When I think about literacy, the first thing that comes to mind is my favorite classroom read aloud. I witnessed countless kids fall in love with books right there on the rug in Room 408 as we shared deep and sometimes emotional exchanges about James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. But that internal fire for reading began as a spark long before my fourth grade classroom—it began with a crucial foundation in early literacy.
What is early literacy?
Early literacy, also known as emergent literacy, is like filling up a backpack with the essentials needed for a hiking trip. The Science of Reading tells us that this skill-packing prep work is critical to literacy success further down the path.
In a way, children start preparing to read not long after they enter the world. In fact, it’s been found that even crawling supports reading skills. The rhythm, hand–eye coordination, and reflexes needed to crawl all help create a neural roadmap for future readers.
Does early literacy need to be taught?
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 little learners interact with print materials or attempt to scribble a letter, they’re honing a skill that will one day help them learn to read.
While these more informal activities certainly help, research tells us all children benefit from explicit early literacy instruction. More formal learning is particularly important when it comes to decoding and language comprehension skills.
How does early literacy connect to literacy and learning?
There’s a strong link between early literacy skills and future learning success. Two studies stand out that really support this claim.
The first is a 2008 report from the National Institute for Literacy, which identified 11 indicators that consistently predicted later literacy achievement for kids entering school in pre-K and kindergarten. Likewise, a more recent 2018 longitudinal report showed new evidence connecting early language and literacy success with later reading and vocabulary development.
What are early literacy skills?
The skills listed below are strongly correlated with later literacy abilities.
The ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of spoken language
Letter and Print Knowledge
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.
The ability to make meaning using the written word. Writing begins as sharing ideas through drawing (think potato people), but it’s also the ability 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 relationship 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 unfamiliar words.
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 do early literacy skills matter?
To answer this question, let’s use equity as a frame of reference. Whether or not little ones are exposed to activities and enrichments early on creates a cavernous divide that’s often challenging to cross. Early experiences with language have an enormous impact on future reading abilities. And children from low-income neighborhoods are at a great disadvantage. Research shows these kids have fewer opportunities for rich conversations and mature vocabulary.
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. It also shows 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.
For our students, early literacy sparks an inferno of future success in all disciplines. For me, early literacy development made a world of difference to help my students savor the journeys we took together through the pages of our favorite books.