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Reading and Writing Development in Children

Human beings have been set apart as the only species capable of literacy. Just what is literacy, and how does it develop in an individual? Venezky, et al (1990) provides an elaborate explanation, emphasizing writing as well as reading:

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“Literacy is minimal ability to read and write in a designated language, as well as a mindset or way of thinking about the use of reading and writing in everyday life. Literacy, therefore, requires active, autonomous engagement with print and stresses the role of the individual in generating as well as receiving and assigning independent interpretations to messages.” (p. 142)

Schools have been built to nurture and develop literacy and use a variety of methods to inculcate it in, students. Students go through different stages in their reading and writing development. The following illustrates the beginning stages of literacy development for the age levels of early childhood (preschool, 3-5-year-olds) and middle childhood (first grade, 6-8-year-olds). I have chosen these two age groups to show the progression of literacy development from the time a child begins to discover the wonders of reading and writing (early childhood), and the time when he realizes he can do many things in acquiring reading and writing skills not only for academic purposes but also for self-expression (middle childhood):

Early Childhood Middle Childhood
Phase 1: Awareness and exploration
Children explore their environment and build the foundations for learning to read and write. Children at this stage can:
  • Enjoy listening to and discussing storybooks
  • Understand that print carries a message
  • Engage in reading and writing attempts
  • Identify labels and signs in their environment
  • Participate in rhyming games
  • Identify some letters and make some letter-sound matches
  • Use known letters or approximations of letters to represent written language (especially meaningful words like their name and phrases such as “I love you”)
Phase 3: Early reading and writing
Children begin to read simple stories and can write about a topic that is meaningful to them. Children at this age can:
  • Read and retell familiar stories
  • Use strategies (rereading, predicting, questioning, contextualizing) when comprehension breaks down.
  • Use reading and writing for various purposes on their own initiative
  • Orally read with reasonable fluency
  • Use letter-sound associations, word parts, and context to identify new words
  • Identify an increasing number of words by sight
  • Sound out and represent all substantial sounds in spelling a word
  • Write about topics that are personally meaningful
  • Attempt to use some punctuation and capitalization.

Considering these developmental milestones in reading and writing, just what may be done to help these children progress in their literacy development?

Emergent literacy is the term used to refer to the earliest period of a child’s literacy development, specifically the time between birth and when the child can read and write (Sulzby and Teale, 1991). According to emergent literacy theories, the child is the central figure in the construction of learning. His life experiences directly affect his literacy. One theoretical perspective in the area of emergent literacy is that children are innately predisposed to becoming literate especially if they live in a literary-rich environment – lots of books, pictures, films, software, educational posters, etc. Piaget (1959) claims that literacy is actively constructed with a child’s interaction with the environment. Such interaction brings about learning, as concepts are constructed or changed, usually, differing from adult concepts. Vygotsky (1962 theorized that a child learns literacy through conversation and involvement in literacy acts with an adult. This interaction between adult and child is called ‘scaffolding’. This occurs when a knowledgeable adult gently guides a child through successive literacy activities while relinquishing autonomy little by little to the child until such time he can do it on his own.

Children at the early childhood stage are just awed with storybooks. Parents and teachers should take time out to read their stories, with engaging storytelling techniques such as using facial expressions, exaggerated gestures, and voice changes. This not only makes the story more captivating but enlivens the listeners’ imaginations. Comprehension is honed when the story is discussed at length, encouraging children to give their own opinions and insights. It also helps them organize their thoughts as the sequence of the story is discussed. Follow-up activities such as drawing scenes from the story or “writing” part of it in the child’s own version will strengthen the concept that words may be expressed in print too. Teachers may talk about letters by name and sounds while matching them to pictures. It is important for children to be provided with lots of opportunities for literacy-related play activities such as role-playing, book-making, filling out story charts, and experimentation with writing on their own. The teacher can help a child recognize how print works by demonstrating directionality and discussing the differences between the information that can be obtained from the pictures in books and the printed words (Brewer, 2001).

Teachers of middle childhood-staged children can support them by reading daily to them, transcribing their language, and selecting materials that expand children’s knowledge and language development. They need plenty of opportunities for independent reading and writing practice, as they have already acquired the necessary skills for more meaningful and relevant literacy skills. Modeling strategies for identifying unknown words, spelling new words, comprehension cues, etc. is something that may guide them in the right path. Of course, exposure to a range of different text types (poems, informational books, etc.) would help them build their vocabulary and use these to their advantage in everyday language.

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Reading and writing activities planned for older children are not only meant to stimulate the readers’ critical and creative thinking skills but also encourage socialization with their peers. Team spirit is fostered in the games, as well as a sense of cooperation and competition. The element of fun is also incorporated in the activities, as it helps the learners retain the concepts better when associated with positive feelings.

Children in the middle childhood years are in the process of acquiring mastery skills in reading printed words. In exposing them to literature, they go beyond such skill.

“Reading is about creating worlds with words. The only way to read with fluency and expressiveness is to read closely hooked into the unfolding meaning of the text. It is very important, therefore, that we do everything possible to support the mind work of reading.” (Calkins, 1997, p. 159)

In classrooms, storytelling and shared reading sessions must be encouraged. This is when a group of children comes together with a teacher to read a story from a big storybook, with a teacher facilitating it and guiding them through the print. This way, reading text and comprehending the story are jointly done by the group. Shared reading provides many opportunities for incidental learning about the way written language works. Fountas & Pinnell, (1996) lists several benefits of Shared reading, among them, are building previous experiences with books, providing language models, expanding vocabulary, laying a foundation for guided and independent reading, supporting children who are on the verge of reading so that they can enjoy participating in reading whole stories, providing an opportunity for the teacher to demonstrate phrased, fluent reading and to draw attention to critical concepts about print, providing a context for learning specific words and features of words, and helping children become familiar with texts that they can use independently as resources for writing and reading.

Shared reading provides readers a good support system. Readers can help each other work and read as a group or team to solve problems that they may encounter as they read the text. They can work on the meaning of words that they cannot understand and even share their opinion with concepts found in the book. A lot of conversation may take place as they read and they can share their thoughts and experience. As in read-aloud, the teacher draws the children into the text and asks questions about the story, and begins conversations for children to become active participants.

Being able to appreciate and experience literature is one of the best gifts we can give children. In doing so, we help propel their imaginations to soar and their creativity to flourish.


Brewer, J. (2001) Introduction to early childhood education. Allyn & Bacon.

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Calkins, L. (1997) Raising Lifelong Learners, A Parents’ Guide. MA: Perseus Books.

Fountas, I. C. and Pinnell, G. S. (1996). Guided Reading, Good First Teaching for All Children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

International Reading Association/ National Association of Educators of Young Children (IRA/ NAEYC) (1998). Joint Position Statement. “Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children”, Reading Teacher 52.

Piaget, J. (1959) The Language and Thought of the Child. London: Routledge & Kegen Paul.

Sulzby, E. & Teale, W.H. (1991) “Emergent Literacy.” In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research Volume II. New York: Longman.

Venezky, R., Wagner, D. & Ciliberti, B. (Eds.) (1990) Toward Defining Literacy, Newark, DE; International Reading Association.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962) Thought and Language (E. Hanfmann and G. Vaker, Eds & Trans.) Cambridge, M.A.: MIT Press.

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