The Emergence of Early Childhood Literacy

Julia Gillen & Nigel Hall. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

In this chapter we explore, rather briefly, how the approaches researchers bring to studying young children and written language have changed across time, and how in the process critical concepts have been redefined leading to the emergence of early childhood literacy as a major research focus at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We are making the claim that research into early childhood literacy is a very recent phenomenon. This may surprise many people; after all, formal research into the ways in which children have learned about written language has been going on for well over a century, and if an informal definition is adopted then it would be over many centuries, maybe even millennia. However, we want to claim that there are specific attributes of the term early childhood literacy research that distinguish it from the many earlier meanings that have underpinned the ways in which previous researchers have examined young children’s relationships with written language.

The story of how early childhood literacy emerged as a distinctive and dynamic research area is a fairly complicated one and to do it full justice would require more space than is available to us. To keep control of our account and to contain it within the space allowed us, we have decided to focus on a small number of themes, each of which we see as significant in the emergence of early childhood literacy as now understood. There is, to start with, a crude historical direction in the order of our themes; however, this becomes more difficult to sustain as we move towards the end of the twentieth century and at this point considerable overlap is unavoidable. We are conscious that in this short chapter we have to be selective about the choices made for discussion. We select mostly book-length studies for particular emphasis; for although ideas tend to find their first output in journals or theses they are then consolidated more comprehensively in books. Our choices are necessarily personal ones and we do not claim that we always use the most significant texts of their kind (although they may be), or that they are themselves the most influential texts, and neither do we claim that together they represent a completely coherent story. We reflect our perceptions at the changing nature of attitudes, values and influences at the particular shifting intersection among disciplines that constitutes research into learning and using written language in early childhood.

The Move towards ‘Literacy’ and ‘Childhood’

Psychology, Written Language and Young Children

We have chosen to start at the end of the nineteenth century. It was a time in which researchers from one discipline had begun to take a specific interest in young children’s relationship with written language, although we are certainly not suggesting that it had been completely ignored before this. At this point it would be very unusual to find anyone researching literacy as, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘literacy’ was first used in print in 1883. In the nineteenth century researchers, and anyone else, talked about reading and writing rather than literacy.

Even as the modern discipline of psychology emerged in Wundt’s laboratories, it took a research interest in reading. The major theme of this early work was that reading is primarily a perceptual activity centred on sound/symbol relationships. The linking of sound and vision made reading susceptible to the interests of perceptual psychologists partly because they focused upon individual behaviour and partly because aspects of perceptual behaviour could be measured (Catell, 1886). A second theme was acceptance of the notion that learning was unlikely to take place unless children were ‘ready’ (mentally and physically). The notion of readiness in association with reading appears to have been used first by Patrick (1899), was supported by Huey (1908) and remained a dominant concept in young children’s reading for the next 60 years. Huey’s seminal work typifies these characteristics. A lot of it is devoted to visual perception and reading, while in the pedagogy section Huey seeks to reconcile psychological evidence relating to readiness with the current practice of starting children early on reading. His answer seems in some respects to be quite contemporary: root early written language experiences in play.

It was, however, readiness that won. In 1928, two US psychologists began to formally explore reading readiness (Morphett and Washburne, 1931). They claimed reading readiness was closely linked to mental age and, more specifically that, ‘It pays to postpone beginning reading until a child has attained a mental age of six years and six months.’ This position was supported by a later study which claimed, ‘A mental age of seven seems to be the lowest at which a child can be expected to use phonics’ (Dolch and Bloomster, 1937). That these studies were based on ludicrous and arbitrary notions of what counted as reading (and for a stunning critical review of these studies see Coltheart, 1979) and ‘satisfactory progress in reading’ did not stop the educational world from falling in love with their propositions. For the next 50 years books about teaching reading repeated the readiness mantras of these four researchers. A number of consequences followed these research studies. First, an industry emerged concerned with promoting and selling reading readiness, usually with non-print-related activities and materials. Secondly, the limited definition of reading perpetuated a notion of learning to read as an associative activity, centred on perceptual identification and matching. Thirdly, it supported an absolute distinction between being a reader and not being a reader.

