Natural Moments with Literacy

Emergent Literacy_Pete's a Pizza_Playing with Books

It sometimes feels like we are at a cross-roads in education. On one hand, many schools are focused on academic assessments and goals – even in the early years. On the other hand, there is a growing movement to slow down and let kids be kids. Does learning how to read earlier really make a difference? My personal experience suggests that earlier is not necessarily better. My eldest daughter, whom I, admittedly, pushed in preschool to learn the alphabet, is an excellent reader. But my youngest daughter, whom I never pushed, is also an avid reader and has been reading “above grade level” for a couple of years now. As caregivers, it is hard to know what is the right approach. We want the best for our children, but we too feel pressure. We also feel compelled to prepare our children for their next steps. So while many of us, educators and caregivers alike, might not subscribe to the idea the reading earlier is better, we still might feel obligated to help prepare our children for the demands that society and our educational institutes place on them.

At a recent professional development day workshop, we were asked the question of how we address issues of literacy, especially within our emergent curriculum. This question made our team stop and think — not because we don’t consider literacy, but because, we realized, it is embedded naturally into the work we do with children. When we think about literacy, we think about how it supplements the children’s natural curiosity, how it enriches the environment and play, and how it connects to our learning within museums and the community. At SEEC, we are not necessarily teaching children how to read but offering them literacy rich experiences that connect to topics in which they are interested and make sense within their daily routine. As part of our reflection on literacy, we compiled a photo journal of what it looks like in our classrooms.  We look forward to continuing our discussion at our upcoming workshop Emergent Literacy Using Objects.


Words and letters can be seen on almost every element of  our classrooms. We are careful to put signs at children’s eye level even if the children are too young to be able to read them. Children see adults gaining important information from looking at these signs and will often go up to them and try to decode information as well. To make this more developmentally appropriate, we pair the written words with images. These images make the signs and letters more meaningful to the children and helps them to pair words with ideas.

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Emergent Literacy_signs with words and pictures_bathroom_handwashing



Having a group of young children move from one activity to another always proves to be a challenging time in a classroom. We regularly use games and songs that focus on letters, reading, and literacy to help ease the stress that comes with transitions. As children grow we make these transitional games more challenging to meet their developmental needs. For example, in our two year old classroom each child may try to find the first letter of their name before they leave circle to wash their hands before snack. This game is adapted in the four year old room to trying to find all or most of the letters in their name. This activity helps to keep the group engaged and focused as they prepare to begin a new activity.

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Children learn through play and play has been show to be vital to children’s overall well being. Yet many parents and educators grow concerned that children will not have the opportunity to learn basic academic skills if they spend all their time playing. At SEEC, we integrate play and academic learning by providing opportunities for both to occur simultaneously. For example, if children are pretending that they are at a restaurant, we will put out pads of paper and pencils so the pretend server can write down the order.

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Sensory play also encourages young children to try to pick up and explore new materials. While interacting with these materials, children are strengthening the same muscles and coordination that they will use when holding a pencil and writing.

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Our use of community, museums, and objects is a key component to literacy at SEEC. In some cases, it is as clear-cut as narration for our youngest students. Children who have the opportunity to learn outside the walls of their classroom, also have the chance to expand their own world. As they see things, our educators are there to respond to them and help them build their vocabulary. For our older children, our faculty often finds naturally occurring instances to recognize letters and symbols. For example, reading street signs. We also feel that using the community can help children connect words with real objects and thus, facilitate their understanding. Children learn that the color blue can be a deep, dark blue in a painting at the Hirshhorn and also the light blue they see in the sky. Our community also allows us to explore language and literacy via different perspectives like the one pictured below. In this case, children learned about the artwork of Xu Bing and thought creatively about how to apply language to their own artwork.

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