What Is Early Literacy? Why Is It Important and How It Can Help Your Child To Succeed?

Early Literacy probably just means literacy, but early in life, right? Wrong. Well not entirely. But Early Literacy and Literacy are not to be confused.

Among the many skills a child learns in their lifetime, linguistic skills are some of the most, if not the most, important skills they acquire. This involves all the abilities that an individual needs in order to communicate and express through a language. Language is, most importantly, spoken. But the written word is what gives a tangible shape to language. Literacy is the ability to read and write a spoken language. But before children can learn to read and write, they need the basic skills required to comprehend language.

early literacy

Early literacy is what children know about reading and writing before they actually learn to read and write. It is not teaching reading, drilling, or using flashcards. Instead, it is laying the foundation, so that your child has the necessary skills when they are developmentally ready to read.

Language and Literacy

Language is more than simply words and rules. Languages are experienced through the spoken word, written word, and in the name of every object, person or emotion or quality. In fact, we experience language at every point of our lives in the form of thoughts! Everything we see or do is also immediately registered in the brain in the form of language.

Knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom.

Roger Bacon

Besides their health and wellbeing, a large part of a child’s development is their cognitive development. Cognition is the brain’s ability to compute learned information and translate it into expression or action. And knowing what we know about thoughts, it is safe to say that language plays a very crucial role in the very functioning of the brain. The development of language skills is fundamental to every child’s development.

How early is “Early”?

During the first few years from birth, the human brain grows at an alarmingly high speed, which remains unparalleled for the rest of its life. From birth until 5 to 6 years of age, a child’s brain is naturally programmed to learn about their surroundings. Every infant enters the world clueless and then slowly, through gentle exploration (mostly), discovers all the fascinating things around them. They learn from their surroundings, they imitate their parents or other people they encounter. By the age of 3, most children can manage to express themselves with words. It isn’t uncommon to find 1 to 2-year-olds talking in babble, or even saying entire words! But most children are formally introduced to language only between the ages of 4 to 6, in kindergarten, or at the beginning of school.

Literacy development is a vital part of your child’s overall development. Literacy is more than just the ability to read and write. It is the foundation for doing well at school, socializing with others, problem-solving, making decisions, developing independence, managing money, and working.

Early Literacy is the stage where children develop the building blocks for literacy – the ability to speak, listen, understand, watch and draw, and ultimately prepare to learn a language. As children get older, they also need to learn about the connection between letters on a page and spoken sounds, i.e. the ability we know as Literacy.

For this to happen, your child needs plenty of experience with pictures and objects (how you can use words to talk about them), letters and words (how they look and sound, and what they’re called), sounds (how words can rhyme, begin and end with the same letters, be broken up into parts like syllables, be formed by blending different sounds).

Early literacy skills

Alphabet knowledge – Knowledge of the names and sounds associated with printed letters

Phonological awareness – The ability to detect, manipulate, or analyze the auditory aspects of spoken language (including the ability to distinguish or segment words, syllables, or phonemes), independent of meaning

Rapid automatic naming of letters or digits – The ability to rapidly name a sequence of random letters or digits

Rapid automatic naming of objects or colors – The ability to rapidly name a sequence of repeating random sets of pictures of objects (e.g., car, tree, house, man) or colors

Writing or writing name – The ability to write letters in isolation on request or to write one’s own name

Phonological memory – The ability to remember spoken information for a short period of time

Learning Sound-Letter Relationships

Typically, children first access the ABCs through their own written names. For little ones, there are no more magical letters in the world than those in their own personal names and the names of their family members and friends, so that may be the best place to begin identifying the names of the letters and pointing out the sounds each letter makes (Pinnell & Fountas, 2011).

Children need to learn the concepts of letter and word and understand how they are different; they also benefit from specific instruction on words and from practice in locating words within connected print (Pinnell & Fountas, 2011).

As the newborn hears sounds and discriminates the oral language, he or she begins to build the foundation of written language and reading and writing. Indeed, the “window into the developing brain allows us to see that stimulation from the environment changes the very physiology of the brain with implications for social, emotional, and cognitive growth” (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2000).


In the mid-eighties, the term Emergent Literacy gained prominence as a theory that explains the origin of reading and writing in the youngest children. Emergent literacy comprises the skills, understandings, and attitudes that young children demonstrate before they are able to control conventional forms of reading and writing.

Theories agree that the building blocks of literacy begin to develop in infancy. Day-to-day activities expose babies and toddlers to sounds, words, speech, and print. Researchers have found strong evidence that children can learn reading and writing in their earliest years, long before they go to school (National Early Literacy Panel Report, 2008).

Fostering Early Literacy 

Children prepare to read long before they enter school.  In fact, early literacy skills begin to develop right from birth.  A child’s positive early experiences with books and language lay the foundation for success in learning to read. Using the five early literacy practices listed below, there is so much you can do to help build reading readiness.

