Published: 28-12-2011, 04:52

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Emergent Literacy—Theory, Practice, and Policy

With the introduction and widespread acceptance of literacy standards and goals starting in the 1990s, young children’s literacy development has garnered a great deal of attention on the part of policymakers, researchers, educators, and families. The majority of states across the United States, and some countries internationally (such as the United Kingdom), have adopted early literacy expectations and goals for children at discrete age levels during the preschool and primary grade years. For example, California recently adopted preschool literacy standards that are aligned with the state’s kindergarten language arts standards. These standards cover early literacy elements such as oral language development, phonological awareness, literary analysis, and concepts about print. They are designed to increase teachers’ attention to the forms and functions of print during children’s earliest years of formal schooling, and to give children a head start on early literacy development in the primary grades.

Emergent literacy is the most widely used term for young children’s beginning literacy learning and development (Teale and Sulzby, 1986). The term pertains to children’s first efforts to make sense of, use, and create written language in and out of early childhood settings. The term emergent literacy most powerfully conveys the idea of literacy instruction in early childhood as tailored to children’s emerging linguistic, social, cultural, and personal needs and talents. In this view of early literacy development, teachers adjust literacy materials, goals, and strategies to foster children’s curiosity, discovery, play, and development in literacy-related activities. This view of literacy development is most strongly associated with the long-standing tradition in the field of early childhood of valuing a play-based and developmentally appropriate curriculum guided by caring, reflective practitioners.

Developmentally Appropriate and Culturally Responsive Literacy

Developmentally appropriate language and literacy education honors the role of play, self-discovery, children’s individual interests, and individual rates of development (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997). As children’s emergent literacy learning has gained attention as a critical focus in early childhood, influential researchers and teachers have argued for a developmentally appropriate early literacy framework and set of teaching practices. It is argued that young children benefit from literacy goals, materials, and strategies that are developmentally appropriate in the following ways: children’s natural sense of discovery and curiosity are valued, activities are meaningful and authentic, children are encouraged to explore and play with literacy materials, children’s individual rates of maturation and development are respected, and teachers are expected to play a critical role in selecting early literacy materials, curriculum, and adapting standards to match their particular children’s needs and talents.

As early childhood settings both in the United States and internationally have become more culturally and linguistically diverse, the idea of developmentally appropriate practice continuously needs to be expanded to include the ways that diversity of the world’s children may approach and understand the forms and functions of written language. In terms of emergent literacy development, it is argued that conceptual frameworks and teaching practices need to be both developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive (Meier, 2000). In seeking common ground between these two ideas, emergent literacy goals and practices are grounded in young children’s cultural and linguistic ways of looking at the world and using oral and written language (Delpit, 1995; Soto, 2002). For example, the selection of children’s literature used in children’s early literacy experiences must address children’s cultural lives; children need opportunities for literacy performance that honor cultural traditions (Dyson, 2003); children benefit from literacy learning that relies on home/community literacy practices involving older siblings; and literacy needs to be tied to issues of social action and social justice.

Interplay between Literacy, Social Interaction, and Thought

Children’s emergent literacy development involves an intricate interplay between thought, language, and social interaction (Vygotsky, 1978). In a Vygotskian framework, young children experience and learn about themselves and their worlds through playful and meaningful interactions with others and objects. As young children use and explore written language (such as books, reading, writing, dictation, poems, language experience activities) with others, both peers and adults, they learn about critical forms and functions of literacy through collaboration with others. This social process of interaction and collaboration, which can occur both in home and educational settings, fosters sophisticated mental activity involving the forms and functions of written language. In a public forum of literacy learning, children learn to work with others, understand another’s point of view, and explain and describe a feeling or an experience to someone else. In this melding of social interaction and literacy, emergent literacy becomes a culturally valued activity for children within a certain group, community, or setting and thus gains in social and personal currency. Literacy learning and education becomes part of the culture of the educational setting and part of a community of speakers, readers, and writers. In this socially constructed use of literacy, children benefit from scaffolded literacy activities in which they have conversational partners (peers and adults) for talking about books, stories, writing, and other shared literacy experiences.