The emphasis on measurable behaviour was abetted by the dominance at this time of behaviourism which, in its various guises, claimed to be able to control reading development through systematic reinforcement systems. By breaking down reading into narrow skills and by linking the learning of these skills to reinforcement systems, so children were supposed to acquire mastery of them (Skinner, 1957). Like much research into children’s reading, it was based on a number of assumptions: that children’s agency was insignificant, that children could learn nothing for themselves, that they were objects to be manipulated by teachers, and that reading and writing were individual acts involving sets of discrete perceptual skills. Behaviourist theories of language learning were dealt a severe theoretical blow by Chomsky (1959) in a major review of Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior. On the whole, behaviourist approaches to literacy learning only survive in some areas of special education or in more experimental situations using mastery learning.

The major consequence of behaviourism and reading readiness theories was that for much of the twentieth century researchers seemed to have believed that there was simply no point in investigating or even considering very young children’s thinking about, understanding of and use of reading and writing; the possibility of this had been defined out of existence until they arrived in school and faced a teacher.

New Disciplines and Literacy

To a large extent the Second World War provided a new impetus for research into literacy, although the driving notion was ‘illiteracy’ and it was mostly associated with adults. It was this war with its increased requirements for more advanced skills that really emphasized the significance of low literacy levels. The concept of functional literacy emerged during the war and was widely adopted in development education within mass literacy campaigns (Gray, 1956; and see Akinnaso, 1991, for a personal perspective on this area) and later in adult and employment education. The notion of functional literacy for the first time forced researchers to be interested in what literacy was for and what people did with it in their everyday lives. Almost for the first time research began to consider reading as something more than simply a decoding process and that it had a social element. It also led to the realization that it was not only reading that needed to be considered, but also writing, although it remained true that reading received much greater attention than writing.

Another way in which the Second World War influenced research into literacy was through the emergence and consolidation of newer disciplines: cognitive psychology, the general area of information and communication studies, and psycholinguistics. These disciplines consistently revealed that communication, especially written communication, was a complex, multilayered, and highly skilled process involving a reflective and strategic meaning-oriented approach to behaviour. While much of this work was related to adults, one book began to powerfully pull threads together and apply it to children learning to read. This book was Frank Smith’s Understanding Reading (1971). It was not a research study itself, but it used a mass of evidence and theoretical work deriving from these newer disciplines. This evidence came from new studies into cognitive perception (Neisser, 1967; Gibson, 1969), skilled behaviour (Miller et al., 1960), communication and information theory (Pierce, 1961; Cherry, 1966; Miller, 1967), linguistics (Chomsky, 1957; 1965), developmental psycholinguistics (McNeill, 1966) and developmental cognition (Bruner et al., 1956; 1966) and from those educationalists who were beginning to make use of these new disciplines (Goodman, 1968).

Smith’s book immediately attracted both huge support and massive opposition and severely divided educationalists. It would not be unfair to describe this division as ‘war’, with such vitriol were these differences manifested. Despite this substantial opposition, Smith’s book regenerated and broadened reading-related research, which swiftly flourished and began to move in directions that even Smith had not anticipated.

Smith’s analysis and synthesis had a number of consequences for the emergence of early childhood literacy:

  • Reading could no longer be seen simply as an associative process. It had to be recognized as a much more complex activity involving cognitive and strategic behaviour, and the approach of young children to print reflected this complexity and use of strategy.
  • The narrowness of research into reading was breached and the area was opened up as a topic for scrutiny and influence from a much wider set of disciplines than psychology (although this was only a beginning).
  • Meaning could no longer be seen as simply sitting there in a text. It was readers who assigned meaning to print and children did this in similar ways to adults, although drawing on different experiences.

What Smith had not done in 1971 was (1) move beyond a reading-oriented understanding of print usage, and (2) follow through his own logic and consider whether children who had all these complex abilities were applying them to comprehending and making print long before they moved into formal schooling. However, these newer disciplines had begun to reposition the understanding of written language as a much more dynamic and interactive process. It was these meanings that were carried forward and developed by other researchers.

The Emergence of ‘Emergence’

