What is Emergent Literacy?

Previously associated with terms like “reading readiness,” and “preliteracy,” emergent literacy is the preexisting knowledge about reading and writing that children learn before receiving direct literacy instruction. There are four domains of emergent literacy: oral language, written language awareness, phonological awareness, and writing. Each domain encompasses several early literacy skills, as summarized in the table below:

The Four Domains of Emergent Literacy

Receptive Language
(processing and comprehension)

Expressive Language
(speech production and verbal language)

Alphabet knowledge

Book conventions
(what books are for, how to hold them, etc.)

Print Conventions
(text goes left-to-right, top-to-bottom etc.)

Print Form
(symbols, letters, etc.)

Rhyme Detection

Rhyme Generation

Alliteration Awareness

Blending & Segmenting

& more!

Name writing

Invented spelling

Replicating/drawing upper & lower case letters

Locating letters on a keyboard or electronic device

Using punctuation

Now, reflect on what you’ve learned about the domains of emergent literacy while you review the following milestones, ordered by age.

Emergent Literacy Milestones for Typically Developing Children

Looks at pictures in books when you name,
or point to them

Likes to hear you tell and read stories

Makes sounds when looking at pictures in books
(e.g., animal noises)

Shows ability to hold and use large markers or crayons

May scribble, especially when you are writing too

Points to, or touches pictures in books when you name them

Turns pages in books
(maybe more than one, but it shows they know how)

Listens to simple stories for a short time

Starts to name colorful pictures in books

Makes sounds, or sings along with songs and rhymes

Knows that words have meanings and can be used for different reasons

Starts to name black & white pictures

Turns pages correctly (i.e., one at a time)

Points to and names many common pictures in books

Knows the direction of words in books

Enjoys books that have rhymes

Enjoys having books read over and over again;

Knows how to open & hold books correctly (i.e., not upside down or backward)

Knows that books have a front and a back

Writes by drawing or scribbling (i.e., make believe)

Listens and enjoys when you read for longer periods of time

Starts to sit alone and look at books

Scribbles using wavy lines & circles

Enjoy books with repeating words/phrases

Literacy Skills: 3-4 Years

  • Recognizes and may say familiar words, like restaurant signs, names on cereal boxes, and street signs
  • Recognizes and may say some words that rhyme (bat-cat, run-fun) and words that begin with the same sound (big, boy, ball)
  • Says some of the words in a story or book
  • Pretends to read books (e.g., Holds a book, Turns the pages, Says some words)

Writing Skills: 3-5 Years

  • Starts to scribble letters, numbers or pretend letters, wavy lines, and squiggles
  • prints some large uppercase letters
  • Knows that drawing and writing are different
  • Copies simple lines and shapes
  • Knows that people write for a reason
  • Writes one letter or word to stand for a whole sentence or idea
  • Prints first name, some letters of the alphabet and numbers
  • Writes letters in no set order

Produces rhyming words and words that begin with the same sound

Understands that you are reading words and not just talking about pictures in books

Recognizes where words start and stop by pointing to spaces between words

Pretends to read a book by telling the story from memory (i.e., while flipping pages)

Recognizes familiar sight words
note: children learn sight words through memorization, which does not constitute true reading (i.e. decoding written text)

Begin to demonstrate true reading and writing…

  • Reading:
    • Realizes that words can be broken into smaller parts (i.e., syllables)
    • Names printed letters in the alphabet from A to Z and numbers from 1 to 10
    • May know that letters have sounds and the sound that some letters make
    • Says the first sounds in spoken words
    • Begins to point to specific letters on a page
    • May read some unfamiliar words
  • Writing:
    • Uses one to three letters to spell words
    • Spells words as they sound- sometimes called invented spelling.

IMPORTANT NOTE: These milestones show the general continuum of literacy skill acquisition for typically developing children. They do not represent a checklist of skills all children must have by a certain age; children learn in their own way, at their own pace. Instead, educators should use this continuum to guide their instruction and create reasonable expectations for their students.  

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