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What Is Emergent Literacy?

By Amanda R. Bell
Updated May 23, 2024
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Emergent literacy is described by developmental specialists as the period between birth and preschool. During this time, children begin to develop a rudimentary understanding of the written word by listening, drawing, and observing adults using print to function in daily life. The process of emergent literacy prepares children for learning to read and write in school.

From the moment a child is born, his or her brain begins processing language. As the brain develops, a child becomes increasingly adept at making connections between written and spoken words. For most, this begins with parents or other caregivers reading aloud to a child. Brightly colored books with single words or simple phrases coupled with easily recognizable pictures are usually ideal for this stage of emergent literacy.

As the child nears the age of one, he or she will likely begin to associate the print words in a book with what the adult reader is saying. At this point, the child will likely try to imitate sounds and respond positively to books featuring repetitions or rhymes. Children will often pretend to read aloud; while they obviously will not be reading the correct words, this is an important aspect of emergent literacy. The ability to decipher the difference between two words that sound similar is often the next stage of emergent literacy. This understanding leads to phonemic awareness, which is defined as the understanding that separate sounds make up individual words.

Once a child’s fine motor skills begin to develop, he or she will likely enjoy drawing. While this is often considered basic entertainment, it is a large part of emergent literacy. Learning how to draw various shapes and pictures with different colors helps a child’s brain develop the understanding that pictures, and therefore printed words, have specific meanings. Watching adults write or draw can be especially helpful; small things that many adults would not notice, such as making up a grocery list, aids a child in understanding that writing words serves a purpose.

As a child moves through toddlerhood, he or she will begin to notice parents using print outside of reading the child books. Watching adults read a television guide or use street signs while driving helps a child to apply this knowledge of reading to areas apart from books. Once children understands that printed words are used in nearly every facet of daily life, their interest in literacy is often peeked.

When preschool begins, children are taught to read and write directly. That notwithstanding, developmental specialists typically believe that reading with parents and watching adults use the written word in their daily lives is equally important to structured learning in schools. Emergent literacy is considered one of the most important stages in child development. Children who are adequately nurtured in this area tend to do better in school and develop conventional literacy much more quickly than their peers.

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