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Early Literacy

What it is, why it’s important, and best practices for teaching

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Learning to read in early childhood is one of the most important milestones a student can achieve. The research is clear: Acquiring early literacy skills by the fourth grade clears the way for higher levels of academic achievement, reduced grade retention, higher graduation rates, and success in college, career, and society.

On the flip side, students who don’t master these beginning literacy skills are at increased risk for learning difficulties, dropouts, unemployment, poverty and even incarceration. With such high stakes, understanding the foundations of early literacy development is critical to ensuring that every student has an equal chance for success in academics and beyond.

“No skill is more crucial to the future of a child than literacy.”

Los Angeles Times

What Is Early Literacy?

Early literacy includes all of the experiences and skills that pave the way for children to become successful, competent readers. Not simply defined as “learning to read,” there’s a difference between early literacy skills and reading. Children acquire early literacy skills (or pre-literacy skills) in the first few years of life as they hear spoken words, see words printed on a page, and relate those experiences to the world around them.

While in school, students are taught beginning literacy skills like print awareness, phonological awareness, phonics, and reading fluency. All of these make up the foundation of early literacy development and prepare students for success in every content area—from English language arts and social studies to math and science.

“Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible.”

Barack Obama

Stages of Literacy Development

Reading isn’t something you “learn.” Instead, it’s a process that changes as students increase their skills in different areas. According to Jeanne S. Chall, Harvard professor and early childhood education theorist, there are six stages in literacy development, which range from pre-reading in babies to construction and reconstruction in adulthood.

Stage 0: Pre-reading or “pseudo reading” (Birth to 6 years – Preschool)

By the end of the pre-reading stage, children pretend to read, can retell details of a story that was previously read to them, begin to point out and name letters, write their own name, and play with pencils, books, and paper.


Stage 1: Initial reading and decoding (6 – 7 years old, Grade 1 – beginning of Grade 2)

In this stage, children develop early reading skills, including how letters and sounds relate to each other, as well as how print and spoken words are related. They can read basic text with high-frequency words and sound out short, one-syllable words.


Stage 2: Confirmation and fluency (7 – 8 years old, Grade 2 – Grade 3)

In Stage 2, students begin to read simple, familiar stories with more fluency using basic decoding skills, sight vocabulary and context to understand meaning. They can advance in language, vocabulary, and context when read to at a level above their independent reading level.


Stage 3: Reading for learning the new (9 – 14 years old, Grade 4 – Grade 9)

In Stage 3, children read in order to learn new concepts, typically from one viewpoint. This includes discovering new ideas, experiencing new feelings, uncovering new knowledge, and understanding new attitudes as they read more complex text and build up their vocabulary.


Stage 4: Multiple viewpoints (15 – 17 years old, Grade 10 – Grade 12)

Students in this stage read from a wide variety of more complex text written from many viewpoints. This includes both expository and narrative text in newspapers, magazines, and popular literature.


Stage 5: Construction and reconstruction (18+ years old, College and beyond)

At this stage, reading is used to fill needs and grow both personally and professionally. Readers can read rapidly and efficiently, combine their knowledge with those of others, and can synthesize to create new knowledge.

What Are Early Literacy Skills?

Early literacy skills incorporate a range of skills needed to prepare students for deep reading comprehension. These early literacy concepts include a mix of auditory and visual skills. When teaching early reading, it’s critical that students master all of the following essentials of early literacy instruction.

Print Awareness

When students begin to recognize what print looks like and how words in print relate to the language they’re learning, they develop print awareness. Skills include:

  • Understanding that print represents spoken language
  • Knowing the front from the back of a book
  • Understanding in which direction to read
  • Knowing what capitalization and punctuation mean


Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness means understanding that oral language can be broken into smaller sounds. Phonemic awareness, a subset of phonological awareness, describes the ability for students to identify and manipulate phonemes in spoken language. Early literacy skills in phonological awareness include:

  • Blending, segmenting, and manipulating compound words, syllables, and onsets and rimes
  • Identifying orally spoken words that rhyme
  • Identifying and substituting individual phonemes in single-syllable words
  • Understanding the difference between short and long vowel sounds in spoken language


