Literacy Development in Young Children
Guyana Chronicle
July 25, 2004

Related Links: Articles on education
Letters Menu Archival Menu

LITERACY is central to academic achievement and life-long learning. The formal setting for the development of literacy has most often been Grade 1. However, studies on emerging literacy show that children develop literate behaviour at a much younger age.

What is Literacy?
Literacy is traditionally defined as the ability to read and write. It is usually considered an individual process; each child develops psychological and linguistic elements critical to the acts of reading and writing, such as constructing meaning and developing sound-to-letter correspondence. Increasingly, however, literacy is defined more broadly and is being viewed as a social phenomenon. Thus, what it means to be literate varies according to socio-cultural groups.

The term "literacies" is used in the plural to indicate that an individual can acquire several types of literacy, such as those practised at school (reading textbooks), at home (writing letters to family), in religious practices (reciting prayers) and during daily activities (writing a shopping list). Individuals use different literate behaviours in different contexts.

In our present technological society, much of the information presented is complex. In order to convey such information orally, many features of the written code have become part of oral language (example, use of precise vocabulary, exploiting varied syntactic resources, etc.) Literate ability, in this context, becomes a means of accessing and conveying information in meaningful acts of communication, not only in the written, but also in the oral mode. These means of communication include television, film, and personal narratives in class, written reports and faxes.

According to UNESCO's Declaration at Persepolis (1975), literacy contributes to a person's wellbeing. Accordingly, literacy goes beyond the ability to read and write conventional texts at specific ages. It refers to ways of thinking, talking, writing, reading and valuing that reflect how children act.

While interacting with "text" (used in a very broad sense to include all forms of media), children attempt to make sense of their world. The development of literacy should ultimately lead children to change their view of the world. It can also be a means to help children conceive of and participate in projects that act on and transform society. Through reflection and action, literacy contributes to authentic human development. Literacy in this context can be seen as an attempt to make sense of one's experiences as learners interacting with the world.

The Role of Preschool Years in Literacy Development
Certain types of language skills are related to the development of literacy. In preschoolers, language skills most apt to develop literacy are those related to print and oral skills that support emergent literacy (namely, letter-sound correspondence, rhyming, using language to talk about language and contact with print).

Moreover, there are some language skills associated with written language that need to be developed at this stage in order to support reading and writing at a later stage. I am referring to decontextualised language use. This means that children learn to use language in more complex and abstract ways embedded in a context that is increasingly removed from the here and now. They rely on the words alone to convey meaning, to describe or narrate experiences, to create fantasy worlds, and to convey novel information to audiences who are at a distance and who may share only limited amounts of background knowledge with the speaker.

An example of decontextualised language use is a five-year-old who discusses a recently completed race with someone who was not present at the event. In another example, a three- or four-year-old child talks about an object without it being physically present.

The Role of Symbolic Play
Young children do not learn in the same way as older children. Play is a central feature for child growth. When it comes to language development in preschoolers, symbolic play has often been proposed as an important way to develop literate behaviour.

By the age of three, children can be involved in symbolic play, which develops the ability to use an object as a representation of something else (such as using a doll to represent a child, or a broom to represent a horse).

Children can also be involved in symbolic transformations independent of objects. For example, they may use a corner of the classroom to represent an office. Studies show that symbolic play leads to increased performance on problem solving and divergent thinking and the development of symbolic thinking, oral language and literate behaviour occur together.

Therefore, early childhood educators should provide writing experiences during the preschool years that are relevant to children's lives, and meaningful for children. Writing should be taught naturally in ongoing social interaction in the course of children's play. Writing in this context refers to the developmental stages of writing from inventive to more conventional forms.