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Intertextuality, Learning From Multimedia Sources, Multimedia Literacy, Narrative Comprehension And Production, Vocabulary And Vocabulary LearningEMERGENT LITERACY

Emilia Ferreiro

David M. Bloome
Susan R. Goldman

Jennifer Wiley
Joshua A. Hemmerich

David Reinking

Rolf A. Zwaan
Katinka Dijkstra

Margaret G. McKeown
Isabel L. Beck

Carol N. Dixon
Christopher Johnston


William Teale and Elizabeth Sulzby coined the term emergent literacy in 1986 from Mary Clay's dissertation title, "Emergent Reading Behavior" (1966). Their term designated new conceptions about the relationship between a growing child and literacy information from the environment and home literacy practices. The process of becoming literate starts before school intervention.

Important changes took place around 1975 to 1985 in the way researchers approached young children's attempts at reading and writing, which were influenced by previous language acquisition studies of children actively engaged in learning oral language.

In English-speaking countries, literacy acquisition was traditionally focused on acquisition of reading. Writing was considered an activity undertaken after reading. Carol Chomsky's 1971 article "Write Now, Read Later" was for this reason provocative. It is worth noting that these two opposite views (reading before writing or writing before reading) are alien to other cultural traditions. For instance, in the Spanish school tradition both activities have been traditionally considered as complementary.

Teale and Suzby maintained that "in the schools, the reading readiness program and the notion of the need to teach prerequisites for reading became fixed. Furthermore, using reading readiness programs in the kindergarten literacy curriculum became a widespread practice. The reading readiness program which became so firmly entrenched during the 1960s remains extremely prevalent in the 1980s"(p. xiii).

The concept of emergent literacy was intended to indicate a clear opposition with the then prevailing notion of "reading readiness." This new concept arises from changes in the research paradigm, mainly in developmental psycholinguistics, and not in the practical educational field.

The Original Meaning of the Concept

Several pioneering researchers (among them Clay in New Zealand, Yetta Goodman and Sulzby in the United States, and Emilia Ferreiro in Latin American countries) share several main ideas that can be summarized as follows:

  1. Before schooling, a considerable amount of literacy learning takes place, provided that children are growing in literate environments (homes where reading and writing are part of daily activies; urban environments where writing is everywhere–in the street, in the markets, on all kinds of food containers or toys–as well as on specific objects like journals, books, and calendars).
  2. Through their encounters with print and their participation in several kinds of literacy events, children try to make sense of environmental print. Indeed, they elaborate concepts about the nature and function of these written marks.
  3. Children try to interpret environmental print. They also try to produce written marks. Their attempts constitute the early steps of reading and writing. Thus, reading and writing activities go hand in hand, contributing to literacy development as comprehension and production both contribute to oral language acquisition. The use of the term literacy in the phrase emergent literacy indicates that the acquisition of reading and writing take place simultaneously.
  4. The pioneer authors of the emergent literacy approach avoid the use of terms like pretend reading or pre-reading, pretend writing or pre-writing. Such terms, in fact, establish a frontier in the developmental process instead of a developmental continuum.
  5. From a careful observation of spontaneous writing and reading activities as well as from data obtained through some elicitation techniques, it becomes possible to infer how children conceive the writing system and the social meaning of the activities related to it.
  6. Emergent literacy is a child-centered concept that not only takes into account relevant experiences (like sharing reading books in family settings), but also takes into consideration that children are always trying to make sense of the information received in a developmental pathway that is characterized both by some milestones common to all and by individual stories.

Transformations of the Original Meaning

What is the use of the expression emergent literacy fifteen years after its first introduction into the literature? This expression competes with others such as beginning literacy, early literacy, or even preschool literacy. It is not unusual to see alternative terms used by the same authors (for instance Dorothy Strickland and Lesley Morrow). The term emergent remains restricted to English users. It is not used in Spanish nor in Italian or French, where expressions like "éveil au monde de l'écrit" ("awakening to the world of writing") convey similar ideas.

The emergent literacy approach affects preschool settings and shapes new educational practices. Instead of exercises to train basic skills as a prerequisite to reading, researchers frequently observe teachers and children engaged in real reading activities. Instead of exercises of copying letter forms, teachers encourage children to produce pieces of writing.

