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Using the Environment to Promote Literacy Skills
By Ruth A. Wilson Ph.D.

Competencies for Literacy Article

The Child Development Associates (CDA) competencies that can be used for this article are:

• To support social and emotional development and to provide positive guidance.

• To advance physical and intellectual competence.

For more information on the CDA competency requirements, contact the Council for Early Childhood Recognition at (800) 424-4310.


This article helps meet the following Certified Childcare Professionals (CCP) professional ability area:

• The ability to enhance the cognitive development of young children.

For more information on the CCP certification, contact the National Child Care Association at (800) 543-7161.

At the end of each day, the four year olds in Krista’s classroom eagerly help her write a letter to their parents. They take turns contributing a bit of news about what went on in the classroom that day: Buttons, the pet bunny, hid behind the bookcase for about an hour; Tony zipped his own jacket for the first time; and Maria wrote a story about a little girl who wanted daisies in her yard. 

In the classroom across the hall, Jodi’s group of four year olds show little interest in writing a letter to their parents. They’d rather spend more time building with blocks and playing at the sand table. There are other noticeable differences between what the children do in these two classrooms as well. The children in Krista’s classroom “write” grocery lists and make party invitations. They look up numbers in the phone book and check out ads in catalogues and magazines as they talk about designing a special garden. Jodi’s class, however, while interested in pretend play with costumes and kitchen props, seldom turn to paper, pencil, or print materials to enhance their dramatic play activities.           

You may be wondering why these two groups of children are so different in how they work and play. Are the children in one group older than the children in the other group? Have the children in Krista’s class been identified as gifted or have they been coming to preschool longer than the children in Jodi’s class? Does Krista conduct more teacher-directed activities than Jodi? The answer is “none of the above.” 


Jody and Krista: What’s the Difference Between Their Classrooms? 

The difference between the two groups reflects a difference in the environment. Krista’s classroom offers a literacy-rich environment, while Jodi’s classroom has only a limited amount of print and print materials, and little attention is devoted to promoting literacy behaviors.            

We’ve long recognized that the way children play is highly influenced by the environment provided for them. The nature of the environment also has a significant influence on what children learn. While Krista doesn’t formally teach reading to her class, a number of her four year olds can recognize their printed names and the names of their friends. They also recognize printed labels for common objects and learning centers in their classroom (door, kitchen, desk, etc.) and many of them recognize the letters of the alphabet, as well.                 

The children in Jodi’s class, on the other hand, are less advanced in their emergent reading skills. Only one or two of the children can read even a few printed words and most of them do not recognize letters of the alphabet. Many of them aren’t even aware that words are made up of individual sounds and that letters represent speech. Is this cause for concern?           

When asked, Jodi says that she’s not concerned. Her philosophy is that while children should be introduced to good literature during the preschool years, actual reading and writing should begin in kindergarten. Jodi also believes in a child-centered curriculum. “If children want to spend more time in block and water play, then that is what I encourage them to do,” she says. 

It’s interesting to note that Krista’s philosophy of education is similar to Jodi’s. She, too, believes in a curriculum based on children’s interests. Krista, however, has a deeper understanding of young children’s strong desire to use the communicative tools of their social world than Jodi. She’s aware that young children “want to be able to do all the things that the powerful people they admire can do, including talking, writing, drawing, using the computer, and otherwise creating and sharing ideas, memories, solutions, even jokes and feelings” (Edwards and Willis, 2000, p. 259).


Using the Environment to Promote  Literacy Skills

Krista values the environment as a learning tool and capitalizes on this to foster emergent literacy skills in developmentally appropriate ways. She’s aware that the concept of emergent literacy reflects “children’s natural growth and awareness of print in the environment” (Genisio & Drecktrah, 1999, p. 227). Perceptive teachers, realizing the importance of this first stage of reading development, look for ways to acquaint the child with literacy in personally satisfying ways. They do this primarily through a literacy-rich environment where children have authentic opportunities to become engaged in a variety of listening, talking, reading, and writing activities. “Clearly, literacy-rich environments are of value. They allow children to practice literacy behaviors and language in ways that make sense to them” (Roskos & Neuman, 1994, p. 264).           

Literacy-rich environments are sometimes described as being full of print. Printed labels are posted on doors, windows, bookcases, sinks, etc. Printed signs are also used to designate the theme or purpose of different learning centers (art center, book corner, etc.). Books, magazines, and other print materials are plentiful. Yet, creating a literacy-rich environment requires more than “simply ‘littering’ the places where children play with print. Play environments that become literacy learning environments must be carefully planned by informed adults” (Roskos & Neuman, 1994, p. 264). They must also address both the social and physical dimensions of the environment.


