What is Early Literacy?

“Let me start at the very beginning beginning, as it’s the very best place to start;” wise words from the ever-popular musical The Sound of Music.

I was talking to a young mother the other day about literacy. She told me, “ I know it is important, and I’m learning a little more about it now with my son, but quite frankly, when it comes to literacy, I’m clueless.” Now this mother is employed and a college graduate, so it is not that she is uneducated. It is simply that she, like so many parents, is untrained in literacy development. Let’s start with:

What is literacy?

A quick google search will tell us that literacy is the ability to read and write. While true, this definition does not address the concept of early literacy or literacy development.

What is early literacy?

Another quick search will spit out a definition like this; “ Early literacy is what children know about reading and writing before they actually read and write” (library.cedarmill.org). The American Library Association defines early literacy as “the natural development of skills through the enjoyment of books, the importance of positive interactions between babies and parents, and the critical roles of literacy-rich experiences.” Thank you Google.

Both of these are valid responses to my questions, but let’s clarify. 

Before children can decode words and are able to read conventionally, they begin to develop the skills to do so. These skills will include the following:

  • Understanding that a book tells a story
  • Understanding that a connection exists between the illustrations and the story
  • Associating printed words with meaning (possibly recognizing that the words themselves tell the story)
  • Understanding how books work: reading left to right, top to bottom, turning pages, etc.

While we might not consider the above list as “reading,” we should! This is how literacy skills develop. Let us combine this understanding of early literacy with the American Library Association’s definition. The only way to allow for this kind of development is to create opportunities for children to interact with books, with storytelling, with their creativity and imaginations and of course, with you!

Why is early literacy important?

Think of early literacy as the foundation in a building. If the foundation is weak, there are only two possible future outcomes.

  1. You continue to build, but the structure is shaky. You can’t depend on a strong, sturdy foundation to support additions.
  2. You can’t build at all because the foundation cannot support future additions.

As children grow, skills and content become more complex. The basics are expanded upon or delved into more deeply. Literacy is the foundation for a child’s future in reading and learning.

So, the next time you see your child reading (even if the book is upside down) take comfort in knowing that he is learning.

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