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Theories of Literacy and Theories of Literacy Development

What is a Theory?
A theory is an idealized representation of reality that help us explain some natural
phenomena. It is an idea or thought pattern about a particular subject matter and
how it should be perceived. Campbell & Zazkis (2002) contended that theories are
like toothbrushes where everyone has their own and no one wants to use anyone
elses theory. Read the following theories or views or ideas from

There are other theories or views on what literacy is or should be and all these
depend on how individuals in different field view the concept of literacy.
6.3 Theories of Literacy Development
There are a number of theories associated with literacy development. These
theories are based on peoples ideas about early literacy development and how
children learn. In trying to discuss the subject matter, we explore by asking
ourselves a number of questions such how our ideas about early literacy have
developed. What researchers and educators have influenced the way reading and
writing are approached today? It is important for teachers who work with young
children and their families to be familiar with the history of early literacy as a
foundation for current practices (

Theories of literacy development include the following: Piagets Theory of Cognitive

Development, Maturation Theory, Theory of Literacy Development, Stage Models of
Reading, Emergent Literacy Theory, and Family Literacy Theory. These theories help
us explain how literacy development in children is done in the early years of
6.3.1 Piagets theory of Cognitive Development
The cognitive development theory by Jean Piaget contends that there are different
phases of intellectual development and each stage is associated with certain
behavioural activities. It is these activities that guide educators and theorists in
literacy on what is and what is not tenable. Educationalists using this theory believe
that the nature of content that is given to pupils for learning must relate their level
of intellectual development. In other ways, the emphasis is sequencing learners
activities based on their stages of intellectual development. This position is based
on Piagets theory that childrens cognitive growth occurs in a sequential pattern

through four related stages. In this way, what and how a child learns is determined
largely by the childs present stage of development. The Theory of Cognitive
Development was conceptualized by Jean Piaget in 1969 who is classified as both a
constructivist an a developmental theorist. It is one of the most famous theories
used to explain childrens overall cognitive development. It can be used by literacy
educators to understand the learning stages though which students progress as
they mature and their relationship to literacy achievement.
Jean Piagets theory of Cognitive Development describes the ways in which the
quality of childrens thinking changes over time based on their intellectual
development. According to Piaget, there are four factors that affect the quality of an
individuals thinking: biological maturation, activity, social experiences and
equilibration. All these factors are linked to Piagets Stages of Cognitive
Development as discussed by Godwin, Herb, Ricketts & Wymer (2013) namely:
1. Sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years of age) Children use sensory
exploration of the world: They do not use or have language skills and are
dependent on their senses. Class activities for literacy development in this
stage include: (i) Board books with brightly colored pictures and (ii) Books
with sound, things to touch, or smell
2. Preoperational stage (2 to 7 years of age) There is rapid language
development skills in this stage as children begin to categorize things with
words. Literacy activities include story book reading and discussing the story
3. Concrete Operational (7 to 11 years of age) In this stage of development,
children use concrete objects to begin to think about abstract concepts.
Activities for Literacy development include Graphic Organizers {Venn
Diagrams, Flow Maps}and others.
4. Formal Operational (11 years of age to adult) In this stage, children use
language in an abstract way. Activities for Literacy include the use of
metacognitive reading strategies helps students to think about their
thinking before and after they read. Examples: Making Inferences and
Summarizing information.

A literacy study that was conducted using theory of Cognitive Development

concluded that the mental age of six and half year old child performed better on
reading achievement than younger children ( Using this research and other related
studies resolved that in applying Piagets Stages of Cognitive Development, the
following should be observed for literacy education:

(i) reading instruction should not be implemented until students reached the age
of 6 1/2 years of age
(ii) Initial literacy activities that are given to children at home must be linked or
related to the level of childs intellectual development. Other studies
recommendations suggested that parents should not attempt to teach reading to
their children at home as educators would cause damage to childrens reading
ability if they attempted to teach reading to children who were too young.
(iii) Reading abilities are linked to Maturation Theory which believe learning to
read is viewed as a natural developmental occurrence. Furthermore, theorists
believed that learning to read begins in the home when children first see their
parents read and have stories read to them. In other ways, parents here are the
models for children and children strive to emulate what their parents do by all
means necessary. Emulation results in childrens first attempts at reading, which
are usually quite inaccurate and parents should reinforce childrens first
attempts at reading. As childrens attempts at reading are reinforced, their skills
develop, and children begin to read for real and this is linked to the theory of
Literacy Development which purport that the ways in which children approach
the task of reading qualitatively change as they mature (
The site further reported that theorists believe that as childrens reading skills
develop, they increase both the number and type of strategies they can use
during reading experiences

