Early literacy: The essentials
Part 4: Supporting and assessing emergent reading and writing
Editor’s note: This is the last
of a four-part series on emergent literacy: Supporting children
as they learn to read and write. Part 1 addresses language and
conversation skills and is available online at www.childcarequarterly.com/fall05_story1.html.
Readers can access Part 2, Sharing books and asking questions,
Part 3, Phonological awareness and the alphabet, is available
At her program’s open house, Ms. Aleman shows parents
the books and flannel boards in her reading center for 4-year-olds.
She explains how she reads stories aloud and how children may
choose books and re-tell the stories with flannel board figures.
“Shouldn’t our kids be learning the sounds of alphabet letters—you
know, phonics?” asks Mr. Johnson.
“Yes, children are already learning the sounds of letters, but actually
they have been for some time,” Ms. Aleman replies. “Think about how
your children call out McDonald’s when they see the sign.” Several
“Maybe I should get flash cards and teach phonics at home,” Mr. Johnson
“If you do, you might meet your objective but defeat your goal,” says
“You might meet the objective of your son’s learning letter sounds,” Ms.
Aleman explains. “But you also might defeat the larger goal of his developing
a love of reading and learning.”
Literacy is an evolving process. Learning to read and write
combines learning concepts, acquiring vocabulary, being aware
of sounds, and understanding symbols. Children develop the ability
to use standard rules of grammar, spelling, and sentence structure.
Traditionally, this process was pushed into high gear when children
entered first grade. Today, research has helped us understand
that literacy begins in infancy (when children first respond
to voices) and, with support and direction, can build throughout
the early childhood years.
Unfortunately, many early childhood programs have adopted outdated
teaching methods. These educators—and parents—think
that focused, whole-group instruction and intensive drill on
letters and sounds will accelerate learning. They work under
the belief that their efforts will result in toddlers who can
identify words on flash cards and 5-year-olds who can read and
write. Teacher-directed drill practices are not the best teaching
method, even for elementary school children. They are less suitable—and
may be damaging—to younger children.
We know that young children learn through meaningful experiences
with people and materials in their environments. For infants
and toddlers this means sensory exploration—and they can’t
learn the letter V by smelling and tasting it. Preschool children
who have had rich sensory learning experiences are developmentally
prepared to explore symbols and abstract concepts—usually
Literacy’s deep roots expand during this time when children
put background knowledge, curiosity, eagerness to emulate respected
adults, and awareness of environmental print into action. They
begin to be able to integrate all spheres of development into
a foundation for successful reading and writing.
Early literacy dilemma
The push to early literacy is a dilemma for many early childhood
teachers. They respect the research that describes the best
ways to support the growth and development of young children,
and are likely to resist any campaign to push young children
into practice and drill sessions. On the other hand, it’s
clear that failing to provide language-rich experiences in
preschool will result in serious challenges for children later
in their academic careers.
Where is the delicate balance? You already sing with infants
and offer opportunities to explore tastes, textures, and sounds
with toddlers. You ask questions and have meaningful conversations
with preschoolers. You read aloud to all ages every day. What
else is important? “A central goal during these preschool
years is to enhance children’s exposure
to and concepts about print” (NAEYC and IRA 1998).
In order to support budding literacy, teachers support children’s
awareness of print (rather than pictures) as the primary tool
for telling a story. We help children recognize that written
English has a consistent form, that letters have standard shapes
and they string together into words. We also help children recognize
that both spoken and printed words have meaning.
Opportunities to practice help children—and adults—cement
information and provide a base for further exploration. For example,
Mitch, a 4-year-old, has just enjoyed reading Gail Gibbons’ book,
Up Goes the Skyscraper, with his teacher. They have examined
the illustrations, practiced new vocabulary, and discussed the
new bank building going up downtown. Mitch goes to the easel
and begins to paint a tall building—long, vertical, blue
lines with small, red, rectangular windows. He signs his name
and leaves the paint to dry. Later in the day he decides to write
about his building and uses a marker to make shapes across the
bottom of his painting. Ms. Jones, his teacher, is attentive
to his work and responds when Mitch asks her to write his words “in
the book way.” Together they compose a two-sentence description
of Mitch’s building—Mitch dictating and Ms. Jones
transcribing. They tape the dictation to the back of the picture,
and Mitch eagerly anticipates sharing the work when his dad,
a carpenter, comes to pick him up at the end of the day.
