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Dame Marie Mildred Clay, DBE, FRSNZ (née Irwin; 3 January 1926 – 13 April 2007) was a distinguished researcher

from New Zealand


known for her work in global educational literacy. She was committed to the idea that children who struggle to learn to read and write
can be helped with early intervention. A clinical psychologist, she developed the Reading Recovery intervention programme in New
Zealand and expanded it worldwide.

Marie M. Clay was a clinical child psychologist who chose to study young learners during their initial, formative years of literacy
acquisition. Applying the perspectives and practices of developmental psychology (Clay, 2001), she sought to document behavioral
changes in children’s literacy development by capturing performance in reading and writing tasks collected over time. She therefore
designed studies to gather empirical evidence collected in controlled conditions, and she grounded her tentative theories in the
resulting data (Clay, 1998).

Clay’s initial work was motivated by questions resulting from the correlations found between learners’ literacy performance in the first
year of school and their rankings among peers in subsequent years. Specifically, she found that those with very limited progress in
reading and writing at the end of their first year of instruction remained among the lowest performing students year after year. To
address this challenge and create instructional opportunities to change predictions of failure, Clay chose to initiate her work by pursuing
clarification of optimal literacy development among young learners, that is, securing descriptions of the literacy progress of successful
children.

Emergent literacy is a term that is used to explain a child's knowledge of reading and writing skills before they learn how to read and
write words.[1] It signals a belief that, in literate society, young children—even one- and two-year-olds—are in the process of becoming
literate.[2] Through the support of parents, caregivers, and educators, a child can successfully progress from emergent to conventional
reading.[3]
The basic components of emergent literacy include:
 Print motivation: Being interested in and enjoying books.
 Vocabulary: Knowing the names of things.
 Print awareness: Noticing print, knowing how to handle a book, and knowing how to follow words on a page.
 Narrative skills: Being able to describe things and events and to tell stories.
 Letter knowledge: Understanding letters are different from each other, knowing their names and sounds, and recognizing
letters everywhere.
 Phonological awareness: Being able to hear and play with the smaller sounds in words.[1]

Emergent literacy is of critical importance in early education in light of research showing that children learn skills that prepare them to
read years before they start school.[1]

Emergent literacy begins at birth


Emergent literacy is the developmental process that begins at birth whereby children acquire the foundation for reading and writing, or
literacy.

According to Whitehurst and Lonigan, “the term ‘emergent literacy’ is used to denote the idea that the acquisition of literacy is best
conceptualized as a developmental continuum, with its origins early in the life of a child, rather than as an all-or-none phenomenon that
begins when children start school” (1998, p. 848). Parent-infant communication when the child is an infant (e.g., parental responsivity,
emotional tone, and joint attention) influences later literacy development (Dodici, Draper, & Peterson, 2003). When parents read to
children, children learn that books contain words and pictures that tell stories. As children scribble with crayons, they learn that their
marks have meaning. Many of the every day experiences of young children provide them with knowledge and skills essential to the
development of literacy. Emergent literacy begins long before children enter formal instruction (Bennett, Weigel, & Martin, 2002).

Historically, educators believed that literacy began when children entered school and began formal instruction (Morrow, 2000). Children
were assumed only to develop literacy through direct instruction, such as learning to read and write letters and developing phonic skills
for sounding out words when reading and writing. Early experiences with reading and writing were not considered part of literacy. Later,
educators recognized the importance of these experiences as preliteracy skills that were prerequisites for learning to read and write. As
noted earlier, professionals now recognize that emergent literacy begins at birth with a variety of emergent literacy experiences
(Erickson, 2000).

Tanasha sat on the kitchen floor while her mother emptied the dishwasher. Tanasha crawled over to the tall cabinet containing food
and pulled herself up on the cabinet handle. After pausing to regain her balance, she pulled the cabinet door open, falling down as her
balance shifted. Tanasha’s mother looked over at her and smiled. She had made certain that the cabinets Tanasha could reach
contained only things that were safe for her. Tanasha crawled around the door so she could see what was inside the cabinet. She
moved her head back and forth, scanning the shelf. She knew her favorite crackers were in a box on the bottom shelf. No, not that
round thing.No, not the bag. There they are! She found her crackers and pulled them out of the cabinet. She peered at the picture and
words on the front of the box. Then she reached into the open box and grasped a cracker. The experience of getting a cracker from a
box provided Tanasha with the chance to develop concepts, improve her motor skills, and observe the writing and picture on the box.

Emergent literacy is important for all children

Some young children with disabilities can acquire literacy concepts in much the same way as their peers without disabilities.
Unfortunately, many times the disability, as well as the reactions of others to the disability, can result in fewer opportunities for children
to experience emergent literacy activities (Koppenhaver, Coleman, Kalman, & Yoder, 1991; Marvin &Mirenda, 1993). For example,
children who cannot move independently are not able to walk across the living room and pick up their favorite storybooks. Children who
are blind cannot see the writing on packaged food that sighted children see daily, nor can they see their parents writing for functional
purposes such as making grocery lists, addressing envelopes, and jotting down phone messages. Often parents and other caregivers
are concerned about health and safety issues and do not think about interacting with their children with fun and functional reading and
writing (marking, drawing, pretend notes and lists) activities. Other times, caregivers assume that the child will not be able to read or
write, so they do not take the time to read to or draw with the child.

Though children with disabilities, including children with visual impairments, face challenges in developing emergent literacy skills and
concepts, they can and do experience literacy success when provided with appropriate support and modifications. Information about
emergent literacy and its components is included in this session. Session 5 will provide information about emergent literacy
interventions.