Reading with children (emergent literacy)

Engaging children in reading experiences presents infinite opportunities for developing language and emergent literacy skills.

Engaging children in reading experiences presents infinite opportunities for developing language and emergent literacy skills.


This section explores effective pedagogies for creating reading experiences that embed the following learning foci for emergent literacy:

  • concepts of print
  • fine motor
  • phonological awareness
  • phonics
  • making meaning and expressing ideas
  • exploring and creating texts

For an exploration of how oral language can be embedded within this teaching practice, refer to reading with children (interacting with others).

The benefits of reading with children for emergent literacy

When educators share reading experiences with children, it provides numerous opportunities for language and literacy learning. Reading with children is an opportunity to support children to make meaning from texts, and to learn “how texts work” (for example, exploring texts).

Children can also “rehearse” their emergent literacy skills (for example, concepts of print, phonological awareness, making meaning) through the supportive scaffolding from educators.

Texts for different ages

All children’s literature should:

  • engage children emotionally
  • invite involvement
  • provide opportunities for interaction by educators to increase children’s understanding of the book
  • be aesthetically pleasing and include interesting illustrations/photographs

Other suggested features of children’s literature suitable for different ages and learning levels are included in reading with children (interacting with others).

When choosing a book for emergent literacy experiences, think about:

  • the age and language skills of the children
  • what aspects of emergent literacy (making meaning, concepts of print, phonological awareness, phonics, text structure) can highlighted and embedded within the book reading experience
  • how the characters, events, and messages within the story will appeal to children
  • the length of the book

For an overview of types of children’s literature (including ICT texts) refer to the learning focus exploring and creating texts.

Pedagogies for emergent literacy during reading

Reading with children provides numerous opportunities for embedding an emergent literacy focus into the experience (for example, concepts of print, phonological awareness, phonics, making meaning through texts).

During this kind of reading experience, the role of the educator is to scaffold children’s engagement with the text to develop their emergent literacy skills.

While reading together, children and adults engage in different reading behaviours that are grounded in the gradual release of responsibility model (Duke and Pearson, 2002).

This model describes the role of the educator as initially leading reading experiences (modelled reading), and gradually decreasing responsibility as children start to share (shared reading),and eventually lead reading experiences (independent reading). This model is based on Bruner’s (1990) key concept of scaffolding.

Modelled reading behaviours

  • educators lead the reading process, and bring the text to life
  • children listen and make meaning from adults’ narration of and interaction with the text
  • modelled reading allows educators to develop children’s awareness of various emergent literacy foci (for example, concepts of print, phonological awareness, making meaning and expressing ideas through texts etc.)
  • during modelled reading, educators can engage in print referencing, where they point out aspects of print nonverbally (pointing, showing) and verbally: “where do we start reading?” “look at this word, it starts with an uppercase letter” “Is this a P?”; Justice et al., 2010)
  • educators use modelled reading behaviours when texts are too difficult for children to make meaning from them on their own

Shared reading behaviours

Educators provide opportunities for children to engage with texts in collaboration with them. Educators make the reading experience enjoyable and exciting for children. Children comment, describe, and narrate parts of the text they recognise or are familiar with children join in on the repetitive, predictable parts of books (e.g. the repeated sections in books like Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr, illustrated by Eric Carle).

Shared reading is sometimes called Shared Book Experience (Holdaway, 1979; Tompkins, 2009) suggested stages of shared reading include (Holdaway, 1979):

  • Discovery–children share the book reading with the educator for the first time, attempting to join in, or read along as the educator points to the words, making meaning throughout
  • Exploration – educators and children reread the text together (for example, on the next day, or subsequent days), children are more able to join in as they become familiar with the text
  • Independent experience and expression – children are scaffolded to discuss the text and what it meant to them, and express their understanding through play, sociodramatic play, performing/fine arts

Independent reading behaviours

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

In early childhood settings, rather than seeing the above reading pedagogies as fixed or separate, it's useful to model and scaffold these patterns of reading behaviours in a fluid and dynamic way.

Therefore, educators can work to encourage modelled/shared/guided/independent reading behaviours, depending on factors like the child’s previous reading experiences and their familiarity with the text.

This allows educators to create learning experiences that are responsive, intentional, and driven by the needs of individual children (i.e. child-centred) (VEYLDF, 2016).

