visitor center banner

Resource File: Early Childhood -- Literacy

Chapter 8: Emergent Literacy: What Young Children Can Learn about Reading and Writing Before They Go to School

REFERENCE: Pierce, P.L. (no date). Emergent Literacy: What Young Children Can Learn About Reading and Writing Before They Go to School. In P. Pierce, (ed.) Baby Power: A Guide For Families For Using Assistive Technology With Their Infants and Toddlers, Chapel Hill, NC: The Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is reprinted here with permission of the editor. Description of chapter:

The author discusses the benefits of introducing reading and writing activities to all preschool children, including children with disabilities. She argues that during these early years, all children are capable of understanding the powerful concepts associated with reading and writing. Concepts, such as words, pages, stories, lists, letters, pictures, and phonetics, should be introduced to children through the use of books, slides, videotapes, and computer software.

Emergent Literacy Skills
Functions of Print
Sample Functions of Print and Implications for Children with Special Needs
Nuts and Bolts
A.I.M. for Literacy
Great Strategies to Try
- Making Books Accessible
Interactive Storybook Reading
Sample Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) Goals
Next Steps
Books and Other Resources

CHAPTER AUTHOR(S): Baby Power is a collaborative project of The Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies (CLDS), CB# 8135, 730 Airport Road, Suite 200, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-8135 and The Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning (CDL), CB# 7255, BSRC, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-7255.

Patsy Pierce, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Early Childhood Special Education and Literacy from UNC-CH. Patsy has been a speech-language pathologist working with children with severe speech and physical impairments for the past 11 years. She was the Associate Director for Education at the CLDS, UNC-CH.


All children can benefit from being involved in print-related activities (Koppenhaver, Coleman, Kalman, & Yoder, 1990). No child is too communicatively, cognitively, or motorically impaired to be excluded from literacy-related activities. These activities include: hearing stories scribbling, drawing, and coloring seeing parents use print to accomplish real goals in their daily lives (Pierce & McWilliam, 1993)

Children who are exposed to using reading and writing for functional purposes can develop many skills. These skills can help them to listen, speak, use other forms of communication, and to eventually read and write. During their preschool years, all children can learn the following important concepts that will help them to communicate to the best of their abilities.

[Back to top of page]

Emergent Literacy Skills Functions of Print

One of the most important concepts that children can learn, even during their first three years of life, is that printed language can be used to accomplish many different goals. Children learn by watching their parents and listening to them explain what they are doing. Children can learn that grocery lists help us remember to get the items we need from the grocery store. They can learn that you can make yummy cookies by following a recipe. They can learn that we can communicate by writing and receiving letters, even when the letters are made up of pictures, scribbles, and drawings. One young child we know with severe speech and physical impairments learned the power and function of print when he received a check from his grandmother. He was given more rewards (money) when he sent her a "thank you" note composed of pictures he had made on the computer! Children's' scribbles and drawings are their real writing. Children's' comments, questions, and repetitions of words they have heard in stories are the way they read. We need to find ways for all children to read and write using these early forms. All children need to be active participants when we use reading and writing to accomplish our daily activities. By giving children access to using print and to seeing literate role models, all children can learn the functions of print and develop emergent literacy.

[Back to top of page]

Sample Functions of Print and Implications for Children with Special Needs, Ages Birth-to-Three

Memory Support:
Show and tell child why you are writing yourself a note, or making up a grocery list.

Problem Solving:
Let the child watch you and assist you as much as possible in following directions to put a toy together or to follow a simple recipe.

Entering a Fantasy World:
Tell your children about why you are reading novels, the comic strip, and other fiction and share some short, simple passages with them.

Maintaining Relationships:
Share junk mail and other written communication you receive through the mail and from school with your children. Help them to "write" (draw, scribble, use picture/letter stamps) cards and letters to others.

Acquiring Knowledge:
Help your child to look up numbers in a phone book or to find the time and station for a television program or movie in a television guide or newspaper. As your children get older, talk to them and show them how you use dictionaries, encyclopedias, and written directions to learn about things in your daily lives.

