The Importance of Early Literacy: Developing a Foundation for Future Success


The Importance of Early Literacy:  Developing a Foundation for Future Success
Beth A. Simari, MA CCC­SLP/L
Speech­Language Pathologist

(Published in the New Castle News 2009-­2010 Early Learning Task Force Report to the Community)

Up until around fourth grade, children learn to read. After that point, children read to learn. Consequently, children must enter school ready to learn and quickly develop their reading skills. In middle school and high school, students must continue to hone their skills and be encouraged to develop a lifelong habit of reading in order to succeed in the college years and throughout adulthood.  Results of the 2007 National Assessment of Education­al Progress tell us that more than one­third of 4th grad­ers (and an even higher number of our at­risk students) read so poorly they cannot complete their schoolwork successfully.  It is critical to start early if children are to develop the skills they need to be successful.  Research evidence confirms the strong connection be­tween early skill development and later reading suc­cess.  Parents play a critical role in helping their child develop reading skills.

Research Supports Early Literacy
We all agree that children need to succeed in school. While a number of factors influence how well a child does in an academic setting, their early intellectual growth plays a crucial role.  According to the United Nations Children's Fund, "Investing in children from birth to age 3 is the only way to ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential." One critical aspect of childhood development is the formation of reading skills. Cur­rent research provides sufficient evidence to suggest important content knowledge and practices that show promise for building early reading skills. According to the National Early Literacy Panel, “The years from birth through age 5 are a critical time for children’s development and learning. Learning to read begins well before children enter school. Children who develop more literacy skills in the pre­school years perform better in the primary grades. Pro­viding young children with the critical precursor skills to reading can offer a path to improving overall achieve­ment.”

Creating a Foundation for Future Success by Promoting Early Reading
Children need exposure to books at a very early age – research has continuously demonstrated that when children listen to stories, they gain essential language skills. Learning to read and write begins at infancy and continues throughout the toddler years. According to Dr. Paul Thompson with UCLA, "Recent neurodevelopment research has shown that even before children can read themselves, reading aloud to very young children is extremely beneficial to the child."

Without the abilities necessary for a solid start, children are at risk of academic difficulties that can affect their entire education. To further highlight the importance of children having a strong skill set when they enter school, the Carnegie Foundation report Ready to Learn, A Mandate for the Nation indicates a 90% probability that a poor reader at the end of 1st grade will be a poor reader at the end of the 4th grade.

Marilyn Jager Adams, author of Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print, has stated that the typical middle­class child is read to 1,000 to 1,700 hours before entering first grade.  Reading to children constitutes a crucial element of their development. As soon as children reach the age when they can read on their own, they need a continual flow and variety of new books. As children grow older, increased time spent on reading will promote students’ ability to acquire higher test scores in reading accuracy and comprehension. Throughout middle and high school, reading remains a critical tool for learning. Not only must children read to learn about history, literature, and many other subjects, they also need to acquire the tools to be lifelong learners.  Becoming active in the local library is one way to help children strengthen their literacy skills so they have the ability to read their school subject matter, as well as reading or interest and enjoyment.

Critical Early Literacy Skills for Learning How to Read
The National Early Literacy Panel reviewed the research and found that a young child’s ability to talk, listen and understand spoken and written words is related to later literacy achievement in reading, writing and spelling.  Even before children begin Kindergarten, they can become aware of systematic patterns of sounds in spoken lan­guage, manipulate sounds in words, recognize words and break them apart into smaller units. They learn the relationship between sounds and letters and build their oral language and vocabulary skills.  The following early lit­eracy skills are very important in preparing children for learning how to read:

1) Most Important Early Reading Skills
Alphabet Knowledge: Naming and identifying the names and sounds associated with printed letters
Phonological Awareness: Being able to detect, ma­nipulate, or analyze the auditory aspects of spoken language.  Examples: naming the beginning (cat­/k/), middle (cat­/a/, and ending (cat­/t/) sounds in a word; blending sounds together to form words (/d/ /o/ /g/ = “dog”); segmenting words into smaller sound units such as syllables (telephone = tel – e – phone, 3 syllables) or individual sounds (watch = /w/ /a/ /tch/, 3 sounds); adding, changing, or deleting sound units (Add the /r/ sound to the beginning of “at”, What is the new word? “rat”, Change the /r/ at the beginning of “ran” to /m/, What is the new word? “man”, Leave off the beginning /s/ in store,What is the new word? “tore”; and rhyming (Do these words rhyme?  Me­see, can­table; What word rhymes with “bat”?­mat, rat, cat)
Rapid Automatized Naming: Being able to quickly name a sequence of random letters, numbers, ob­jects and colors
Writing Letters: Writing letters in isolation on re­quest or write own name
Phonological Memory: Remembering content of spoken language for a short period of time

2) Other Important Reading Skills
Concepts About Print: Knowing about print con­ventions (e.g., reading left­right, front­back) and concepts (e.g., book cover, author, text)
Print Knowledge: Knowing alphabet knowledge, concepts about print and early decoding
Verbal Language: Being able to produce and compre­hend spoken language, including vocabulary or grammar
Visual Processing: Being able to match or discrimi­nate visually presented symbols
Reading Readiness: A combination of skills includ­ing alphabet knowledge, concepts of print, vocabu­lary, memory and phonological awareness

How Parents Can Help
Read a variety of books to your child often, beginning at a young age, and talk with your child about each story.
Practice the skills listed in #1 and #2 above.
Read nursery rhymes with your child and play rhyming games.
Ask your child various “wh­“ questions pertaining to a story while you read (Who is this?, Where are they going?, Why did this happen?, What will happen next?, etc.).
Have your child label and name various objects and pictures in books and use a variety of vocabulary words in conversation.
Have your child retell stories and talk about events of the day.
Teach your child spatial prepositions (in/out, off/on, under/above, in front of/behind, between, next to/beside, etc.).
Talk with your child during daily activities and give directions for your child to follow (i.e. making a sandwich – first, next, then, etc.)
Talk about how things are alike and different.
Encourage and teach your child how to ask questions.
Verbally model correct speech and sentence structure for your child and have him/her repeat.
Visit the local library, which will grant your child access to information, computers, and books relating to their personal interests.

For More Information
Visit the National Institute for Literacy’s website  at
Contact Beth A. Simari, MA CCC­-SLP/L at (724) 651­-7966