Reading Readiness vs. Emergent Literacy

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By: Alyssa Raven


We all remember Preschool and Kindergarten as the time where we played in the sandbox and took naps.  This is known simply as play.  Play is known as children exploring the world around them (classroom) and requires specific conditions that are engaging for a child.  Children play by exploring and manipulating toys, objects, and other materials.  But these early elementary grades are drastically changing.  The key issue in early childhood today is the question: Is there enough time in the school day for play?  Because this topic focuses more on early childhood education, time is crucial because of the fact that most kindergartens are only a half day.  Teachers in early childhood education are unsure whether to include more play or more focus on academics in their classrooms.  More play would be considered emergent literacy, while reading readiness is referred to as the push for more academics.  While ongoing research proves that play in the classroom is vital for child development, there is a constant push for more academics with the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as our academic competition with other nations.  Some teachers are concerned that children who engage in play will not develop the ability to read, write, and spell.   On the flip side, some believe play is vital.


More play, less work

Play time, also known as developmentally appropriate instruction or emergent literacy, is said to be physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially engaging, which makes it essential to childhood development.  To quote Susan Isaacs (Social Development in Young Children), "Play is a child's life and the means by which he comes to understand the world he lives in."  In fact, play is key when it comes to learning language and literacy.  It helps children figure out things in real world situations.  Play may help children figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar sign, what a map is for, how to use a list, or what an unfamiliar word says.  Piaget (1962) found that as children's play becomes more complex and abstract, they progress through childhood.  Plus, social play contributes to early language development and later literacy.  This helps children prepare for and experience what they will later learn in reading and writing.  Students are not only having fun, but they're also informally gaining the skills they will later use in literacy.  These skills include comprehension, vocabulary, and listening skills (just to name a few).

Those who are for emergent literacy claim that literacy can be taught through play before kids are taught to read.  They stress that reading is not just decoding words on a page, but engaging oneself in literacy situations.  In fact, those in favor of this perspective note that children are already engaged in some form of literacy in their everyday lives.  Examples of this may include singing song lyrics, telling stories, recognizing symbols, and talking to friends and family.  Another strong point to emergent literacy is it gives children perspective.  Because literacy of this nature is influenced by social and cultural backgrounds, it gives students the chance to see what their peers bring to the table.  The bottom line is that children learn the different parts of literacy at different times and at different speeds.

A more recent method of including play in the classroom is called materials intervention.  In this approach, teachers set up various stations that resemble literacy environments that children may come in contact with in their lives.  This is also helpful for those students whose families do not experience these types of settings.  These centers help children build literacy skills.  Research shows that's children are more likely to engage in play-related activities in reading and writing, than in pencil, paper, worksheet "type" literacies.  Some examples of materials intervention may be a doctor's office, a weather station, an office, a grocery store, a kitchen, a post office, a library, a school room, or a pet store.  These stations would include props and materials that one would normally find in the specific setting.


Less play, more work

Parents and teachers are now calling Kindergarten the new first grade.  Even preschools are cracking down on getting children reading by the time they begin kindergarten.  And not only are educators pushing students to read earlier, so are parents.  This is more commonly known as reading readiness, which is said to raise the academic bar of America.  Reading readiness focuses on discrete teaching skills such as phonemic awareness, phonics, knowing letters, and the development of oral language.  Studies show that students in other countries (Singapore, South Korea and Japan) are outperforming American students when it comes to academics (Morgan 2008).   Those in favor of reading readiness are the opposite of those who are for emergent literacy.  They think that children have little to no experience to bring to the table and that they need basic reading skills to succeed.  After these skills are learned, they will be able to read around the ages of five or six.  In this approach, students are all taught to read on the same level and their funds of knowledge are put aside.  As previously stated, the push for more standardized testing, reading, and math skills has created this idea of teaching kids to read much earlier than ever.  Headstart, a program last updated in 2007, focuses in on getting underprivileged children to be ready to emerge themselves in academics.  Programs like this have forced the United States education system to focus more on decoding, and less on emerging children in literacy.

Teachers who use this approach generally have students do activities like workbooks that teach them basic reading skills.  As Linda Morgan (2008) describes, these are real letters-and-numbers academics for the littlest students.  Examples of this include learning how to do matching activities with pictures and words, putting objects into various categories, identifying colors and shapes, knowing all the letters of the alphabet (upper and lowercase) and being able to count to about 30.  And these activities are being used at a younger and younger age.   For example, tutoring centers have reported teaching two-year-olds the alphabet and how to count to ten.  This shows that the goals of the No Child Left Behind act are not only affecting those who are taking standardized tests, but our little ones, as well.


