Emergent Literacy in Early Childhood


87% of Kenyans can read. In Zimbabwe more than 90% can read. In the UK, adult literacy is 99%, and in many countries around the world, including Cuba, Finland and Norway adult literacy is very close to 100%. How can we do better?

Where people don’t learn to read there are mostly two reasons:

1. They are not taught

        – that is why less Kenyan woman can read than Kenyan men.

2. They are taught badly

Reading is not just sounding out words

You can’t teach a child to read just by teaching them the letter sounds

 What you need to know if you are to teach children to read:

Information doesn’t just go from the text on the page through the eyes and into the brain. When we read it is a two way process, we use our brains to read. That means motivation is important; we have to want to read, and we have to believe that we can read. When we read we can sometimes use letter sounds to ‘decode’ a word in text. But we use many other important strategies to recognise words in reading. In preschools we need to support children in their use of all of these strategies and not just through teaching them letter sounds.

This is what researchers have found when they studied eye movements in the process of reading. We typically follow the red arrows – we don’t ‘read’ the letter sounds – we don’t even look at each word – we work out what it says as we go along… We look for meaning in the text.


We typically skip over 15% of all content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) and 65% of all function words (prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and pronouns (Paulson and Freeman, 2003).

What is good preschool practice?

Children need to want to read…

  • Read aloud to the children every day, and talk with them about the books.

We need picture story books to read to them so that they learn how much fun reading is.

We need to use information/reference texts with children so that they can see that we continue all our lives to learn through reading

Children need to believe they will be able to read…

  • Children need to see the adults around them reading so that they develop the expectation that they will read as well
  • Provide and refer often to signs showing the names of plants in the environment, classroom resources and the materials things are made from

Children need to hear most of the words used in a text before they read them.

  • We need to talk with children more so that they are introduced to new words and ideas before they find them in print.
  • Engage children in conversations about what is happening in the community and environment around them
  • Listen and respond to what they have to say.

This is why it is always better to teach children to read in their mother tongue (or home) language.

Children should learn to enjoy the sounds of language

  • Introduce them to rhymes – identify words that end with the same sound
  • Enjoy alliteration – when several words begin with the same sound
  • Match sounds – play a game with pictures – which of these words begins with a ‘d’ sound?

Play with the alphabet

  • Use blocks, cards and puzzle games
  • Start with the letters significant to the children – “Look Wambui’s and Wanjiru’s names start with the same letter ‘W’

Support emergent writing

  • Encourage children to scribble and ‘play’ at writing – write with pencils, charcoal, chalk, sticks in the dust
  • Teach the children to form the letters of their name

Notes prepared by Mercy Macharia and Professor John Siraj-Blatchford


Nursery Rhymes and songs

One, two, three, four, five, Once I caught a fish alive, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, Then I let it go again. Why did you let it go? Because it bit my finger so. Which finger did it bite? This little finger on the right.

Ukuti, Ukuti Wa mnazi, Wa mnazi, Ukipata Upepo Watete.. Watete.. Watetemeka..

Namba moja, mbili, Tatu, nne, tano. Hesabuni tena!

Nani mganga Tausi, Kalimanjila – La Lala salama – Ma Mama mzazi – zi Zizi la ng’ombe – mbe Mbele ya nyumba – mba …


  • Fine feathered friends
  • Meenie miney moe
  • Wee Willie Winkie

Make up a meal with the children using alliteration words: “tasty tomatoes”, “leafy lettuce”, “mixed up maize”, “pasty pilau”, “ugly ugali”, “chilli choma”, “sausage stew” and “chapatti chai”. 


2 Responses to “Emergent Literacy in Early Childhood”

  1. Sandra Says:

    Reblogged this on Early Years CPD Barefoot Books.

  2. George Says:

    When you say 87 % of Kenyans can read, we need to ask ourselves the following questions; What can they read? At what level ar they able to read? What method of assessment did they use to determine this?
    I am led to believe that the method used to obtain this statistic is purely flawed and ivalid because they only ask people whether they can read or not.
    I like your post though, what you are saying is very important. Reading is just more than sounding out words. It also involves motivation, background knowlede and even community/contextual support

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