Independent reading and writing (emergent literacy)

​It is important to facilitate children’s enjoyment and love for reading and writing.

This teaching practice expands upon the practices: reading with children and writing with children.

This section covers additional theories and pedagogical strategies to develop children’s independent engagement with texts focussing on emergent readers and writers.

The benefits of independent reading and writing

  
Educators can move dynamically between independent and collaborative emergent literacy experiences, to allow children space and time to explore and create texts of increasing complexity. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.

Creating time and space for independent exploration and creation of texts allows children to experiment with emergent reading and writing behaviours without adult support.

Independent reading and writing can help develop children’s sense of ownership over their skills and provide some quiet time where children can work and explore uninterrupted, at their own pace. 

The importance of children’s independent exploration and creation of texts is supported by the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF, 2016):

They become aware of the relationships between oral and visual representations, and recognise patterns and relationships. They learn to recognise how sounds are represented alphabetically and identify some letter sounds, symbols, characters and signs. - VEYLDF (2016)

Young children begin to explore written communication by scribbling, drawing and producing approximations of writing… They create and display their own information in a way that suits different audiences and purposes. - VEYLDF (2016)

Independent reading pedagogies

As described in the reading with children section, while reading together, children and adults engage in different reading behaviours (as per the gradual release of responsibility model: Duke and Pearson, 2002.

Independent reading requires very little or no educator support, and involves the following:

  • children engage with texts independently without assistance from educators
  • educators may observe children during independent reading or leave them to read by themselves 

In early childhood, where children are unlikely to be “reading” texts (correctly decoding many/most words) on their own, these independent literacy experiences are still important for allowing children to explore and enjoy mimicking the reading process at their own pace. Children can:

  • point out pictures and favourite parts
  • recite familiar parts
  • revisit familiar stories and concepts and find parts they like the most
  • start to recognise short words from repeated readings with adults
  • listen to audiobook versions at the same time as reading through the text
  • enjoy the reading process for an extended period of time.

Encouraging independent reading

It is important to create multiple opportunities for children to independently engage in reading experiences, based on their interests, and at their own pace. The following main strategies can help to encourage children’s independent reading in early childhood settings.

Reading and book corner spaces

  • setting up dedicated reading spaces that are comfortable and appealing for independent exploration of texts, as well as shared reading with peers

See Literacy-rich environment for more information.

Audiobooks

  • educators can source audiobook versions of familiar texts to provide multisensory independent reading experiences
  • by providing headphones (with volume controls to prevent hearing damage), children can use audiobook versions to enhance their independent engagement with books.

Providing books for independent reading

It is helpful to provide books and other texts in which children have shown an interest. Children may also choose books that are unfamiliar or new, but it is also desirable to make available the texts that have already been explored during modelled and shared/guided reading experiences.

As with all emergent reading experiences, it is important to choose a book that:

  • matches the age and language skills of the children
  • includes characters, events, and messages within the story that will appeal to children
  • is the right length for the learning experience
  • highlights aspects of oral language and emergent literacy that can be explored with children or they can practise independently (including making meaning, vocabulary, concepts, phonological awareness, fine motor, text structure and features).

See an overview of types of children’s literature (including ICT texts) in the learning focus Exploring and Creating Texts.

Independent writing

Independent writing pedagogies

As discussed in the writing with children section, during independent writing experiences, children and adults engage in different reading behaviours (as per the gradual release of responsibility of model: Duke and Pearson, 2002; Fisher and Frey, 2013; Pearson & Gallagher, 1983).

Independent writing requires:

  • educators to provide space, materials, and writing stimuli
  • children to create their own texts from beginning to end, drawing upon skills and knowledge gained in other emergent literacy experiences
  • educators to ask children about their drawings/writings, and add any annotations if the child directs them to
  • educators to provide support or scaffolding as needs arise, but children are almost entirely independent.

It is expected that children will use a combination of mark making, scribbling and drawing as their earliest forms of written expression.

Some children will also experiment and begin to use aspects of print in their writing, though it is not required that children use print elements in early childhood settings.

Encouraging independent writing

Through independent writing, children can develop their skills in their own time, and driven by their own writing interests (for example: making meaning and expressing ideas through texts, concepts of print, phonological awareness, early phonics, exploring and creating texts).

Writing areas

Educators can set up these areas for independent exploration of drawing/writing materials, and the creation of texts.

See the Literacy-rich environment for more information.

This text was created using a storytelling experience as a provocation, and the question at the top of the page as a writing framework. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.

Provocations for drawing and writing

Educators can use a range of different stimuli that can spark the beginning of the writing process for children.

These might include pictures, discussion questions, videos, storytelling and other experiences. 

Children may choose to respond to their provocations in writing experiences, or may create their own text

Storytelling experiences can act as a stimulus, and educators may use writing frameworks (see below) to spark writing/drawing ideas from children:

Writing frameworks

'The cake exploded'. A comic strip created by a four-year-old boy, using a writing framework for comics. Image: University of Melbourne Early Learning Centre.