My Opinion

Though I strongly believe that helping students to read at an early age is beneficial, after doing the research, I believe the emergent literacy is the way to go.  As Eric Liu notes in The Play Debate (2008), ""It's a false choice to think you must decide between creativity and academic rigor."  What some educators do not understand is that emergent literacy really is teaching children literacy.  I think that sometimes play is not associated with academics.  However, in this case, young students are learning what they will later need to read and write (ex. skills) and still having a great time in preschool or kindergarten.  Plus, you can teach students to read without assuming that they're all going to be on the same level, like reading readiness promotes.  I also think that reading readiness deters students away from school and gives them negative thoughts about it.  The last thing you want is students to hate school at a young age.  Young children don't like doing worksheets and min-tests.  They like to play!  If studies show that students are learning better through play, then let them.


Baines, L. A., & Slutsky, R. (2009). Developing a Sixth Sense: Play. Educational Horizons, 87(2), 97-100. Retrieved October 1, 2009.

Stegelin, D. A. (2005). Making the Case for Play Policy: Research-Based Reasons to Support Play-Based Environments [Electronic version]. Young Children, 60(2), 76-85.

Trawick-Smith, J., & Picard, T. (2003). Literacy Play: Is it Really Play Anymore? [Electronic version] Childhood Education, 79(4), 229-231.

Smith, D. (1995). How Play Influences Children's Development at Home and School [Electronic version]. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 66(8), 19-25.

Ghafouri, F., & Wien, C. A. (2005). "Give Us Privacy": Play and Social Literacy in Young Children [Electronic version]. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 19(4), 279-290.

Flint, A. S. (2008). Literate Lives: Teaching Reading & Writing in Elementary Classrooms (pp. 146-175). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Morgan, L. (2008, February 1). The Play Debate - Are kids too pressured, pushed and prepped? The experts weigh in. Retrieved October 8, 2009, from


1.  Which approach would you like to use more of in your classroom (reading readiness or emergent literacy) and why?

2.  Give 3 examples of either literacy centers or sociodramatic play settings that you would use in your classroom and how they relate to and strengthen literacy.

3.  Based on previously conducted research (ex. Piaget & Vygotsky), play is vital in early childhood classrooms.  If this is so, then why is reading readiness becoming so prevalent in present day American schooling?

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As a parent and a teacher, I feel that each student/child will develop at their own pace. If a child has the desire to learn letters and that kind of information, then I would "teach" them. But I feel that forcing a youngster 3/4 to learn to read is a bit young and pressured. Kids are going to learn and are going to make it if they are not reading by kindergarten. I feel that the use of play in the classroom setting is very important to the child's development not only in social skills, but in literacy. I would argue that children learn so much through play and so much from what other kids teach them and have so much to give from their prior experiences that one would be foolish to have young children sit and do worksheets. When my child is in school I would be thrilled if she had a teacher that was in line with the thoughts and practices of emergent lit.

Question 1

I would like to use emergent literacy in my classroom because I think it is the most effective. When I think of my elementary school learning experiences, most of them involved my friends and classmates. When children are engaged in literacy situations whether it be mentally or socially, they learn better and have more fun! Playtime also allows students to develop multiple perspectives of a situation which can not always be achieved by simply reading a book. I think that children are more engaged during playtime and therefore will most likely remember more and enjoy what they are doing, and if that proves to help kids learn then I think this approach should be used more often.

Question 3

I think that the primary reason for reading readiness to be pushed in the classroom is NCLB. The pressure for children to score high on their tests and be proficient on standardized tests is increasing more each year. So, how much easier would it be for these teachers if students were forced to read when they were 3 or 4. Then they'd be able to force even more test-passing "skills" on them, and they would do better on the tests in later grades.

I also think that the pressure to compete with other countries is a big part of it. Everyone is so desperate to make American children perform better that they are not thinking logically about HOW to do it.

1. Which approach would you like to use more of in your classroom (reading readiness or emergent literacy) and why?
I would like to use emergent literacy in my classroom for many reasons. I agree that children learn to be literate in other ways than actually practicing reading and writing skills. Other events take place in their lives that help them when they are old enough to read and write. For example, if students did not have play centers, they would not know how to interact with one another and get opinions from others on different things. When it would come time to write how they felt about a certain story, they would not know how to express themselves. Also, while talking to others, students are able to recall things that their friends have told them, this sounds a lot like comprehension skills!
I think that this approach is a lot more fun, and students won't even realize they are learning very valuable skills. If we as teachers push them too hard to learn something, they will end up hating it, and only remembering how much they despised learning it.