Financial Negotiations:
Hold your child on your lap sometimes when you are cutting out coupons and show them the numbers and tell them how the coupon will help you get that much money off on an item. Young children can also watch and listen to explanations of paying bills and balancing the checkbook.

Concepts About Print:
Another group of important early reading and writing concepts that children need to learn about is concepts about print. These concepts we take for granted because they have become part of our every day lives. Concepts about print include knowing to turn pages from right to left and to read print from left to right. Children also need to know that a book has to be right side up to able to read the words and to see the pictures. A critical concept about print that children need to develop during their preschool years is an understanding of the concept of word. Children between the ages of three and four often come to realize that the group of squiggles (letters) has meaning and that the blank spaces between the groups of squiggles do not. Children need to have the concept of word and understand that a word has meaning before we can start teaching them individual letters names and the sounds they make. Finally, children need to come to realize that the print or picture on a page is controlling what you are reading with them. This print-to-speech relationship is important in building both understanding and expression of oral and written language. Children must be able to see and/or feel the words and pictures in books, turn the pages the right way, and be able to produce scribbles, and talk about their reading and writing in any way possible.

Phonemic Awareness:
As children develop their ability to understand and use spoken language, they also come to hear the differences and similarities among sounds. You will often hear children around the age of three begin to play with words, by changing the initial sounds, making up new words, and by rhyming words. This ability to take words apart can lead to independent reading. Phonemic awareness helps a child sound out unfamiliar words. Early phonemic awareness is developed by singing with children, saying nursery rhymes, and by reading children's poetry to them. We have to find ways for young children who have difficulty speaking to participate in singing and nursery rhymes. One way is by using voice output augmentative communication devices, even if only a tape player. Another way is to teach gestures and sign language to represent words. Nursery rhymes and songs that are printed and acted out give children added input. The print, pictures, gestures and voice output help children to participate and to understand that what is being said is connected to what they see and do.

Written Language Style:
Young children need to have a variety of different types of books read to them. They need to hear stories, poetry, and some beginning non-fiction such as children's' news stories, children's magazine articles, and entries from children's' encyclopedias and dictionaries. By being exposed to different types of written language children are more likely to be able to read and understand all the different types of written materials they will eventually encounter in school. In general, written language is a bit more formal than spoken language. Listening to different types of stories can help children learn new words and learn to understand longer sentences. Children, by about age 3, should also be given opportunities and support to tell stories, both to make them up and to re-tell ones they have heard. Some children can re-tell stories by looking at picture in the book. Others may need toy props or costumes. Story telling can lead to writing because children are combining information in sequence. That's what writing is all about.

[Back to top of page]

Nuts & Bolts A.I.M. for Literacy

We need three things to help our children to develop emergent literacy skills like understanding the concepts and functions of print. These emergent literacy skills help children to communicate in any and all ways and can lead to learning to read and write. One way to remember the 3 necessary ingredients is to think of the word "AIM" which means to point or reach toward a target. Our target is to help our children to become as communicative and as literate as possible. The "A" in AIM stands for access, the "I" for interaction, and the "M" for modeling. These 3 activities are described in greater detail below.

A. Access

We have to help our children to listen to and enjoy stories being read to them. They need to be able to look at books independently. Children also need to be able to write, scribble, draw, and color on a daily basis. These activities help them to become literate. Some of our children have communication delays or impairments and cannot ask us to read them a story. They may not be able to tell us what story they want to hear. We might forget to read to them or think that they do not like listening to stories. Assistive technologies that can give all children the access and ability to participate in these early literacy experiences include: communication boards and devices for talking about stories adapted books that help children to turn pages special holders for crayons and magic markers and computers which read stories and help all children to write and to draw

I. Interaction

Not only do children need to have ways to look at books and use crayons, they also need a way to interact with others while playing with these early literacy-related toys. Children's early literacy-related interactions include: asking and answering questions labeling what children see in books commenting on how they feel about what is happening in a story and telling us what they are writing about or drawing. Again, assistive technologies can give children a way to talk to us while we read with them and while they scribble and draw. This talk can lead to the best listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills that the child can develop.