These are frameworks provided to children to help them structure their text creation.

They could include sheets with boxes and spaces for drawing and writing.

For example:

  • boxes for comic book writing
  • space for a list of ingredients/materials and space of numbered steps for a procedural text (like a visual recipe or instructions)  

Providing materials for independent writing

Children’s writing develops further when the learning environment supports early attempts to write. Such an environment includes attentiveness to the classroom setting and materials as well as the instruction provided. Giving children free access to writing materials and print supports their writing development. - Mayer (2007, p. 37) 

Various materials can be provided for independent writing experiences, though educators should make sure they choose materials that are safe for the child to use without active adult supervision. Some ideas include:

  • various sizes and colours of paper
  • envelopes
  • markers, pens and pencils
  • triangular and regular crayons
  • finger crayons
  • letter, number and shape stamps and pads
  • child safety scissors
  • scrap reading material for cutting and pasting
  • stickers
  • dry erase boards
  • envelopes
  • coloured masking tape
  • chalk and chalkboards
  • letter tracing cards
  • magnetic letters and a magnetic board
  • stencils 

Theory to practice

Educational theorists (e.g. Vygotsky, 1978, Bruner, 1990) argue that children’s enjoyment and spontaneous engagement with texts is a critical goal for education of young children. Many see this fostering of enjoyment as linked to their exposure to a rich-literacy environment (in educational settings and the home), as well as time and space to explore texts independently and with more capable peers:

Close observations of young children learning to read suggest that they thrive on the richness and diversity of reading materials and on being read to aloud. In fact, these early experiences feature prominently in the histories of successful readers, those children who not only know how to read but choose to read for learning and pleasure. - Neuman and Bredekamp (2000, pp. 22-23)

In this view of emergent literacy, which is aligned with Piagetian and Vygotskian philosophies, children are seen as active participants who have agency to make sense of and explore their world, using the signs, symbols, and conventions of various texts (see Mackenzie and Scull, 2015 for review; Rowe and Neitzel, 2010).

The ways educators set up independent reading experiences can help children to feel comfortable and supported to explore texts. Independent reading is thus an opportunity for emergent readers to take agency and actively explore texts, depending on their interests and level of familiarity with how texts work, as well as the ins and outs of meaning making systems (including written language).

The ways that researchers have viewed children’s emergent writing has changed over the last thirty years:

For many decades children's first writing efforts were all but ignored by researchers… It is now understood that children who grow up in a literate environment do not wait until school or other formal instruction to explore the features of writing.
They are already experimenting from a very early age, before they begin to understand the alphabetic principle and despite the fact that the writing produced might not be conventional from the perspective of an adult. - Bradford and Wyse (2010, p. 137)

This point - that children are active participants in emergent writing experiences—has been emphasised in Mackenzie and Scull’s (2015) discussion of writing development, in which the authors note that children’s creation of texts occurs through scaffolding from educators, as well as self-initiated writing projects. Importantly, children are supported to write (and draw) for authentic purposes, and for real audiences.

The emergence of intentionality in writing is also an important issue, with researchers noting that children may begin to engage in emergent writing with intentionality from as early as 12 months (Mackenzie and Scull, 2015).

Evidence of intentionality at such young ages is significant because it necessitates appropriate intervention by educators built on positive understandings of children capabilities. - Bradford and Wyse (2010, p. 138)

For this reason, researchers have emphasised that children’s growing emergent literacy capabilities, are dependent not only on developmental progression, but also access to varied writing experiences (Bradford and Wyse 2010; Mackenzie & Scull, 2015)

Mayer (2007) emphasises the importance of fostering children’s fine motor control, providing varied materials and surfaces to work with and on, and modelling how to use implements effectively.

Interestingly, Rowe and Neitzels’ (2010) research has indicated that children with different interests, explore and make use of emergent writing experiences differently:

Children with conceptual interests used writing to explore and record ideas on topics of personal interest. Children with procedural interests explored how writing worked and practiced conventional literacy (e.g., writing alphabet letters).

Children with creative interests explored writing materials to generate new literacy processes and new uses for materials. Children with socially oriented interests used writing to mediate joint social interaction and aligned their activity choices with those of other participants.

The finding that children may have different ways of interacting with texts, based on their interests, can help educators to provide a variety of materials and opportunities to develop different kinds of independent writing experiences.

There is also an important link between this teaching practice (independent reading and writing), and children’s play. Children should be supported to write for real reasons, in age-appropriate ways:

Effective early childhood teachers help children feel free in their writing. They interact with children engaged in play in classroom activity centres and introduce the idea of using writing as a part of children’s play. Mayer (2007, pp. 37-38)

For more information, see:

Evidence base

A meta-analysis (Mol and Bus, 2011) analysing the results from 99 studies, looked at the relationships between print exposure and later reading development. The researchers found that children with frequent emergent literacy experiences (print exposure) had stronger comprehension and decoding skills in later schooling, which in turn supported them to engage in more independent reading time.

