Readers who start early end up ahead forever!!!!!


Early Literacy: Policy and Practice in the Preschool Years

By: Dorothy Strickland and Shannon Riley-Ayers

As early childhood education moves front and center in the public policy debate, more attention is being paid to early literacy. Early childhood professionals have long recognized the importance of language and literacy in preparing children to succeed in school. Early literacy plays a key role in enabling the kind of early learning experiences that research shows are linked with academic achievement, reduced grade retention, higher graduation rates and enhanced productivity in adult life. This report synthesizes the body of professional knowledge about early literacy and offers research-based recommendations.

What we know:

  • Literacy development starts early in life and is highly correlated with school achievement.
  • All of the domains of a child’s development —physical, social-emotional, cognitive, language and literacy—are interrelated and interdependent.
  • The more limited a child’s experiences with language and literacy the more likely he or she will have difficulty learning to read.
  • Key early literacy predictors of reading and school success include oral language, Alphabetic Code, and print knowledge.
  • Well-conceived standards for child outcomes, curriculum content, and teacher preparation help establish clarity of purpose and a shared vision for early literacy education.
  • Increased demands for program accountability are often heavily focused on assessments of children’s early literacy development.
  • Highly capable teachers are required to implement today’s more challenging early literacy curriculum.
  • Teacher knowledge, respect and support for the diversity of children’s families, cultures, and linguistic backgrounds are important in early literacy development.

Policy recommendations:

  • All children should have access to early childhood programs with strong literacy components that include clear adaptations for children with special needs.
  • Early literacy curricula and teaching practices should be evidence-based, integrated with all domains of learning, and understandable to staff members.
  • Early literacy standards should be established that articulate with K-12 programs and reflect consistency and continuity with overall program goals.
  • Early literacy assessment should use multiple methods and use the information to improve both teaching and the total preschool program.
  • Standards for early childhood professionals should require staff to meet early literacy instructional standards.
  • Parent involvement programs should have a strong early literacy component that guides parents and caregivers in providing early literacy experiences at home.
  • Support for English Language Learners should be specified and provided in both the home language and English where feasible.

A growing body of evidence shows that early learning experiences are linked with later school achievement, emotional and social well-being, fewer grade retentions, and reduced incidences of juvenile delinquency and that these outcomes are all factors associated with later adult productivity.1 Other research has identified key predictors for reading and school success.

An analysis of the research literature indicates specific skills and abilities of children ages birth through 5 years that predict later reading outcomes.


Key predictive skills and abilities include:

  • Oral language
    listening comprehension, oral language vocabulary
  • Alphabetic Code
    alphabet knowledge, phonological/ phonemic awareness (the ability to discriminate sounds in words), invented spelling
  • Print Knowledge/Concepts
    environmental print, concepts about print

Other less significant indicators include: Rapid Automatic Naming (RAN); visual memory; and visual perceptual abilities.

How young children acquire early literacy and its oral language foundation has gained the attention of educators and policymakers. Research establishes four major principles of early literacy acquisition:

Oral language is the foundation for literacy development.

Oral language provides children with a sense of words and sentences and builds sensitivity to the sound system so that children can acquire phonological awareness and phonics. Through their own speech children demonstrate their understanding of the meanings of words and written materials.

Supporting evidence

  • Children reared in families where parents provide rich language and literacy support do better in school than those who do not. Languagepoor families are likely to use fewer different words in their everyday conversations and the language environment is more likely to be controlling and punitive.3
  • Exposure to less common, more sophisticated vocabulary (rare words) at home relates directly to children’s vocabulary acquisition. Rare words are those that go beyond the typical 8,500 most common words in the English language.4
  • There is a strong relationship between vocabulary development and reading achievement. Understanding the meanings of words is critical to understanding what a child reads. Good readers combine a variety of strategies to read words. Even when children have strong familiarity with the alphabetic code, they frequently meet words for which the pronunciation is not easily predictable.

Children who acquire strong vocabularies increase their ability to make sense of what a word might be while using what they know about phonics.5

Children’s experiences with the world greatly influence their ability to comprehend what they read.

Reading involves comprehending written texts.What children bring to a text influences the understandings they take away and the use they make of what is read.

Supporting evidence

  • Background knowledge about the world is built from a child’s experiences.
  • The more limited a child’s experiences the more likely he or she will have difficulty comprehending what is read.

Learning to read and write starts long before first grade and has long-lasting effects.

Learning to read and write is an ongoing process from infancy. Contrary to popular belief, it does not suddenly begin in kindergarten or first grade. From the earliest years, everything that adults do to support children’s language and literacy is critical.

Supporting evidence

  • Language and literacy develop concurrently and influence one another. What children learn from listening and talking contributes to their ability to read and write and vice versa. For example, young children’s phonological awareness (ability to identify and make oral rhymes, identify and work with syllables in spoken words, and the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds— phonemes—in spoken words) is an important indicator of their potential success in learning to decode print. Early vocabulary development is an important predictor of success in reading comprehension. Both phonological awareness and vocabulary development begin early with participation in rhyming games and chants, shared book experiences, and extended conversations with adults.6
  • Children who fall behind in oral language and literacy development in the years before formal schooling are less likely to be successful beginning readers; and their achievement lag is likely to persist throughout the primary grades and beyond.7
  • Responsive adults have a special role in supporting children’s ongoing, self-generated learning. Instructional support that relies on the accumulation of isolated skills is not sufficient. Teaching children to apply their knowledge and skills in meaningful situations has a significantly greater effect on their ability to learn to read.8