M. Modeling

To become literate, children need to see older children and adults using reading and writing to accomplish real goals. As much as possible, children need to be included when we make up a grocery list and then use it at the grocery store. Watching and listening to parents use recipes, coupons, and the telephone book can help children to learn the value and function of printed materials. Children value what they see their families value and use. Children who grow up seeing us read magazines, newspapers, and books will often choose these activities themselves. We can model the value and uses of print during our everyday routines. One mother we knew had her child watch her microwave oven and call her when it finished. Her particular oven flashed the word "end" when it finished cooking. This child learned what the word "end" meant by seeing it used in the real world. Another parent simply talked about what the coupons said and about the money they would save as she cut them out of newspapers. These simple activities can help children to understand that printed language can also be used to get us what we want and need.

[Back to top of page]

Great Strategies to Try


Page Fluffers (from P.J. McWilliam):
Hot glue pieces of sponge in the upper right hand corners of book pages to add a little extra space between pages. This extra space allows small hands, tight fingers, or even children who hold dowels in their hands or who wear headsticks, to more easily turn pages. You may also use adhesive back carpet padding, cross stitch mounting foam, or weather stripping to put on pages and puff them out.

Page Tabs:
Some children may be better able to turn pages if tabs are added to them. You can hot glue popcicle sticks to pages or just add large paper clips to pages. Placing a magnet in a glove or on a sweat band or head stick can help child to turn pages that have metal paper clips attached to them.

Books in Photo Albums/Ring Binders/Protective Sheets:

We can turn any book into an adapted book by copying it or buying two copies of the book and by taking one of the books apart. The loose pages can be placed in a photo album or in plastic sheet protectors reinforced with cardboard. These pages could then be placed in a 3-ring binder. By placing books in photo albums or notebooks, the pages will be protected from moisture and tares and will also be made thicker for easier turning.

Velcro On Covers:

Place "male" velcro (rough, sticking out surface) on the back cover of children's books. The velcro strips will adhere to carpet so that the book won't slip and slide while the child is turning pages.

Book Stands:
Placing books at an angle and by lifting them up closer to the child can often help them to turn and see pages more easily. Book stands are available in most book and office supply stores. It's a good idea to attach books to stands with velcro to avoid the book falling off. The book stand itself should also be secured in front of the child.

Books on Tape (use a variety of reader's voices):

Purchase or record your child's favorite stories on cassette tapes so that they can listen to stories during "down time" at home and at school.

Books on Slides:
Take color pictures of each page of your child's books and have them developed as slides. Place the slides in order in a slide projector carousel. The projector can be adapted for switch use with an adapter from the Ablenet Company (1-800-322-0956). Children can then look at their favorite books by hitting their adaptive switch to make each slide of a page move forward. Story Time Tales by Patti King-DeBaun have the slides made of each of the stories in this book. The source for this collection of preschool stories is listed at the end of the chapter.

Books on Videotape (from Sonny Johnson):

Books on videotape can be purchased or you can make them yourself. It's best to have print shown along with the telling of the story so check and see if the videotape is closed captioned for persons with hearing impairments. Most new televisions have built-in closed captioning decoders so that videos shown on these televisions will automatically spell out what is being read. By videotaping books yourself, you'll know that the print is being shown. Simply zoom in on a page with a camcorder and have someone read and point to the words as you record. Children can watch and listen to stories being read during "down times," when you or their teachers are busy with other children. These videotaped books can be shown on 4 Head VCRs and children can use adapted remote controls to stop and look at pages for as long as they wish. Toys for Special Children, a source for adapted remote control units, is listed at the end of this chapter.

Books on Disk:
Many stories are available on computer disks for IBMs and their compatibles, for Apple Computers, and for Macintosh computers. These books on disk are easily accessible because pages can be turned by touching one key or hitting one adaptive switch. These stories also often highlight words as they are read to children which helps to develop concepts about print. These stories are often interactive and are very enjoyable for children because they get them involved in the stories. A list of books for young children on computer disk and CD-ROM disks is included at the end of Chapter 8 on computers.

