What Is Early Literacy and Why Does It Matter to Student Learning?

By: | 03/25/2022
Categories: Data Culture, Instruction

In this explainer post, Ken Tam addresses top questions about early literacy (also known as emergent literacy), covering important foundational information as well as its connection to literacy and learning.


What is early literacy?

Early literacy is the library of knowledge children develop as a foundation for reading. The Science of Reading tells us that early literacy is critical to students’ literacy success.

A lot of activities can fit under the early literacy skill-building umbrella. When families read board books to babies, sing songs with toddlers, or challenge their first graders to name the letters on signs at the grocery store, they’re helping them build early literacy skills. Any time young children interact with print materials or attempt to scribble a letter, they are honing a skill that will one day help them learn to read.

Does early literacy need to be taught?

In a way, children start preparing to read not long after they enter the world.

While informal activities like the ones just listed certainly contribute to students’ early literacy skill development, researchers have found that all children benefit from explicit early literacy instruction. Instruction is particularly important when it comes to decoding and language comprehension skills.

How does early literacy connect to literacy and learning?

Numerous studies have found a strong link between early literacy skills and students’ later literacy and overall learning success.

In 2008, the authors of the National Early Literacy Panel’s 2008 report, Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel, found 11 variables that “. . . consistently predicted later literacy achievement for both preschoolers and kindergarteners.” Likewise, a more recent 2018 study, which focused on the longitudinal development of literacy skills in New Zealand school children, determined that “[f]indings provide new evidence for the long-term interplay between early language, literacy, and later reading and vocabulary development.”

Want more data about early literacy? Read the whitepaper The State of Early Literacy: Strategies to Jumpstart It.

Download the Whitepaper

What are early literacy skills?

The below skills are strongly correlated with later literacy abilities.

Phonological Awareness

The ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of spoken language

Letter and Print Knowledge

Letter knowledge (i.e., letter sound fluency) is the ability to identify the names and sounds of letters. Print knowledge, meanwhile, describes the ability to understand how print works and includes things like knowing how to hold a book and follow words on a page.

Early Writing

Being able to write letters or even your own name

Rapid Automatized Naming (RAN) of Letters and/or Digits

The ability to quickly list a sequence of numbers and letters. RAN is important because research has shown “a significant and persistent relation between RAN and reading ability” and that students’ RAN abilities reflect “underlying cognitive processes.”

Word Reading Fluency

The ability to read words aloud. This includes rapid recognition of high-frequency words as well as decoding.

Spelling and Encoding

The ability to use letter and sound knowledge to write. As students learn how to put letters together to create words, they improve their reading skills.

Why is early reading an equity concern?

Whether students are exposed to activities and enrichments that set them on a path to reading by third grade is an enormous equity concern. Children’s early experiences with language have an enormous impact on their future reading abilities, and children from low-income households and low-income neighborhoods have fewer opportunities for rich linguistic interactions and vocabulary accumulation.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tell us that fourth grade students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (e.g., students who qualify for free/reduced-price lunch) are less likely to meet NAEP reading proficiency levels than their peers from economically stable backgrounds. NAEP results also show a persistent gap between the percentage of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students in fourth grade who read proficiently and the percentage of their White peers who can do the same.

i-Ready Early Reading Tasks

Used as a complement to i-Ready Diagnostic, the i-Ready Early Reading Tasks provide information on whether a student is performing on, below, or above grade-level expectations on phonological awareness, encoding, and fluency-related reading skills.

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