Phonics and Word Recognition

Phonics teaches students that printed letters symbolize sounds, and that those sounds can be blended to form words and segmented to spell the words out. Phonics and phonemic awareness activities—including learning common words early on, as well as uncommon or academic words—help students build a robust vocabulary. Phonics and word recognition skills include:

  • Recognizing letters by name
  • Knowing the sounds of each consonant, the major long and short vowels, common consonant digraphs and vowel combinations, and final e
  • Recognizing alliterations and rhyming sounds in simple words, and identifying written words that rhyme
  • Identifying high-frequency words spelled irregularly
  • Blending individual letter sounds to form a word
  • Using prefixes, suffixes, and roots to sound out and form new words


Reading Fluency

Fluency is the ability to read at an appropriate rate with accuracy and the proper expression and phrasing (or prosody), leading to deep reading comprehension. Fluency helps students read automatically, freeing their brain to focus on understanding the meaning of the text. Fluency skills include:

  • Reading at the proper rate and accuracy to help support comprehension
  • Reading orally at the appropriate level with proper expression, accuracy, and rate
  • Reading orally at the appropriate level with purpose and understanding
  • Self-correcting or confirming word recognition and understanding through context

Literacy Development in Early Childhood

In order to become competent, motivated readers, children need to be taught all four of the early literacy fundamentals described above, in response to their development. Because these skills build on each other, they can’t be separated.

Print awareness and phonological awareness support the teaching of phonics. Morphology—or the ability to understand the smallest units of meaning in language (prefixes, suffixes, root words, and bound roots)—increases word recognition. And fluency helps students automatically read text so they can focus less on how they’re reading, and more on what the text means.

“Foundational reading skills must work together. It is the integration of the skills that provide an entry point to complex literacy.” (Education Week)

Heidi Anne E. Mesmer, Professor in Literacy, School of Education at Virginia Tech

A student’s background and culture also play a central role in developing language and concepts. In an article on early literacy skills development, Ann Casey notes that children need connections to their own experiences within family, neighborhood, and culture in order for new knowledge to have meaning.

Why Is Early Literacy Important?

Developing early reading skills not only sets students up for academic success but also helps them grow up to be productive members of society. However, millions of American children are starting fourth grade without the literacy skills needed to be successful in higher grades. Not only does this affect academic performance, but leads to social development issues that are more likely to result in dropout, unemployment, poverty, and incarceration.

According to research published in 2010 by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, high school dropouts are more likely than graduates to be arrested or to have babies while still teenagers. On the financial side, each high school dropout costs society an estimated $260,000 in taxes, lost earnings, and productivity, as well as results in a shrinking pool of skilled workers.

How Does Early Literacy Development Affect Learning in Young Students?

Until fourth grade, most children are learning to read, according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation. But at the start of fourth grade, they read to learn. This means they use their skills to gather more information in other subjects in order to think critically, solve problems, and share knowledge with others. These experiences in early reading development are critical to academic achievement in later years.

“Early literacy plays a key role in enabling the kind of early learning experiences that research shows are linked with academic achievement, reduced grade retention, higher graduation rates, and enhanced productivity in adult life.” (NIEER)

National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, April 2006

NWEA MAP and Florida State Assessment ELA Performance
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How to Assess Early Literacy Skills

Early identification and intervention is key to preventing reading struggles. Therefore, assessments for literacy learning in the early years should be conducted before, during, and after instruction to address difficulties as they occur. Assessments should also be conducted for each of the foundational literacy skills: print awareness, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency.

The purpose of assessment is to:

  • Identify which skills students have and have not learned. Because students have different backgrounds and experiences, it’s important to establish a baseline.
  • Monitor student progress along the way, understanding which students need more help and which are ready to move on.
  • Guide teacher instruction. By understanding where students are having difficulty, you can differentiate lessons for all your students, even struggling readers.

However, pressure from high-stakes testing in early childhood causes many teachers to focus on a limited range of skills to ensure students can demonstrate proficiency at test time, which is often too late to catch reading difficulties. When assessing essential literacy skills, teachers should use a combination of testing, analyzing student work, classroom observation, and student interviews to immediately identify and assist students at risk for falling behind.

