Literacy Development in Children

Tables of Contents

The benefits of physical activity for a person’s health and longevity are well documented. However, not everyone is aware of the many health benefits of the most common form of mental exercise: reading.

  • Reading stimulates brain development in children and adults and promotes social and emotional skills that contribute to healthy lifestyles.
  • Reading reduces stress and symptoms of depression; it lowers readers’ blood pressure and pulse rate, and it reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and late-life cognitive decline.
  • Reading fiction enhances emotional intelligence by teaching how to perceive and understand other people’s feelings; it also improves memory and the ability to concentrate.

For children, literacy development provides benefits that begin immediately and last a lifetime.

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found that instructing parents on the benefits of reading aloud to their children and providing an age-appropriate and a culturally appropriate book to a child at each health supervision visit from birth to 5 years improves the child’s language development and home environment. The improvement was greatest among children at socioeconomic risk.
  • Research published in the journal Pediatrics links language exposure in children ages 12 months to 24 months to higher language skills and IQ scores through age 14.
  • A study reported in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics determined that children who are read to regularly in their first five years of life are exposed to 1.4 million more words than children who are never read to.

The importance of early literacy development to a child’s success in school and life can’t be understated. Even though the literacy rate in the U.S. is 99%, researchers estimate that 43 million U.S. adults have low literacy skills that impair their cognitive abilities. Introducing children to books and reading from their first months of life prepares them to succeed in school while also strengthening family bonds and promoting children’s health and well-being for a lifetime.

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Benefits of literacy that last a lifetime.

Crayons, Pencils, and Keyboards; Martin-Pitt Partnership for Children; and Nationwide Children’s Hospital report these benefits of language and literacy: They build confidence and self-esteem, encourage independent learning, enhance cognitive ability, strengthen brain function, improve attention span, and enrich communication skills.

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What Is Literacy Development?

Literacy development is the process of learning words, sounds, and language. The acquisition of early literacy skills begins in a child’s first year, when infants begin to discriminate, encode, and manipulate the sound structures of language, an ability called phonological awareness.

  • Before their first birthday, children begin to store phonemes, or basic units of meaning in a language, in their memory.
  • In subsequent years, they learn how to manipulate and combine phonemes into meaningful language units by applying morphology (words) and syntax (grammar).
  • They’re able to retrieve and produce words in ways that express ideas, and they can coordinate visual and motor processes (speaking written words).

It’s important to assess a child’s language skills at an early age, because delays in literacy development could indicate a language or reading disorder. Research has shown that languages with consistent sound-to-letter correspondences, or orthographic consistency, are easier for children to learn.

  • Languages with regular orthographies, such as Spanish and Czech, tend to be easier for young children to learn than languages with inconsistent orthographies, such as English, Danish, and French.
  • Primary school children acquiring languages with opaque orthographies tend to make more errors than children learning a language with transparent orthographies.
  • A language’s orthographic transparency affects the ability to diagnose dyslexia, for example: In languages with transparent orthographies, the inability to quickly retrieve and produce words, or rapid automatic naming, is more predictive of dyslexia than in languages with opaque orthographies, in which lack of phonological awareness is a better indicator of potential dyslexia.

Encouraging Communication and Reading Skills

Reading-related activities in the child’s home are key to early literacy development. These activities include joint reading, drawing, singing, storytelling, game playing, and rhyming.

  • Joint reading entails children and their parents or caregivers taking turns reading parts of the book. The children are asked to describe what they’re thinking as they read.
  • Drawing not only helps develop a child’s motor skills but also encourages creative thinking and lays the foundation for early writing. It also helps children gain cognitive understanding of complex concepts and builds their attention span.
  • Singing makes it easier for children to identify small sounds in words and build their vocabulary. A song’s rhyme structure teaches similarities between words, and singing helps develop a child’s listening skills.
  • Storytelling sparks a child’s imagination in addition to teaching sounds, words, and grammar. Children learn to focus and concentrate while also picking up social and communication skills.
  • Game playing presents an opportunity for children to learn language and reading skills while engaged in favorite activities, such as using props and objects to act out scenarios, role-playing, and imagining new experiences.
  • Rhyming is both enjoyable and memorable for young children while also teaching phonemic awareness and fluency in reading and speaking. In addition to helping children learn the fundamental patterns in language, rhyming helps build their confidence and instills in them a joy of reading.

