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Promoting Development Through Emergent Literacy
By Francis Wardle, Ph.D.

“Will you teach my son to read”? my wife’s friend asked her one day. “I’m concerned. He’s eight years old, and still can’t read.”

“Sure, I’ll give it a try,” my wife, a teacher, responded. “By the way, what kind of books do you have at home?”

“Oh, I have no books. I don’t like to read.”

“What about newspapers, magazines, and trips to the library?” my wife responded.

“No, we don’t get a paper or magazines, and I don't like to go to the library.”

“Oh,” my wife continued, as she wondered just how to teach a child to read who never sees reading modeled to him.

Defining Emergent Literacy
Literacy is the “in” word today in education. We all want our children to read. Early. But literacy is not something we simply teach, and it’s not something a child starts to learn when he or she enters school. It’s a complex process that starts at birth, and includes a child learning in four basic areas: language, listening, writing, and reading—all at the same time!

Not only does literacy development incorporate these four areas, but it also involves knowing about listening, language, writing, and reading. For example, when we read a book to children we should let them know all books have a title and author; many storybooks start with, “once upon a time” and end with, “they lived happily ever after;” and books have a beginning, middle, and end. In teaching listening skills we help children listen for the beginning sound of a word, look at how a word is broken into syllables, and explain how different words rhyme with each other. We teach children that there are different styles of writing, depending on the purpose. A poem, for example, is written differently from a “No Smoking” sign, which is different from written instructions about how to put a toy together, or how to fix a toilet. Specific elements that are essential to children's development in each of these areas are 1) responsive adults, 2) active play, 3) quality, responsive, developmentally appropriate materials, 4) real experiences, 5) teaching in context, and 6) talking about reading, writing, listening, and language. Each of these areas is described below.

Responsive Adults
The most important element in developing reading, listening, writing, and speaking skills is an adult who stimulates a child's interest, scaffolds experiences, and responds to a child's earnest attempts to learn a skill. This is a critical skill that all adults who work with children, including parents must develop. Adults who just use language to direct, instruct, control, and punish will not help children develop complex language skills.

Since important literacy skills begin in infancy, parents are the first critical adult in a child’s reading process. A central role of any early childhood program then becomes to provide as much information and support to parents as possible. Parent training, newsletters, parent-teacher conferences, videos, cable TV shows, and PSAs all work very well. If we want children to develop emergent literacy skills we must help parents understand their critical role, and show them how to support literacy development at home.

Active Play
All new skills and concepts must be used again and again by a child until they become fully integrated in his or her mind and behavior. Think back to when you first began to drive. Initially you were very aware of each activity, from turning the key to looking in the mirror and releasing the break. After lots of driving, these skills “come naturally.” Play allows children to internalize new ideas and skills, integrate them with other knowledge, and begin to use them in their daily lives (Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp, 2000). Play also provides an essential environment for literacy learning. To learn new literacy skills, children must be risk-takers. Moreover, they must be encouraged to take risks such as trying out new word sounds and combinations or attempting to write a message to a friend. Because play is an environment controlled by children that is not based on reality (including the concepts of correct and incorrect), it encourages behavior critical to literacy learning (Wardle, 1999a).

Quality, Responsive, Developmentally Appropriate Materials
A child’s growth in all four literacy areas is based on triggering his or her interest, enthusiasm, creativity, and desire for exploration and risk taking. One of the best ways to do this is through high-quality toys and materials (Wardle, 1999b ), a variety of age-appropriate, books; a range of music (folk, dance, jazz, tribal, and classical), and a variety of musical instruments.

The essential component of these materials is that they require children to be actively involved. In the block area, for example, children should talk to each other about how they want to build their city. While in the music center, children listen carefully to distinguish the nightingale in a record of bird songs. And in the art center a child carefully holds the paint brush and deliberately paints a picture of his or her family. Most modern electric toys, including many so-called “educational toys,” do not require active learning (Wardle, 1999b).

Real Experiences
One of the most effective methods to use when teaching young children, is to begin with what children know (Neuman, Copple and Bredekamp, 2000). This important idea is based on what we know about how children learn. But what if children don’t know much? Then, we must provide children, at home and in the program, with lots and lots of real life, genuine, emotionally charged, multi-sensory experiences (Wardle, in press). These experiences can include field trips to farms, factories, wildlife preserves, outdoor museums, Hispanic cultural centers, trout hatcheries, wild wolf sanctuaries, cliff dwellings, streams, mountains, dance and song festivals, garages, building sites, furniture factories, swamps, sawmills, print shops, stockyards, import stores, book stores, and libraries. Try to be innovative. Instead of taking the children to places they have already experienced, think of something new. The purpose of field trips is to expose children to diverse, real, and new experiences.

Teaching in Context
Listening, reading, writing, and language skills should be taught in the context of every day activities, projects, interactions, and explorations. As a teacher, you may work on a child’s writing skills by creating a shopping list of things to be purchased for an art activity. Or you may help a child list the names of children going on a field trip. Some teachers even help children develop a list of words that rhyme with a particular word that can then be used to create a class storybook. There are thousands of opportunities on a daily basis to use reading, writing, listening, and language teaching, without resorting to word of the week, letter of the day, vocabulary lists, and writing worksheets.

Talk about Reading, Writing, Listening, and Language
Parents and teachers can help children learn reading skills by talking about literacy-related ideas and activities. Explaining to children that “We need to write the doctor’s appointment on the calendar, so we won’t forget,” helps children understand that writing plays an important role in daily life. “We need to listen carefully to hear what sound the word ends with;” “I don’t know how much flour I need to make the cookies, so I will look up the recipe in the cookbook;” and, “That word the man on TV used is new to me. Do you know its meaning?” all serve to connect real life experiences with reading and literacy as well.

