8.4 Emergent Literacy

What Is It?

Although language and literacy are really two different skills, they are closely related to each other. Language is the ability to both use and understand spoken words or signs. Language is all about ideas passing from one person to another. Literacy is the ability to use and understand written words or symbols in order to communicate. Language and literacy learning begins as early as prenatally! The child begins to learn the sounds and rhythms of his/her home language in the womb and can begin a love of reading by being read to as a newborn.

Emergent literacy has been defined as “those behaviors shown by very young children as they begin to respond to and approximate reading and writing acts”.[1] However, literacy goes beyond reading and writing and really encompasses “the interrelatedness of language: speaking, listening, reading, writing, and viewing” [2]

There are many ways for infants and toddlers to engage with books: holding, tasting, and turning the pages; having an adult hold the child while reading a book; pointing to and talking about the pictures; inviting the child to finish or join in saying repetitive phrases; and asking questions.

Near the end of the first year of life, children begin to understand that pictures represent real objects and understand the meaning of about 50 words. By 18 months, the child knows 1,800 words and is rapidly learning new words every day after that, given exposure to rich language and literacy experiences.

Daily reading to a child, or even telling little nursery rhymes from birth, significantly improves a child’s ability to read and write.

How To

You support emergent language and literacy by supporting families in:

  • maintaining and passing on their home language to their children, helping children have a connection to their families and a strong, positive cultural identity of their own. It is easier for children to become fluid English speakers if they have a solid foundation in their home language. The young brain is fertile ground for learning two or more languages at once.

  • using “parentese,” talking to an infant with slower speech and exaggerated vowel sounds, helping the baby figure out the sounds of his/her home language; for example, “mmaaaammaaaa.”

  • directing a toddler’s interest to a sound in the environment (“Listen, that’s mama’s phone ringing”) or pointing a toddler’s attention to a word that has the same beginning sound as his/her name (“Do you hear the sound of banana? Ba, banana. Ba. It sounds like your name, Bai”).

  • responding appropriately to infants’ coos, gestures, and body movements and all the ways infants and toddlers communicate before they use language. For example, when an eight-month-old points to something, look at what the baby points to. These are the beginnings of conversation!

  • describing what the child is doing. For example, “Sarah can’t take her eyes off of you while she’s taking her bottle.”

  • adding elaborations to the words children say. If a toddler points and says, “truck,” the parents might extend this by saying, “Yes, that is a garbage truck emptying our dumpster,” or “I think you hear the sirens of the fire truck.”

  • talking directly to children from early infancy. Talk about what they see or experience. For example, “You’re looking at me. Yes! A smile. I love your smile. A smile for Daddy.”

  • talking about things you are doing (“I’m making a sandwich. First I’ll wash my hands. Then I’ll get out the bread . . .”).

  • reading and sharing stories with young children.

  • engaging young children in learning vocabulary by using rich language to talk about the pictures and stories in a book, asking questions while reading, and pointing to pictures as parents describe them (“That baby is smiling. Can you touch his mouth? He’s happy.” “What’s going to happen to the next monkey jumping on the bed?”).

  • pointing out familiar icons, such as a stop sign or the name on the grocery store, as well as shapes, colors, and letters in the environment.

  • pointing out written words that have meanings to toddlers, such as their names and the names of family members.

  • counting fingers and saying rhymes during hand washing. Thus, you have touched on a healthy behavior but layered literacy and math with it.

  • following a recipe and reading it out loud.

  • providing markers and crayons for making marks on paper.

  • visiting the library, getting library cards, and attending a toddler’s reading experience.

(Adapted from News You Can Use: Foundations of School Readiness: Language and Literacy)

Experience It

Emergent Literacy Video Clip 1

In this clip, a mother and baby look through a book together, naming objects and turning pages. The home visitor sits nearby coaching and supporting the mother as she and the child enjoy the book together


  1. What do you observe?


    Various answers such as:

    • Mother and baby are holding the book. Baby is pointing at objects in the book and turning the pages.

    • Mother is saying what is on the page. Baby is making sounds.

    • Baby is on the mother’s lap. He briefly climbs off of lap, then back on.

    • The home visitor is sitting at the side.

    • At one point, the baby looks at the home visitor and says something, and the home visitor says, “Kangaroo.”.

    • The home visitor is coaching the mother about the child’s language development, talking about repeating words and how children learn.

    • Mother asks the baby where the kangaroo is. He turns a page, and the mother says, “Zebra.” Baby puts the book on his head and laughs.

  2. What does the mother do to support the child’s emergent literacy?


    Various answers, such as:

    • She follows his lead, letting him do what he wants with the book, such as turning pages and putting it on his head.

    • She says the words that he points to rather than reading the book straight through.

    • She holds him on her lap so they are experiencing physical closeness.

    • Mother repeats the words more than once: “Kangaroo, kangaroo; zebra, zebra.”

  3. What does the home visitor do to support the continuation of the activity? What does she do to enhance the parent–child relationship?


    Various answers such as:

    • She uses a positive tone.

    • She describes and comments on what the parent is doing specifically rather than just saying, “Good job.”

