The contemporary theory of emergent literacy states that literacy has no starting point; instead, it is a continual learning process. It is part of the transactional model of development which states that meaning is constructed through reading and influenced by social, cultural, and environmental factors (Miller, 2000). Essentially, emergent literacy is a set of naturally-occurring developmental precursors which are interrelated and acknowledge the social nature of language development; they are not necessarily linear or systematic. The five precursors of print awareness, print motivation, language knowledge, narrative skills and comprehension, and oral language skills and knowledge will happen eventually, but they can be supported and enriched with early literacy programming. This support will help children achieve academically, since "there is evidence that getting off to a "fast start" learning to read is a component in later school achievement" (Baroody, 2012).

Early behaviors such as "reading" from pictures and "writing" with scribbles are examples of emergent literacy. With the support of parents, caregivers, early childhood educators, and teachers, as well as exposure to a literacy-rich environment, children successfully progress from emergent to conventional reading (Johnson, 1999).

Beginning with the work of Clay (1975) and Holdaway (1979), researchers have been studying emergent literacy for the past thirty years. Their body of work has helped to shape classroom instruction and literacy practices along the way. In her book, Strategies for Developing Emergent Literacy (2000), Wilma Miller provides a good overview of the general conclusions produced in emergent literacy research:
  • All literacy begins at an early age, and the process is different for each child.
  • Reading, writing, and spelling in some form usually begin before a child enters formal schooling.
  • Children learn reading and writing together; the two processes reinforce one another.
  • Oral language development precedes and later reinforces reading development.
  • Literacy develops best in authentic situations rather than contrived settings.
  • Scribbling and invented spelling are an important part of literacy development.
  • Reading aloud to children from infancy onward is vital to their literacy development.
  • Learning to read and write takes time and effort for children; it is not an instantaneous or passive process.
  • Children need meaningful, repetitive experiences to help them learn to read and write.

Emergent literacy research and programs like Every Child Ready to Read (see below) encourage natural, fun interaction with young children as part of their everyday life as the best strategies for developing early literacy skills. While explicit instruction can benefit some children, "children's engagement and interest in literacy activities [is] critical to successful literacy achievement, even in the earliest stages of development" (Baroody, 2012). Emergent literacy focuses on using the child's natural interests and engagement within a home environment (supplemented by outside experiences like preschool, daycare, or library storytime) to promote the child's interest and motivation in literacy skills and later reading "readiness."

Every Child Ready to Read @ Your Library

The ALA and the Public Library Association (PLA) developed ECRR to provide public libraries with the tools and resources necessary to educate and support parents and caregivers on the importance of emergent literacy. The first edition (2004) outlined six skills that the program would help teach parents to develop: print awareness, letter knowledge, phonological awareness, vocabulary, narrative skills, and print motivation. The revised second edition (2008) moved away from educational jargon and rewrote the six skills as five "everyday practices" for parents to do with their children to foster literacy development:
  • Talking - Talking with children helps them learn oral language, one of the most critical early literacy skills. The experience of self-expression also stimulates brain development, which underlies all learning.
  • Singing - Singing, which also includes rhyming, increases children's awareness of and sensitivity to the sounds in words. This helps prepare children to decode print (written language).
  • Reading - Reading together, or shared reading, remains the single most effective way to help children become proficient readers.
  • Writing - Writing and reading go together. Writing helps children learn that letters and words stand for sounds and that print has meaning.
  • Playing - Play is one of the primary ways young children learn about the world. General knowledge is an important literacy skill that helps children understand books and stories once they begin to read.

These practices, and the program as a whole, are based on six core principles and beliefs of ALA, PLA, and ECRR:
  • Reading is an essential life skill.
  • Learning to read begins at birth.
  • Parents and caregivers are a child's first and best teachers.
  • Play provides a wide range of benefits and opportunities for the young child.
  • Lifelong learning is a primary role of the public library; public libraries need to support parents and caregivers as they develop early literacy skills in children from birth to age five.
  • Forming partnerships with other organizations and institutions in a community is a vital component to the success of early literacy parent education.

The ECRR program details strategies for parents, caregivers, and educators (including librarians) for fostering literacy development in young children (aka emergent readers). The program and website provide materials for conducting library workshops for parents, using the research-based strategies and non-education-jargon to educate parents on their role in developing emergent literacy in their child. Traditionally, early literacy library programs focused on children (like storytime), and this program takes emergent literacy research into consideration and promotes activities within the home with the child's primary caregivers as a more effective strategy.

