interactions with beginning readers. In D.F. Lancy Children’s emergent literacy. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 53-77.

Dickinson, D.K. & Beals, D.E. (1994). Not by print alone: Oral language supports for early literacy development. In D.F. Lancy Children’s emergent literacy. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 29-40.

Green, C. & Halsall, S. (1991). Literature’s role in the language and cognition of the young child.Early Development and Care, 67, 39-52.

Halsall, S. & Green, C. (1995). Reading aloud: A way for parents to support their children’s growth in literacy.Early Childhood Education Journal,23(1), 27-31.

Lancy, D.F. (Ed.) (1994).Children’s emergent literacy. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Moffett, J. (1994). Forward. In D.F. Lancy,Children’s emergent literacy. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. xvxix.

Stroud, J.E. (1995). Block play: Building a foundation for literacy.Early Childhood Education Journal,23(1), 9-13.

Wilson, R.A. (1998).Special educational needs in the early years. New York: Routledge.