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Emergent Literacy in a Violent World
By Sandra Hurley, Ph.D., and Sally Blake, Ph.D.

"Sonia, why are you so sad and mopey this morning? You’re not playing with your friends, and you didn’t eat your snack. Are you sick?" asks a concerned teacher.

"Mommy and Daddy were fighting again last night," Sonia replies.

"Tommy, you and Eric stop playing so rough before one of you gets hurt."

"Naw, we won’t get hurt. We’re having a gang fight like the big kids."

Many of us can relate to the above incidents because we have experienced similar ones. Children do not leave their home and neighborhood lives behind when they walk through the school or child-care door. Fifty years ago, educators realized that hungry children have difficulty learning and they created school breakfast and lunch programs. Now is the time for educators to realize that scared children have difficulty learning, too, and do something about it.

Fourteen out of every 100 children between the ages of three and 17 experience family violence (Strauss & Kantor, 1988). During the past two decades, the United States has experienced an extraordinary increase in community violence (Richter & Martinez, 1993). A variety of studies conducted in Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles indicate that thousands of children witness family and community violence each year (Garbarino, Durow, Kostelyn, and Prado, 1992). At least 3.3 million children witness parental abuse annually (Jaffe, Wolfe, & Wilson, 1990).

It is clear that a child’s success or failure in learning to read usually determines future academic success because reading is fundamental to learning in all subjects. It is also clear that literacy and language learning begin before children enter first grade. Thus, it is imperative that educators of young children understand the child behaviors resulting from exposure to violence and respond appropriately to the millions of children arriving daily in our classrooms.

This article provides an outline of developmental consequences to young children who have experienced violence and describes emergent literacy, the process by which youngsters acquire reading and writing. Findings from these two areas of study are then related. Finally, practical things that can help violence-exposed children in the early childhood classroom are considered.

Developmental Consequences of Exposure to Violence

The effect violence has on children was given serious study during World War II (Freud & Burlingham, 1943). Since then researchers have continued to investigate the impact of war on children’s development in places like Cambodia, South Africa, the West Bank and Gaza, Northern Ireland, and most recently Bosnia, and the effects of community and domestic violence. Some things that have been learned from these studies are listed below.

  • Violence-exposed children often have difficulty developing trust.
  • Memory and sense of time are commonly impaired by trauma.
  • Innocent victims often feel guilty and accept responsibility for the violence they experience. Feelings of guilt and shame also combine with feelings of helplessness in controlling events (Wallach, 1993).

Connections between verbal and physical abuse and specific behaviors have also been noted. These connections include the following: short attention span, impulsive and timid behavior, heightened physical activity, impaired cognitive functioning and language development, and avoidance of risk (Craig, 1992).

Emergent Literacy: Young Children Learning to Read and Write

Many studies conducted over the past 30 years support the idea of emergent literacy acquisition. This idea is very different from the traditional view called "reading readiness." Emergent literacy supporters feel that children are not unable to read one day, ready another, and then suddenly become readers in first grade. Rather, emergent literacy focuses upon environments where others use reading and writing; children in these environments begin to read and write at a very young age (Goodman, 1994; Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984; Teale & Sulzby, 1989). Findings from many studies of emergent literacy have been collected by Strickland and Morrow (1989) and are summarized below.

  • By age two or three many children can identify signs, labels, and logos they see regularly.
  • Preschool children experiment with writing, and their scribbles display characteristics of their culture’s writing system. The writing of four-year-olds in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and the U.S. can be distinguished long before the children write conventionally (Harste & Carey, 1979).
  • Literacy develops from the realistic use of reading and writing. Children may request particular products or brands at the grocery store or ask adults to stop at a restaurant or toy store when they see the advertised logo. They may scribble and hand an adult a paper saying, "Read it," or "I love you."
  • Interaction with print appears to be much more important than demonstration or direct teaching.

To promote learning and independence in reading and writing, it is important for adults to provide children with a positive environment. Such an environment is rich in print (books, magazines, signs, posters, etc.) and safe for children to take chances as they learn new skills.

Emergent Literacy in a Violent Environment

If the elements for successful emergence into literacy are compared with the elements found in violence-exposed children, serious problems become apparent for the learner.


