The concept of emergent literacy is rooted in research conducted a number of years ago. Read (1971) reported on a study of early spellers who had learned to spell in an informal manner. The early spellers were preschoolers who were given help in spelling when they asked for it but were otherwise allowed to spell however they wanted. What surprised Read was that these young children, who had no contact with each other, created spelling systems that were remarkably similar and that, although not correct, made sense phonetically. For instance, er at the end of a word such as tiger was typically spelled with just an r, as tigr. In this instance, r is syllabic; it functions as a vowel and so does not need to be preceded by an e. For long vowels, children generally used the letter name, as in sop for soap, where the name of the letter o contains the sound of the vowel. Commenting on his findings, Read stated, “We can no longer assume that children must approach reading with no discernible prior conception of its structure” (p.34). Landmark studies by researchers in several countries echoed and amplified Read’s findings in both reading and writing (Clay, 1972; Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982; Teale & Sulzby, 1986).
These revelations about children’s literacy abilities have a number of implications. First and foremost, teachers must build on what children already know. In their five or six years before going to school, they have acquired a great deal of insight into the reading and writing processes. Instead of asking whether they are ready, schools have to find out where they are and take it from there.
As children observe parents and peers reading and writing and as they themselves experiment with reading and writing, they construct theories about how these processes work. For instance, based on their experience with picture books, children may believe that pictures rather that words are read. Initially, children may believe that letters operate as pictures. They may believe that letters represent objects in much the same way that pictures represent objects. Using this hypothesis, they may reason that snake would be a long word because a snake is a long animal. Mouse would be a short word because a mouse is a short animal. As children notice long words for little creatures and little words for large creatures, they assimilate this and make an accommodation by giving up their hypothesis of a physical relationship between size of words and size of objects or creatures represented. They may then theorize that although letters do not represent physical characteristics, letters do somehow identify the person or thing named. They may theorize that the first letters of their names belong uniquely to them. Children need to see that other people’s names may start with the same letters as theirs but that some or all of the other letters are different.
Before children discover the alphabet principle, they may refine their theories of the purpose of letters and conclude that it is the arrangement of letters that matters. Through exposure to print, they will have noticed that words form patterns, and they begin to string letters together in what seem to be reasonable patterns. Usually, the words are between three and seven characters long and only repeat the same letter twice (Schickedanz, 1999). Known as mock words, these creations look like real words. After creating mock words, children frequently ask adults what the words say. The adult may attempt sounding out the words and realize that they don’t say anything and inform the child of that fact. Realizing that they can’t simply string a series of letters together, children may begin asking adults how to spell words or copy words from signs or books. As adults write multisyllabic words for children, they might sound them out as they write each syllable and also say the letters. Hearing words sounded out, children catch on to the idea that letters represent speech sounds. Since the the words they hear have been spoken in syllables as they were written, the children may use one letter to represent each syllable and one letter for the final sound and produce spellings such as jrf for giraffe.
If you have some insight into the child’s current schema for the writing system, you can provide the kind of explanation that will help them to move to a higher level of understanding. For children who are moving from a visual of physical hypothesis about how the alphabetical system operates to a phonological one, sounding out words as you spell them provides helpful information. Providing many opportunities to write also helps students explore the writing system.