What is emergent literacy in early childhood

Emergent Literacy | ECLKC

Although language and literacy are two different skills, they are closely related. Language is the ability to both use and understand spoken words or signs. It is all about ideas passing from one person to another. Literacy is the ability to use and understand written words or symbols to communicate. Language and literacy learning begins prenatally! The child begins to learn the sounds and rhythms of his or her home language in the womb and can begin a love of reading by being read to as a newborn.

Emergent literacy has been defined as "those behaviors shown by very young children as they begin to respond to and approximate reading and writing acts."  However, literacy goes beyond reading and writing. It encompasses "the interrelatedness of language: speaking, listening, reading, writing, and viewing."  

There are many ways for young children, including infants and toddlers, to engage with books:

  • Holding, tasting, and turning the pages
  • Having an adult hold the child while reading a book
  • Pointing to and talking about the pictures
  • Inviting the child to finish or join in saying repetitive phrases
  • Asking questions

Near the end of the first year of life, children begin to understand that pictures represent real objects and understand the meaning of about 50 words. By 18 months, the child knows 1,800 words and, given exposure to rich language and literacy experiences, is rapidly learning new words every day.

Daily reading to a child, or even telling little nursery rhymes from birth, significantly improves a child's ability to read and write.

How To

You support emergent language and literacy by supporting families in:

  • Maintaining and passing on their home language to their children, which helps children connect to their families and have a strong, positive cultural identity of their own
    • It is easier for children to become fluent English speakers if they have a solid foundation in their home language
    • The young brain is fertile ground for learning two or more languages at once
  • Using "parent-ese," talking to an infant with slower speech and exaggerated vowel sounds, to help the baby figure out the sounds of his or her home language (e.g., "mmaaaammaaaa")
  • Directing a toddler's interest to a sound in the environment (e. g., "Listen, that's mama's phone ringing.") or pointing a toddler's attention to a word that has the same beginning sound as her name (e.g., "Do you hear the sound of banana? Ba, banana. Ba. It sounds like your name, Bai.")
  • Responding appropriately to infants' coos, gestures, and body movements and all the ways infants and toddlers communicate before they use language
    • For example, when an 8-month-old points to something, look at what the baby points to. These are the beginnings of conversation!
  • Describing what the child is doing (e.g., "Sarah can't take her eyes off of you while she's breastfeeding.")
  • Adding elaborations to the words children say; for example:
    • If a toddler points and says "truck," the parents might extend this by saying, "Yes, that is a garbage truck emptying our dumpster," or, "I think you hear the sirens of the fire truck."
  • Talking directly to children from early infancy about what they see or experience (e. g., "You're looking at me. Yes! A smile. I love your smile. A smile for Daddy.")
  • Talking about things you are doing (e.g., "I'm making a sandwich. First, I'll wash my hands. Then, I'll get out the bread.")
  • Reading and sharing stories with young children
  • Engaging young children in learning vocabulary by using rich language to talk about the pictures and stories in a book, asking questions while reading, and pointing to pictures as parents describe them; for example:
    • "That baby is smiling. Can you touch his mouth? He's happy."
    • "What's going to happen to the next monkey jumping on the bed?"
  • Pointing out familiar icons, such as a stop sign or the name on the grocery store, as well as shapes, colors, and letters in the environment
  • Pointing out written words that have meanings to toddlers, such as their names and the names of family members
  • Counting fingers and saying rhymes during handwashing; thus, you have touched on a healthy behavior and layered it with literacy and math 
  • Following a recipe and reading it out loud
  • Providing markers and crayons for making the most of everyday writing, such helping to "write" grocery lists, thank you notes, etc.  
  • Visiting the library, getting library cards, and attending a toddler's reading experience

Adapted from News You Can Use: Foundations of School Readiness: Language and Literacy.

Emergent Literacy: Experience It

In this clip, a mother and baby look through a book together, naming objects and turning pages. The home visitor sits nearby, coaching and supporting the mother as she and the child enjoy the book together.

Emergent Literacy: Infants

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