Early Literacy Development


The traditional approach to assisting children who are having difficulty learning to read was wait until they were developmentally ready to read (Pinnell, DeFord, & Lyons, 1988). Children with inadequate reading skills were retained or participated in pullout programs (Donley, Baenen, Hundley, 1993). Researchers now believe that it is better to intervene early and provide the necessary services to prevent students from developing a pattern of failure. The fundamentals for being a good reader, cognitive and language skills, are learned before children reach school age. It is essential for parents and early caregivers to read daily to babies and toddlers. “Yet more than 4 in 10 preschoolers, 5 in 10 toddlers, and 6 in 10 babies are not read to regularly” (U.S. Department of Education, 1999, p. 3). Even after children begin school, it is important for parents to stay involved. The community can also play a role in children’s literacy. Summer reading programs benefit all children, but especially poor children, by preventing the decrease of reading skills and promoting the joy of reading (Alexander & Entwisle, 1996).

Through the years there have been lots of theories about the best way to teach reading. We are still fighting the battle of phonics versus whole language. The losers in this battle have been American school children. Fletcher and Lyon (1998) estimate that 10 million school children in the United States are poor readers. Even with the variety of reading programs today, the percentage of children who read well has not changed substantially in more than 25 years (U.S. Department of Education, 1997).

Early Literacy Development Is Needed

More than half of all fourth-graders who are eligible for the free lunch program fail to read at the basic achievement level needed for academic success. “In our highest-poverty public schools, a whopping 68% of fourth-graders fail to reach the basic level of achievement. Only one in ten fourth-graders at these schools can read at the proficient level, the ideal goal for all students” (U.S. Department of Education, 1999, p, 7). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) defines the basic level of reading achievement as partial mastery of the prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade. The proficient level requires solid academic performance and demonstration of competency over challenging subject matter for each grade.

Many at-risk students read below grade level, which contributes to their lack of academic achievement. Low literacy levels show a strong correlation with poverty, crime and unemployment. “On average, welfare recipients ages 17 to 21 read at the sixth-grade level, well below what is needed to earn a living wage. In fact, 43% of those with lowest literacy skills live in poverty” (U.S. Department of Education, 1999, p. 13). The percentage of prisoners in the two lowest levels of reading proficiency is 70% (National Institute for Literacy, 1998). Obviously, poor reading skills affect society as well as the individual.

Expected Benefits

The expected benefits are fairly obvious. Literacy is vital for the workforce. Literate workers make more money and can support themselves. It could be postulated that the prison population would decrease because more people would qualify for jobs. It could also be expected that there would be fewer dropouts because more students would have successful school experiences.

Key Elements of Effective Literacy Instruction

At-risk children are in critical need of effective instruction in the early years in order to develop effective reading and writing skills. Flippo (2001) suggests the following elements of effective literacy instruction:

  • A book-rich literate environment;
  • Teacher read-alouds;
  • Students reading aloud to others;
  • Shared reading;
  • Phonological awareness instruction;
  • Phonics instruction;
  • Reading comprehension strategy instruction;
  • Writing strategy instruction;
  • Variety of reading and writing activities; and
  • Time for reading and writing.

Early intervention is important for students who are struggling with reading and writing. Pikulski (1994) stresses the importance of coordinating the intervention with regular classroom instruction so that they complement each other.


Alexander, K. & Entwisle, D. (1996). Early schooling and educational inequality: Socioeconomic disparities in children’s learning. In J. S. Coleman (Ed.), Falmer sociology series (pp. 63-79). London: Falmer Press.

Anderson, R.C., Hiebert, E.H., Scott, J.A., & Wilkinson, I. A. G. (1985). Becoming a nation of readers. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois, Center for the Study of Reading.

Donley, J., Baenen, N., & Hundley, S. (1993). A study of the long-term effectiveness of the Reading Recovery Program (E&R Report No. 93.09A). Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, Atlanta, GA.

Fletcher, J.M., & Lyon, G.R. (1998). Reading: A research-based approach. In W.M. Evers (Ed.), What’s gone wrong in America’s classrooms (pp.49-90). Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Flippo, R. (2001). About the expert study: Report and finding. In R. Flippo (Ed)., Reading researcher in search of common ground (pp. 5-12). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

National Institute for Literacy. (1998). Fast facts on literacy & fact sheet on correctional education. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Pikulski, J. (1994). Preventing reading failure: A review of five effective programs. The Reading Teacher, 48, 30-39.

Pinnell, G.S., DeFord, D.E., & Lyons, A.A. (1988). Reading Recovery: Early intervention for at-risk first graders. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

U.S. Department of Education (1999). Start early, finish strong: How to help every child become a reader. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Department of Education. (1997). NAEP 1996 trends in academic progress. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics.