photo: Rene Asmussen via Pexels

Learning to read and write is fundamental to every child’s success in school and in life, regardless of their background, socio-economic status or opportunities. For many families across all walks of life, activities and discussions that center around literacy don’t typically begin until children are getting ready to enter school or are perceived to be at an age when they are “old enough” to learn to read. This view overlooks the critical importance of emergent literacy, or the skills children develop in the earliest years that set them on a positive path toward literacy.

Emergent literacy encompasses the knowledge, skills and attitudes that a child develops in relation to reading and writing throughout the early childhood period, starting at birth and well before the onset of conventional reading and writing instruction (usually at school entry). Emergent literacy includes speaking and listening, understanding that print can carry meaning and how books work, learning the alphabet and an awareness of sounds in spoken language.

In addition, emergent literacy experiences like talking and singing, being read to and scribbling or seeing how writing is used in daily life to make lists, tally scores, etc. provide the lifelong foundation upon which children will engage in future reading and writing. Early experiences with books and reading that are fun, exciting and enjoyable for a child set the stage for continuing to feel that way about reading throughout their life.

image: Courtesy of Save the Children

Emergent literacy provides the foundation and positive path toward a child’s future success with reading. Here are four things to keep in mind for helping your children gain these critical skills early in life:

Start Talking: Oral Language Matters

The early experiences of babies and toddlers with language have a considerable impact on their future reading development. The sheer quantity of parental talk is highly associated with vocabulary size in the early years. Differences in vocabulary can be seen as early as 18 months of age. The gap between children from chattier homes and their peers from homes with fewer conversations only widens as children grow.

Start Reading: The Earlier, the Better

Exposure to print and books in the early years is critical for a child’s reading success. If reading begins as early as possible, long before children enter kindergarten, children are far more likely to become skilled readers. Early interactions with books and print not only support future reading skills but also frame lifelong attitudes towards reading and writing. If these interactions are positive, fun and enjoyable (like taking part in a read-aloud or listening to a caregiver tell a good night story), children are much more likely to develop strong interest in and motivation for reading as well as a positive attitude towards books in general.

Preschools & Early Learning Programs Can Make a Difference

Some children come to school better prepared and with more advanced literacy skills than their peers because they have attended an early learning program. Research has shown that students who attend quality early learning programs tend to thrive and grow academically, while children with fewer opportunities tend to fall behind. Oral language, phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge and print awareness are all strong predictors of how quickly and how well children will read once they are exposed to formal reading instruction in Grades 1, 2 or 3.

Caregivers Matter

Most children around the world spend considerable time in their early years with their caregivers and relatives at home rather than in preschools or childcare arrangements. Children living in households where an adult can read, particularly the mother, enter school better prepared, perform better on reading assessments, tend to attain more years of education and have a higher level of school achievement overall.

The bottom line is that everyday activities that engage children with language and letters help develop emergent literacy skills and can help level the reading and writing playing fields for any child in any household. And, while this isn’t a magic solution to developing a lifelong love of reading in your child, fostering emergent literacy skills during the early childhood period can prevent future reading difficulties and reduce disparities.