Using Childhood Literacy to Treat Communication Disorders

While nearly all children experience problems with a few language sounds, words, or syntax, some children struggle to reach literacy milestones that are common for their age group. These are among the language problems that young children may encounter:

  • Receptive language, or understanding what others are saying. This may be due to a problem hearing or an inability to understand the meaning of words.
  • Expressive language, or using language to communicate thoughts. The child may not possess sufficient vocabulary to express themselves, not understand how to put the words together, or may know the words but not how to use them correctly.
  • Speech disorders include difficulty forming specific sounds and words or problems speaking smoothly, such as stuttering.
  • Language delay occurs when the child takes longer than usual to comprehend language and speak.
  • Language disorders include aphasia (difficulty speaking and understanding due to a brain injury or atypical brain function) and auditory processing disorder (problems in comprehending the sounds the ear sends to the brain).

Some language development problems relate to hearing loss, so children experiencing language problems should have their hearing checked. Speech language pathologists are able to help children overcome language learning difficulties; they also help parents, caregivers, and teachers overcome language learning difficulties in children. Children under the age of 3 who appear to have problems with literacy development may qualify for state early intervention programs that help them develop cognitive, communication, and other skills.

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Language and Literacy Development in Children

How children develop language skills and become literate are two separate but closely related processes:

  • Language development occurs as the child’s ability to understand and use language emerges. Receptive language skills are the ability to listen and understand, while expressive language skills relate to the child’s use of language to communicate ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
  • Emerging literacy is the child’s initial use of language and communication skills as the foundation for reading and writing. Infants and toddlers begin to apply their new receptive, expressive, and vocabulary skills, while preschoolers begin to distinguish the differences and similarities of spoken and written language.

These are the components of language and literacy development programs for young children:

At this stage, the child focuses on communication and language from others, understanding, and responding. The four aspects of attending and understanding are know, see, do, and improve:

  • Know: For infants and toddlers, the parents or caregivers respond to their verbal and nonverbal communication with words and facial expressions to establish a back-and-forth exchange. Toddlers are encouraged to respond to questions and short comments. For preschool children, communication expands from simple words and short phrases to more complex words and sentences.
  • See: For infants and toddlers, the caregivers describe what they’re doing and what the infants or toddlers are doing and observe their response to indicate whether the infants or toddlers understand. For preschool children, the caregivers describe what’s going to happen and give the children an opportunity to communicate and respond.
  • Do: For infants and toddlers, the caregivers narrate what’s happening during an activity and give the children an opportunity to participate, focusing on the things that draw the children’s attention. For preschool children, the caregivers engage them in a conversation about what’s happening and help them pick up the cues of a give-and-take exchange, such as waiting for their turn to speak.
  • Improve: For infants and toddlers, the caregivers individualize the responses to their verbal and nonverbal communication and react using facial expressions, gestures, signs, and words when the children indicate that they understand. For preschool children, the caregivers initiate conversations with them and let them know they’re valued conversation partners. The children are encouraged to strike up conversations with other children.

Communicating and Speaking

Early communication efforts by infants and toddlers focus on what the child wants or needs through facial expressions, gestures, and verbalization. The child engages with others using increasingly complex language and initiates interactions with others verbally and nonverbally to learn and gain information. Preschoolers learn to vary the amount of information they communicate as dictated by the situation. They begin to understand, follow, and comply with the rules of conversation and social interaction.


Through their interactions with others, infants and toddlers learn new words and begin to use them to communicate and respond. The parent or caregiver shows an object or action and repeats its name, and also demonstrates words that express feelings and desires. Preschool children learn how to use a wider range of words in various settings and with shades of meaning in specific situations. They also begin to categorize words and understand relationships between words. When engaging children in conversation, the person takes every opportunity to introduce new words to the child that relate to the topic and setting.

