Why Don’t You Teach Reading? A Look at Emergent Literacy

Many developmentally appropriate preschool teachers have been asked, “Why don’t you teach reading?”  The question is innocent.  But teachers often come away frustrated, as most of what they do is focused on building successful readers.  Often, outside observers are looking for reading worksheets and primers and long stretches of direct phonics instruction.  The trick is, in these early years, so much is being done to build successful readers, but it is in the form of emergent or early literacy skills, which are much less visible to the untrained eye. 

Seeing is Believing

Part of why these early literacy skills are difficult to spot in a developmentally appropriate classroom is the fact that they are often integrated into a larger culture of literacy.  They come up in songs and games and spontaneous conversations.  They are reinforced as children play restaurant and bake cookies and share silly stories.  There is a lot of overlap with these skills, and they can be taught both in planned and unforseen contexts. 

Once you recognize the elements of early literacy, you will see opportunities to teach them all around you!  As I’ve stated before, when you recognize your learning objectives, you can emphasize them in meaningful and even serendipitous contexts, thereby maximizing the learning outcomes.

A Solid Foundation

The elements of emergent literacy that I will be focusing on for the next few posts are:

Alphabet Knowledge

Phonological Awareness


Oral Language Skills, and

Print Concepts

Knowledge of these concepts begins developing from birth and encompasses critical skills a child must master before ever approaching any of the more conventional literacy skills like decoding and spelling.  Trying to jump straight to the conventional skills without a strong base of early skills would be like trying to build the walls of a house without a strong foundation to attach them to.  In truth, many children who struggle with conventional literacy skills in the primary grades need remedial help in building these foundational understandings taught and acquired as early literacy skills. 

As logic would suggest, early literacy skills predict primary grade literacy skills which then predict later school success.  It’s one long chain of dominoes.  Getting a solid start will help to ensure those dominoes all fall the right way.  So for the next several posts, I hope to share some insights on each of these elements of early literacy and some fun and effective ways to foster these skills in the children you love and teach!

Chime in !  What are some of your biggest concerns about supporting early literacy?

Photo by Antoni Ruggiero.
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Filed under Article, Building Readers, language activity

18 responses to “Why Don’t You Teach Reading? A Look at Emergent Literacy

  1. Just wanted to let you know I am really enjoying your blog and excited about this series. I just finished my Masters as Literacy Specialist and even though my experience is mostly with older kids I love reading about this. Thank you for tackling such an important topic!

    • notjustcute

      Thanks so much, Lindsay! I’m happy to have you reading! Please chime in with your expertise. I’d love to hear what you have to add!

  2. I’m a childminder and passionate that children should be learning through playing (and songs, and stories…) with early literacy skills weaved into this play. I’m really looking forward to reading more of these posts.

  3. Excellent post, Amanda! One of the biggest misconceptions about Waldorf early childhood education is that we don’t teach reading. As you point out, it’s because most observers don’t recognize that the songs we are singing, the fairy tales we are telling (in their original forms, not watered down), and that the verses that the children learn to recite through repetition are building emergent literacy skills.

    One thing that most observers DO notice in a Waldorf school is what excellent vocabularies and annunciation the children usually have. Given this kind of strong foundation of spoken language in the early years allows reading to follow naturally and organically, when a child’s brain is ready for the decoding necessary to read.

  4. Hi,
    I’m new to your blog, blogs are usually my *fluff* reading for the week, but I love yours! I feel like it is fitting in both my role as a mother and my role as an early childhood educator. It really is fantastic, thanks for sharing your knowledge.

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  7. Aimee

    As a literacy coach I am so pleased to find your blog and postings. All I can say is YES!!!!

    My own son learned to read extremely early and NUMEROUS relatives think I sat him down and drilled him with flashcards. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There were no flashcards, no drills, I promise. I think I will direct them here. Nope, (see above) this is what we did!! We talked, sang, talked, and then talked and read, and PLAYED.

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