At the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, views on the relationship between childhood and written language were changing dramatically. There had long been interest (mostly from psychologists) in how some children arrived in school able to read (Durkin, 1966; Clarke, 1976; Forester, 1977) but such early engagement with literacy (and again it was always reading) was studied because it was believed to be unusual. Asking explicitly how young children made sense of literacy had begun with psychologists such as Reid (1966) and Downing (1979) but had extended to a crop of studies appearing in the late 1970s and even continuing to the early 1980s. These tended to focus on children in early schooling (Johns, 1976-7; Tovey, 1976). At the same time other researchers were exploring this issue in what was ultimately a more powerful way. Clay (1969), Read (1970) and Goodman (1976) became interested in the strategic behaviour of children engaging in literacy and it was their approach that led to some major shifts in the conceptualization of early childhood and literacy. Rather than ask explicit questions of children, something that is always going to be problematic, they looked at children’s actual behaviours while engaged in literacy. They saw that while many of the children’s literacy behaviours were technically incorrect, they nevertheless revealed how children were strategic in approaching literacy and were working hard to develop hypotheses about how the system worked. If children aged five and six were bringing sense-making strategies to literacy, and if research from developmental psychology was demonstrating that school-aged young children were actively making sense of their worlds, then how were even younger children responding to literacy? As Ferriero and Teberosky put it in their seminal study:

It is absurd to imagine that four-or five-year-old children growing up in an urban environment that displays print everywhere (on toys, on billboards and road signs, on their clothes, on TV) do not develop any ideas about this cultural object until they find themselves sitting before a teacher. (1982: 12)

A number of individual case studies, by researchers studying their own children, began to explicitly focus on the period before schooling. Lass (1982) started with her child from birth, Baghban (1984) from birth to three, Crago and Crago (1993) from three to four, Payton (1984), the first British case study, across the fourth year, while Bissex (1980) followed her son during his fifth year. All showed clearly how their children were paying a lot of attention to print. Literacy was certainly beginning before schooling. At the same time researchers began reporting on broader studies involving a wider range of children (Clay, 1975; Mason, 1980; Hiebert, 1981; Harste et al., 1982a; Sulzby, 1985). A revolution was taking place that demanded a revaluation of literacy as something that moved beyond any conventional ability to read and write. Rather than literacy development being something that began at the start of schooling after a bout of reading readiness exercises, it was becoming a much broader continuum that had its origins in very early childhood and drew its meaning from making sense rather than formal teaching.

This rich range of studies during the 1970s and early 1980s, reflected two major moves by researchers:

  • There was increasing recognition of the role that young children played in making sense of literacy; that even the very youngest were strategic literacy learners who paid attention to the print world, participated in it in their own ways, and developed theories about how it worked. A new field of study appeared – emergent literacy.
  • This change involved a redefinition of literacy, such that literacy began to be viewed as a much broader set of print-related behaviours than those conventionally experienced in education.

If a criticism could be made of much of the research in this period, it would be that research tended to be more pragmatic than deeply theoretically based. Subsequent developments would change this. Nevertheless, early childhood literacy had begun to emerge and this shift was to be greatly facilitated by research that was focusing more closely on the nature of literacy outside of schooling.

The Impact of Social and Cultural Perspectives

It is at this point that any notion of maintaining a chronological sequence, however crude, breaks down, for during the last 20 years of the twentieth century a rich range of research and theoretical perspectives began to impact upon the study of young children and written language, and did so in ways that often overlapped or were inextricably intertwined. As a consequence, the following sections should be viewed in no way as discrete areas, but as aspects of a complex mixture of ideas that would, once again, redefine how young children’s relationship with reading and writing could be understood.

The Entry of Cultural Psychology

We will start with a re-entry of psychology into this story. Chronologically the work of the Russian psychologist Vygotsky belongs to the first part of the twentieth century (he died in 1934). However, after the 1962 translation of Thought and Language his work began to have an important influence on research into child development, language and thinking. It was however only more recently (after later translations: Vygotsky, 1978) that his work began to influence research on literacy. The feature of Vygotsky’s work that captured the interest of researchers was his recognition of the role of culture in learning, especially that individuals are inseparably connected to cultural history. This made a timely connection with the powerful emergence of sociology and anthropology into literacy research (see next sections).

Vygotsky had a particular interest in the ways in which children use many mediational tools to construct meaning (Lee and Smagorinsky, 2000), an interest shared with more semiotic theorists (see later). In particular, pretence play was seen by him as a very powerful opportunity for children to appropriate the symbols and tools of their culture (Vygotsky, 1967). Vygotsky argued that language, for example, is first experienced around the child and comes to be used by the child; it is within the flow of experience of that participation in society that language is internalized and understanding develops. Vygotsky was also very interested in how the learning relationship between children and their culture developed. In modern research this has primarily revolved around the dyadic exchanges that occur within what is usually termed the zone of proximal development, although Vygotsky himself never studied such exchanges as mother-child problem-solving dialogues (Van der Veer and Valsiner, 1994). Despite this, many scholars have explored naturally efficient pedagogic strategies, especially in dyads, examining how adults can structure children’s routes into learning from participation and partial understanding to internalization and expertise. Concepts such as ‘scaffolding’ (Wood et al., 1976), ‘structuring situations’, ‘apprenticeship’ (Rogoff, 1986; 1990) and ‘assisted performance’ (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988) have been particularly influential.

