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8.3: How Emergent Readers Progress

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    Emergent literacy (defined in Chapter 1) acknowledges that literacy development is an emerging process that begins well before children demonstrate proficient reading abilities. When a child sees a sign for a favorite restaurant along the road, looks at a box of cereal while eating breakfast, or flips through a magazine looking at the pictures while waiting at the doctor’s office, they are benefiting from ongoing exposure to print materials. Similarly, when hearing proficient readers share stories, as when a family member reads before bed or an educator shares a picture book at circle time, children are learning about reading. These everyday experiences support children’s emergent literacy skills and contribute to their future reading proficiency.

    Because of the emergent nature of literacy development and its dependence on the experiences, exposure, and environment of the child, reading skills progress in an individual fashion. A child’s chronological age will not automatically tell us what a young reader will need; however, young children’s reading abilities typically develop in stages along a continuum. Having an understanding of these stages of reading helps early childhood educators recognize where children are in their development, regardless of age. The stages of reading development give educators a road map to know what children need to know next to continue on their literacy journey. Stage criteria or indicators show educators the procedural knowledge—the understanding of the mechanics of reading, needed to effectively build upon young children’s reading abilities.

    Children acquire knowledge about reading before they are able to decipher individual words when they explore books as very young children.
    Children acquire knowledge about reading before they are able to decipher individual words when they explore books as very young children. Child exploring a book © Unsplash is licensed under a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license

    8.3a Emergent Readers

    Researchers use a variety of models to represent the progressive skills and proficiencies children acquire over time (Chall, 1996; Clay 1991; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 2002). As children internalize specific reading skills, they use the skills in an integrated manner to interpret and respond to text. There is an age range that can be considered “typical” or expected for each of the stages. For instance, we typically see children in the preschool years developing emergent reader skills. However, these stages are not always age specific, and sometimes children move more slowly or quickly than would be expected. Some children under age 5 begin showing signs of early reading skills while some kindergarten students are still developing emergent skills. It is important that early childhood educators use appropriate assessment techniques to observe children’s current stage and level of functioning.

    There are a number of descriptors within each of the stages of reading. These literacy behaviors give early childhood educators information that describe a student’s current literacy abilities as well as identify what they need to learn next. This textbook is focused on the first stage, emergent reading, but the final chapter delves into the changes you will see as children begin moving into the early literacy stage. If we think about Adelyn, from the opening vignette, it is clear that she is demonstrating many emergent reader behaviors.

    8.3b Emergent Literacy Continuum

    When examining what is happening during the emergent reading stage, it is helpful to recognize the elements of procedural knowledge that emergent readers need. Emergent reading elements can be identified as either a constrained skill or a continuous component (Snow & Matthews, 2016). Constrained skills include phonological awareness, the alphabetic principle, and concepts of print (Snow & Matthews, 2016). Continuous components include comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. Constrained skills are considered finite, meaning that once a child has acquired the specific understanding, it does not need to be relearned. Examples of constrained skills include knowing the names of the 26 letters of the alphabet and recognizing common sight words. Continuous components include knowledge that is acquired over time, such as vocabulary. Both constrained skills and continuous components are important emergent literacy qualities of the first 5 years of life. The figures in each section span from birth to age 5 and are separated into six stages, including early infancy, later infancy, early toddler, later toddler, early preschool, and later preschool. These stages are used to highlight typical developmental time frames and demonstrate complexity as children progress.

    Phonological Awareness

    Phonological awareness is a constrained set of skills, but critical to the developing reader’s ability to understand language and eventually print. Phonological awareness is a broad term encompassing an awareness of various-sized units of sounds in spoken words such as rhymes (whole words), syllables (large parts of words), and phonemes (individual sounds). Sometimes referred to as a metalinguistic skill (Goswami, 2002), phonological awareness involves the ability to hear and distinguish the auditory components of spoken language. Children move from listening to familiar words to imitating sounds. Eventually children begin playing with language in ways that demonstrate an understanding of rhyming words, segmenting individual sounds, and blending sounds in words. For instance, we may hear a young child playing with language and saying, “bad, fad, cad, sad, mad, wad” as they are starting to recognize that some words rhyme, or end with that same sound.

    Rhyming is usually the easiest and earliest form of phonological awareness that children acquire. Being able to break the spoken word “teacher” into two syllables is a form of phonological awareness that is more sophisticated. Additionally, we may hear another child say, “Cat sounds like my name, Caroline!” This child was able to recognize that the word “cat” starts with the same sound, or phoneme, as her name. Phonemes are the smallest individual units of sound in a spoken word. Phonemic awareness, the ability to hear and register phonemes, is the most advanced level of phonological awareness. Upon hearing the word “sleigh,” children with phonemic awareness will recognize that there are three separate speech sounds—/s/ /l/ /ā/—despite the fact that they may have no idea what the word looks like in its printed form and despite the fact that they would likely have difficulty reading it. It is important to understand that all of these phonological skills are focused on auditory and verbal feedback and are not connected to visual symbols or letters.

    Pause and Connect: Phonological Awareness

    Outline the strategies used by these preschool teachers to develop phonological awareness.