How children learn about the forms and functions of literacy is also tied to children’s general cognitive and developmental growth. An important element of this growth involves experiencing and understanding literacy as a symbol system. Since alphabetic letters or characters in written languages symbolize or represent objects and phenomena in the world, there is an important interplay between children’s ability to decode and understand these symbols and their general cognitive growth and development. Both processes reinforce and support the other. Children’s literacy development progresses as children understand and use letters, words, and sentences to express and represent their ideas, feelings, observations, and experiences. This is a developmental journey that usually begins in preschool and continues on through the primary grades. In terms of literacy practice, young children’s understanding of literacy as a symbol system is supported by involvement in familiar social and language contexts grounded in talking, interacting, and playing with others.

The Oral and Written Language Transition

Emergent literacy views young children’s oral and written language as intricately linked, and young children move back and forth between the two as they talk, read, and write. This often starts off with a transition for children in which they move from mostly oral language experiences to increased exposure to written language activities and materials. This involves a movement away from primarily contextualized language use (i.e., oral language in familiar settings with familiar conversational partners) to more decontextualized language use (i.e., primarily written language activities in school settings without familiar social and language supports). Before entering formal schooling, many children communicate and express themselves primarily through oral language in familiar home and community contexts and with familiar conversational partners. Traditionally, though, school and educational settings have asked young children to focus on language without the familiar oral language and social supports of home and community. In an emergent literacy framework, children are afforded access to their oral language powers and talents in order to contextualize their early literacy activities and experiences in early childhood settings. It is this very process of contextualizing language use that helps children become more familiar and successful with decontextualized language use around literacy activities.

There are several key factors that support the oral towritten language transition. For instance, children need access to familiar forms and functions of nonverbal communication (gesture, face-to-face interactions, holding of objects, turntaking) and oral language (conversations, stories, narratives, jokes, riddles) as supports for understanding more distant and unfamiliar forms and functions of written language in school settings. Narrative is one important avenue that children can use to bridge oral to written language use. For example, when teachers emphasize narrative for children with disabilities, it has a strong positive influence on the meaningful literacy learning of these children (Kliewer et al., 2005). Through storytelling and interactions with stories, children use their oral language talents to make sense of books and other forms of school-valued literacy. Varied forms of social interaction is another factor that influences the transition to literacy, as peer-peer and child–adult collaboration provide an oral language foundation and scaffold for early literacy learning (Cazden and Michaels, 1986).


Young children’s literacy learning is a significant international focus in early childhood as countries seek to provide a solid foundation for children’s early literacy learning, later school success, and to raise overall rates of literacy achievement. Increasingly, lawmakers and policymakers have turned to literacy standards and expectations to provide this foundation for young children’s literacy learning. The framework of emergent literacy, though, cautions against a “one size fits all” approach to early literacy theory, practice, and policy. Emergent literacy advocates goals, materials, and teaching practices that support and guide the diversity of children’s natural talents and abilities to talk, discover, play, and imagine as they engage in literacy activities. Children need a developmentally and culturally responsive literacy education, an integration of oral language and written language activities, and literacy practices that promote integration of children’s cognitive, social, cultural, and literacy learning. The current challenge for the international early childhood community is to meld literacy theory, practice, and policy to meet the needs of all children in all learning communities. See also Vygotsky, Lev.

Further Readings:

Bredekamp, S., and C. Copple, eds. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The Free Press; Dyson, A. H. (2003). The brothers and sisters learn to write: Popular literacies in childhood and school cultures. New York: Teachers College Press; Kliewer, C., Fitzgerald, L, Meyer-Mork, J., Hartman, P., English-Sand, P., and Raschke, D. (2005). Citizenship for all in the literate community: An ethnography of young children with significant disabilities in inclusive early childhood settings. In L. I. Katzman, A. G. Gandhi, W. S. Harbour, and J. D. LaRock, eds., Special education for a new century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 373–403; Meier, D. R. (2000). Scribble scrabble: Learning to read and write. New York: Teachers College Press; Soto, L. D., ed. (2002). Making a difference in the lives of bilingual/bicultural children. New York: Peter Lang; Teale, W. H., and E. Sulzby, eds. (1986). Emergent literacy: Writing and reading. Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Daniel Meier

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