The authors stressed the importance of creating time and space for independent reading from an early age, to help create this virtuous cycle between increasing exposure, proficiency, and willingness to engage in more reading:

Developing a reading habit depends not only on environmental factors such as the availability of books at home but also on readers’ language and comprehension skills” (Mol and Bus, 2011, p. 286)

Recent research has also supported the importance of providing emergent literacy experiences, including independent exploration and creation of texts, for the development of children’s interest and proficiency in emergent literacy (Chang, Luo, and Wu, 2016; Hume, Lonigan, and Mcqueen, 2015).   

Links to VEYLDF

Outcome 1: identity

Children develop knowledgeable and confident self-identities

  • use their home language to construct meaning
  • develop strong foundations in both the culture and language/s of their family and the broader community without compromising their cultural identities

Ouctome 2: community

Children become aware of fairness

  • begin to understand and evaluate ways in which texts construct identities and create stereotypes.

Outcome 3: wellbeing

Children take increasing responsibility for their own health and physical wellbeing

  • respond through movement to traditional and contemporary music, dance and storytelling of their own and others' cultures

Outcome 5: communication

Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts

  • view and listen to printed, visual and multimedia texts and respond with relevant gestures, actions, comments and/or questions
  • sing chant rhymes, jingles and songs
  • take on roles of literacy and numeracy users in their play
  • begin to understand key literacy and numeracy concepts and processes, such as the sounds of language, letter–sound relationships, concepts of print and the ways that texts are structured
  • explore texts from a range of different perspectives and begin to analyse the meanings
  • actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways
  • recognise and engage with written and oral culturally constructed texts

Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media

  • share the stories and symbols of their own cultures and re-enact well-known stories
  • use the creative arts, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, drama, dance, movement, music and story-telling, to express ideas and make meaning

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work

  • begin to make connections between, and see patterns in, their feelings, ideas, words and actions, and those of others
  • develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them
  • begin to be aware of the relationships between oral, written and visual representations
  • begin to recognise patterns and relationships and the connections between them
  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme

Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking

  • use information and communication technologies to access images and information, explore diverse perspectives and make sense of their world
  • use information and communications technologies as tools for designing, drawing, editing, reflecting and composing
  • engage with technology for fun and to make meaning.

Experience plans and videos

For ages - early communicators (birth - 18 months):

For ages - early language users  (12 - 36 months)

For ages - language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)

Links to learning foci and teaching practices:

References

Bradford, H., & Wyse, D. (2010). ‘Writing in the early years’ in D. Wyse, R. Andrews, and J. Hoffman (Eds). The Routledge international handbook of English, language and literacy teaching. London: Routledge.

Bruner, J. (1990)Acts of meaning. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press.

Chang, C. J., Luo, Y. H., & Wu, R. (2016). Origins of print concepts at home: Print referencing during joint book-reading interactions in Taiwanese mothers and children. Early Education and Development, 27(1), 54–73.

Duke, N.K. and Pearson, P.D. (2002). Effective reading practices for developing comprehension (Chapter 10), In A.E. Farstrup &S.J. Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2013). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility.2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Hume, L. E., Lonigan, C. J., & Mcqueen, J. D. (2015). Children’s literacy interest and its relation to parents’ literacy-promoting practices. Journal of Research in Reading, 38(2), 172–193.

Mackenzie, N. M., & Scull, J. (2015) ‘Writing’, in S. McLeod & J. McCormack (Eds.), Introduction to speech, language and literacy. South Melbourne, VIC, Australia: Oxford University Press.

Mayer, K. (2007). Research review: Emerging knowledge about emergent writing. Young Children, 62(1), 32–40.

Mol, S. E., & Bus, A. G. (2011). To read or not to read: A meta-analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137(2), 267-296.

Pearson, P. D.,& Gallagher, M. C. (1983) The instruction of reading comprehension, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317-344.

Rowe, D. W., and Neitzel, C. (2010). Interest and agency in 2- and 3-year-olds’ participation in emergent writing. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(2), 169–195.

Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction Third Ed(pp. 205-242), Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Lancaster, L. (2007). Representing the ways of the world: How children under three start to use syntax in graphic signs. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 7(2), 123-154.

Neuman, S. B., and Bredekamp, S. (2000). ‘Becoming a reader: A developmentally appropriate approach’ In D. S. Strickland (Ed.) Beginning reading and writing, New York: Columbia University (pp. 22-34).

Sulzby, E., Teale, W. (1985) Writing development in early childhood. Educational Horizons, 64(1), 8-12

Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training (2016), Victorian early years learning and development framework (VEYLDF). Retrieved 3 March 2018.

Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016) Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10. Retrieved 3 March 2018.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Further reading