Facilitating comprehension

Meaning making from texts (emergent reading comprehension) is a key learning focus for emergent literacy.

The pedagogical strategies that follow are used for engaging children’s emergent reading comprehension. Educators should consider children’s ages and language levels, the levels of question difficulty, and the use of closed or open-ended questions. The teaching practice discussions and investigations contains information on choosing question types.

Using background knowledge

Children’s understanding of texts is dependent on their being able to relate the text to the real world. Background knowledge is the awareness and understanding of various concepts and ideas from children’s lives and text experiences. Background knowledge is key to children having successful meaning making experiences with texts.

Fellowes and Oakley (2014) note:

Effective educators constantly help children increase their world knowledge and conceptual knowledge through a range of activities across the curriculum, along with appropriate discussion. They also help children make connections between their existing knowledge, their personal experiences, and what is encountered in texts.
Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 295).

For ways of creating rich language and literacy learning experiences, refer to any of the other teaching practices for interacting with others and emergent literacy.

With support, children can call upon their background knowledge during reading experiences, in order to make sense of texts and how they relate to the world.

Educators should encourage children to think about what they know about topics that relate to the text, before during and after reading experiences:

  • Have you heard of these …... before?
  • Does anyone know what this word means? [choose vocabulary that will come up in the text]
  • This book is like [book name] that we read yesterday!
  • Have you heard of ….. before?
  • Have you ever done ….. before?
  • Where have you seen these?
  • Was that like something we did before?
  • This book was the same/different to [book name] wasn’t it?
  • What did we learn from this book today?


Encouraging children to predict helps to build a sense of anticipation during shared book reading. When prompted, children learn to wonder and predict what might be coming next.

This allows them to practise the behaviours of an emergent reader: “Skilled readers learn to expect the actions, events and ideas that are coming up in the text” (Davis, 2015, p. 51).

Educators can encourage children to predict before, during and after the reading:

  • I wonder what kind of book this is, can someone have a guess?
  • Who is going to be in this book?
  • What is this text going to be about?
  • What might happen in the story?
  • What might we learn from this book?
  • I wonder what will happen next? What do you think?
  • Why do you think …. will happen next?
  • What do you think will be on the next page?
  • But how will they [escape/get it back/find home etc.]?
  • So what do you think will happen, now the story is finished?


Duke and Pearson (2002) argue that children can enhance their meaning making when they create mental images of what is being read, because “a visual display helps readers understand, organise, and remember some of those thousand words” (p. 218).

Encouraging children to visualise the text using their five senses can support their comprehension of the text. When being read to, using an illustrated text, children are already provided rich visual and verbal information.

However, educators can prompt children to think about their other senses as the text is read, including:

  • what sounds they can hear in their mind
  • what smells are associated with the text
  • what tastes might be associated with the text
  • what they can imagine touching as the text is read

In early childhood, educators can help children to develop reading comprehension behaviours, like visualisation, before independent reading emerges. Later, readers can use this visualisation strategy, with some describing it as like “having a movie going on in your mind while you read” (Davis, 2015, p. 61).

Asking and answering questions

Educators can also prompt children to ask questions about the text as it is read. Children can be encouraged to wonder, inquire, and clarify ideas as they arise in the text.

Educators should model how to ask questions using “think-alouds”, for example during the text Little Red Riding Hood, the educator can think aloud the following questions:

  • 'Why has grandma got bigger ears than usual?'
  • ‘Why has Little Red Riding Hood got birthday cake in her basket?'
  • ‘Why is the wolf’s mouth watering?'

While reading texts to children, educators can periodically stop and allow children to think up a question. - Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 305)

After modelling how to ask questions, educators can prompt children to ask their own questions, and spark discussion (as prompted in sustained shared thinking: Siraj-Blatchford, 2010).

An example discussion is:

  • Educator: I wonder what is going on here…
  • Child 1: Is that a puddle?
  • Educator: What do you think?
  • Child 2: It’s wet.
  • Educator: Are puddles wet and muddy?
  • Child 1: He fell in the puddle. It’s slippery
  • Educator: It must be very slippery! He’s slipped into the puddle… And how does he look now?

