What is Emergent Literacy and
Why Should We Do It?
INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW
What is Emergent Literacy?
Over the past ten years, the concept of emergent literacy has gradually replaced the notion of reading readiness. Consequently, it has a significant impact on the way we approach the teaching of literacy in early childhood programs. The theory of emergent literacy developed from research in the fields of child development, psychology, education, linguistics, anthropology, and sociology. It virtually redefined the field of literacy and made educators, teachers, and parents aware that the term reading readiness no longer adequately describes what is happening in the literacy development of young children (Teale, 1986).
Reading readiness suggests that there is a point in time when a child is ready to begin to learn to read and write. In contrast, emergent literacy suggests that the development of literacy is taking place within the child. It also suggests that it is a gradual process and will take place over time. For something to emerge it needs to be there at the beginning (the child’s own natural learning ability), and things usually only emerge under the right conditions (Hall, 1987). Literacy refers to the interrelatedness of language--speaking, listening, reading, writing, and viewing.
Traditionally we have viewed reading and writing as processes that were difficult for children to learn. Children were considered knowledgeable about literacy only when their reading and writing approximated adults’ reading and writing. Children who could identify written words without picture clues were considered readers. Similarly, children who could spell words so that adults could read them were considered writers. This definition of reading and writing was based on what adults could do.
In the last decade, we have begun to challenge these traditional assumptions about reading and writing. We have watched children in the process of engaging in literacy events. We have begun to study families and children where the children were reading before they entered school. We have identified characteristics that are present in the homes of early readers. From this large body of research, the theory of emergent literacy evolved to encompass the following elements:
1. Learning to read and write begins very early in life.
Children (babies) have very early contact with written language. By age two or three many children can identify signs, labels, and logos in homes and communities. Young children also experiment with writing. Early scribbling displays characteristics of the writing system of their culture. Writings of 4 year- olds from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and America will look different long before the children can write conventionally (Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984).
2. Reading and writing develop concurrently and interrelatedly in young children.
Children do not first learn to read and then learn to write--we need to speak of literacy development, not of reading readiness or of prereading. We also need to realize that writing is actually an easier first learning activity for young children than reading.
3. Literacy develops from real life situations in which reading and writing are used to get things done. Function precedes form.
The vast majority of literacy experienced by young children is embedded in some activity that goes beyond the goal of literacy itself. Literacy is functional, meaningful, and authentic; that’s what they see adults doing. It is not a set of abstract, isolated skills to be learned. Literacy is used to "get things done."
4. Children learn literacy through active engagement.
Children learn literacy through their favorite reading and rereading of story books. When they "reread" the book it is not a memorization of text. This is an example of the child reconstructing the meaning of the book. When you see children’s invented spelling you see their attempts at reconstructing their knowledge of written language. Invented spelling is a way to see the phonetic elements a child is acquainted with.
5. Being read to plays a special role in the literacy development of the young child.
Being read to on a daily basis is one of the greatest gifts that we can give to our children. It is never too early to start. By listening to the printed word, children can develop a feel for the patterns, the flow, and the nature of written language. Children receive a global sense of what reading is all about and what it feels like. They develop a positive attitude towards reading, which is a powerful motivation when the child reaches school. It is also an important means whereby children can begin forming concepts of books, print, and reading.
6. Learning to read and write is a developmental process. Children pass through the stages in a variety of ways and at different ages.
The theories of Piaget and Vygotsky were instrumental in understanding the developmental processes that children experience in learning. There are developmental stages in a child’s reading acquisition (Mason, 1980) and developmental stages in a child’s writing growth (Sulzby, Barnhart, & Hieshima,1989).
Why Should Emergent Literacy Be Part of an Early Childhood Program?
Concern for quality preschools and developmentally appropriate activities support the importance of an understanding of emergent literacy. Head Start classrooms and preschools cannot fall into the trap of trying to be like kindergartens and get children ready to learn to read and write.
The readiness activities that are common in many preschools and kindergartens are not supported by the research on emergent literacy and how children learn. There is a tendency for preschools to offer one of two types of programs. Some tend to be play centers where the curriculum does not include natural reading and writing activities. Others utilize formal academic instruction inappropriately (Freeman & Hatch, 1989).
It has been found that readiness activities are becoming the norm for kindergartens, and this in turn is dictating the preschool curriculum. Parents are concerned about the expectations of these academic kindergartens and are beginning to expect preschools to have their children "ready" for kindergarten.
However, it is not developmentally appropriate to shove the first grade program down a notch or two into kindergarten and preschools and expect to make it work. The typical formal reading and writing instruction of first grade is inappropriate for young children (Bredekamp, 1987). So are worksheets that dominate the curriculum in kindergartens (Durkin, 1987).
Research has shown that it is possible to accent and highlight literacy activities in a preschool classroom by "littering the environment with print" (Harste, Burke, & Woodward, 1984, p. 43). This is in contrast to the traditional classroom where reading and writing are directly taught in a formal setting. Researchers in Harste’s study brought the book corner to the center of the room and added a writing table with pencils, pads of paper, envelopes, and stamps. By doing this they found that children spent 3 to 10 times the amount of time they normally did in direct reading and writing activities. If they had assumed that children needed to be taught specific lessons in reading and writing before they could engage in them, then there would be no need to provide print related activities. But when they provided books, paper, and pencil activities for these young children they found that children had an almost "natural affinity" for them.
These researchers challenge teachers of young children to provide open-ended activities so that the children can "demonstrate, use, and build upon the knowledge already acquired about literacy" (Harste, et al. p. 44). A model of teaching and learning that builds from the child can provide the essential foundation for how reading and writing should be taught from the emergent literacy perspective. This perspective assumes that when a child arrives at school she already knows a great deal about language and literacy. Even at the age of two or three a child is treated as one who has specific ideas about what written language is and has information about how the processes of reading and writing work. The instruction can then build on what she knows, and it supports her continued growth in reading or writing. The role of the teacher in the emergent literacy perspective becomes one of setting conditions that support self-generated, self-motivated, and self-regulated learning.
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