Early Literacy Report Developed by National Institute for Literacy

This National Early Literacy Panel report provides a scientific synthesis of early childhood research, exploring the variables that impact literacy development. The extensive synthesis, developed by a panel of nationally recognized experts, includes the study of learning environments and effective early interventions and provides a wealth of information that is valuable to the Early Childhood community.


What We Know

Early language and literacy (reading and writing) development begins in the first three years of life and is closely linked to a child's earliest experiences with books and stories. The interactions that young children have with such literacy materials as books, paper, and crayons, and with the adults in their lives are the building blocks for language, reading and writing development. This relatively new understanding of early literacy development complements the current research supporting the critical role of early experiences in shaping brain development.

Recent research supports an interactive and experiential process of learning spoken and written language skills that begins in early infancy. We now know that children gain significant knowledge of language, reading, and writing long before they enter school. Children learn to talk, read, and write through such social literacy experiences as adults or older children interacting with them using books and other literacy materials, including magazines, markers, and paper. Simply put, early literacy research states that:

  • Language, reading, and writing skills develop at the same time and are intimately linked.
  • Early literacy development is a continuous developmental process that begins in the first years of life.
  • Early literacy skills develop in real life settings through positive interactions with literacy materials and other people.

Early Literacy Does Not Mean Early Reading _

Our current understanding of early language and literacy development has provided new ways of helping children learn to talk, read, and write. But it does not advocate "the teaching of reading" to younger and younger children. Formal instruction, which pushes infants and toddlers to achieve adult models of literacy (i.e., the actual reading and writing of words) is not developmentally appropriate. Early literacy theory emphasizes the more natural unfolding of skills through the enjoyment of books, the importance of positive interactions between young children and adults, and the critical role of literacy-rich experiences. Formal instruction to require young children who are not developmentally ready to read is counter productive and potentially damaging to children, who may begin to associate reading and books with failure.

What Infants and Toddlers Can Do

Early Literacy Behaviors

Early literacy recognizes that language, reading, and writing evolve from a number of earlier skills. Judith Shickedanz first described categories of early literacy behaviors in her book, Much More Than The ABCs. Her categories, listed in the box below, can be used to understand the book behaviors of very young children. They help us to see the meaning of these book behaviors and see the progression children make along the path to literacy.

Early literacy skills are essential to literacy development and should be the focus of early language and literacy programs. By focusing on the importance of the first years of life, we give new meaning to the interactions young children have with books and stories. Looking at early lit- eracy development as a dynamic developmental process, we can see the connection (and meaning) between an infant mouthing a book, the book handling behavior of a two year old, and the page turning of a five year old. We can see that the first three years of exploring and playing with books, singing nursery rhymes, listening to stories, recognizing words, and scribbling are truly the building blocks for language and literacy development.