Opportunities for Active Engagement

A literacy-rich environment does more than provide visual exposure to print. It also provides opportunities for meaningful interaction with it. A well-prepared literacy-rich environment invites children’s active engagement in at least two different modalities (Edwards & Willis, 2000). This approach matches the way young children learn. As expressed by Edwards and Willis (2000), “it is natural for young children to seek to master and use many alternative ‘literacies,’ or avenues of symbolic representation offered by their culture, such as drawing, painting, gesture, construction, dramatic play, and words” (pp. 259-260). One practice that Krista uses in her classroom to encourage children’s active engagement in emergent literacy activities is to integrate visual and verbal literacies. She finds that this “mixed presentation” captivates children’s interests and holds them for longer periods of time than a print-only presentation. A closer look at Krista’s classroom, then, reveals children engaged in, not only seeing and using print, but also using songs, chants, dramas, dances, and games as different expressions of literacy.            

The idea of a “mixed presentation” is consistent with the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education (Edwards & Willis, 2000). In fact, the term “100 languages of children” is used in the Reggio Emilia literature (Reggio Children, 1996) to indicate that children use many avenues and formats for understanding and representing ideas (Edwards & Willis, 2000).            

Children, however, need support and guidance in developing their emergent literacy skills. “Literacy does not occur in a vacuum. Literacy skills emerge within a community of literacy. Human interactions such as sharing a picture book, telling a story and talking about experiences are central to emergent literacy” (Wilson, 2003, p. 77).


Related Research and Theory

Both research and theory offer strong support for providing literacy-rich environments in early childhood classrooms. For example, Roskos and Neuman (1994) in discussing theory indicate that “from Pestalozzi to the present there has been an abiding belief in the importance of the physical environment as an agent in young children’s learning” (p. 251). They also note how this belief forms “the cornerstone of an interactionist view of human development” (p. 251).            

Research findings also support this idea. As reported by Roskos and Neuman (1994), the deliberate redesign and enrichment of an early childhood classroom “significantly influenced the literacy behaviors of the children enrolled there. They [the children] engaged in substantially more literacy behaviors (handling, reading, writing), and their literacy-related play became increasingly longer in duration and more complex, consisting of ‘strings’ of interrelated literacy behaviors” (p. 263). Based on these findings, Roskos and Neuman (1994) concluded, “literacy-enriched play environments are of value. They allow children to practice literacy behaviors and language in ways that make sense to them” (p. 264).           

Another study examining the role of the environment in fostering literacy focused specifically on block play. In this study, literacy props were added to the block play area of two different preschool classrooms and included such items as house plans, blueprints, magazines, invoices, order forms, paper, pencils, crayons, and children’s books relating to various types of construction (bridges, buildings, roads, fences, etc.). “In both preschool settings, reading and writing supplies prompted numerous literacy events” (Stroud, 1995, p. 11). Such “events” included using schematic drawings as models for building, drawing blueprints, and making signs to declare ownership or prevent demolition of their structures. This study, too, supports the value of literacy-enriched environments for promoting emergent literacy skills. “In this type of enriched block-play center, young children will have an opportunity to build not only houses and highways but also a foundation for literacy” (Stroud, 1995, p. 13).


Suggestions for Teachers

As already noted, literacy-rich environments don’t just happen. They must be carefully planned. In creating a literacy-enriched environment for young children, Roskos and Neuman (1994) used three design principles to guide their work: 1) the principle of definition, 2) the principle of adaptation, and 3) the principle of familiarity.            

While these principles apply to broader contexts as well, they provide an excellent framework for creating literacy-rich play settings for young children. Following is a brief discussion of each of these principles along with some examples of how to apply them in an early childhood classroom with the development of emergent literacy skills in mind.


The Principle of Definition.

Working from the principle of definition involves clearly demarcating play settings from one another. Both semi-fixed features and print can be used for this purpose. For example, low shelves and other classroom furniture can be used to create small, intimate areas, which foster more interactive and sustained play (Roskos & Neuman, 1994). Environmental print can then be added to give sharper definition to the learning center and to help children become more familiar with the written word as a source of information. In addition to using labels for the different learning centers, other meaningful ways to add environmental print is through the use of directional signs, posted inventories of materials, and simple suggestions or ideas for how the materials might be used. In an “office center,” for example, written messages on signs or posters might include the following: “phone messages,” “sign-in sheet,” “dial 911 for emergencies,” and “remember to recycle.”


