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Birth to Three: Building a Foundation for Literacy (Part I)

Birth to Three: Building a Foundation for Literacy (Part I)
Margot E. Kelman, PhD, CCC-SLP, Penelope E. Webster, PhD, CCC-SLP, Nancye C. Roussel, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Literacy Consultant, Margot Kelman
January 14, 2008
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Literacy development begins at birth and continues throughout the life span (Neuman & Roskos, 1998). The earliest phases of literacy developmentthe period between birth and the time when children read and write on their ownis referred to as the emergent literacy or early literacy period. Early literacy consists of the skills and knowledge that are developmental precursors to traditional forms of reading and writing (Makin & Whitehead, 2004; Sulzby & Teale, 1991; Teale & Sulzby, 1986; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Children gain substantial knowledge of language, reading, and writing long before formal literacy instruction begins in school.

Young children experience literacy through a variety of activities and relationships with other people. As children observe their parents actively engaged in activities such as reading newspapers, magazines, books, and maps; checking and responding to email; following recipes; making shopping lists; searching the internet for new information, writing birthday or holiday cards; or simply reading instructions for putting a toy together, they begin to make connections with print (Makin, 2003). These early contacts with print form the basis of a life-long process of reading and writing.

This article addresses the importance of early literacy, its relationship to conventional literacy, and the origins of emergent literacy theory. In addition, the various factors that impact literacy development, such as oral language development, cognitive development, and the home literacy environment are discussed.

A sequel article (Birth to Three: Building a Foundation for Literacy [Part II]), also available at www.speechpathology.com, focuses on facilitating early literacy skills in young children. The early childhood yearsfrom birth through age 8are a critical learning time for children to develop foundational literacy skills that will prepare them for future reading and writing. The sequel article includes a description of the early literacy behaviors in infants and toddlers. Activities and strategies that promote literacy development in the home or early childhood setting are discussed in the sequel article as well as specific literacy behavior milestones.

Why Is Early Literacy Important?

The early childhood yearsfrom birth through age 8are paramount for literacy development. In the early literacy period, children are rapidly developing important foundational skills to prepare them for reading and writing. The skill and knowledge base of early literacy includes the domains of receptive and expressive language (e.g., vocabulary), conventions of print (e.g., understanding that print goes from left-to-right and top-to-bottom on a page), beginning forms of printing (e.g., writing one's name), knowledge of graphemes (e.g., naming letters of the alphabet), grapheme-phoneme correspondence (e.g., knowing that the letter "s" makes the sound /s/), and phonological awareness (e.g., knowing that the word milk begins with the sound /m/, the word sat ends with the /t/ sound, or the word tin has the sound /I/ in the middle (Whitehurst, Zevenbergen, Crone, Schultz, Velting, & Fischel, 1999). These skills develop over the course of the entire early literacy period, from birth to 8 years of age.


margot e kelman

Margot E. Kelman, PhD, CCC-SLP

Margot Kelman, Ph.D., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist in private practice and clinical supervisor at Wichita State University. Her interests are in early childhood speech, language, and literacy development. Dr. Kelman currently supervises the Toddler Emergent Language and Literacy Playgroup at Wichita State University. 

There are no affiliations or financial interests in corporate organizations with commercial products related to this presentation.


Penelope E. Webster, PhD, CCC-SLP

Penelope E. Webster is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of New Hampshire. She holds a doctorate in applied psycholinguistics from Boston University, a master's degree in speech and language pathology from the State University of New York in Geneseo, and a bachelor's degree in speech and language pathology from Northeastern University.

Dr. Webster teaches courses in language acquisition and language disorders. She developed and teaches a course in language-based reading disabilities and one concerned with writing in children with language and learning disabilities. Her research has focused on the relationship between oral language and literacy. She recently completed a program of research investigating the relationship between early phonological development, phonological processing development, and literacy. Currently, she is researching the writing skills of children with language disorders. She is in the initial phase of a writing intervention project.

In addition to teaching and research, Dr. Webster engages in consultation to families and school districts throughout the region. Her consultation focuses on program development for children with language-based literacy disabilities. As part of this work, she regularly assists schools in the development and implementation of effective collaborative teams for the diagnosis and management of literacy disorders in children of school age.


nancye c roussel

Nancye C. Roussel, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Dr. Nancye Roussel is an associate professor and Head of the Department of Communicative Disorders.  She has over twenty years of experience teaching in the areas of voice, swallowing and motor speech disorders as well as the neurophysiology of the speech mechanism.  Her research interests include the use of instrumental analysis in the description of voice and speech disorders. 


Literacy Consultant


margot kelman

Margot Kelman



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