by William T. Fagan

Early literacy development is a popular topic for research and projects. Early literacy generally applies to preschool children but may include children up to Grade 3. The focus of projects may be on the children themselves, the parents I caregivers, parents I caregivers and children, or teachers, or any combination of these. The terms "family literacy" and "intergenerational literacy" are sometimes used to label emergent literacy projects.

A crucial word in the title or this article is "development". This term has evolved throughout the history of early literacy. A focus from an earlier period of history was "readiness". Perhaps, some readers will remember a time when beginning school children had three Reading Readiness books, a pre-primer, and a primer. The belief was that when the children finished the Readiness books, something magical happened, and they were ready to read. What is contradictory with a development focus, was that all children were expected to finish the books at the same time, to be ready on a Friday evening so that they could start to read on Monday morning. Vacca, Vacca, and Gove (1995) provide a chart highlighting five differences between the notion of reading readiness and emergent literacy. Basically, the distinctions indicate that within a readiness perspective the focus is on knowledge 1 skills / information. There is a hierarchical body of knowledge which children are expected to master at various stages to be declared ready to go on to the next required learning. Within an emergent literacy perspective, the focus is on the child. The belief is that the children are continually learning; there is no stage goal, and no interruption in learning between stages. In this sense, children are always ready for learning. The task of parents and teachers is to continuously provide them with meaningful learning. Also, emergent literacy recognizes that children learn at different rates for a variety of intrapersonal and/or sociocultural reasons. Children also learn differently. The child and not the knowledge determines the learning. From a knowledge focus for example, spelling is not taught until children begin to write, usually after they have learned to read. But from a child focus, a child may develop an interest in spelling, with some success, long before she/he begins writing. Finally, from an emergent literacy perspective, formal teaching is not required for children to learn. Parents are the children's first and most important teachers. Children are always learning and parents are always providing opportunities for learning.


Literacy projects must recognize this continuity of learning and must provide meaningful literacy experiences based on the children's level of development and interests. There should be no boundary line between home and school. Parents should not be expected to "have their children" ready so that Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers can pick up from that stage. Teachers must recognize that because children learn at different rates, children will come to school with different knowledge, skills and competencies. They must take the children from where they are and continue to involve them in learning rather than operate from a Kindergarten to Grade 1 curriculum which all children are expected to fit. To fully understand children's literacy and learning development, parents and teachers must share, and must work together.

Change the Focus

Our perceptions and out beliefs condition how we approach a certain issue. Those, who believe that there is a time when children are ready to learn to read and write, and that certain knowledge must be taught before this occurs, will plan one kind of literacy project. Those who believe that literacy and learning are constantly and continually emerging and growing will plan another type.

It is unfortunate that the Royal Commission of Inquiry in the Delivery of Programs and Services in Primary, Elementary, Secondary Education (1992) promotes the "readiness" perspective. Recommendation 106 states "that school boards work cooperatively with School Councils to hold workshops for parents of pre-schoolers to promote school readiness."

Reading readiness was popular in the 1950s and 1960s and was promoted by educators such as Dolores Durkin (1970). However, literacy from a child focus with emphasis on continuity of learning has long surpassed the reading readiness notion and is supported by current literacy professionals such as Susan Neuman and Kathy Roskos (1997), Victoria PurcellGates (1995), and Denny Taylor (1985).


Durkin, D (1970). Teaching them to read (First edition). Boston: Allyn Bacon.

Neuman, S.B., & Roskos, K. (1997). Literacy knowledge in practice. Contexts of participation for young writers and readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 32, 10-33.

Purcell-Gates, V. (1995). Other peoples' words: The cycle of low literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Royal Commission of Inquiry, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, (1992). Our children: Our future. St. John's, NF: Government of NFLD and Labrador.

Taylor, D. (1985) Family Literacy: Children learning to read and write. Exter, NH: Heinemann.

Vacca, J.L., Vacca, R.T., & Gove, M.K.(1995). Learning to read. NewYork: Harper Coiling Publishers.

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