For much of the twentieth century, educators believed that reading instruction should be delayed until children reached a certain level of mental readiness. They believed that most children would achieve this level of readiness when they were about 6 years old. The most influential study (Morphett & Washburne, 1931) actually specified a mental age of 6 years as the right age to begin reading instruction (but their methodology was enormously flawed). Some educators believed that writing should be delayed until reading abilities were firmly in place and recommended that children begin writing when they were 8 or 9 years old.

To determine who was ready to read, most children were given readiness tests at the end of kindergarten or after a few weeks of first grade. These readiness tests assessed the skills then believed to be critical for success in beginning reading instruction. Most tests examined the skills of visual discrimination (find the shape that matches the first shape), phonological awareness (find the two pictures whose names begin with the same sound), letter naming, high-frequency word knowledge, and oral language vocabulary.

First graders who scored high on these readiness tests began reading instruction, usually with a basal reader. There were two schools of thought about how to proceed with poor scorers on the readiness tests. Some schools and teachers felt it best to "wait" for the readiness to develop. Other schools and teachers taught the skills—visual discrimination of shapes, phonemic segmentation of sounds in spoken words, letter names, and so on—in an attempt to develop readiness skills tested. But emergent literacy research found that reading development was more complicated than the readiness model assumed.

Emergent literacy research begins in the homes of young children, tracing their literacy development from birth until the time they read and write conventionally (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 2001). This observational research demonstrated that children in literate home environments engage in reading and writing long before beginning formal schooling. Children born into homes where someone reads and writes with them walk into school with an incredible foundation on which instruction can easily build. These children experience an average of over 1,000 hours of quality one-on-one reading and writing activities (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). They use reading and writing in a variety of ways and pass through a series of predictable stages on their journey from pretend reading and scribbling to conventional reading and writing. When parents read to children, interact with them about the print they see in the world—signs, cereal boxes, advertisements—and encourage and support their early writing efforts, reading and writing develop and grow with listening and speaking, concurrently rather than sequentially.

The emergent literacy research debunked the readiness/mental age theories. Rather than needing to learn all the skills—phonemic segmentation, letter names, right-to-left progression, and so on—before they began reading and writing, children with lots of print experiences learned these skills as they began reading and writing (McGill-Franzen, 2006). Readiness to read has more to do with book, story, and print experiences that occur before school entry than with drill on any subset of skills or achieving any particular mental age.

Emergent literacy research has shown us the kinds of literacy activity young children engage in that lead to developing the understandings essential to successful independent reading and writing. A great many important concepts and attitudes develop as children encounter print in various forms. Seven of these stand out and differentiate children who have had many print experiences from those who have not. Children who have had many print experiences

  • Know why we read and write
  • Have greater knowledge of the world
  • Understand the conventions and jargon of print (e.g., book, page, title, letter)
  • Have higher levels of phonological awareness (e.g., the ability to segment a spoken word, //, into individual sounds, /h/a/t/)
  • Can read some important-to-them words
  • Know many letter names and sounds
  • Are eager and confident in their fledgling reading and writing attempts (Pearson, 1993)

There has long been a debate over whether kindergartens should be primarily for play and socialization or offer a more academic orientation. Emergent literacy research supports neither kindergartens in which children play and socialize while we wait for literacy development nor kindergartens in which children work on isolated readiness skills (McGill-Franzen, 1992). Rather than wait or teach separate skills for children who have not had these early literacy experiences before coming to school, kindergartens and other early school experiences should simulate as closely as possible the "at-home" experiences of children who arrive at school with a familiarity with books and stories and who rather easily acquire fluency with reading and writing. We call these kindergartens "literate home simulation" kindergartens.