In this example, when children ask questions educators can often ask another question, instead of giving the answer straight away. This can encourage other children to think deeper, share their ideas, and make meaning collaboratively.


This involves children learning to talk about the main ideas, or the “essence” of a text. To support children’s ability to summarise texts, educators can model how to talk through the main ideas from the text, and what the text is really about.

For a story/narrative text, this involves discussing the start, middle, end of the story; for a non-fiction text, this involves talking about the main topic and ideas covered in the text and some important details or new knowledge.

Helping children to explore and create texts, and build their awareness of how texts work, can help children develop their summarisation skills. Fellowes and Oakley (2014) argue that children who understand that a story has a beginning, middle and end (or an orientation, complication and resolution) are better equipped to identify the main ideas in a story:

‘’Children who have learnt about text structures usually find [summarising] easier because they have a framework to put their summary into’’ (p. 308).

Prompts that educators can use to ask children for a summary of the text includes

Stories and narrative texts:

  • What happened in the story?
  • What was the main event in the story?
  • What happened in the end?
  • How did the characters feel?
  • What did the characters learn?

Informative and expository texts:

  • What was that book about?
  • What was something new that we learnt?
  • Tell me about what you liked in this book?

Children can also use other modes of communication to express their meaning making from texts including: storytelling, play, sociodramatic play, performing arts and fine arts.

Bringing the book to life

Educators should consider how to help the story come to life, and provide engaging experiences for children, including dramatic use of their spoken words, voice, gestures, body language and facial expressions, and characterisation.

It's important for reading experiences to be interactive for children, allowing children to become involved in the reading process in various ways. Sipe’s (2002) theory of expressive engagement explains ways for children to get involved, including:


  • Children may spontaneously act out parts of the texts, like when the wolf enters the story, they may bare their teeth, and pull a scary face.
  • Educators can encourage children to act out or join in with words or actions in the text, to support their meaning making

Talking back

  • This is a form of “audience participation” where children call out to the characters or the reader, with their ideas, like yelling ‘watch out!’ to one of the three little pigs.
  • Educators can encourage children to participate and add their own ideas to the book reading, by using prompts like: “Oh look! What is she going to do?”

Critiquing and controlling

  • This is where children will comment on what they would do if they were the author/storyteller, like children saying “I would tell the pigs to call the police!”


  • This occurs when children insert themselves or someone they know into the story, like if children say “My dad would be the third pig in this story, because he makes good towers!”; or “I could be the wolf in this story… I love blowing out candles.”
  • While too many insertions can interrupt the flow of the text reading, educators can allow children to insert themselves or others into the text, as part of enjoying and making meaning from the text.
  • Educators can also model how they would insert themselves, (e.g. “I would definitely be the second pig in this story; my house is made of wood like his.”)

Taking over

  • This is the most advanced form of engagement, where children want to turn the text into a completely different story.
  • Children may be comfortable enough to take the story and alter the setting, characters, plot, ending etc. to suit their preferences.
  • This resembles the freedom of children to imagine and create during sociodramatic play (interacting with others)

When educators highlight and talk about different aspects of print during book reading experiences, it supports children’s engagement with texts, particularly their knowledge of concepts of print (Justice et al., 2010). Print referencing is defined as:

an adult’s use of nonverbal and verbal cues to direct a child’s attention to the forms, features, and functions of written language. These cues are embedded into the shared storybook reading interactions of adults …and young children…

Print-referencing cues can be nonverbal, such as pointing to print or tracking the print when reading, or verbal, such as asking questions about print, making comments about print, or posing requests about print.- Justice and Ezell (2004, p. 25)

Nonverbal references to print include (Justice and Ezell, 2004; Baker, 2013):

  • pointing to print - adults point to particular aspects of printed text (e.g. letters, words, punctuation, sentences);
  • tracking print - adults track finger along printed text as they read it.

Verbal references to print include (Justice & Ezell, 2004; Baker, 2013):

  • questions about print - e.g. “what’s this letter?” “what do you think this part says”
  • comments about print - for example, “this says: ‘rumble and tumble’”, “that’s an exclamation point, it means we read it with more excitement”
  • requests about print - for example, “show me where the O is”, “can you help me read these words?”