Supporting Emergent Literacy through Storytime Practices

Storytime programming is a great way to engender emergent literacy skills in young children and also to demonstrate early literacy focused activities and reading strategies for parents. Storytime practices have gravitated towards supporting emergent literacy skills even before there was any real concept of emergent literacy as such. As early as the 1940s “reading readiness” began to be a concern and librarians placed themselves and their story hours in response to that concern by helping to expose children to literature before they actually learned to read (Albright, Delecki & Hinkle 13). One preliteracy skill, print motivation or interest in books, is something that librarians have tried to instill in children since they were first allowed in libraries.

Though some of these emergent literacy storytime practices arose naturally in the course of reading to and working with children, it was not until the 1950s that storytime was intentionally geared toward supporting literacy education. At this time, storytime began to be touted as an educational experience for children wherein they could learn listening and socializing skills, basic concepts such as colors and numbers, and develop their love of books among other things (Albright, Delecki & Hinkle 14). Librarians also began to deliberately select books with repetition and rhyme and to read to children younger than pre-school age, all in an effort to support literacy education.

Because emergent literacy skills occur naturally, though how fast and how well they develop is influenced by the environment, it was possible for observant librarians to discover and support these skills through their storytime practices without even really knowing what they were supporting. Today, a great deal of research has gone into parsing emergent literacy skills and creating ways to help children develop them--new ideas and activities that are important to integrate into modern storytimes.

Many of the techniques that librarians fifty years ago used are still good storytime practices. However, one of the most important practices to incorporate into a storytime today is also a very new concept, dialogic reading. This is reading that tries to create a conversation with a child around the story by asking questions about what the child sees, what they think will happen, or how to relate the story to their own life. This kind of reading forces the child to engage with the text and “is incredibly important to the development of preliteracy and early literacy skills” (Albright, Delecki & Hinkle 16). Along with using dialogic reading, specific emergent literacy skills can be supported by different storytime techniques such as alphabet books to help with letter knowledge, rhyme and repetition to support phonological awareness, and highlighting specific new words to build vocabulary. It is also helpful to approach a storytime with a goal in mind of a specific skill or concept that the librarian wishes to help children encounter (Irwin et al. 21). By providing a more focused learning experience in storytime, a librarian can build up a systematic support of successive emergent literacy skills and concepts.

Incorporating emergent literacy skills into a storytime is not the only way that storytime can be used to support emergent literacy. It is just as important for the librarian to talk to parents about what she or he is doing during the storytime. In this way, parents can learn about emergent literacy skills and see how they can support them (Arnold & Colburn 39). The librarian can use storytime to actively model and teach emergent literacy skills not just to children, but also to their parents so that children can gain support for emergent literacy skills at home as well as in the library.


Clermont Library- Ready to Read: Early Literacy Skills - This site gives examples of how to support literacy development and provides specific guides for reading to babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Emergent Literacy: What Young Children Can Learn about Reading and Writing Before They Go to School - The author discusses the benefits of introducing reading and writing activities to all preschool children, including children with disabilities.

PreSchool Storytime Volunteer Handbook, Whatcom County Library System - This .pdf handbook outlines great strategies for emergent literacy support within the traditional library storytime, and includes example recommendations for program themes, movement rhymes, enrichment activities and materials, and a collection of example books for storytime play and activities.


Albright, M., Delecki, K., & Hinkle, S. (2009). The Evolution of Early Literacy: A History of Best Practices in Storytimes. Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children, 7(1), 13-18.

Arnold, R., & Colburn, N. (2004). A Script for Success. School Library Journal, 50(9), 39.

Baroody, A. E. & Diamond, K. E. (2012). Links among home literacy environment, literacy interest, and emergent literacy skills in preschoolers at risk for reading difficulties. Early Childhood Special Education, 32(2), 78-87.

Irwin, J. R., Moore, D. L., Tornatore, L. A., & Fowler, A. E. (2012). Expanding on Early Literacy. Children & Libraries: The Journal Of The Association For Library Service To Children, 10(2), 20-28.

Johnson, D. (1999). Critical issue: Addressing the literacy needs of emergent and early readers. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved from http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/content/cntareas/reading/li100.htm

Miller, W.H. (2000). Strategies for developing emergent literacy. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

"Six early literacy skills." (2011). Multnomah County Library. Retrieved from http://www.multcolib.org/birthtosix/elitskills.html