Historically, there has been a difference of opinion about when children actually begin the process of learning to read. Perhaps you have heard people speak about reading readiness and thought that this was current terminology. Actually, this is an echo from the past; reading readiness is a concept from the 1940s.

In the 1960s, Marie Clay challenged the view that real reading started when children were in formal school settings and reading from their textbooks. She argued that this view disregarded all of the important milestones that occurred before children could read independently (Clay, 1985). For example, perhaps the biggest breakthrough in learning to read is realizing that all of those marks on paper mean something. At first, children do not know how an adult performs this almost magical feat of reading a picture book in the same way each time. Young children appear to assume that it is the pictures that are being read, not the words. This is reflected in their earliest attempts to pretend to read, in which they study the illustrations and tell the story while sprinkling in some words and phrases that they remember from repeated readings of the book.

The realization that print carries meaning is a major achievement of emergent literacy. Emergent literacy consists of the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that are presumed to be "developmental precursors to conventional forms of reading and writing and the environments that support these developments" (Lonigan & Whitehurst, 1998, p. 849). As Braunger and Lewis (1998) concluded from their review of the research, "In a very general sense, emergent literacy describes those behaviors shown by very young children as they begin to respond to and approximate reading and writing acts" (p. 16).

Reading emerges as children do the following:

  • Acquire oral language by exploring its meaning, noticing its structure (e.g., word order), and experimenting with its sounds (called phonological awareness).
  • Ascribe meaning to the symbols around them (e.g., a stop sign, a food label, a fast-food restaurant billboard).
  • Attempt to produce symbols, signs, and letters.
  • Approximate print behaviors modeled to them, such as pretending to read a book, make a shopping list, or write a check.
  • Repeat processes until they are clearer and more refined, such as mastering an action song with all of the accompanying motions.
  • Begin to connect speech sounds to print patterns, such as saying "Y-e-s spells yes, and n-o spells no" (Braunger & Lewis, 1998, pp. 16-17).