Emergent literacy is based on the notion that children acquire knowledge about reading, writing, and language before they have begun any formal education (Clay, 1966, 2001; Sulzby & Teale, 1982; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998, 2001). This conceptualization of literacy as a developmental process that begins at birth counters previous early literacy theories that believed readiness for learning to read began with formal schooling (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Many researchers have contributed to our understanding of literacy development in the earliest years. According to Marie Clay (1966), literacy development begins early in life and is ongoing. Teale (1987) explained that children not only have particular experiences before they start school, but also have developed interests. Emergent literacy results from children’s involvement in reading activities facilitated by literate adults (Teale, 1982). Sulzby and Teale (1991) define emergent literacy as the reading and writing behaviors that precede and develop into conventional literacy. These early literacy behaviors indicate a child’s stage of reading and are particularly revealing in determining the approaches a child will use as they engage in the task of reading. Similarly, Whitehurst and Lonigan (1998) define emergent literacy as a “developmental continuum between prereading and reading involving skills, knowledge and attitudes that are the developmental precursors to reading and writing” (1998, p. 484). This underscores that we expect children to acquire skills over time. Additionally, Whitehurst and Lonigan (2001) have clarified that emergent reading develops in an interactive process of skills and context rather than individual components developing in a linear fashion.
All of these definitions of emergent reading help us understand that long before children are reading books word for word, they are acquiring important literacy knowledge and skills. For example, many young children can point out commonly visited store logos with no prompting. Any adult who has ever heard a toddler in the backseat point to the fast food restaurant and scream, “fry-fries!” has witnessed emergent reading. It is not simply about the quantity of skills a child develops before appearing to be a fluent reader. Rather, a child’s literacy develops over a long period of time, with early skills supporting the growth or emergence of new skills.
Emergent literacy and early literacy are often used interchangeably, but this textbook will use the term emergent literacy, encompassing everything a child knows about reading and writing before they become proficient. Emergent literacy can be thought of as the totality of the language capacities, knowledge, and skills a child possesses even before developing the ability to turn that knowledge into reading in ways that are measured as conventional skills. Children are developing reading, writing, and language concurrently during their earliest years. All of the key concepts in emergent literacy occur on a developmental continuum and involve stages of learning.
Pause and Connect: Early Literacy
After viewing this video from Zero to Three, list and elaborate on the ways in which language and literacy can be encouraged in early childhood education settings.