In this example, Mitch has recognized the power of print symbols—in
a book, his name on his painting, and the transcribed description.
He knows that his words don’t look like the words printed
in the Gibbons book—or like the ones his teacher prints
on a note card. His awareness and enthusiasm—coupled with
the support and positive reinforcement he receives from his teacher
and his dad—will encourage him to continue to build new
Frequently asked questions
The following questions provide more information on language
and literacy support for young children.
Q. Why do some children have reading difficulties?
difficulties are often apparent in children who have significant
disabilities or developmental delays—including mental retardation,
expressive or receptive language delays, deafness or hearing
impairments, and vision impairments. Children whose home language
is one other than English may also have early language and literacy
In typically developing, standard English-speaking children,
however, reading difficulties usually point to lack of exposure
to language and literacy activities. Frequently these children
fail to understand alphabetic and phonic principles—that
written letter symbols systematically represent the sounds of
spoken words. This leads to a failure to build and use comprehension
skills and related strategies that give meaning to text.
Q. I visited a school that encouraged each class to study a different
letter each week. Is this useful?
A. Preschool children build cognitive skills through hands-on
explorations of real materials and equipment. Remember Cookie
Monster eating the letter C? Surely it’s useful to 4- and
5-year-olds to handle and sort objects with names that begin
with a particular letter. On the other hand, a group time devoted
to printing Gs while making the associated sound is likely time
Children learn alphabet letters through meaningful interactions
with environmental print—books, magazines, signs, and labels,
for example. Hands-on materials like letter puzzles, magnetic
letters, and play clay for shaping letters is likely to have
more letter-recognition impact than studying one letter each
Some of the 4-year-olds in my group are exploring letter shapes
and sounds. They talk about writing but the lines don’t
have real meaning. What’s going on?
A. Much of the writing in preschool years has no specific meaning.
Instead it mimics the lines of letters and indicates increasing
fine-muscle control. As children build experiences and gain familiarity
with environmental print, they work harder to make their lines
look like the letters in books and signs—they evolve from
letter-like forms to true letters.
Typically children string together these letter-like forms. These
experimentations create mock words that the child may or may
not attach meaning to. Often the first evidence of form mastery—and
early recognition of the relationship between sound and letter
form—occurs when children are able to write their names.
This form of writing, combining scribbles, mock letters, and
real letters, typically continues through early primary school.
Children will continue to experiment and mimic new letter forms
as they realize that adults frequently communicate with slanted
and loopy letters—not the letter form they see in books.
When children share their writing, it’s appropriate to
ask, “Can you read your writing to me?” Avoid trying
to interpret writing marks—just as you avoid interpreting
Q. Should I teach handwriting? I had to do penmanship exercises
A. Formal handwriting instruction is not appropriate for all
preschool children. Most preschoolers need time to experiment,
discover, and work on fine-motor skills—writing shapes
with a stick in the sand, dribbling paint precisely, or building
On the other hand, if a child asks for specific help, give it.
Creating precise marks is challenging, but as they develop, children
will naturally strive to make their marks look like those they
see in the environment.
Q. What about invented spelling?
A. A print-rich preschool environment offers children the tools
and support for literacy development. They see letters everywhere
and want to experiment with putting letters together into words.
Because they are eager to master the reading and writing puzzle,
they experiment with phonemes (sounds in speech) and symbolic
representations of those sounds (alphabet letters). Frequently
one mark or letter stands for a syllable or even an entire word.
With adult support, children will refine and organize their skills—using
individual letters to represent only prominent sounds to using
letters to represent all the sounds they hear in a word.
When children ask how to spell a specific word, it indicates
their awareness of standard spelling. If possible, write the
whole word on an index card. This allows the child to see the
word in its entirety—not just isolated letters. The visual
picture helps establish a pattern for later word recognition.
Q. Should I be teaching phonics?
A. Kindergarten-age children sometimes find phonics instruction
helpful in decoding unfamiliar words. Independent word recognition
depends on the reader’s ability to translate letters into
word sounds. Short periods of instructional time spent on helping
children recognize word families (cat, mat,
fat, sat) are useful.
But phonics instruction as an independent activity is not going
to produce fluent readers and writers. Instead, kindergarten
and primary school teachers best use phonics as part of a meaningful,
purposeful, and enjoyable reading program.