Ethnography and Literacy outside of Schooling

That home circumstances made a difference to children’s relationship with written language had been known to researchers for a very long time. However, the role of the home was essentially positioned as a handmaiden to schooling. It was sociology and anthropology with their interests in cultural socialization, the development of sociolinguistics with its interest in language as a social practice (Hymes, 1974) and the growing interest in emergent literacy that led researchers in the 1970s and 1980s to look at literacy and homes in different way.

Instead of trying to correlate literacy performance with crude socio-economic indicators, for the first time researchers began to ask in detail how literacy practice operated in homes and how these experiences might influence children’s attitudes to and knowledge about literacy. Shirley Brice Heath (1983) brought ethnography to studying literacy in families but, significantly, looked beyond the family to the community. Across a 10-year period she examined how different community language and literacy discourses encultured children. She followed these children into schooling and explored how their early experiences interrelated with the discourses of schooling, demonstrating powerfully different effects on the children’s lives in school. In the same year as Heath’s book was published another anthropologist, Taylor (1983), introduced the phrase ‘family literacy’ after spending three years working with six families in exploring how the children developed ideas and knowledge about literacy in their homes and how this related to their literacy experiences in schools. Neither Heath nor Taylor focused specifically upon younger children. They did not have to, as the ethnographic study of family and community literacy life included all participants in relation to each other; young children and their literacy-related behaviours appeared now in context.

Heath and Taylor were part of a significant shift in literacy studies, a shift that began to emphasize the social nature of literacy. Street (1984) after examining different theories of literacy and analysing community literacy practices in Iran concluded that Western academic models of literacy, while widespread, failed to represent the different ways in which literacy was embedded in cultural practices. Describing the Western model as treating literacy like an autonomous object, he developed the ideas of ideological ‘literacies’ in which different cultural and community discourses led to significantly different ways of valuing and using literacy (something also explored in Africa by Scribner and Cole, 1981, and in Alaska by Scollon and Scollon, 1981). Thus from different cultural contexts children would be bringing very different conceptions of literacy to the autonomous practices of school literacy.

The introduction of ethnography to studying literacy as a social practice was very important. Uncovering the nature and significance of literacy within family and community life required different approaches, and ethnography – with its focus on detailed description, the evolving of themes, the valuing of participants’ perspectives, and the development of different relationships between researchers and subjects – allowed extremely detailed research to flourish.

Considering literacy as a social practice became and remains a dominant theme in literacy studies and most frequently draws heavily, although not always directly, on ethnography. Much subsequent research concentrated on developing more theoretical accounts of literacy (for instance, Gee, 1996; Baynham, 1995; Lankshear, 1997), or on exploring specific community literacy practices (for example, Besnier, 1995; Barton and Hamilton, 1998). Others paid more attention to children (for example, Fishman, 1988; Lofty, 1992) and some have concentrated on older children and adolescents (for example, Voss, 1996; Finders, 1997; Knobel, 1999).

But how was all this work impacting on the emergence of early childhood literacy?

  • It demonstrated clearly that literacy cannot be divorced from language as a whole, nor from its wider cultural context. Literacy is given meaning by the cultural discourses and practices in which it is embedded and young children are from birth witnesses to and participants in practices.
  • In uncovering young children’s literacy lives in families and communities it drew attention to how young children are learning to mean with a much wider notion of literacy than previously considered, thus opening the way for later investigation of broader notions of authorship, young children’s relationship to popular culture, and their involvement in the new technologies of communication.
  • It has raised and invited powerful questions about the relationship between literacy as a social practice and literacy in schooling at a time when in many parts of the world the autonomous model of literacy was being increasingly privileged by governments.

