Theories of Literacy and Theories of Literacy Development

Reference as: Mkandawire, S. B. (2015). LTC 1000 Theories of Literacy and Theories of Literacy Development. The University of Zambia Lecture notes for week 9. Retrieved from

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 else’s 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 people’s 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: Piaget’s 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 education.
6.3.1 Piaget’s 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 learner’s activities based on their stages of intellectual development. This position is based on Piaget’s theory that children’s 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 child’s 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 children’s 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 Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development describes the ways in which the quality of children’s thinking changes over time based on their intellectual development. According to Piaget, there are four factors that affect the quality of an individual’s thinking: biological maturation, activity, social experiences and equilibration. All these factors are linked to Piaget’s 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 Piaget’s 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 child’s 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 children’s 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 children’s first attempts at reading, which are usually quite inaccurate and parents should reinforce children’s first attempts at reading. As children’s 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 children’s 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 child’s 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 child’s natural development of oral language skills. Holdaway’s theory of literacy further contends that literacy development begins in children’s 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 child’s 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 student’s 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 children’s 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 children’s 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 children’s development in the areas of listening, speaking, reading, and writing are all interrelated ( In other ways, Emergent Literacy Theorists believe that children’s 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 Clay’s 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 Clay’s 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 literacy—with 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 people’s 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 Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development, Maturation Theory, Theory of Literacy Development, Stage Models of Reading, Emergent Literacy Theory, and Family Literacy Theory.

Aldridge, j. & R. L. Goldman (2007). Current Issues and Trends in Education. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Barton, D. (2007). Literacy: An introduction to the ecology of the written Language. 2nd Ed.
USA. Blackwell Publishing.

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 Children’s Literature. Boston: Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall

About Sitwe

Sitwe Benson Mkandwire is a researcher, teacher and writer. He is currently based at the University of Zambia, School of Education, Department of Language and Social Sciences Education.
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