Students are not blank slates where teacher can just feed them information that they need to know and expect them to learn the information when the teacher is ready to present it. Students come to the classroom with prior knowledge of a variety of things because no two students will be the same. Therefore their experiences will be different. Students learn from one another through play, social encounters, and authentic, purposeful experiences. The knowledge that students learn from one another is greater than any worksheet can produce for one reason and that is because students are able to make that connection to other students. They are not able to with a worksheet that tells them what to do.
Emergent literacy also adds an aspect of fun, in which reading readiness does not. When my 8 year old sister (in 3rd grade) comes home and tells my dad and stepmom that she was bored in school today, all she did was worksheets and then she has more worksheets to do for homework, there is no wondering in my mind as to why. Even older children need that time to play and experiment through different centers, while at the same time learning. She would have no idea that while she is playing, her teacher is also teaching her something. She will realize later that she learned through her play, but she will come home with excitement and stories about school instead of saying she was bored all day. I learn a lot from her right now because she is in the grade level I want to teach; therefore I ask her a lot about school, reading and writing in particular. If she was given the option to learn through play I am 100% sure that she would take the opportunity. There is a time when learning from the book needs to happen, but if learning through play would impact student’s ability to stay focused while they were learning, why wouldn’t a teacher take that opportunity? Students are given the opportunity to learn through meaningful and authentic play which is why I feel I would use more of the emergent literacy in my classroom.

1. Which approach would you like to use more of in your classroom (reading readiness or emergent literacy) and why?

I would like to use emergent literacy as much as possible in my classroom, especially in earlier grades. Children come to understand their world through play and literacy is no exception to that. When students are engaged in situations with texts and stories they have fun and are learning more, perhaps without even realizing it. If you push students to hard to learn difficult material they become detached and unwilling to learn. However if you give them the chance to play and interact with their peers they are most likely going to be more willing to learn. Play centers immerses students in literacy, which is the best way to learn.

1. Which approach would you like to use more of in your classroom (reading readiness or emergent literacy) and why?

I would use emergent literacy as much as possible as an elementary school teacher, more so if I get my Kindergarten classroom. I feel that children of all ages learn more through play. I do not recall much of my elementary school years however I remember the fun games and assignments that we did. My teachers integrated play with spelling and math. I feel if I used more emergent literacy in my classroom my students will be able to understand what is being taught to them and take that with them when they go to on to the next level of their lives, not just with school but their entire lives.

Question 1
I think that in the classroom I would like to see more emergent literacy. I feel that with reading readiness you are wasting precious time that you could be emerging your students in all different types of literacy. With emergent literacy teachers and parents are letting their students explore all kinds of text. Students are able to get a sense of what the pictures are saying about the story. By using this theory we are allowing our students to have fun with text and become comfortable with it. When students do begin to read a write, if they were emergened in literacy, will find it easier to comprehend stories because they've had prior experience with it.

1. Which approach would you like to use more of in your classroom (reading readiness or emergent literacy) and why?

I would like to use Emergent Literacy in my classroom. I currently have my own Preschool classroom, where we are practicing Emergent Literacy. We do daily centers, where we have a library center, writing center, block center, kitchen center, sensory table, art center, and a manipulative center. There is also a felt board center and a table that has different games on it pertaining to the theme. All of these "play" centers help children work on specific skills, whether it is fine-motor or alphabet awareness. All of these centers work on oral development. I feel it is important to encourage children to play and there should be more play in the classroom. All of my fondest memories of childhood involve playing, and I think incorporating this into the classroom would be extremely beneficial to students in aiding their learning. I hope that in the future I will be able to continue this path of emergent literacy in the classroom. Submerging my students in literacy, whether it is posters hanging up in the room or just verbal conversations, is a powerful technique for literacy skills. Similar to Amanda, I believe that fun is a great way for students to learn valuable skills!

Question 2

If I could choose 3 centers to have in my classroom, I would like to use a play area with play food and a cash register. I think students would be able to socialize in this area and play with the language. It would also be a nice way to include other subjects as well.

When exploring centers in class, I really enjoyed the story boards. That is something I would love to use in my classroom. Playing with these story boards will allow children to use their imagination. Students can create their own scenes and they will be able to share their own little "stories" about what is happening in their scenes with their friends and classmates. I also think this story board could be used to represent scenes in books and other stories that we have read and discussed in class. Students could also use their scenes to write a sentence or story depending on the grade level.

I would also like to include a craft center. Doing hands on things and creating stuff is fun. Students can also come up with their own little stories about what is going on in their pictures or other crafts. I would also encourage students to share what they have made with the class.

All these centers involve using the language and this is just as important as reading and writing.

I think emergent literacy is the better approach and offers more for the student. I know I personally enjoyed my time in elementary school and I remember it being very centered in emergent literacy practices. I do however feel that reading readiness has its validity as well. There is a time and place for fun and a time and place for serious learning. I will definately lean strongly towards the emergent side in my classroom but I will also incorporate the reading readiness a little as well.

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This page contains a single entry by ALYSSA LOUISE RAVEN published on October 20, 2009 8:58 AM.

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