Baker (2013) summarised the following scaffolding opportunities during emergent reading experiences:

Point to print - following modelling, adults can scaffold children to point to:

  • the title of the book or author
  • where to begin reading
  • where to go when finished reading a page
  • the first and last word on a page
  • various punctuation marks

Highlight aspects of print - model how to find particular letters and print features (e.g. upper vs. lower case), then you can scaffold children to find:

  • an uppercase/lowercase letter
  • the letter a child’s name begins with
  • the letter with the “b” sound
  • a one-, two-, or three-letter word

Highlighting emergent literacy foci during reading experiences

While reading with children, educators can take the opportunity to highlight various aspects of literacy, to develop children’s emergent reading skills. Some examples of ways to highlight emergent literacy learning foci are below.

Concepts of print

  • Engage in print referencing behaviours during reading, where educators highlight aspects of print nonverbally (pointing, showing) and verbally (“look at this word, it is an upper case” “Is this a P?”; Justice et al., 2010).
  • During book reading allow children to explore and point our pictures, symbols, and letters they recognise.
  • Introduce alphabet knowledge using themed alphabet books that show how letters can start words and represent concepts.

Fine motor

  • Encourage children to handle books, and help with the turning of pages and pointing out pictures and words.
  • Start with sturdier books like board books and soft material books, and later move onto regular books.

Phonological awareness

Educators should exploit the language features of stories to enhance children’s phonological learning. - Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 92)

Children’s literature and music can be used for highlighting phonological awareness, particularly rhyme and alliteration.

Use books that have rhyming patterns for example, Growl Like a Tiger by Alison Lester:

  • I can quack like a duck(alliteration: same final sound)
  • on a bright sunny day, and cluck like a hen that’s ready to lay. (rhyme)
  • encourage children to join in saying the repetitive sections of a story
  • use books with alliteration (words that start or end with the same sound)

Hairy Maclary's Rumpus at the Vetby Lynley Dodd has great alliteration examples as well as rhyming:

There were miserable dogs,
cantankerous cats,
a rabbit with pimples and rickety rats.

As children become familiar with the story and the patterns, they can start to guess the rhyming word that comes last in the line.

For syllable awareness, clap to show the rhythm and beat of the story as it is read (clapping for each syllable; Fellowes and Oakley, 2014, p. 92).

For example, What’s the Matter Aunty May? By Peter Friend:

I tried to dust your bookshelves, too. Could that have been what bothered you?

Or was it, Aunty, when I tried to fix your bathroom sink, inside - and then I heard that funny thud that burst your pipes and caused that flood?

Verses from A House for Donfinkle by Choechoe Brereton:

Donfinkle looks proudly
from chimney to gate,
and dreams of logs crackling
as evenings grow late. (rhyme)

When down swoops a Flooble
to babble and squawk,
A bothersome taunt full of
troublesome talk. (similar sounding words: assonance).

Donfinkle is fuddled
by the FIoobIe's whine, (alliteration)
so changes the roof,
and the walls and the pine.


  • Introduce simple sound-letter (phonics) patterns using books organised by sound/letter, for example, Possum and Wattle: My Big Book of Australian by Bronwyn Bancroft
  • Use books with lots of alliteration to show how letters make sounds at the start of words
  • Use these books as an opportunity to talk about the first sounds you can hear in words, and to highlight the letter that makes those sounds, for example, The Hairy Maclary series by Lynley Dodd.

Making meaning and expressing ideas in texts

  • Use comprehension strategies (explored above) to practise emergent reading comprehension, including: using background knowledge, predicting, visualising, asking and answering questions, and summarising.
  • Integrate text reading with experiences allowing children to express their understanding of the text (for example, through play, sociodramatic play, fine arts, performing arts).

Exploring and creating texts

Read a range of text types with children, including:

  • imaginative (stories and narratives)
  • personal (letters and messages)
  • informative (non-fiction and visual texts that explain or describe concepts; procedural texts like instructions and recipes; and persuasive texts like posters and videos that are convincing you of something)

Highlight text structures (start, middle, end; introduction, examples, conclusion) before, during, and after reading to help familiarise children with how texts work.

Theory to practice

Bruner’s concept of “scaffolding” (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976) was influential in the development of the “gradual release of responsibility model” (Duke and Pearson, 2002), where educators initially lead reading experiences (modelled reading), and gradually decrease as children start to share (guided and shared reading) and eventually lead reading experiences (independent reading).