The Literacy Classroom as a Dynamic Social Space

The research shifts identified so far had been increasingly opening up literacy as a complex practice, but there still seemed to be both an implicit and often an explicit assumption that in classrooms the activity of teaching literacy was much less problematic. While earlier studies had begun to reveal that young children were strategic, active learners when faced with classroom reading demands, classrooms were still typically viewed as less dynamic situations in which children were positioned as passive consumers of literacy knowledge. Drawing on theoretical stances derived from ethnomethodology and social interactional perspectives (Garfinkel, 1967; Hymes, 1974; Goffman, 1981; Bloome and Green, 1984) a number of researchers began to problematize this instructional space. As they explored in considerable detail the activities and behaviours that made up everyday classroom life, these environments, far from being places where teachers simply taught and children simply learned, were gradually uncovered as complex communicative spaces. Children were not simply learning the academic content of lessons, but were learning (or contesting) the ways of being in classrooms. Classrooms began to be perceived as dynamic spaces that had social structures, academic structures and activity structures, all of which were interlocked and interdependent (Erickson and Mohatt, 1982).

McDermott (1979) explored the discursive construction of identity and how this impacted upon performances of literacy in second-grade classrooms. With the aid of painstaking investigation of frame-by-frame video playback, McDermott demonstrated that children in the apparently chaotic bottom group were actually responding in ways that were as equally strategic as the responses of children in the manifestly achieving top group. McDermott set his analysis not in the context of prior investigations into educational achievement, nor indeed in mainstream psychology, but rather in the micro-sociological questioning of how people in their moment-by-moment behaviour negotiate and construct their roles and identities. This detailed, almost second-by-second examination of classroom activities became a common procedural technique in an effort to locate precisely how literacy sessions were constructed and negotiated during interactions between teachers and students, and between student and student (Green, 1987; Bloome, 1989; Heap, 1989; Floriana, 1993).

One consequence of this research was a growing focus on what it was that children brought to literacy sessions, both academically and socially: for instance, that child participation depended not only on the teacher’s rules for participation but the child’s standing and relationships with its peers. These more finely focused observations gradually changed from simple comparisons between the language and literacy of home and school in which the child’s language in school was seen as somewhat impoverished. Increasingly researchers discovered that whatever the formal agendas of schooling might demand, within them children were nevertheless making rich use of their out-of-school language and literacy lives both in adolescence (Gilmore, 1986) and in early childhood (Dyson, 1989; 1993; 2002).

While the socially oriented work of the researchers in the previous two sections has been highly significant, it has also been criticized for not connecting with wider concerns of a social theory of pedagogy: ‘the cross-generational production and reproduction of knowledge and power’ and ‘the complex fabric of texts and discourses through which social representation and reproduction is effected’ (Luke, 1992: 108). These wider perspectives on literacy emerged from the work of theorists associated with discourse studies (Lankshear and Lawler, 1987; Luke, 1988; Baker and Freebody, 1989; Edelsky, 1996; Gee, 1996), although these have their origins in a long history of social, political and philosophical theory (Bourdieu, 1977; 1990; Foucault, 1979; 1988). Discursive approaches broaden the scope of studies in family and classroom life by examining how these social institutions are located in discourse structures and wider ideologies (Gee, 1996). Discourses are deeply embedded and largely invisible to participants within them (although not to those outside them). Some discourses have historically gained immense power and status, something that becomes unproblematic to those subscribing to their ideas and practices. The impact of this area is likely to become increasingly powerful as there is wider appreciation of how discourses and ideologies position participants, materials and practices within early childhood (Cannella, 2002).

Literacy as a Semiotic Practice

If there is one thing that most of the research written about so far has in common, it is that it focuses on literacy as an activity involving the use of print. To most people this would seem to be an a priori condition of researching literacy, but one of the more recent shifts in early childhood literacy has been as a result of social semiotic theory. This theory is concerned with ways in which meaning is made in social contexts (Eco, 1979; Halliday, 1974). Conventionally literacy is an act of meaning making, whether it be in interpreting a text or generating a text, and it has always been acknowledged that there are many other forms of meaning making, e.g. through art, music and dance. Historically these have always been linked generally as ‘creative’ areas, but specifically separated as cultural practices. Thus, for instance, there is a long history of studies of children’s literacy, and a strong history of studies of children’s drawings (for example, Kellog, 1969; Goodnow, 1977; Gardner, 1980), giving the impression that these activities are quite distinct. Social semiotic theory points out that as forms of meaning making they, and all other forms of meaning, have as many similarities as differences, and that it is only history and ideology that assign particular values to these differences.