Developing the Early Learner

When teaching early literacy, keep the following best practices in mind.

  • Engage their senses: Young children acquire language and learn about their world through sensory exploration. This is especially true for students with reading difficulties, including those with dyslexia. Singing songs and listening to recordings of themselves reading helps motivate students as they continue on their learning journey.

  • Provide personalized learning paths: Begin with an adaptive assessment so that students can follow a learning path created based on their specific background and needs. As students learn new concepts, give them guided practice opportunities when they need more support, and then assess to evaluate confidence and skill levels.

  • Incorporate dual language instruction: It’s important to incorporate a child’s native language when developing literacy skills in the early years. According to Dr. Karen Ford at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, making the connection between what English Language Learners (ELL) know in their first language and what they need to learn in English can help accelerate learning.

  • Continuously monitor student progress: Keep up with which skills each student has acquired and which they still need to work on by monitoring student progress regularly. This is especially important in times of remote learning and onsite instruction so you can ensure timely interventions.
Developing and Sustaining Foundational Literacy
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Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners
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Meeting the Needs of Students with Reading Disorders
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How School Closings Impact Early Learners

According to a report by NWEA, students returning to the classroom after COVID-19 shutdowns will retain only 70 percent of their learning gains in reading compared to a regular school year. But the shutdown may affect the acquisition of reading literacy skills most, suggests an EducationWeek article.

That’s because teaching early reading skills requires hands-on activities like using letter tiles and learning to form shapes, as well as interactive play, conversations with teachers and students, and hearing the teacher read aloud.

In addition, students who don’t have access to high-speed internet may be falling further behind. Once students are back in the classroom, educators will have to lean heavily on data to find out where students are in their reading journey and which steps to take next.

The achievement gap between low- and high-income students could increase by as much as 18% for students from low-income schools with no learning activity during school closures."

Center for College and Career Readiness and Successful Practices Network (SPN)

Impact of School Closures on Learning
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Achieve3000: A Leader in Foundational Literacy Instruction

Achieve3000 is a pioneer in the use of differentiated instruction inside and outside the classroom. It’s our mission to accelerate learning for every student, including early learners.

Our game-based learning platform, Smarty Ants, builds foundational reading skills in an interactive, adaptive learning environment designed to help PreK-2 students develop a love of reading. “Coach,” their personal ant guide, leads students through interactive lessons and activities while motivating them every step of the way.

Smarty Ants engages and delights the youngest learners while teaching phonemic awareness, sight-words, vocabulary and fluency, resulting in reading comprehension—the end goal of reading instruction. Available in English and Spanish, Smarty Ants combines foundational skills instruction, independent practice, and embedded assessment in a single program with robust teacher support. Students master complex phonics skills as they learn to decode phonemes and words, and eventually read stories.

With Achieve3000, teachers can cover the essentials of early literacy instruction, helping students build the foundation they need to transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

Learn More About Smarty Ants
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Watch the Smarty Ants Demo
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“We’ve had reading programs in the past that eventually fizzled out because the kids lacked interest. With Smarty Ants, they go right to the computer to start working. The other component that I really love is that you can monitor how they use it at home. It’s really helped by kids to excel … it progresses as they progress. That’s why they love it and I love it too.” Watch the full testimonial here.

Olwyn Watson, Shore Elementary Magnet School, Hillsborough County, FL- Kindergarten Teacher

Important Terms

Print Awareness — When students begin to recognize what print looks like and how words in print relate to the language they’re learning, they develop print awareness.

Phonological Awareness — Phonological awareness means understanding that oral language can be broken into smaller sounds. Phonemic awareness, a subset of phonological awareness, describes the ability for students to identify and manipulate phenomes in spoken language.

Phonics and Word Recognition — Phonics teaches students that printed letters symbolize sounds, and that those sounds can be blended to form words and segmented to spell the words out. Phonics and phonemic awareness activities—including learning common words early on, as well as uncommon or academic words—help students build a robust vocabulary.

Reading Fluency — Fluency is the ability to read at an appropriate rate with accuracy and the proper expression and phrasing (or prosody), leading to deep reading comprehension. Fluency helps students read automatically, freeing their brain to focus on understanding the meaning of the text.