Big Books:
Large books help maintain a child's interest and are often easier to see. You can purchase or make your own big books and resources for both are listed at the end of the chapter.

[Back to top of page]


Here are some tried and true suggestions that help children be more interested in story reading and help them to be more interactive.

Sources for switches, augmentative communication devices, and example communication boards for story reading are included at the end of the chapter.

[Back to top of page]

Sample Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) Goals

Nikki will label at least one object or person per page in a familiar story book by using an augmentative communication device. Joey will listen to stories on a daily basis for as long as he appears to be engaged. He will listen to others read, to books on tape, videotape, and computer disks. Crystal will have daily opportunities to color, draw, and scribble by using a computer, an adaptive switch, and appropriate software.

[Back to top of page]

Next Steps

As children become three and four, their communication abilities develop and they begin to retell and make up stories. They also begin to use more and more words that they have heard in stories both while looking at books and while involved in related activities. They also continue to put more and more letters into their scribble, usually beginning with the letters of their name. We must continue to provide our children with opportunities and access to use printed materials for real purposes. Children who have heard stories, helped to write and draw, and who have a way to talk about the activities, develop their communication abilities. They will become literate to whatever degree possible. Resource Facilities The Center for Literacy and Disabilities CB# 8135 730 Bolin Creek Road, Suite 200 Chapel Hill, N.C. 27599-8135 (919)-966-7486

This center offers courses and workshops and a wide variety of printed materials and software on literacy and persons with disabilities.

[Back to top of page]

Books and Other Resources

Adaptech, ISU Research, 2501 N. Loop Drive, Ames. IA, 50010.
This company sells VoicePad Switches (tape switches) and the LinkSwitch which can be used to give voice output to books.

Ablenet, 1081 Tenth Ave. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414., (800)322-0956.
This company sells digitized augmentative communication devices (The Speak Easy) which can be used with story reading and the slide projector switch adapter.

Big Book Maker software. Toucan, a division of Queue, Inc., 338 Commerce Drive, Fairfield, CT, 06430, (800)-232-2224. Crestwood Co., 6625 N. Sidney Place, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 53209-3259, (414) 352-5678.
This company sells the talking card reader which can be used to give children a way to talk during story reading.

King-Debaun, P. (1990). Storytime: Stories, symbols, and emergent literacy activities for young children with special needs. Creative Communicating, P.O. Box 3358, Park City, Utah, 84060.

Koppenhaver, D., Pierce-Coleman, P., Kalman, S., & Yoder, D. (1991). The implications of emergent literacy research for children with developmental disabilities. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 1(1), 20-33.

Pierce, P. & McWilliam, P. (1993). Emerging literacy and children with severe speech and physical impairments: Issues and possible intervention strategies. Topics in Language Disorders, 13(2), 47-57.

Radio Shacks, Inc.
These electronic stores sell magnetic reed switches and loop tapes, both which are useful in making reading more interactive through voice output.

Strickland, D. & Morrow, L. (1989). Emerging literacy: Young children learn to read and write. Newark, DEL: International Reading Association.

Toys for Special Children, 385 Washburton Ave., Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706, (914) 478-0960.
Sells adapted remote controls for TV's and VCR's.

Trelease, J. (1992). The read-aloud handbook. New York: Penguin Books.

This is an excellent resource for children's books and suggestions for interactive reading.

The Wright Group, 10949 Technology Place, San Diego, CA, 92127.
Excellent resource for emergent level books.

[Back to top of page]

books of resources Back to Resources

visitor center signBack to the Visitor's Center

school busBack to the Bus Route

[ NCIP Home | Library | Videos | Tour | Spotlight | Workshops | Links ]

This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP)  in collaboration with the Center for Literacy and Disabilities (CLD)  at Duke University.   NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by CLD, NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

Education Development Center, Inc.