Children do not have to “get ready” to learn how to read and write. Children begin learning language—and about language—from the moment of birth. It’s never too early to begin reading to your child— babies love hearing the sounds of their parents’ voices reading to them

How to foster strong language skills in your child

Children learn not only from the language you address to them but also from language they overhear around them. Linguistic interaction has additional positive effects on linguistic development.

Beginning at birth, it is important to immerse children in rich language—both oral and written. Very young children may not understand everything that is said to them. However, parents should speak to their child as much as they can. Studies suggest that for the best overall development, infants and toddlers should hear approximately 30,000 words per day.

Although exposure to language is essential for the development of a child’s language skills, explicit “drilling” is not needed for the normally developing child. Parents don’t so much “teach” the child, as the child discovers language. As one linguist explains, children are “spontaneous apprentices” (Miller, 1977); they latch themselves to their caregivers and follow and learn from their every move, including absorbing the almost innumerable ways in which adults use language, both oral and written.

From a very young age, read to children. Talk about what is read and encourage them to ask questions. (Whitehurst et al., 1988)

Five Early Literacy Practices

Children thrive when they are immersed in rich language, oral and written, morning, noon, and night. Play with language, recite nursery rhymes, sing songs, and engage children in daily conversations and book reading. It’s best to weave in literacy throughout the day because “children learn best through repeated exposure to materials and experiences” (BennettArmistead, Duke, & Moses, 2005).

Enjoy these simple activities with your child anytime and any place throughout the day. Besides being fun, they will help your child get ready to read!


Learn language by listening to others talk. Hearing words leads to understanding their meaning as you hear them in context.


Who doesn’t like music! Songs slow down language and break down the sounds and syllables in words. Practicing rhythm and rhyme help.


The single most important way to help children get ready to read is to read together! Read aloud and encourage children to read new words they see. Not only does this introduce them to new language but also helps them develop a natural liking for reading!


Connect spoken and printed language. Scribbling counts! Encourage the young one to write, use anything, pen and paper, crayons, markers, or go wild on the ground with some fun chalk!


Playtime exercises imagination and encourages expression of thoughts. Encourage them to talk and express themselves. Get them to explore their environment and learn about new words. Word games are also an excellent way to help your child love languages.

Why stop at one language?

There is no set limit to the learning capacity of a young child. In fact, during early childhood, a child’s brain grows so rapidly that it can effortlessly learn an amazing amount of information. This is why, young children are very good at learning more than one language.

Not only can they learn multiple languages, but also they learn when to speak and write each language and to whom. And the earlier they learn the second or third or fourth language, the more likely they are to achieve native-like proficiency. What’s more, children who are learning English as a second language are more likely to become readers and writers of English when they are already familiar with the vocabulary and concepts in their primary language (Wong Fillmore, 1991).

Why Early Literacy?

Early literacy does not mean teaching young children how to read. Instead, it means helping children develop the skills they will need to become successful readers. Early literacy activities build rich language skills: vocabulary, self-expression, and understanding (comprehension). These skills help children make sense of printed words when they start reading.

Early literacy refers to the development of skills students need in order to transition from learning to read, to reading to learn. These skills include vocabulary, phonics, language, and numeracy, to name a few. It gives students the foundation they need in order to learn and grow. Kids who master essential early literacy skills and are reading proficiently in the early grades are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college.

Individual differences among children in early literacy skills are meaningful and predictive: early differences contribute significantly to long-term outcomes in children’s reading achievement. 

The prevalence of reading difficulties is more likely to be influenced through prevention rather than remediation. That is to say, the best way to avoid any future issues in the child’s development or their academic performance, they must be engaged with language from a very young age. This would not only foster the natural development of their skills but also shed light on any difficulties the child may possibly have at a very early stage.

Early Signs of Difficulties, Early remedy

Seeing how central language skills are to the development of the brain, a person’s language ability is also often an excellent indicator of their brain. Delays in communication and language development are often the first sign of developmental problems in young children. Families with concerns should seek intervention as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment for developmental delays increase the chances of improvement rather than simply “waiting it out” and treating problems later.

Earlier is better.

Treating communication and language difficulties early on can prevent potential problems with behavior, learning, reading and social interaction. Recent research on brain development proves that, truly, “earlier IS better” when teaching young children. By age 3, most of the major brain structures are mature. As a result, it becomes more difficult to make significant changes in a child’s growth and development.

Life-long Benefits

A “complex web of factors” (Dickinson & Neuman, 2006) including social, environmental, cognitive, linguistic, and emotional forces are at play in early literacy development. Children who have strong early literacy skills know their letter names (and often their letter sounds, phonemic segmentation, concepts of print, and how to write their names) are almost always the same children who are immersed in rich language and literacy at home. These children also typically understand that literacy is a tool that they can use to accomplish multiple purposes as they start to venture out into the world.

These are lessons young children begin to learn from the day of birth—lessons that they develop, extend, and refine during the first five years before school, a critical window of opportunity. As Dickinson, McCabe, and Essex (2006) note, “We are making hopeful advances in our endeavor to enrich the preschool experiences of children, but far more must be done to improve their classrooms and communities if we are to take full advantage of the window of educational opportunity provided us by biology.”