Understanding Emergent Literacy

Emergent literacy is the wonderful process of learning to read and write.

  • emergent-literacyIt begins at birth. It includes everything that influences literacy from that point until the person is fully literate.
  • It is a process. Literacy skills build and grow a little at a time. That is why it is called “emergent literacy”.
  • Oral language ability has a huge impact on literacy.
  • Literacy skills build on each other, but they are not necessarily sequential. Different people follow different learning paths to literacy.

One other important idea: Learning to read and write does not just happen naturally. Human beings are naturally wired to learn to speak. We all do, unless there is some big thing that gets in the way. Not so with literacy. We are not preprogrammed for reading and writing. We must learn the skills and practice them. That is how we become literate.

Why is it important to start early?

“Children who get off to a good start in early reading rarely fall behind (Reutzel and Cooter, 2008 p. 80).” This is what research studies have consistently shown. On the other hand, children who start out with a shakier foundation get further behind. The old adage, “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer” applies to emergent literacy.

Those who have a good start continue to do well, while those who come to school without a strong background in important skills consistently have a hard time getting what they need to easily become good readers and writers (Wren, 2003).

The good news is that starting early, we can make a huge difference!

How do children learn to read and write?

The first important milestone of the journey in emergent literacy is called print motivation. This basically means that children need to:

  1. Understand that there is a world of printed language.
  2. Have a desire to be a part of that world.

Children must see how printed language applies to them, or how much fun it can be to learn what is inside a book. This gives a reason for trying to crack the code.

However, this journey of learning to read and write is not an easy one. There must be strong and consistent motivation for a child to want to start and continue on this path.

We can help children get this motivation by immersing them in reading and writing.

Reading books together, providing many different writing materials, keeping books, magazines, newspapers, and even junk mail around for children to access are all good ways to immerse children in the world of print.


There are several skills that are important in the process of beginning to read and write (National Research Council, 2000; Reutzel and Cooter, 2008 p. 75). If children develop these skills before they begin formal schooling, they are much more likely to have an easy time learning to read and write.

Click on the links below. The following pages describe each emergent literacy skill and include ideas for helping children learn.

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness
Learning the Alphabet (Letters and Sounds)
Concepts About Print
Beginning Sight Words
Beginning Writing
Oral Language and Vocabulary

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