    Emergent Reading Development: Phonological Awareness

    The development of phonological awareness is detailed in the Massachusetts Early Learning Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers The guidelines state that “The infant demonstrates phonological awareness ” (see page 41) and “The toddler demonstrates phonological awareness” (see page 113).

    These guidelines include Indicators and Suggested Supportive Learning Experiences as well.

    Further, the Massachusetts Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences outline the standards for preschoolers regarding social language. The guidelines state that a child at this age and stage of development “With guidance and support demonstrates understanding of spoken words, syllables, and sounds (phonemes). (see page 55).

    These guidelines include Possible Learning Activities, Evidence of Learning, and Supportive Practices.

    The Alphabetic Principle

    The next constrained skill is understanding the purpose of the alphabetic code, also known as the alphabetic principle. The alphabetic principle is a knowledge of the names of the alphabet letters and their associated sounds. We know that a child has mastered the alphabetic principle when they are able to name all of the letters automatically when they see them in print and then say the sound that the letter typically makes. Once an awareness of alphabet letters is developed, it will enable children to develop a more complex understanding of the sounds that groups of letters typically make in words. Students can then be taught to decode, which means to blend the letter sounds together to read words. Decoding is a deliberate act in which readers must “consciously and deliberately apply their knowledge of the mapping system to produce a plausible pronunciation of a word they do not instantly recognize” (Beck & Juel, 1995, p. 9). Once a word is accurately decoded a few times, it is likely to become recognized without conscious deliberation, leading to efficient word recognition.

    Pause and Connect: Alphabetic Principle

    What are the key takeaways of this video?

    Concepts of Print

    The final category of constrained skills are concepts of print, or print concepts (Snow & Matthews, 2016). Concepts of print refers to an awareness that print has an orientation (how to hold the book to see the text and pictures) and directionality (text moves from left to right). Concepts of print also include an awareness of the distinction between pictures or photographs, sentences, words, and letters. As young children are developing an awareness about print, they begin turning a book over until it is “right side up” and can point to the pictures and words. Eventually, children understand that words are made up of individual letters grouped together and then groups of words form sentences. They might not be able to read all the words independently, but they can track the words left to right with a proficient reader in familiar text.

    Emergent Reading Development: Concepts of Print

    The development of the concept of print is detailed in the Massachusetts Early Learning Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers The guidelines state that “The infant demonstrates interest and engagement in print literacy materials ” (see page 43) and “The toddler demonstrated interest and engagement in print literacy materials ” (see page 116).

    These guidelines include Indicators and Suggested Supportive Learning Experiences as well.

    Further, the Massachusetts Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences outline the standards for preschoolers regarding the concept of print. The guidelines state that a child at this age and stage of development “with guidance and support, demonstrates an understanding of the organization and basic features of printed and written text: books, words, letters, and the alphabet” (see page 65).

    These guidelines include Possible Learning Activities, Evidence of Learning, and Supportive Practices.

    Pause and Connect: Print Awareness

    The concept of print awareness is illustrated in this video. Can you summarize the main points of the video in your own words? Can you think of any personal examples, or anecdotes that illustrate the points made in the video?

    Comprehension, Vocabulary, and Fluency

    The continuous components of comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency are all in the beginning stages of development during this time period. Comprehension is the capacity to extract and obtain meaning from spoken and written language. Meaning is constructed and involves the reader not just obtaining information, but drawing upon prior knowledge and experiences. Rich language experiences support children’s developing vocabularies and comprehension. These experiences occur long before a child is given formal reading instruction and is based upon interactions with others and involvement with print.

    How To Build Comprehension Skills With Read-Alouds | HighScope Blog

    Vocabulary is the use and knowledge of words and word meanings in a variety of modes and contexts. The development of a child’s vocabulary begins at infancy, when a baby starts hearing speech and babbling. Oral language experiences, such as in-person conversations, dialogue heard on TV, or language heard during the reading of children’s books are primary means for accumulating vocabulary. By the age of 2, children usually speak about 200 to 300 words and understand many more. Once children enter school, they learn approximately 3,000 words per year and can comprehend many more than they can read (Nagy, 2009). Developing a rich vocabulary is an important element of proficient reading. Studies have shown that a child’s vocabulary knowledge is a strong predictor of reading comprehension (Duncan et al., 2007).

    Pause and Connect: Vocabulary Development

    Summarize the approach this preschool teacher uses to develop vocabulary. Your thoughts on this approach?

    The third component of fluency is also an important factor of reading proficiency. Fluency is the ability to read text smoothly and easily using appropriate intonation and patterns of stress (called prosody), making reading sound like speaking (Shanahan, 2006). Anyone who has read with an early reader knows that their reading is choppy and often spoken word by word. This is because developing readers have to spend a good deal of energy attending to decoding each word. Once readers develop more proficiency or automaticity, their reading mimics speech and their fluency is greatly improved. At the emergent stage readers are not able to read words fluently (or often read words at all), but they are able to imitate fluent sounding reading when they retell stories and repeat elements of text they have heard and memorized.

