Emergent Literacy: A Promising Beginning

The issue

School success is greatly dependent upon competency with the processes of reading and writing, the elements of print literacy. Many hearing children arrive at school with emergent literacy skills, knowledge acquired from early infancy through the preschool years that provides a smooth transition to more advanced literacy standards taught in formal classroom settings. Components of emergent literacy include letter knowledge, word recognition, print awareness, and narrative skills. The issue is that many deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) children have not acquired these basic understandings at home and, as a result, begin school with language and literacy deficits that can be enormously difficult to counterbalance. Thankfully, these potentially negative effects can be minimized by maximizing DHH children’s access to frequent early literacy opportunities in their first learning environment by their first teachers: their parents.

What we know

We know that DHH children have the same cognitive potential as children who can hear. Nonetheless, we also know that an unacceptably large number of DHH children arrive at school needing to be taught the fundamentals of language and literacy. Fortunately, we know that DHH children can achieve academically when their parents expose them to language from birth and immerse them in rich, meaningful activities that advance emergent literacy development. Three critical factors increase the likelihood of this positive outcome. First, all children require a solid language foundation to become capable readers and writers. Parents can provide this foundation by engaging their children in routine conversations, ensuring that this interaction is conveyed using a shared, comprehensible language. Second, parents must provide their children with copious experiences that are clearly explained to them. These experiences create a storehouse of background knowledge that can be accessed to enhance reading comprehension as well as provide ideas for personal narratives. For children who use manual communication, parents should also incorporate extensive fingerspelling, because it serves as a beneficial bridge between sign language and English print. Third, parents must read to their children regularly. Doing so not only provides opportunities for bonding, but also it prepares children for reading by increasing their interest in books, their knowledge of vocabulary, and their concepts about print such as the fact that text is read from left to write, that illustrations correspond to the print, and that stories have a beginning, middle, and end.

What we don’t know

We don’t know how to fully compensate for the discrepancy between DHH children’s current level of literacy development and age-level literacy expectations when they arrive at school with minimal language skills. Because closing this gap becomes increasingly difficulty as DHH children get older, it would be prudent to begin promoting their language and literacy growth sooner than later. Suggestions for facilitating the attainment of emergent literacy concepts are identified in the next section.


Literacy specialists indicate that children who struggle with reading and writing, typically, come from homes in which emergent literacy is not fostered. Accordingly, there is one clear implication: Parents of DHH children must seize every available opportunity to support language and literacy development in the early years. Below is a list of activities that can be useful to parents in forming a foundation for reading and writing development.

  • Label objects in the home.
  • Communicate about everyday experiences.
  • Point out print (letters, words, signs) in the environment.
  • Go on naming walks, identifying items found indoors and outdoors.
  • Visit the library and bookstores with the child.
  • Make albums of photos with captions of the child’s experiences.
  • Surround the child with many and diverse books and magazines.
  • Create a comfortable, appealing reading space.
  • Ask questions before, during, and after read-alouds.
  • Use picture books and have the child make up stories based on the images.
  • Take a picture walk through various books on topics of interest to the child.
  • Leave notes that contain print and images for the child.
  • Make available flash cards containing words and signs for images.
  • Provide magnetic letters, and encourage the child to experiment with letters and words.
  • Partner with an early interventionist to identify literacy goals and customized strategies.

These are only a few of the numerous strategies that parents can implement to establish and maintain a communication-rich environment, a significant predictor of reading achievement and overall school success. The value of these home literacy activities in cultivating emergent literacy growth as early as possible in the lives of DHH children can be summed up in a pertinent quotation by Plato: “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”

Posted on July 12, 2019 by
Carl Williams
Flagler College


Further reading