Teaching children to read is a challenging task that has captivated the imagination and competitive spirit of educators for decades. In the past 100 years, theories relating to childhood literacy have evolved, and educators have continuously explored the mental capabilities of children. Until the 1950s, educators believed that children weren't capable of beginning the path to literacy until they reached a certain age. In the 1960s, Marie Clay developed the emergent learning theory, which posed that children begin acquiring literacy skills long before they are able to read independently. The theory rests on the principle that the path to literacy begins as the child learns to speak. The emergent learning theory includes five stages of literacy development in children, beginning with infancy.

Awareness and Exploration Stage: Babies and Toddlers

Literacy development begins as the infant first hears the spoken word and is exposed to the difference between spoken and printed words through the use of children's books. Parents are advised to read aloud to infants using brightly colored board books. Nursery rhymes and poetry are encouraged as well, since they are repetitive enough to capture a baby's attention. As the infant becomes a toddler, it is important to begin associating the proper words with the objects in the child's world. A learning game recommended for toddlers involves pointing to an object and asking, "What's that?" At this stage, children will begin to recognize letters and can associate certain letters with the sounds they make.

Experimental Reading and Writing Stage: Preschool Age

At this stage in literacy development, children are learning the alphabet song and the letters to important words like their own name, their parent's names and their home address. Parents are advised to challenge children by pointing to commercial signs and asking the children to name the letters. Children are excited to look at books at this age, and daily reading is encouraged. Children can begin to scribble letters and write their own name at this age.

Early Learning Reading and Writing Stage: Kindergarten to First Grade

As they enter their formal education, children begin to learn to read using phonics. Phonics is the process of recognizing letter sounds and combining two or more letter sounds to form a word. Children write phonetically in this stage. Instead of spelling the word correctly, children will write what they hear when they say the word. The word "picture" is written as "pikcher" by many children in this stage. They understand sentences and the fact that individual words are separated by spaces.

Transitional Reading and Writing Stage: Second and Third Grade

Now able to recognize words for their meaning, children in this stage are able to read without assistance, and are beginning to understand the importance of what is written. Reading comprehension improves in this stage, and children will be able to understand the central thesis of a statement and can put together several ideas to form the whole picture. It may be helpful to ask children to relate the stories to their own lives to help them better understand the book.

Competent Reading and Writing Stage: Fourth Grade and Beyond

At this stage, children have become accomplished readers and are able to read long novels and complex, unfamiliar words. They understand the message in their reading and need no assistance to comprehend stories. As they grow, their interest in reading may grow or wane, but their ability to do so remains intact.

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