Four stages of word development stages are discussed:

1. Pre-alphabetic Stage, 2. Partial Alphabetic Stage, 3. Full Alphabetic Stage and 4. The
Consolidated Alphabetic Stage. This is what is known as the Stage Models of Reading which
explains literacy development and provides instructional guidance to promote early literacy
growth. The emphasis on these stages is the period in a childs life between birth and when the
child can read and write at a desirable level or in a conventional manner.
6.3.2 Maturation Theory
The maturation theory states that Children would be ready to read when they have developed
certain prerequisite skills and there is little that teachers and parents can do to hurry the process
of cognitive development. In other ways, the theory advocate for not teaching reading until
children were mature enough for instruction. Scholars for this theory hypothesized that this could
happen when children were at mental age of 6 1/2. Aldridge & Goldman (2007) noted that the
Maturational Theory of child development was developed by Arnold Gesell with his colleagues
including Morphette and Washburne who constructed a set of behavioral norms that illustrate
sequential and predictable patterns of growth and development. Gesell contended that all
children go through similar stages, although each child may move through these stages at their
own rate (Godwin, Herb, Ricketts & Wymer, 2013).

6.3.3 Theory of Literacy Development

The theory was developed by Holdaway in 1979 and it states that learning to read was a natural
development that is closely linked to a childs natural development of oral language skills.
Holdaways theory of literacy further contends that literacy development begins in childrens
homes and is based on meaningful learning experiences. There are four key components in this
theory as itemized by (Godwin etal, 2013):
(a) observation -which demand that children need to have the opportunity to observe literacy
behaviours from others. For example, parents and siblings to read for them.
(b) Collaboration this require that children need to interact with others who provide
encouragement and help with the reading process.
(c) Practice children need the opportunity to practice alone in order to self-evaluate, make
corrections and increase their skills independently.
(d) Performance children need the opportunity to share their new reading skills with those who
support them.
It is important to note that these components are linked to the childs natural development
occurrence which begins at home which leads to a gradual formation of literacy development
practices. The classroom application or characteristics of natural literacy development include;
i. Rich home literacy environment
ii. Parent Child interactions of modeling literacy behaviors
iii. Rich literacy classroom environment by
Labeling key items around the room
Wide variety of high quality reading materials
Meaningful language experiences
Use of big books and shared reading
Holdaway highly recommends the use of big books and shared reading to foster natural literacy
development. He believes big books can create the same positive feelings about story time that
children have when they read at home. He believes that these natural storytelling times build
students oral language, print tracking, concept of letters, and words (Godwin etal, 2013).
6.3.4 Stages Model of Reading
Stage Model theorists such as Frith (1985), Ehri (1991), and Gough, Joel & Griffith (1992),
believe that childrens reading is in stages of word identification and that students increase the
number of strategies used during reading as their reading skills develop. Lower staged reading
strategies remain available to a reader as they incorporate more difficult reading skills in later
strategies. Chall (1983) as quoted by Godwin etal, (2013) noted that there are four Stages of
Word Identification: 1. Pre Alphabetic Stage 2. Partial Alphabetic Stage 3. Full Alphabetic
Stage 4. Consolidated Alphabetic Stage, also available on the following site (
The four stages of word identification as discussed by (Godwin etal, 2013) have been expanded

