Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development
RSS feed
 Authors   Section Editors   Entries (A-Z)   Français 
Acquisition of Early Literacy in English
Section Editor:
Monique SÚnÚchal, Ph.D. (monique_senechal@carleton.ca)
Department of Psychology
Carleton University
1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, ON K1S 5B6
Printable Version:
(requires Acrobat Reader, available for free from Adobe)
Key Messages
What do we know?
Literacy development begins long before children enter school or even preschool. Early experiences in the home can have a significant impact on children’s reading success later in life. The following early literacy skills are related to later literacy learning:
  1. ABC knowledge – the ability to recognize and identify either the name or the sound of an upper or lower case letter, presented at random;
  2. Phonological awareness – the ability to recognize different sounds of oral language and to separate meaning by word, syllable or sound;
  3. Concepts about print – the awareness of print concepts, ability to differentiate between pictures and text and understand the direction of the given alphabet;
  4. Rapid naming – the ability to quickly name letters, numbers, and pictures; and   
  5. Oral language – the ability to understand and communicate in spoken words.
The process of learning these skills is not a linear one (e.g., children can gain sensitivity to sounds without knowing the letter names), but all of these skills will need to be closely integrated to achieve functional levels of literacy.
Parents play a key role in helping their children develop preliteracy skills. There are a number of activities that parents can do at home with their children to promote these skills. Research shows that one particular instructional strategy appears to be most effective in helping children improve their comprehension skills and verbal expression, namely dialogic reading. Both teachers and parents are encouraged to engage children in dialogic reading, an approach to shared reading in which the adult, instead of just reading and the child listening, facilitates the child’s active role in telling the story. This can be done by asking the child “what” questions, asking open-ended questions, and expanding upon what the child says. It can be described as an adult and a child having a conversation about a book.  
Research suggests that when assessing children’s early literacy skills, it is important to have a clear understanding of the following behaviours:
  1. why we read and write;
  2. how we read and write;
  3. what we know about the structure of the language; and
  4. how we communicate orally.
Some researchers believe that behaviours 1 and 2 above (print knowledge) should be differentiated from behaviours 3 and 4 (meta-awareness of language). This stems from the fact that all children enter school with the ability to communicate orally, however, not all children have functional literacy skills (i.e., the use of print). In order to design appropriate interventions for children at risk for reading difficulties, it is important to understand how different experiences that occur at home, day care, or school can affect the development of different child behaviours. For example, shared reading can help young children increase their vocabulary. However, it is not clear if it can help improve print knowledge and phonological awareness.
What can be done?
Parents and Educators

1.    frequently talking with children about past events in the children's lives;
2.    asking wh- questions (who, where, what, etc.);
3.    elaborating on what children say by adding more information themselves;
4.    prompting children to provide causal and temporal links (why did that happen? when was that? what happened next?); and
5.    encouraging children to provide narrative accounts that have beginnings, middles, and ends (provide context for the events, tell the sequence of events that occurred and then how it all ended).

Those children who enter Kindergarten with more complex narrative skills tend to have better literacy skills in school, even up to Grade 7.