    • She talks to the mother and credits her for the accomplishments of her son.

    • She sits nearby but lets the mother guide the reading activity.

    • The home visitor coaches the mother on some things she could try to enhance her child’s speech.

  4. What is the child learning from this experience?


    Various answers such as:

    Physical Development and Health

    • Eye–hand coordination and fine motor skills (turning pages, pointing); gross motor skills (climbing up and down from Mom’s lap).

    Social and Emotional Development

    • Self-esteem from his successes and acknowledgement from others; taking pleasure in his own activity and sharing it with both his mother and the home visitor.

    Approaches to Learning

    • Self-regulation and persistence (continuing to try to turn pages or name animals); problem solving (figuring out what animals are on the page); attention (maintaining focus on and interest in the book).

    Language and Literacy

    • Receptive language: listening to his mother say the words in the book and the home visitor repeating the word for the picture he is pointing to.

    • Expressive language: when his mother says the words, the child tries to repeat them. He is making sounds throughout the clip.

    • Literacy: enjoying books, turning pages, identifying objects in the book that represent other objects (animals).

    Cognition and General Knowledge

    • Learning how objects in the book represent animals he may have seen previously; Pointing to objects (animals) and naming them.
  5. How can you enhance your home visits based on what you have observed?


    Various reflections

Emergent Literacy Video Clip 2

In this very short video clip, the home visitor is demonstrating identifying the object in the book and finding a matching object on the floor. Best practice suggests that the parent should read the book. Notice how the home visitor turns the book over to the mother so she can promote her child’s emergent literacy.


  1. What do you observe?


    Various answers such as:

    • The home visitor asks what can be found in the alphabet book and then asks if mom can find something in the alphabet book.

    • Isaiah, the boy, stirs in the bowl and then picks up a plastic carrot and pretends to eat.

    • Linea, the girl, points to an object in the book.

    • The mother says she sees one, and the home visitor turns the book over to the mother and asks her to turn until she finds something.

    • Isaiah climbs into Mom’s lap and picks up a piece of plastic melon.

    • Mom asks if the children can find an eggplant.

  2. What strategies does the home visitor use to promote emergent language and literacy development?


    Various answers such as:

    • Home visitor engages the mother directly by asking her to interact with her child and the book.

    • Home visitor provides concrete objects, visual and auditory cues, for the parent and child to help develop language and literacy skills.

    • Home visitor models the specific language learning skill she wants for the parent to communicate with her child: “Can you find something in the book (that matches a fruit or vegetable on the floor)?”.

    • Home visitor establishes appropriate boundaries by encouraging the mother and child to engage in the activity together.

    • Home visitor encourages the mother to recreate the experience she models with her children.

    • She introduces the book and book reading.

  3. How might the home visitor achieve similar goals with materials found in the home?


    Various answers such as:

    • Take pictures of food and other objects found in the home and make books.

    • Use food or other objects found in the family’s home as concrete objects to match with objects found in a book.

    • Cut out pictures in magazines to match objects.

    • Identify objects in the environment.

    • Read the print on cereal boxes, newspapers, and magazines.

    • Pretend to write during pretend play (checks in a restaurant, invoices for purchases, writing lists, etc.).

  4. What other developmental domains do you observe?


    Various answers such as:

    Social and Emotional

    • The child climbs in the mother’s lap.

    • The mother speaks to her child gently.

    • One of the children smiles during the video clip.

    Physical Development and Health

    • They discuss vegetables and fruits.

    • Isaiah grasps and stirs.

    • Isaiah balances and climbs on Mom’s lap. Linea points, using eye–hand coordination.

    Approaches toward Learning

    • Attention – Both children attend to the home visitor and their mother. Curiosity – Isaiah explores the characteristics of the plastic fruit and vegetables.

    • Information gathering – Isaiah is learning about plastic fruit with his hands and mouth.

    Cognition and General Knowledge

    • Pretend play – Isaiah uses the fruit to stir in the bowl and pretends to taste the carrot.

    • Connecting experiences and information – Isaiah and Linea are learning and comparing the characteristics of plastic fruit and vegetables, pictures of fruit and vegetables, and real fruits and vegetables in their experience.

  5. Reflections


    What more might you like to know about the children and family to support their development?

    What other strategies would you consider to promote language and literacy with this family?

Learn More

This Tip Sheet offers considerations for supporting infant and toddler language development when staff members speak a language other than a child's home language. The considerations serve as a useful guide for grantee and program administrators. Applicable Program Performance Standards and resources provide additional information.

This Tip Sheet offers considerations for supporting infants and toddlers who are dual language learners. The considerations serve as a useful guide for grantee and program administrators to help them support the home language and culture of each child they serve. Applicable Program Performance Standards and resources provide additional information.

By focusing on the literacy of moms, dads, and their children at the same time, family literacy services are an effective way to help parents get involved in their children’s literacy development. Parents, teachers, and family workers will value this discussion on the connection between family literacy and fathers, the programs offered by family literacy services, and the methods necessary for achieving literacy goals. Comments from fathers who have made the connection are also included.