Emergent Literacy Success

  • Child reads and writes meaningfully with other people.
  • Child is in a print-rich, risk-free environment where interaction with text can occur for extended periods of time.
  • Child interacts with adults who aid early reading and writing attempts.

Violence-Exposed Children

  • Child has difficulty developing trust in self or others.
  • Child has impaired memory, sense of time, and language development.
  • Child develops a short attention span.
  • Child exhibits heightened physical activity and impulsive behavior.
  • Child becomes timid and fears taking risks.
  • Child has intrusive thoughts and is easily distracted.

Children exposed to violence may not have enough energy for both their defense against the violence and the much less urgent task of learning to read and write (Wallach, 1993). Therefore, early childhood intervention is vital in both the areas of relationship building and emergent literacy.

Relationship Building

Wallach (1993) suggests that the best thing for violence-exposed children is to be around caring people who offer emotional and physical support. Building trusting, stable relationships in a safe, secure environment becomes of paramount importance for children exposed to violence. These types of relationships and environments are necessary for their emotional and social development, but just as necessary for academic development.

In order for violence-exposed children to develop trusting, stable relationships, time is necessary. Therefore, we need to maximize the amount of time a child has with one adult (Wallach, 1993). Directors must develop staff schedules in such a way to decrease the number of people with whom a child spends time. Changing teachers or caregivers frequently often increases confusion for youngsters.

Staff development specific to the needs of violence-exposed children also needs to be provided. Counselors, educators, psychologists, social workers, and health care professionals can share helpful information. Having an adult who experienced or witnessed violence as a child share their experiences with staff can be an eye-opening experience. Staff can be provided with journal articles, professional books, and children’s books to read and discuss with one another and the children in their care. Researchers in this area regularly present at professional conferences and are often willing to provide staff development workshops.

Emergent Literacy

Children learn to read and write through active engagement with text. Therefore, we need to provide many opportunities for children to look at books and magazines; to hear stories read or told; and to experiment with a variety of writing media in a risk-free environment. Children should be allowed to respond personally to stories and books.

Children’s authors have responded to the increasing levels of community and domestic violence in recent years by writing about it. Such books can be used by early childhood educators to help children understand they are not alone. Further, caring, knowledgeable teachers can help children deal positively with their negative experiences by reading such books aloud. While the quantity and quality of appropriate children’s literature addressing neighborhood or home violence is limited, there are excellent titles available.

The books listed at the end of this article can be used by thoughtful practitioners to provide both emotional and cognitive support needed by violence-exposed children. Cognitive functions necessary to successful emergence into literacy include memory, especially sequential memory; sense of time; and semantic language.

Rereading and retelling stories help to develop sequential memory. Graphic aids and story maps which aid recall are appropriate to use even with preschoolers. For example, after reading a story, provide the children with a sheet of blank paper. Show them how to fold the paper into thirds. Then unfold the paper and draw on the fold lines clearly using crayons or markers to define three sections. Ask the girls and boys to draw a picture in the first section that tells how the story began. In the middle section, they draw a picture about the middle of the story, and in the last section they make a picture that shows how the story ended. These story maps can then be used as props for their own retellings of the story in the child care center or later at home. Many books of chalk talks and paper-cut stories are available. Using these, teachers tell a story while drawing or cutting out a picture. The activity is repeated, but this time the children retell the story as the teacher follows along by drawing or cutting. Writing also develops sequential memory and therefore should be encouraged. Young children can be provided with a variety of writing tools (e.g., markers, crayons, chalk, pencils—an old typewriter is often a favorite) to encourage them to express themselves. While their prewriting scribbles may appear meaningless to adults, even very young children often make marks on paper and then "read" what they have written.

A sense of time can be encouraged in the early childhood classroom by using kitchen timers, sand-filled hourglasses, songs, chants, or fingerplays regularly to signal the beginning, middle, and end of activities. By using verbal reminders such as "In five minutes it’ll be time to put the blocks away" or "You have 10 more minutes to play before lunch" we can help children become aware of increments of time and the passage of time. In addition, these things add a sense of routine, dependability, and security to a child’s day.