Children from very early on utilize a rich range of ways to make meaning and, while they might be able to distinguish between them as forms, they utilize whatever they feel is appropriate in whichever ways they want to intend a meaning. One of the earliest team of researchers to explore this area, albeit embryonically, was Harste et al. (1984b). They believed that young children’s meaning making used exactly the same overall strategies as that of adults, but that their results reflected differences in experience and interest. Although focusing mostly on print-related meaning making by young children, they nevertheless viewed authoring as something that could move across communication systems and which was truly multimodal. This was taken further by Rowe (1994) in her study of preschoolers as authors. She points out that young children do not feel excessively constrained by society’s distinctions between communication systems, and the belief of many that young children use a variety of graphic media because they cannot write reflects a major failure to understand how powerfully children were switching between modalities as their intents shifted.

The seminal text in this area is Before Writing (Kress, 1997). While acknowledging that children increasingly become aware of the ways in which conventions operate, Kress points out that learning is not simply a unidirectional movement in which children take on board a socially determined world. Children as well as adults transform the world while operating within its conventions. He argues powerfully that children’s use of signs, symbols and modalities is not arbitrary but is structured and reflects strategic choices by them to represent things that are important to them. Like Harste et al., earlier, he argues that it is experience and interest that distinguish their meaning making from that of adults, not their strategies. Young children choose what they want to represent and then select the best possible means for doing it (1987: 93). What is best (and often very complex) may come from different modes, means and materials, regardless of whether adult culture uses or sanctions such selections.

In recent years a number of scholars associated with Kress have begun to publish in this area (Pahl, 1999; 2002; Lancaster, 2001; Kenner, 2000). Pahl has examined meaning making in nursery school as well as the home and demonstrates how the texts young children create, while often ephemeral and ‘messy’, nevertheless represent a crossroads where adults’ preoccupations, children’s popular culture and interests, and the school and family narratives are played out. Lancaster focuses on how successfully an 18-month child explored in complex ways different forms of graphic representation, while Kenner has more recently explored how five-year-old bilingual children understood different graphic systems of writing, what she termed ‘signs of difference’. This stress on the continuity of literacy with other semiotic systems can be linked to an emphasis on the multimodality of all communicative behaviour (Finnegan, 2002) and even the argument that in all modes symbolic representations should logically be defined as ‘literacies’ (Lemke, 1998).

Finally it should be noted that while very young children have little social or economic power and their transformations may not impact significantly upon the wider world, as children get older this changes when as adolescents their linguistic and multimodal transformations become powerful enough to generate considerable (but ultimately futile) resistance by adults.


We are conscious that our survey has necessarily been short, is very selective and partial, and inevitably reflects the histories of the authors. We are keenly aware that nowhere have we been able to do justice to the complexity of the perspectives included (and certainly not to those that have not been included) but know that many of the following chapters offer the opportunity to explore recent perspectives more deeply.

We began this survey at a point where the relationship between early childhood and literacy appeared relatively straightforward and unproblematic, and have explored how this relationship became more complex and problematic during the twentieth century. It is clear that these changes have been dramatic and now reflect a hugely different construct of the relationship between children and written language, a perspective that can now justifiably be termed early childhood literacy. We hope we have also shown how these changes are not discrete but are situated in much wider and deeper changes in the way research, culture, and society have been conceived. So what is now implied by the use of the phrase ‘early childhood literacy’?

We would want to claim that:

  • It is an all-embracing concept for a rich range of authorial and responsive practices using a variety of media and modalities, carried out by people during their early childhood.
  • It is a concept that allows early childhood to be seen as a state in which people use literacy as it is appropriate, meaningful and useful to them, rather than a stage on a path to some future literate state. It is not about emergence or becoming literate, it is about being literate; and it allows the literacy practices and products of early childhood to be acknowledged as valid in their own right, rather than perceived as inadequate manifestations of adult literacy.
  • It is a concept that allows early literacy to move way beyond the limitations and restrictions of schooling and extend into all domains of the lives of people in early childhood.
  • It is a concept that has evolved out of contestation, innovation and reconceptualization and one that has become and continues to be susceptible to the scrutiny of a wide range of theoretical and methodological positions. It is not a concept that has finished evolving, nor will it ever do so. As a position it recognizes that it is a social construct and as such will never achieve fixity.

We would also want to claim that the study of early childhood literacy is in a healthy state. It is a dynamic, fresh and continuously invigorating area, as is shown by the chapters that follow. It is also, unfortunately, an area where much of the contemporary research has had very limited impact upon political views about pedagogic practice. We would, however, want to point out that the study of early childhood literacy is no longer constrained by pedagogic demands; it is now an area of investigation that has integrity in its own right.