The concept of scaffolding, is tied to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development: where children are able to achieve more than they can alone, by collaborating with more capable peers or adults (Vygotsky, 1967).

Vygotsky argued that children develop best when they are guided by adults to learn what they would not be able to learn on their own.

Vygotsky emphasised that:

Language is vital in mediating relationships where less capable persons learn from more capable others. This joint meaning-making is supported by the languages of interaction between child and adults and takes many forms including sounds, gestures, body language, movement, graphic images and symbols.
- Paraphrased by Richards (2017, p. 128)

When engaging in modelled reading behaviours, an educator creates an opportunity for children to see and hear what skilled reading and text engagement looks like (Duke and Pearson, 2002).

During modelled reading, children gain practice in constructing images of events, people and objects removed from themselves (Heath, 1983).

Through this scaffolding, children begin to imitate and internalise the modelled reading strategies, gradually experiencing more independent success (Bruner, 1986). During modelled and shared reading, it is anticipated that children will develop an appreciation and passion for literature.

Shared reading is sometimes called Shared Book Experience (Holdaway, 1979; Tompkins, 2009), and involves adults and children engaging in texts collaboratively. When engaging in shared reading behaviours, children are helped to join a “community of readers” (Tomkins, 2009).

Holdaway’s suggested process for shared reading is Discovery, Exploration and Independent Experience and Expression. Tompkins (2009) suggests pre-reading, reading, responding (discussions, arts), exploring (re-read text and analyse it), and applying the knowledge to other contexts (for example, through performing/fine arts, play experiences).

Guided reading refers to reading experiences where children are provided with limited guidance by an educator. Children can be supported to make meaning from the text almost independently (Duke and Pearson, 2002).

Guided reading allows children to practise and consolidate their own emergent reading strategies, which they have learnt from their educator’s modelling and scaffolding of reading. In early childhood settings, it's not expected that children will independently “read” written texts

However, educators can engage in guided reading pedagogies to encourage children to make meaning using a combination of text, illustrations, and other literacy modes.

Evidence base

Numerous studies support the importance of reading with children for the development of emergent literacy skills. In a summary of emergent reading research, Piasta (2016) noted that:

shared book reading is considered a best practice … However, impacts of shared reading may depend on mediation by adults to intentionally target specific emergent literacy skills. Piasta (2016, p. 236)

The research evidence on reading experiences with children indicates the particular importance of embedding print referencing (concepts of print), phonological awareness, and oral language (including vocabulary, grammar, narrative/expository skills) into these experiences.

Research that has investigated the effectiveness of print referencing has found that:

Preschool teachers who embedded explicit references to print during regular whole-class read-alouds significantly increased children’s print knowledge compared to teachers who did not.- Justice et al. (2010, p. 513).

Later studies have also supported print referencing as an important pedagogical strategy for developing children’s emergent literacy (Gettinger & Stoiber, 2014; Justice & Ezell, 2004; Justice, Kaderavek, Fan, Sofka, & Hunt, 2009; Justice, McGinty, Piasta, Kaderavek, & Fan, 2010; Piasta, Justice, McGinty, & Kaderavek, 2012).

Similarly, highlighting the sound patterns and structures within books promotes children’s phonological awareness, another important aspect of emergent literacy (Lefebvre, Trudeau, & Sutton, 2011; Mihai et al., 2015).

In a systematic review of 64 longitudinal studies, Hjetland et al. (2017) found that developing children’s oral language (vocabulary, grammar, use of language) and code-related skills (phonological awareness and phonics) were key to developing reading comprehension—with oral language (particularly reading comprehension) becoming increasingly important in the later years of primary school.

This demonstrates the importance of using reading experiences with very young children, to develop their emergent literacy (and oral language) skills.

Other important factors that influence the effectiveness of reading with children include (Fisher, Flood, Lapp & Frey, 2004):

  • setting a clear learning intention for the reading
  • selecting books that are interesting for the children
  • becoming familiar with the book beforehand
  • reading in an animated and fluent fashion
  • encouraging discussion before, during, and after the reading and making connections to children’s independent exploration of texts

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.

Outcome 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

Early communicators (birth - 18 months

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)

Learning foci and teaching practices