Emergent Literacy

The earliest stages of literacy for infants and toddlers is their repetition and use of rhymes, phrases, and song refrains. They begin to physically handle books and understand that they’re the source of stories and information. Children start to recognize pictures, symbols, signs, and basic words; understand what pictures and stories mean; and make marks that represent objects and actions.

Phonological Awareness

Preschoolers begin to understand that language is composed of discrete sound elements that have their own meaning. Singing songs, playing word games, and reading stories and poetry aloud help make children aware of phonological distinctions in the words, phrases, and sentences they’re using. Through wordplay, such as being called by name with the separate sounds of the name highlighted, children become aware of the individual sounds that make up words.

Print and Alphabet Knowledge

Preschoolers begin to show that they understand how printing is used and the rules that apply to print. They can identify individual letters and associate the correct sounds to the letters. The parent or caregiver can draw attention to the features of printed letters and show children different print types, such as those used in menus, brochures, and magazines. The person can emphasize the relationship between letters and sounds. Reading alphabet books together helps children connect a letter with words that use the letter and pictures of the objects.

Comprehension and Text Structure

By hearing and reading stories, preschoolers begin to comprehend the narrative structure of storytelling and start to ask questions about and comment on the stories. Children are introduced to stories by reading aloud together, and after several rereadings, they’re able to recall its plot, characters, and events. They’re also able to retell the story using puppets and other props related to the book, as well as through their own illustrations and writing.


Preschoolers can be introduced to writing as a way to describe in their own words a story or an event, such as preparing a shopping list before going to the grocery store. They can also be asked to write captions for pictures and photographs. Children can be taught the proper spacing of words by writing each word of a sentence on a separate piece of paper. Drawing helps children develop the motor skills required for writing; in place of a pencil or crayon, they can be encouraged to write using their finger or a stick to write in sand or dirt.

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The stages and corresponding skills of literacy development.

According to The Edvocate, This Reading Mama, and UpToDate, readers should be able to complete the following tasks at each literacy development stage. Emergent literacy: sing the ABCs; alphabetic fluency: see the relationships between letters and sounds; words and patterns: read silently without vocalizing; intermediate reading: read to acquire ideas and gain knowledge; and advanced reading: comprehend longer texts such as books.

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5 Literacy Development Stages

Early literacy typically occurs in a child’s first three years, when the child is introduced to books, stories, and writing tools (paper, pencils, etc.). Children learn language, reading, and writing skills simultaneously, in part through their experiences and interactions with others. Parents and caregivers can encourage early literacy development stages through various activities:

  • Read to children beginning in earliest infancy.
  • Let them handle books.
  • Help them identify and interact with images in books.
  • Narrate and imitate the actions in the pictures.
  • Spend as much time as possible talking to infants.

The goal of early literacy efforts isn’t to teach children to read at a very young age but rather to prepare them for each stage of literacy development, from earliest image recognition through reading fluency at ages 11 to 14. The five stages of literacy development are emergent literacy, alphabetic fluency, words and patterns, intermediate reading, and advanced reading.

1. Emergent Literacy

The initial stage of literacy development sees children acquire literacy skills in informal settings before their formal schooling begins. This preliterate phase lasts until children are 5 or 6 years old and is characterized by specific pre-reading behaviors:

  • Pretending to read books that others have read to them
  • Holding books correctly and playing with them
  • A growing interest in pencils, paper, crayons, and other material related to reading and writing
  • Speaking or chanting letters even though they may not yet recognize them
  • Scribbling make-believe letters or pretending to write

At later ages in this stage, children may recognize and be able to write the letters in their names, distinguish between uppercase and lowercase letters, and identify an increasing number of high-frequency words.