    Children “practice” reading with books that have controlled vocabulary. Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss is an example.
    Children “practice” reading with books that have controlled vocabulary. Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss is an example. Hop on Pop © Unsplash is licensed under a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license.

    Comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency work in tandem to help readers make meaning of text. Because these components continue to develop and expand as readers become more proficient, we see them change drastically as children’s literacy skills evolve. In the emergent stage, we expect to see that children are learning new words from text, beginning to understand story structure, and developing the ability to retell familiar text including key vocabulary and relevant details. Young children will not show mastery in these areas but are developing the foundational understandings about how reading works. For instance, young children will often retell key events from a favorite text starting at the end and moving backward to the beginning (often only including parts they found particularly interesting). This is a developmentally appropriate expectation and shows a blossoming understanding of how to talk about text. Additionally, we may find children relying heavily on picture clues to talk about text, but using appropriate “reading” prosody when repeating parts of the story that they have heard before (e.g., changing the intonation of their voice to make the sentence end in a question because they have heard a proficient reader read the text in this way before). These beginning glimmers of fluent reading behavior are important experiences for young readers.

    Emergent Reading Development: Comprehension, Vocabulary, and Fluency

    The development of comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency is detailed in the Massachusetts Early Learning Guidelines for Infants and Toddlers The guidelines state that “The infant engages in pre-reading activities” (see page 43) and “The toddler engages in pre-reading activities” (see page 115).

    These guidelines include Indicators and Suggested Supportive Learning Experiences as well.

    Further, the Massachusetts Guidelines for Preschool Learning Experiences outline the standards for preschoolers regarding comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. The guidelines state that children at this age and stage of development “With prompting and support ask, and answer questions about a story or poem read aloud” . (see page 42). This guideline is a sample of several guidelines for comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency.

    These guidelines include Possible Learning Activities, Evidence of Learning, and Supportive Practices.

    8.3c Factors Impacting Reading Development

    Although many children develop along the emergent literacy continuum in a similar timeline or age range, there are a number of factors that can impact the typical trajectory of an individual child. For instance, English language learners, children with vision or hearing impairments, or other developmental delays may follow different learning trajectories. Individual children may acquire literacy skills on an adjusted timetable, but this doesn’t mean that our overall goal or expectation for them should be lowered. Educators’ knowledge of literacy progressions and intentional actions will support learners’ literacy development. The National Consortium on Deaf-Blindness (NCDB) Literacy Practice Partnership states on their website, All Children Can Read, that, “Regardless of age or ability acquiring literacy skills is a question of ‘how’ rather than ‘if’ or ‘when’” (Shifting the Perspective, 2020).

    This same expectation is true for students with a developmental disability. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2013), developmental disabilities “are a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas. These conditions begin during the developmental period, may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime” (para. 1). The first step in helping a child with developmental disabilities, or other limiting factors, to become literate is to presume competence in their abilities to gain such knowledge and skills (Biklen & Burke, 2006). This means to put aside doubts and preconceived notions about what a student may be able to accomplish based on a student’s disability label, estimates of IQ, or assumed limitations. To presume competence in students is to act on the belief “that all individuals can acquire valued skills if given appropriate structures and supports” (Copeland & Keefe, 2007, p. 2). Effective educators teach knowing that children can learn.

    Pause and Reflect: Steven’s Books

    Notice how an educator describes how Steven, a boy with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and an intellectual disability, reads for information. “He had with him, as always, several different public library books, all related to butterflies and insects. He laid three of the books, opened, on the floor, then centered himself among them, glancing at each of the exposed pages. He then flipped to the next page of each book and repeated the process” (Kliewer & Biklen, 2001, p. 5).

    What does the educator’s explanation tell you about Steven’s interactions with text?

    While many students with developmental delays interact with texts in traditional ways, some students with disabilities may interact with texts in ways that seem unusual or different from how students without disabilities interact with texts. For example, some students, particularly those with autism, may be interested in a book’s texture or fascinated by how a book looks when it is spun around. Other students may be interested in and insist on reading books on one specific topic for a substantial period of time. Students, like Steven, are sometimes dismissed as emergent readers because their teachers misinterpret their unique ways of interacting with texts as indications that they are not attending to and/or are not ready for instruction. Others feel compelled to restrict students’ access to texts that they worry might be topics of overfocus, insisting that the student read something other than books about their favorite subjects. However, students’ interactions with texts should be welcomed despite differences. A child’s spinning of a book or investigation of the book’s texture should never be taken as a sign that the child is not ready for literacy instruction. Through modeling and ongoing interactions with text, educators can expand children’s explorations by continuing to invite children to use texts in more conventional ways. Students will benefit from learning to use texts in the intended fashion, even when they are still experimenting with texts in unusual ways. As long as a child is demonstrating interest, teachers should use the child’s interactions as a starting point for further invitations to literacy growth, and also encourage the child to interact with texts in ways that are pleasing to them.

    Informal reading experiences allow students to interact with text and each other. Informal reading © Longwood University is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license

    This page titled 8.3: How Emergent Readers Progress is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sandra Carrie Garvey (Remixing Open Textbooks with an Equity Lens (ROTEL)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.