in detail:
(i) Pre Alphabetic Stage {Logographic Stage}. This stage is associated with a number of
feature which include the following: (a) Visual cues are primary method of word identification
(b) One might memorize words by their shape or look (c) Use of environmental print and logos
(d) Word Identification is not yet related to letter sound knowledge. Class activities for Literacy
in this stage include collecting samples of Environmental Print to display in the classroom.
(ii) Partial Alphabetic Stage. This stage according to Godwin etal (2013) uses Phonetic Cue
Reading which further demand the use of some letter sound cues. First letter of the word and
then use just a letter or two as children develop.
(iii) Full Alphabetic Stage. In this stage students relies more on letter sound knowledge.
Student tries to process all the letters in a word and a child may become tied to letter-by-letter
reading which slows down the reading process. Class activities for Literacy here includes:
Puzzles, Word Card Games, Magnetic Letters, Alphabet Books. Magazine Search, Letter Bingo
and Word Sort: Beginning, Middle, and End Sounds
(iv) Consolidated Alphabetic Stage. Here there is automatic knowledge of sound letter
relationships. Students read letter patterns within words and they use word family knowledge to
aid the reading process. Activities for Literacy include word Wheels, Word Family Sorts, Poetry,
Flip Books (Godwin etal, 2013
6.3.5 Family Literacy Theory
Godwin etal, (2013) contended that family literacy refers to a series of ideas that researchers
share, including the design, implementation, and evaluation of programs to help facilitate literacy
development of family members; the relationship between family literacy and student
achievement; and the ways in which literacy is naturally used in the home. This theory stresses
the importance of family involvement on student achievement. The actions to encourage Family
Literacy include;
i. Create a two way street between parents and teachers in order to gain information about
literacy in the home.
ii. Teach parents about the school culture and necessary skills for a student to be successful.
iii. Help parents understand what they can do at home to help support and encourage their
childrens academic success. Many studies have been done on parent and child reading
interactions to support the importance of the connection between home and school.
iv. Parent Volunteers Reading in the Classroom
6.3.6 Emergent Literacy Theory
The Emergent Literacy Theory states that there are levels of literacy behaviours which children
acquire before they formally get into classroom which facilitates the acquisition of reading and
writing skills at a conventional level. Emergent literacy theorists believe that literacy

development starts in the maternity ward and is continuous and ongoing. This early literacy
development provides educators with instructional guidance to promote early literacy growth
among their students. Theorists believe that childrens development in the areas of listening,
speaking, reading, and writing are all interrelated ( In other ways, Emergent
Literacy Theorists believe that childrens listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills begin at
birth, it also emphasizes the importance of a literacy rich home environment. Components of a
literacy rich home environment include; having large number of books available in the home,
Newspapers and Magazines, Parents read a variety of materials and Reading is associated with
pleasure, Parents frequently read to children.
Marie Clays studies on emergent literacy indicated that children know a great deal about reading
and writing before they come to school, and they are able to experiment with and apply their
knowledge in various ways (Clay, 1975). Reading readiness seemed to be an inaccurate term,
since Clays research showed that there was not a specific sequence of skills children needed to
master prior to reading and writing. The children she studied seemed instead to emerge into
literacywith writing, reading, and oral language abilities developing together.
Emergent literacy was recently defined as the view that literacy learning begins at birth and is
encouraged through participation with adults in meaningful activities; these literacy behaviors
change and eventually become conventional over time (Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp, 2000,
p. 123). From a very young age, children who are exposed to oral and written language gradually
gain control over the forms of literacy. Print-related knowledge develops similarly to the way
children learn oral language (Morrow, 1997). When children are actively engaged with
interesting and meaningful reading and writing experiences, they develop literacy knowledge
early in their lives.
6.3.7 Everyday Theories
These are ideas which individual people have about certain things in the society and how they
impinge on peoples lives. Everybody makes theories almost every day about certain practices,
values and norm in the society. These theories are not known to many people and they are not
conventional in nature as they may be known to one person only (Barton, 2007).
6.3.8 Professional Theories
These are conventionally recognized theories worldwide such as those discussed above. In other
ways, examples of professional theories include Piagets Theory of Cognitive Development,
Maturation Theory, Theory of Literacy Development, Stage Models of Reading, Emergent
Literacy Theory, and Family Literacy Theory.
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Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

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Campbell, S. R., & Zazkis, R. (2002). Toward number theory as a conceptual field. In S. R.
Campbell & R. Zazkis (Eds.) Learning and teaching number theory: Research in cognition and
instruction (pp. 1-14). Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.
Godwin, E., Herb, B., Ricketts, A. & Wymer, S. (2013). Theories of Literacy Development 1930s
Present Day. Available at http//
Lilly, E. & Green, C. (2004). Developing Partnerships with Families through Childrens
Literature. Boston: Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall