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Emergent Literacy By Ruth A. Wilson, Ph.D.

When my daughter, Carol, was four-years-old, I worked as a volunteer two days a week in a small parochial schools library. One of the reasons I chose this volunteer position over other possibilities was that Carol could accompany me to work. While I checked books in and out and conducted story time, Carol spent her time looking at the books in the library and listening to me read stories. One day, Carol said she wanted to read to me. She chose a book and started to read. I was surprised to see that she was really reading the words. How, I wondered, had she learned to read? My other daughter, Gwen, was in the first grade at the time and was being taught to read primarily by the phonics methodi.e., learning to identify letters and associating letters and sounds. Gwen worked diligently through multiple worksheets and sets of flashcards. Gwen was learning to read, but Carol, who had never been exposed to reading instruction was reading, too. Unknown to me at the time was that both Gwen and Carol started learning how to read long before they ever went to school. Defining Emergent Literacy Dictionaries sometimes define literacy as the ability to read and write (Lancy, 1994). Discussions about the topic sometimes suggest that people fall into one of two categoriesthose who are literate and those who are illiterate. Issues related to literacy, however, arent so clearly defined. Perhaps a good starting point for discussing some of these issues is with the understanding that illiteracy, as a distinct state, does not really exist. It is more accurate to think of the literacy development of any individual as being on a continuum of increasing competence, with no one being at the point of zero. From the moment of birthor perhaps even soonerchildren begin the process of reading their surroundings and learning the intricacies of language. This is a part of literacy development, which certainly precedes reading instruction. As expressed by David Lancy, Editor of Childrens Emergent Literacy, becoming literate occupies every waking moment throughout childhood (Lancy, 1994, p.2). Becoming literate, in this view, is a dynamic process, through which literacy-related competencies grow and change. Over time and with appropriate stimulation, the competencies required for reading and writing emerge. Emergent Literacy Versus Reading Instruction Few would argue the benefits of reading to children during their early years as a way of fostering language development. Reading to children is, in fact, a major way of teaching literacy. Moffett (1994), in an effort to honor the practice of reading to children, referred to the activity as the lap method of teaching

literacy. Associating the word method with literacy, however, is no t meant to suggest that we adopt any one approach or combination of approaches to foster emergent literacy. Approaches and methods may fall within the realm of reading instruction, but are not consistent with the concept of emergent literacy. Formal reading instruction, especially if introduced too early and if focused on skill and drill, can actually interfere with emergent literacy. Literacy is much broader than reading; and ways of achieving literacy-related competencies go beyond methods of instruction. Literacy development can, in fact, be supported in a wide range of settings and activities, some of which involve no print at all (Dickinson & Beals, 1994). There are many unacknowledged ways of learning to read and write. Some of these ways fall into the category of folk practices, that is, practices associated with what many parents and children often do at home. In most instances, there is little thought to teaching literacy. In addition to reading to children, other folk practices which foster literacy include playing with different sounds (i.e., as cooing, rhyming words, and making animal sounds) and conversing about a topic of mutual interest. According to Moffett (1994), even activities as crawling and drawing, chatting and imitating teach literacy (p. xix). Does this suggest that literacy will occur spontaneously and that it only needs to be awaited and signaled? No, literacy does not occur in a vacuum. Literacy emerges in individuals only when they are immersed in a community of liter acy (Moffett, 1994, p. xviii). As the focus of a community is on people versus materials, commercial or teaching materials (such as worksheets, basal readers, and skill-building programs) have little to do with emergent literacy. Human interactions like sharing a picture book, telling a story, and talking about experiences are central to emergent literacy. Make-believe among peers also plays an important role in emergent literacy. Pretending is, in fact, an ideal area in which children can develop literacyrelated language skills. In pretend play, children use language to create imaginary worlds; and the manner in which language is used when pretending has much in common with reading (Dickinson & Beals, 1994, p. 38). Teachers and parents are thus encouraged to provide children time and settings in which they can use language with each other in a variety of sociodramatic play activities. Another way to enhance emergent literacy skills in the home and school is to add literacy objects to the physical environments in which young children play. For example, in addition to a variety of books, a childs library (or a book corner) might also feature such items as magazines, pamphlets, wall posters, and Let your child ask questions about the book.

Another program, through a family literacy project designed for parents with low literacy skills, developed an activity log of specific activities that parents can do to help their young children become successful readers. Parents were then asked to keep a weekly record of the activities they used. Both symbols and words were used on the activity log to make it easier for the parents to read. The log asked parents to record the number of times over a period of a week that they performed certain activities. These activities included: a) having the child share a book with the parent; b) watching the child draw or color and commenting on his or her work; and c) playing a game or singing with the child (Wilson, 1998). Conclusion No, emergent literacy does not occur in a vacuum. Yet, it does occur without direct instruction when conditions favor its development. Such conditions are far more dependent on human patterns of development than on the materials provided. In the interest of helping children develop literacy-related skills, it is highly recommended that early childhood educators shift the emphasis on learning from materials to people, and that we recognize the inexhaustible resources available in the numerous circumstances in which children have the opportunity of interacting with their peers and their elders (Moffett, 1994). Ruth A. Wilson, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Special Education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Dr. Wilsons area of expertise is early childhood special education, and much of her research has focused on language and literacy development during the early childhood years. She retired from teaching in August 1999 and now devotes much of her time to writing. References Begin, C., Lancy, D.F., & Draper, K.D.Parents interactions with beginning readers. In D.F. Lancy Childrens emergent literacy. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 53-77. Dickinson, D.K. & Beals, D.E. (1994). Not by print alone: Oral language supports for early literacy development. In D.F. Lancy Childrens emergent literacy. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 29-40. Green, C. & Halsall, S. (1991). Literatures role in the language and cognition of the young child.Early Development and Care, 67, 39-52. Halsall, S. & Green, C. (1995). Reading aloud: A way for parents to support their childrens growth in literacy.Early Childhood Education Journal,23(1), 27-31. Lancy, D.F. (Ed.) (1994).Childrens emergent literacy. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Moffett, J. (1994). Forward. In D.F. Lancy,Childrens emergent literacy. Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. xvxix. Stroud, J.E. (1995). Block play: Building a foundation for literacy.Early Childhood Education Journal,23(1), 9-13. Wilson, R.A. (1998).Special educational needs in the early years. New York: Routledge.