Q. Some of the parents of children in my program have difficulty
reading and writing. Is there anything I can do to help without
A. Ideally, we would like for low-literate parents to enroll
in a literacy program, but relatively few do in actual practice.
Often they must work long hours to support the family, they may
not have transportation, or they feel intimidated by the prospect.
If that’s the case, encourage parents to get into the daily
habit of telling stories to their preschoolers, using a picture
book or drawing upon their memory and imagination. Telling stories
introduces children to new words, helps them learn about sequence,
engages their attention, and strengthens emotional bonding. Using
a picture book or other printed material establishes the book
habit; children see books as a valued activity.
Illiterate parents probably never had books read to them; they
don’t know how to go about it with their children. You
can help by hosting story times at your facility, perhaps in
the evening, with refreshments. Tell a story from a picture book,
modeling voice changes for different characters and changing
the pace to fit the action. After the story, ask questions and
discuss what happened. Encourage parents to borrow picture books
from your library and to share them with their children every
What can I do to improve my program’s early literacy
A. Researchers are clear that developing a literacy plan is essential—and
the first step is setting goals. Naturally, your goals will be
determined by the ages and developmental levels of the children
in your care. Infant and toddler teachers have different goals
than pre-kindergarten teachers, for example.
For every age group, read aloud, play with words, build a classroom
library, provide a quiet reading corner with a variety of books,
and make art and writing materials available. For specific age
groups, determine the four issues below. An example is given
What is an appropriate literacy goal? Children are able to
clap to the syllables in their names.
Who will be responsible for keeping the plan on course? Teachers
Which activities will contribute to the goal? Songs at circle
When do you expect your goal to be met? By the sixth month
of the school year.
Focus on developing teaching skills. Use staff meetings and in-service
training time to report on and monitor language and literacy
goals. Review classroom management techniques in order to spend
more focused time in one-on-one and small-group work with children.
Plan visits to exemplary preschool literacy programs and encourage
pre-kindergarten teachers to visit kindergarten teachers to share
and compare expectations. Most of all, encourage reading.
Involve families in your plan. Share your goals and encourage
parents to “get with the plan” at home. Specifically,
ask for help setting up a reading corner,
encourage reading and conversation at home, and
keep parents informed with notes and ideas for family word
Encourage parents to use the school lending library and always
spend part of your conference time discussing language and literacy
Monitor children’s progress. Learn to document children’s
language and literacy skill development. This documentation can
guide curriculum: once you see what children can do, you can
plan for the next steps. Documentation also can alert teachers
and parents to potential developmental red flags. Portfolios,
checklists, anecdotal records, and work samples provide tangible
evidence for study and planning.
Q. Is there a simple checklist that can help keep my efforts
A. Evaluate your daily practice against the criteria below. Modify
your practices to ensure a rich early literacy environment.
I interact with children in a positive, engaging manner.
The ratio of children to adults is suitable for the age group
so that children can get sufficient appropriate attention.
I have one-on-one and small-group conversations with children
throughout the day.
I respond to what children say and do by building on their
verbalizations and ideas.
I read aloud to children on a daily basis.
I give each child daily access to at least five new or familiar
books. I rotate books frequently.
I offer a variety of books to the children (for example, story
books; nursery rhymes and poetry books; concept books for number,
color, and ABCs; and informational books about nature, trucks,
neighbors, and other topics).
I model different uses of literacy—environmental print,
lists, labels, and other print media.
I help children understand how reading and writing function
in their lives.
I develop meaningful ways to alert children to environmental
and phonemic sounds.
I involve children in regular writing activities.
I plan regularly scheduled meetings with parents to discuss
language and literacy development.
I have information-sharing conversations and conferences with
parents to learn about the children from the parent’s point
I am involved in an ongoing program of professional development
that includes support for my understandings about how to foster
young children’s language and literacy.
—adapted from Love to Read 2002.
Activities that support emergent reading and writing
Develop classroom and in-home activities like these to foster
literacy through play.
Letter or word concentration
(age 3 and older)
Modify this game according to the skills and ages of the children.
Younger children may be able to match shapes (a prelude to letters);
older children will want to match whole words.
Here’s what you need:
index cards—all the same color
1. Make pairs of letter or word cards. For preschoolers, write
words they are likely to encounter, like stop and exit, and their
2. For children kindergarten age and older, write words that
rhyme or are in the same word family (bun,
run, sun) to encourage
attention to similarities.
