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Emergent Literacy: What It Is And Why It’s Important

by | Nov 16, 2020 | Core Skills

What Is Emergent Literacy?

Emergent literacy is the stage during which children learn the crucial skills that lead to writing and reading.

Literacy builds on the foundations of language to include the advanced ways in which we use language to communicate — primarily through reading, writing, listening, watching, and speaking with one another.

Components Of Emergent Literacy

Emergent literacy is made up of several different parts. Your child will encounter these essential components as they begin to explore reading. They include:

  • An interest and enjoyment in print — handling books and relating them to their stories or information.
  • Print awareness: how to handle a book, reading from left to right. Your child recognizes pictures and some symbols, signs, or words.
  • An interest in telling and listening to stories. They attend to, repeat, and use some rhymes, phrases, or refrains from stories or songs.
  • They make marks and use them to represent objects or actions. An understanding that words are made up of letters, recognizing letters when they see them.
  • Your child comprehends meaning from pictures and stories.

And the list goes on! Really, emergent literacy components help your child understand the basic tools they’ll need to read all sorts of books and other materials in the future.

Cute siblings under blanket

Why Is Emergent Literacy Important?

Almost every skill we learn in life requires some preliminary learning in order to finally achieve mastery. For example, you probably didn’t wake up one day knowing how to make pancakes (although if you did, we would love to learn your secrets!).

Instead, you first had to learn what ingredients you needed, how much to measure each item, how long to cook the batter, and so on.

Reading and writing require these same preparatory steps, also known as emergent literacy.

Emergent literacy preps your child’s brain with the skills they’ll need to learn how to read. And while this may sound complex, many emergent literacy skills develop naturally!

When your child points at something and you follow their direction or when you call their attention to noises, objects, or people in their surroundings by speaking to them, you’re helping your child develop emergent literacy skills.

You’re helping them acquire the same tools they’ll incorporate into their future learning, from reading their very first storybook to writing a master’s thesis.

Father working with child on emergent literacy

Supporting Your Child’s Emergent Literacy Skills

Here are some fun and easy ways you can stimulate your child’s emergent literacy skills at home.

Read Aloud

Reading aloud is the most effective way for a child to learn to love books and the power of stories. Loving to read begins with loving to listen to stories!

Our team at HOMER believes that investing in read-aloud sessions with your child substantially improves many of the skills they need on their lifelong reading journey.

For emergent readers, there are few things more wonderful (or effective) than sitting down with mom or dad and uncovering the worlds that live between the covers of a book.

With you as their guide, your child will grow more confident and reassured as they gradually learn about the things they love (like how many different types of dogs exist or how the sky makes rainbows).

Reading aloud to your child also helps strengthen their imagination and build their curiosity. While listening to you recount the wonderful world inside of a story, your child’s mind will be actively running through images, scenarios, and all the colorful possibilities that lie beyond the page.

Reading aloud is one of the easiest, most rewarding ways for you to bond with your child while helping them learn. Consider that by reading aloud to them and encouraging their participation, you are empowering them as learners.

Additionally, you will reap the benefits of understanding their interests more deeply, engaging with their budding imagination, and instilling confidence in their learning process.

young kid looking at book working on Father working with child on emergent literacy

Let Your Child Take Charge

As your child grows, their sense of independence and autonomy continues to develop. While we know these early years are precious, we also know you’re hopeful your child will grow into a strong, independent learner who reads well and frequently.

Allowing your child to assert their unique personality and independence every now and then can be beneficial in engaging their emergent literacy skills.

These moments may seem small at first, but even the simplest freedoms in your child’s routine can have huge impacts on their individualism! It’s all about allowing your child to exert a certain amount of control over their reading time.

For example, instead of you turning the pages during your reading time together, allow your child to dictate when the pages should be turned. This may take some getting used to for them as they learn the pace of reading aloud in conjunction with the words they see printed.

You can also let them experiment with narrating! Even if your child cannot read yet (we know they’re called emergent readers for a reason!), allowing them to use their toddler-talk through the story shows them that they will read one day not far away.