The Principle of Adaptation

Applying the principle of adaptation involves reworking typical settings to resemble real-life literacy contexts. A play kitchen area, for example, can easily be converted into a restaurant by adding literacy props relating to the kinds of reading and writing activities typically associated with different eating establishments. Such props could include a sign for the restaurant, a notice about “shoes and shirt required,” a chalkboard with “specials of the day,” menus, notepads for taking orders, and a newspaper rack. Similarly, a play office area could be converted into a veterinarian’s office by adding books and magazines about pets, an appointment book, reminders about the use of a leash in the waiting area, the doctor’s license for practicing medicine, etc.


The Principle of Familiarity

Following the principle of familiarity means adding prototypical literacy objects into known settings. As previously discussed, in the block area you might add such objects as blueprints, invoices, order forms, writing materials, and children’s books relating to construction projects. The principle of familiarity can even be applied to an area already devoted to print materials. This includes the book corner where such literacy objects as library cards, library stamps (for return due dates), calendars, wall posters, file folders, and a community event bulletin board could be added.           

Additional suggestions for teachers are offered by Edwards and Willis (2000). Their focus is on the practice of integrating visual and verbal literacies to foster emergent literacy skills. One of their suggestions is to “select one or two unusual ‘literacies’ to become specializations for your classroom, such as photography, clay, or drama, and interweave them throughout your curriculum and across the whole school year” (p. 263). This suggestion is based on the understanding that different materials offer different qualities, which can be used to help children record and communicate their ideas in a variety of ways.           

Another suggestion offered by Edwards and Wills (2000) is to encourage children “to design and create complex products and productions that involve multiple symbolic languages and long-term project work” (p. 263). This suggestion is clearly consistent with the Reggio Emilia approach – an approach based on the understanding that children’s “’languages’ are not and should not be isolated from one another, like separate compartments in a storage garage” (p. 261). This suggestion is also based on the understanding that “going between different media allows children to confront and solve different problems as they progress through a project” (p. 263). Thus, while children may start with words and gestures at the initial stage of planning a project, they may quickly move to the use of pens or pencils for sharing and comparing their ideas for the project. The next stage in the process may involve more elaborate drawings, perhaps with diagrams on graph paper. At this stage, children might also use blocks or other manipulatives to create a three-dimensional model of their project. During the final stage of the project, children create and share their actual product, which may take a wide variety of forms – painting, dance, drama, three-dimensional collage, etc. As they move through the successive stages of their project and alternate through different media, children go from one symbolic language to another, thus experiencing various dimensions of literacy.           

Additional suggestions for teachers developed by Robinson and colleagues (2000) include: 1) engaging children as both readers and writers, 2) providing language activities that focus on both the form and content of spoken and written language, and 3) providing opportunities to practice reading and writing for real reasons in a variety of contexts.



The path to literacy is multifaceted and involves far more than learning to encode and decode print on the page. A richer description of literacy development is offered by Britsch and Meier (1999). They refer to children’s literacy development as “a dynamic, developmental process involving language, thought, and social interaction” (p. 209). This definition is consistent with ideas presented elsewhere. Wilson (2003), for example, describes “becoming literate” as “a dynamic process, through which literacy-related competencies grow and change” (p. 77). Wilson also notes that literacy development can be supported “in a wide range of settings and activities, some of which involve no print at all” (p. 77).                         

Teachers working to promote the development of emergent literacy skills in young children can look to the environment as an agent of learning. While literacy objects added to the physical environment in the early childhood classroom can promote literacy behaviors, the role of the social environment should also be considered. Early childhood teachers would do well to keep the goal of an emergent literacy curriculum in mind – that is to promote the expression and exchange of children’s ideas in meaningful language and literacy contexts – and then choose materials and activities that are consistent with this goal.


Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of Special Education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Dr. Wilson’s expertise is early childhood special education, and much of her research has focused on early childhood environmental education. She retired from teaching and now devotes much of her time to writing.



Britsch, S.J. & Meier, D.R. (1999). Building a literacy community: The role of literacy and social practice in early childhood programs. Early Childhood Education Journal, 26(4), 209-215. 

Edwards, C.P. & Willis, L.M. (2000). Integrating visual and verbal literacies in the early childhood classroom. Early Childhood Education Journal, 27(4), 259-265. 

Genisio, M. & Drecktrah, M. (1999). Emergent literacy in an early childhood classroom: Center learning to support the child with special needs. Early Childhood Education Journal, 26(4), 225-231. 

Robinson, R.D., McKenna, M.C. and Wedman, J.M. (2000). Issues and trends in literacy education (2nd edition). Boston, MA:  Allyn & Bacon. 

Roskos, K. & Neuman, S. (1994). Play settings as literacy environments: Their effects on children’s literacy behaviors. In D.F. Lancy (Ed.), Children’s Emergent Literacy, Westport, CT:  Praeger, pp. 251-264. 

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

Wilson, R.A. (2003). Special educational needs in the early years (2nd edition). New York:  RoutledgeFalmer.