3. Show the children how to turn the cards face down on the playing
surface and challenge them to turn the cards over, one at a time,
to find matching pairs.
Sponge letter art
(age 3 and older)
Here’s what you need:
sponge alphabet letters
liquid tempera in flat pans
1. Place the letters on the cookie sheet. Be careful that the
sponges are in proper orientation to the easel.
2. Invite children to find the sponge letter that begins their
3. Let the children use sponge letters (or letter stamps) to
4. Talk with the children as they work. Challenge them to associate
the sound that begins a word with the appropriate letter: B as
in blue with the B sponge.
(kindergarten age and older)
Journals (spiral bound) are familiar in early childhood classrooms.
Generally children spend undirected time writing and drawing
in their journals each day. A guided journal, on the other hand,
offers a topic and provides words that children could include
in their writing.
Here’s what you need:
1. Provide a folder for each child. Glue an index card to the
front and print the child’s name using upper and lower
case block letters.
2. Put a couple of sheets of paper into one of the folder pockets.
3. Make a list of topic ideas—grocery list, foods I like,
my family, zoo animals, and summer activities, for example. Either
identify enough topics to match the number of children in your
group, or arrange the environment so that two or three children
can share a topic.
4. For each topic idea, print related words on index cards. For
example, the grocery list words could include milk, meat, dog
food, chips, apples, peas, and soap.
5. Invite children to choose a topic and use some of the words
as they journal.
Note that some of the children will find it much easier to stay
focused with the addition of simple words to copy.
Home literacy bags
Use this take-home version of the reading and writing center
to inform and involve parents in emergent literacy. If your budget
doesn’t allow buying new supplies, ask for donations from
Here’s what you need:
book bags, backpacks, or small plastic suitcases
paperback children’s picture books
language or writing activity related to the book
clear, adhesive-backed plastic or laminator
1. Gather enough bags and books so that every child in the group
has one. A few extras enable children to choose which book to
share with their families.
2. Choose a paperback book for each bag.
3. Develop a language or writing activity that relates to the
book. See the Resources for free books box on page 8 and the
Resources for book bags box on page 6.
4. Include any materials the family will need to complete the
5. Write directions for completing the activity. Laminate it
or cover with clear, adhesive-backed plastic. For example, provide
a paperback copy of Dear Juno, a story that describes the written
correspondence between a child and a grandparent. Add writing
materials—envelopes, index cards, lined paper, advertisement
stamps from organizations, pens, an alphabet sample, and a chart
listing the addresses of school friends. Your directions encourage
family letter-writing time.
6. Encourage children to choose a backpack to use for a week.
This will give families time to read and re-read the book with
their children. Keep records of children’s names and the
bags they choose.
Note: If parents have poor literacy skills, take a few minutes
to tell the story and explain the directions. Remind parents
that it’s not so important to get the story details right
as it is to provide an enjoyable experience and get children
in the habit of using books.
Adams, M.J. 1990. Beginning
to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Bowman, Barbara, Ed. 2002. Love
to Read: Essays in Developing and Enhancing Early Literacy
Skills of African American Children.
Washington, D.C.: National Black Child Development Institute,
Burns, M.S., P. Griffin, and C.E. Snow, Eds. 1999. Starting
Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children’s Reading Success.
Washington D.C.: National Academy Press. Available online at
Dougherty, Chris, Ed. 1999. Improving
Early Literacy of Preschool Children. Austin: LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of
Texas at Austin.
Gibbons, Gail. 1986. Up
Goes the Skyscraper. New York: Four Winds
to Read and Write. 1998. Joint position statement of
the International Reading Association and National Association
for the Education of Young Children. Washington, D.C.
Moomaw, Sally and Brenda Hieronymus. 2001. More
than Letters: Literacy Activities for Preschool, Kindergarten,
and First Grade.
St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.
Neuman, Susan B., Carol Coppel, and Sue Bredekamp. 2000. Learning
to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for
Young Children. Washington D.C.: National Association for the
Education of Young Children.
Pak, Soyung. 2001. Dear
Juno. New York: Penguin Puffin.
Schickedanz, Judith A. and Renée M. Casbergue. 2004. Writing
in Preschool: Learning to Orchestrate Meaning and Marks. Newark,
Del.: International Reading Association.