Finally, letting your child pick out the book you’ll read together is a great way to engage their sense of independence. It gives them something to look forward to while reading with you and also gives you insight into their interests.

If you find your child keeps reaching for the same book multiple times, don’t worry — rereading is highly beneficial, too!

mom showing baby a book in the kitchen

Take Your Time

Don’t be afraid to slow it down for your child while you’re reading together, or even just in your daily speech.

We know we’re all guilty of it. For so long, our babies aren’t sure how to “properly” talk back yet, so there may be the occasional time when we find ourselves mumbling to our baby without really engaging them, or simply saying nothing at all!

Taking time to be more conscientious of the ways in which you talk to your child, especially in their very young years, can help them gain the skills they’ll need to read, speak, and write.

Especially when reading together, there’s no need to rush! We recommend taking your sweet time. Even if it’s just with one page of a book at a time, slow down and ensure your child is engaged.

Consider these questions:

  • Does your child recognize every animal on a page?
  • Do they know what color this character’s hair is or whose hair it resembles in your family?
  • Do they know what sound a truck makes?
  • When you say the word “surprise,” does your child react in a way that conveys understanding (throwing their hands up in exclamation or even clapping)?

Addressing these questions can help you and your child slow down and take in all the details that are in a story.

Keep The Conversation Going

If you like the idea of our last emergent literacy strategy, this one pairs perfectly with it!

We know half of the adventure in helping your child learn to read is figuring out what gaps in their understanding still need to be filled. The other part of the journey is keeping them engaged and interested and seeing how far your conversations with one another can go!

As your child expands their vocabulary and begins utilizing it, we encourage you to elaborate on the things they may point out to you. For example, if you’re walking together and they see a dog, they may point at it and say, “puppy!”

In any scenario like this, following up their observation with a cheer is great. Following up with more questions is even better! After affirming they saw the right thing (or correcting them if they mistakenly called it a kitty, for example), ask them about details and descriptions.

You could say, “Does this puppy have long ears? Yes, he does! Feel how soft his ears are. Isn’t his fur shiny, brown, and so soft? What a cute puppy.”

Injecting these details and descriptions into your conversations might feel silly, but it helps your child immensely!

By expanding on the image they identified, you’re directly contributing to their understanding of the scene in front of them. The next time they see a puppy in a park, they may take your lead and say, “Look! A big puppy!”

This progress shows that your child’s emergent literacy is growing!

Mom reading a book on couch with dad on floor coloring with child

Let Your Child “Write”

Emergent literacy incorporates writing as well as reading. This may sound a little crazy — how can your child write if they don’t know how to read yet?

While your child may not be able to correctly write out words, we certainly encourage you to let them try! Even if it’s just scribbling, allowing your child to practice “writing” gets their brain going in the right direction.

It also prepares them for what writing is really like and shows them that they have the power to put words on paper. There are stages of learning how to write, and scribbling is the first step!

Asking for your child’s help with writing out short tasks can boost their confidence and their excitement about learning to write. Good options include grocery lists, birthday cards, get-well-soon cards, thank you notes, or notes for their siblings and family.

Whatever keeps them excited and engaged is a great vehicle for motivating their writing skills!

Emergent Literacy Is Just The Beginning!

mom reading to excited child

We know that emergent literacy is only the start of your child’s reading and writing journey.

While you and your child are probably thrilled at the idea of their eventual independence and confidence when it comes to handling books, it’s going to take some time. And that’s perfectly OK!

Every child is different and will learn how to read and write in their own time. The important part is enjoying the adventures you have together on the way there!

We hope our emergent literacy tips were helpful! If you ever want to change up your routine and explore new ways to touch on these skills, our Learn & Grow app is a great place to start! The personalized practices will give your child the tools they need for their learning journey.


  • Parents hear so much noise about what matters–it’s hard to know where to begin. That’s where we come in. We are early learning experts & PhDs helping you focus on what matters most for your child.

Begin Learning Team
Parents hear so much noise about what matters–it’s hard to know where to begin. That’s where we come in. We are early learning experts & PhDs helping you focus on what matters most for your child.