2. Alphabetic Fluency

At this novice reader stage, children between the ages of 5 and 8 begin to recognize relationships between letters and sounds. These activities are typically observed during this phase of literacy development:

  • Recognizing and pronouncing words they see in print
  • Writing phonetically
  • Using pictures and other context clues to identify unfamiliar words
  • Pointing at words as they read them out loud
  • Occasionally reversing letters when they write them

3. Words and Patterns

During this transitional stage that occurs from ages 7 to 9, children’s reading fluency improves, and children begin to recognize syllables and phonemes rather than simply individual letters. Children in this decoding reader phase have reading vocabularies of up to 3,000 words. Behaviors in this stage include the following:

  • Reading without assistance
  • Much improved reading comprehension
  • Silent reading without vocalizing
  • Greater recognition of high-frequency words
  • Reduced reliance on context clues to figure out the meaning of new words

4. Intermediate Reading

By ages 9 to 15, children begin to acquire ideas from what they’re reading. Their reading material includes textbooks, dictionaries and other reference works, newspapers, magazines, and trade books. At this stage of literacy development, a child’s reading comprehension becomes equivalent to listening comprehension. These are some of the experiences of readers at this phase:

  • Gaining new knowledge
  • Experiencing new feelings through the stories they read
  • Exploring issues from various perspectives
  • Developing strategies for learning the meaning of unfamiliar words
  • Reading at a faster pace

5. Advanced Reading

At the last stage of literacy development, readers can comprehend long and complex text without assistance. They’re also able to find on their own books and other printed material that’s relevant to a specific topic. Characteristics of readers at this stage include the following:

  • Reading for many different purposes and to expand their own interests
  • Seeking different perspectives and points of view and understanding that what they read can influence their opinions
  • Gaining a deeper understanding of the subtext of what they read, or reading between the lines to grasp the wider context of the material
  • Expanding their vocabulary and knowledge of subjects through reading recommendations or their own selection of material

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Literacy Development in Early Childhood

Literacy development in early childhood entails helping children build language skills, including their vocabulary, ability to express themselves, and reading comprehension. Learning to read is a complex process that children master at their own pace, so it’s natural for some children to proceed more slowly than others.

Skills Needed for Reading Comprehension

The many individual skills required for reading comprehension can be divided into seven broad categories: decoding, fluency, vocabulary, sentence structure, sentence cohesion, background knowledge, and working memory and attention.

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The seven elements of reading comprehension.

The skills that make up reading comprehension, according to Reading Rockets and Understood: 1. Decoding — Sound out words. 2. Fluency — Recognize words by sight. 3. Vocabulary — Become familiar with a collection of words. 4. Sentence structure — Understand how words build sentences. 5. Sentence cohesion — Understand how words connect ideas. 6. World experience — Relate to what’s being read. 7. Working memory — Take in information from text.

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  • Decoding: Children learn the meaning of words by sounding out words they’ve heard before but haven’t seen in writing. Decoding requires phonemic awareness, or knowledge of the basic building blocks of meaning in a language. This is part of broader phonological awareness, which allows children to associate specific sounds with their written representation.
  • Fluency: Once children can recognize words immediately as they read, they’re able to comprehend what they’re reading much faster. Children learn irregular words that they can’t sound out, such as “of” and “the.” Fluency improves comprehension by allowing readers to consider groups of words together to get a better sense of their meaning.
  • Vocabulary: While children learn some of their vocabulary through direct instruction, they learn most new words by reading on their own and from their everyday experiences. Among the creative ways to introduce children to new words are through using them in conversations with children, telling jokes, and playing word games.
  • Sentence structure and cohesion: Reading comprehension depends on a child’s understanding of how phrases and sentences are constructed. Sentence cohesion is the ability to connect the ideas expressed in a sentence and between sentences, while coherence describes how the ideas in a sentence link to the overall theme of the book or material being read.
  • Experience, reasoning, and background knowledge: Children and adults bring their own knowledge and experience to the material they’re reading, so they can place the information in a broader context and more closely relate to the subject. Gaining the ability to reason about what they’re reading is helped by giving the child greater exposure to the world through hands-on experiences, conversations, art, and reading itself.
  • Working memory and attention: Working memory and attention are considered part of a child’s executive function, which is required to complete complex tasks. This includes organizing and planning, staying focused, and tracking their own progress. Working memory lets children retain and reuse information as well as identify the words they don’t understand. Maintaining attention as they read bolsters comprehension and lets children read at a faster pace.

