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What is Emergent Literacy and its Importance

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Early emergent literacy skills start, would you believe it, at birth and continue until the child is around six years of age. It is a complex and multilayered process that doesn´t happen overnight.

As parents, we want to support our children´s literacy skills as best we can which means doing certain activities with our little ones that help support literacy and also being aware of what emergent literacy is and why it is vital to our children´s future academic success.

This post will shed light on what emergent literacy skills are and why are they so important that they should be supported as best as possible.

Check out our PRACTICAL TIPS on how to IMPROVE YOUR CHILD´S LITERACY SKILLS.

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What does the term “emergent literacy skills” mean?

A simple definition for the term would be “Attainment of mastery in reading and writing”. Attainment of literacy is a long, complex journey that starts when children are born. As they grow, kids are constantly exposed to speaking, listening, reading, writing and objects that are connected to literacy like crayons, paper, chalk, paint brushes, etc.

Thus, children slowly start building an understanding of concepts such as phonological awareness, the alphabet, the representation of symbols, and the ins and outs of communication. All of this happens between birth and around the age of 5. This vital stage is known as Emergent literacy.

The term of emergent literacy skills was first used by Dame Marie Clay, a brilliant educationist and researcher, in the 1960s. Her idea that literacy begins long before formal education starts, came to challenge the belief of those times according to which children were not ready to become literate until reaching a certain age.

Since then, Marie Clay’s theory has been embraced and developed by researchers in the educational field.

In a research paper done in 1995, emergent literacy was divided into 5 stages:

  1. Awareness of print– children understand the function and purpose of the printed words.
  2. The relationship between oral language and print– children understand that speech can be represented through print
  3. Understanding text structure– children acquire the ability to differentiate between parts of a story (beginning, middle, end) and also they begin to understand that different types of texts sound differently (for example a fairy tale and a descriptive text).
  4. Phonological awareness– children develop the ability to distinguish between different sound structures and to manipulate them. Phonological awareness is the very foundation upon which successful reading and spelling are built.
  5. Letter naming and recognition– it is closely related to phonological awareness. It prepares children for writing by helping them connect letters to sounds.

Taking all of this into account we can conclude that the first 5-6 years of a child’s life is the period when literacy skills take shape and have a great impact on the success of later academic years.

 Why are literacy skills important?

According to UNESCO, six out of ten children do not attain the minimum level of literacy and numeracy. 750 million young adults still cannot read and write.

Does this fact impact their lives? Think about it.

In a message on International Literacy Day, UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay said:

“Literacy is the first step towards freedom, towards liberation from social and economic constraints. It is the prerequisite for development, both individual and collective. It reduces poverty and inequality, creates wealth, and helps to eradicate problems of nutrition and public health. “


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Requirements for literacy skills levels have changed over time. Decades ago, being able to sign your name was considered an acceptable level of literacy.

As society has developed so did the requirements for functional literacy skills.

The ability to read and write, combined with good listening, speaking and critical thinking skills are highly valued in today’s society.

Thus, a high level of literacy skills will help an individual:

  • To be a productive member of the community
  • To engage with the written word in everyday life. Think about how often you use your reading skills on a daily basis. Reading articles like this one, text messages on your phone, street signs, labels etc.
  • To better participate in social life. In such a technological world, people with minimum proficiency in reading and writing risk being excluded from the community. Since a large part of communication has moved online with tools like WhatsApp, the written word dominates our social interactions. Limited literacy skills will, therefore, make participation in social life challenging.
  • To get better career prospects. In today’s fast-changing world, great literacy skills, as well as numeracy skills, are highly sought after by employers. The absence of these abilities will greatly hinder one’s employability chances.
  • To maintain better health. Believe it or not, good literacy skills can also impact an individual’s health. Being able to understand information related to health, communicating clearly with the medical staff, being able to make informed choices regarding health care, or adopting preventive health practices is directly related to a person’s literacy skills

Knowing how good literacy skills can impact your child’s life and the fact that these literacy skills start developing from birth, I am sure that you are wondering “What can I do to support my child’s emergent literacy and give him/her the best start in life?”.

The good news is we can do many simple things that do not require you to have a degree in the educational field. These simple things, which, ideally, become habits, are the foundation upon which successful literacy is built. It is our duty, as parents, to provide a positive home environment that will promote solid literacy knowledge.

Check out 8 practical things that you can do with your child to support emerging literacy skills.

We Share All Of Our Ideas On Our Facebook Group Learning Activities For Kids.

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15 thoughts on “What is Emergent Literacy and its Importance”

  1. I have a good time reading your post. Kids now are so smart and I know these things will help kids to learn more every day. Thank you!

    1. Hi Danielle! Thank you for reading! Indeed, literacy skills are vital for our little ones and there are many small things we can do that don´t require much effort on our part in order to support emergent literacy.

    1. Literacy skills are or should be an important part of our children´s life. Unfortunately, it´s not the same for everyone. You are right, those numbers look grim but I am hopeful that they will change for the better in time.

  2. Literacy skills are so important and I believe that its never too early to start teaching this to kids.

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