Ideas to Use in the Early Childhood Program

  • Create a writing center. In it include different kinds and colors of paper, different sizes of envelopes, an old typewriter, pens, pencils, letter stencils, circle stencils, French curves, ink pad and stamps; calendar blanks, individual student journals, large lined paper hung on the walls, and blank greeting cards. Attach to the walls examples of different print fonts (maybe from a print shop), large calendars, and a bunch of environmental print (traffic signs, posters, book covers, etc.).

  • Create a nurturing, relaxed place for reading. Provide a variety of books, including the book you are reading during group time, books made by children, recently borrowed books from the library, children’s magazines, cartoon books, and joke books. Add a variety of environmental print on the walls, including travel posters, Big Book covers, schedules for the day and week, and directions to do certain things.

  • Read to the children every day.

  • Use writing in all other activities. For example, graph children’s heights; list children’s names by birthdays; write out directions for doing a dance, baking cookies, and using the computer; write out the words of songs; write vegetable and flower names on stakes to put in the garden; make traffic signs for the tricycle path; and provide directions and safety rules in the woodworking center.

  • Use a child’s name to generate activities. Young children usually learn to correctly write their name before any other word, because they are so egocentric. Children can sign in when they come to the program and write their names when they enter a learning center. Have posters in the classroom that show a child's photo next to his or her name. Then create a game where children match photos with a written name.

  • Use photographs as a writing tool. Take a camera with you when you go on neighborhood walks and field trips. Take photos of street signs, store signs, house street numbers, “For Sale” signs, advertisements, bus stop signs, church names, signs on the back of bus stop seats, etc. After the photographs are printed help the children order them, paste them on a large piece of butcher paper, and have the children dictate to you events and descriptions along the walk. You might also encourage them to add their drawing. Hang the entire newspaper on the wall for everyone to “read.”

  • Develop a listening center. Provide an area where children can listen with earphones to music, songs, and tapes of books.

  • Provide all sorts of props for dramatic play. Dramatic play is an ideal place for literacy activities to occur (Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp, 2000). The video tape, Linking Literacy with Play (Roskos et. al.), provides many examples of specific dramatic play scenarios. Extend literacy activities by placing menus and order forms in the restaurant, phone books, message pads, and clipboards in the office, and shopping lists in the housekeeping area.

  • Provide a variety of music, dance, rhythm, and sound repetition activities. Finger plays, marches, songs, folk dances, skip-rope routines, chants, and a variety of other fun activities teach children important skills of sound discrimination, repetition of sound sequences, and the rhythm of language. Sing Through the Day (Swinger, 1999) is a good selection of songs that extends beyond the familiar choices.

  • Make mail boxes with the children, that have their names on then. Then children can receive mail from their class buddies(and maybe the teacher and other staff).

  • Encourage art activities. Writing develops directly from scribbling, so young children need all sorts of activities to use crayons, chalk, pens, paint brushes, and sticks in the sand and mud.

  • Encourage second language learning. Especially at the preschool level, second language acquisition is not only easiest at this age, but some research suggests that a second language enhances the development of a child’s first language.

What Parents Can Do to Encourage Literacy Development

  • Use words for more than directions and punishment. Ask your children questions. Verbally explore ideas and possibilities. Some examples include: “Have you ever thought...?” “What do you think would happen if..?” “Can you figure out why..?” “Let’s look at possible solutions.”

  • Read books, magazines, newspapers, directions on how to use things, yellow pages, cook- books, messages from school, etc., in the presence of your child.

  • Model writing by creating shopping lists, directions, lists of chores around the home, telephone numbers to remember, letters to relatives, and reminders to other members in the house.

  • Turn off the TV, VCR, and sometimes the computer to create time for reading.

  • Explore the community with your child. Use two ideas to guide you: share what you love to do with your child and take the opportunity to be a child again.

  • Take your child to the library.

  • Read to your child every day.

  • Have books, magazines, newspapers, manuals, maps, recipe books, atlases, children's books, etc., in prominent places in the home.

  • Help your child cut out food and product logos from catalogs and advertisements to create shopping lists. Use a driver’s manual to help your child to make traffic signs for his or her vehicles. Make a book of favorite symbols: McDonald’s, Toys R Us, Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc.

  • Use photography. Children learn very easily through pictures. Capitalize on this by taking pictures of trips in the neighborhood, family outings, and travels further a field. After the pictures are developed, help your child create a book of them, and then help write captions at the bottom of what they represent.

  • Encourage children to create art projects by using a variety of materials—pens, crayons, chalk, paint, large pieces of paper, cookie cutters, stencils, printing pads and stamps, etc.

Francis Wardle, Ph.D., teaches for the University of Phoenix (Colorado) and is the executive director for the Center for the Study of Biracial Children. He is also the author of the book, Tomorrow's Children.


Christie, J. and Wardle, F. (1992). How much time is needed for play? Young Children,47 (3), 28-32.

Neuman, S. B., Copple, C., Bredekamp, S. (2000).Learning to read and write. Developmentally appropriate practice for children. Washington, DC: NAEYC

Roskos, K., Vukelich., C., Christie, J., Enz, B, and Neuman, S. B. (1995). Linking literacy and play. Videotape. Newark, DE. International Reading Association.

Swinger, M. (Ed). (1999).Sing through the day. Eighty songs for children. Farmington, Pa: Plough Publishing House.

Wardle, F. (1999a). Play as curriculum. Earlychildhood NEWS, 11 (2), 6-9.

Wardle, F. (1999b).(Jan/Feb). Educational toys. Earlychildhood NEWS, 38.

Wardle, F. (In press, Summer 2000). The critical need for field trips. Children and Families, 29 (3)