Activities That Stimulate Reading Comprehension

The best way to prepare children for a lifetime of reading enjoyment is to surround them with words from infancy through their teen years. Everyday activities, such as eating meals, going to the store, taking a bath, and playing outside are excellent opportunities to build a child’s vocabulary and other literacy skills. These literacy activities are suitable for infants and toddlers, as well as for pre-K and school-age children.

  • Talking to and singing with young children: Rhyming is a great way to catch and maintain a young child’s interest, whether by reciting nursery rhymes or making up rhymes in everyday conversations. Repeat the sounds that the child makes, or ask children to repeat the sounds they hear. Narrate your walks or car trips, and ask the child to repeat the sounds of the objects seen.
  • Reading actively: While reading together, emphasize the rhyming words, and make up rhymes for the words the child encounters. Let the child turn the book’s pages and ask the child to comment on the images on the page. Stop on occasion while reading to ask the child what will happen next. Ask the child to act out the story, and tie what’s happening with events in the child’s own life.
  • Scribbling and drawing: Scribbling and drawing help children develop the motor skills they need for writing. They also help children understand that certain writing and pictures have specific meanings. Ask children to add a scribble or drawing to cards and letters or to describe what they’ve drawn, writing down the words they use so that they can connect writing with the sound of words.
  • Making a storybook or alphabet book: Using a computer or paper and pencils, help children create a story using their own drawings and words. A simple example is an alphabet book with each letter on one side of a page and a drawing of an item that begins with that letter on the opposite side of the page.

Resources: Literacy Development in Early Childhood

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Early Literacy Development Stages in Children

While researchers in early literacy development agree that it’s a step-by-step process, they define the steps in different ways. Generally, the path a child takes from earliest awareness of print and reading to independent, competent reader and writer is completed in five stages:

Awareness and Exploration Stage

Between the ages of 6 months and 6 years old, children hear and experiment with reproducing and creating a range of monosyllabic and polysyllabic sounds, ultimately forming words that represent discrete things and concepts. Their introduction to reading is typically through listening to and discussing storybooks, participating in rhyming activities, and beginning to identify letters.

Novice Reading and Writing Stage

At ages 6 and 7, children match letters with sounds and connect printed and spoken words. They can tell simple stories, and understand the orientation of printed words on a page. They’re also able to read and write individual letters and high-frequency words and sound out new monosyllabic words that they encounter.

Traditional Reading and Writing Stage

When they’re between the ages of 7 and 9, children gain fluency in reading familiar stories, increasing their enjoyment. They’re able to decode elements of words and sentences while building their vocabulary of words they recognize on sight. Their reading skills allow them to process new information, and they have a better grasp of the meaning of the material they read.

Fluent and Comprehending Reading and Writing Stage

Between the ages of 9 and 15, children are able to understand what they’re reading from multiple perspectives and learn new ideas and concepts. Their reading expands to reference books, textbooks, and various media, in which they’re exposed to a range of worldviews in addition to new syntax and specialized vocabularies.

Expert Reading and Writing Stage

When children reach their midteens, their reading skills allow them to tackle advanced topics in science, history, mathematics, and the arts. They’re able to make associations across subject areas and consider complex issues from diverse points of view. Their reading and writing span topics from social and physical sciences to politics and current affairs.

Importance of Literacy Development in Children

Children gain confidence in many areas of their lives when they grow up to become strong readers. The literary skills they began learning in their first months of life enhance all aspects of their lifelong education. By encouraging a love of reading in children, we instill a desire to learn and progress that propels them through their school years, careers, and personal lives. Children learn that reading is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable skills they’ll ever possess.

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Infographic Sources

Crayons, Pencils, and Keyboards, “Why is Literacy Development Important for Children?”

Martin-Pitt Partnership for Children, “Benefits of Early Literacy Skills”

Nationwide Children’s Hospital, “Early Literacy: Why Reading is Important to a Child’s Development”

Reading Rockets, “Comprehension Instruction: What Works”

The Edvocate, “What Are The Five Stages of Reading Development?”

This Reading Mama, “Word Pattern Readers and Spellers {Stage 3}”

Understood, “6 Essential Skills for Reading Comprehension”

UpToDate, “Emergent Literacy Including Language Development”

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