The activities described above will, in addition to supporting the development of sequential memory and sense of time, also aid semantic memory, or the memory of words, because this development of sequence, vocabulary, and language memory is most easily done in "environments with consistent, predictable routines and familiar, reliable caregivers" (Craig, 1992, p. 67). Other suggestions for developing vocabulary include providing a wide variety of experiences for young boys and girls. Simple field trips to the grocery store or a nearby park can generate many questions and stimulate conversation with children.


Millions of violence-exposed children come to U.S. schools and child care centers daily. For many it is their only safe haven in a frightening world. Perhaps our most important task, as educators, is creating a safe environment where children can construct knowledge through modeling, demonstration, and practice. Caregivers are among the most important educators in society for their daily interventions in building caring, trusting relationships, and supporting emergent literacy lay the foundation upon which successful lives can be built. While we cannot change the world, we can make our classrooms safe and secure places for children to explore and learn.

Sandra Rollins Hurley, Ph.D., and Sally Blake, Ph.D., are assistant professors at the University of Texas at El Paso, Department of Teacher Education.

Suggested Reading

Smoky Night by Eve Bunting (1995) received the Caldecott Award from the American Library Association. The beautiful illustrations combined with Bunting’s sensitive language tell the story of the Los Angeles riot from a child’s point of view. The youngster in the story watches with his mother from an upstairs apartment window as neighborhood stores are looted and merchandise is stolen.

Bunting, E. (1995). Smoky night. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Co.

Why Did It Happen? by Janice Cohn (1994) tells the story of a young boy confused and frightened after his friend is robbed and hurt by thieves. The young boy’s fear is expressed through his bad dreams and his reenactment of the incident with another youngster. His parents respond to the bad dreams with understanding and comfort and to the play fighting by telling him they understand how he feels and by taking him to visit his friend. In addition to dealing honestly with conflict and confusion, Cohn provides a guide for adult readers using the text.

Cohn, J. (1994). Why did it happen? NY: William Morrow & Co.

Susan Paris (1986) deals with the painful subject of parents who argue and resort to physical violence in Mommy and Daddy Are Fighting. Children reading this story or hearing it read aloud receive the important message that adults do some things over which children have no control. Pairs provides a natural way for educators and children to begin discussing coping strategies by including a guide for teachers and parents.


Paris, S. (1986). Mommy and daddy are fighting. Seattle, WA: Seal Press.



Craig, S.E. (1992). The educational needs of children living with violence. Phi Delta Kappan, 74, 67-71.

Freud, A., & Burlingham, D. (1943). War and children. London: Medical War Books.

Garbarino, J., Dubrow, N., Kostelyn, K., & Prado, C. (1992). Children in danger: Coping with the consequences of community violence. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Goodman, K.S. (1994). Reading, writing, and written texts: A transactional sociopsycholinguistic view. In R.B. Ruddell, M.R. Ruddell, & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (4th Ed.) pp. 1093-1130). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Harste, J.C., & Carey, R.F. (1979). Comprehension as setting. In J.C. Harste and R.F. Carey (Eds.), New Perspectives in Comprehension. Bloomington, IN: Indiana School of Education, 1979.

Harste, J. C., Woodward, V.A., & Burke, C.L. (1984). Language stories and literacy lessons. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Jaffe, P.G., Wolf, D.A., & Wilson, S.K. (1990). Children of battered women. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Richters, J.E., & Martinez, P. (1993). Children as witnesses to violence in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood. In L.A. Leavitt and N.A. Fox (Eds.), The Psychological Effects of War and Violence on Children. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Strauss, M.A., & Kantor, G.K. (1988). Stress and child abuse. In R.E. Helfer and R.S. Kempe (Eds.), The Battered Child, 4th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Strickland, D.S., & Morrow, L.M. (1989). Emerging literacy: Young children learn to read and write. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, Inc.

Teale, W.H., & Sulzby, E. (1989). Emergent literacy: New perspectives. In D.S. Strickland & L.M. Morrow (Eds.), Emerging Literacy: Young Children Learn to Read and Write (pp. 1-15). Newark, DE: International Reading Association, Inc.

Wallach, L.B. (1993). Helping children cope with violence. Young Children, 48, 4-11.