Independent research conducted in the linguistic and historical fields by such people as David Olson, Florian Coulmas, and Geoffrey Sampson contributed, during the closing decades of the twentieth century, to a reconsideration of writing systems. As long as alphabetical writing systems (AWS) are being conceived as visual marks for elementary units already done (i.e., the phonemes), the task of the child is reduced to the learning of a code of correspondences. But AWS are highly complex because they are the result of a long history, in which phonic considerations interfere with historical, pragmatic, and even aesthetic considerations.

However, the old pedagogical ideas are still so strong that the term emergent literacy has begun to be used as a new component of old practices. Expressions such as to teach beginning literacy, evaluation of emergent literacy skills, and even emergent literacy teachers are a commonplace in books, articles, and papers devoted to teachers, parents, and decision-makers. It is clear that emergent literacy cannot be taught, even if it can be improved or stimulated. The reduction of this concept to a set of trainable skills goes against the term's original meaning.

In the meantime, "phonological awareness" began to be considered the single strong predictor of school reading skills (reading, in that case, is evaluated in tasks of letter-sound correspondences in front of lists of words and pseudo-words). Some authors started to look for the components of emergent literacy–a set of skills–to allow similar assessment as phonological awareness.

When emergent literacy skills include phonological awareness it is clear that the new label is being applied to old ideas: emergent literacy originally indicated concepts built up by children through many encounters with print other than explicit teaching, whereas phonological awareness is clearly an acquisition that does not develop without explicit intervention, even if it is closely related to the acquisition of an AWS. For instance, when parents engage in shared reading, they offer the child the opportunity to learn about many relevant aspects of books but they are not explicitly teaching a particular literacy component.

This shaping of new ideas into old paradigms is present also in psychological research, such as the 1998 publication by Grover Whitehurst and Christopher Lonigan. It could seem, at first glance, entirely justified to inquire about the components of early literacy, and the weight of each one of them as predictors of school achievements in reading. However, the identification of these components and the assessment of their individual weight shows that literacy continues to be conceived mainly as reading behavior and that written language is still conceived as a coding of already given elementary units (the phonemes) into a graphic form (the letters of an alphabet). The persistent confusion between the teaching activities and learning processes (i.e., how children contribute to the task, how they transform the available information through their own assimilatory processes) is at the core of the weak results that try to discover the relevant correlations between early literacy and future school achievements.


For the time being, the best recommendation for any preschool program is to offer children many opportunities to engage in real reading and writing activities, with the grounded conviction that children–who are intelligent human beings–are eager to learn and will take advantage of a stimulating environment. The old view that prevented children from sharing literacy learning opportunities until they were ready to learn lessons is a discriminatory one, as not all parents all over the world are able to provide literacy experiences.


CHOMSKY, CAROL. 1971. "Write Now, Read Later." Childhood Education 47:296–299.

CLAY, MARY. 1966. "Emergent Reading Behaviour." Ph.D. diss., University of Auckland, New Zealand.

COULMAS, FLORIAN. 1989. The Writing Systems of the World. Oxford and Cambridge, Eng.: Blackwell.

FERREIRO, EMILIA, and TEBEROSKY, ANA. 1983. Literacy Before Schooling. Exeter, NH and London: Heinemann.

GOODMAN, YETA. 1986. "Children Coming to Know Literacy." In Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading, ed. William Teale and Elizabeth Sulzby. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

OLSON, DAVID. 1994. The World on Paper. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

SAMPSON, GEOFFREY. 1985. Writing Systems. London: Hutchinson.

SNOW, CATHERINE, and NINIO, ANAT. 1986. "The Contracts of Literacy: What Children Learn from Learning to Read Books." In Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading, ed. William Teale and Elizabeth Sulzby. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

STRICKLAND, DOROTHY, and MORROW, LESLEY M., eds. 1989. Emerging Literacy: Young Children Learn to Read and Write. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

STRICKLAND, DOROTHY, and MORROW, LESLEY M., eds. 2000. Beginning Reading and Writing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association and New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

TEALE, WILLIAM, and SULZBY, ELIZABETH, eds. 1986. Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

WITEHURST, GROVER, and LONIGAN, CHRISTOPHER. 1998. "Child Development and Emergent Literacy." Child Development 69 (3):848–872.


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