Reading and writing instruction does not start inside the classroom. In fact, there are many studies that have indicated that children can begin to acquire pre-literacy skills, called emergent literacy skills, as early as infancy, and those skills can be strengthened before the child reaches kindergarten.

There have been many studies that link strong emergent literacy skills with strong development of core literacy skills— decoding, fluency, and comprehension—in a child’s early education. A recent 2016 study by Victoria Molfese, Dennis Molfese, and Amanda Prokasky, “Identifying Early Literacy Practices That Impact Brain Processing and Behavior,” summarizes the findings of multiple studies that link early phonological processing skills to strong literacy and verbal skills, and stresses the connection between phonological processing skills and alphabetic knowledge in young students. For example, a study by the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) reported a link between preschool activities that focused on emergent literacy skill and later decoding, fluency, and comprehension strengths in students.

Early phonological processing skills begin as early as infancy, as infants hear and mark the difference between phonetic sounds in the language of the adults around them. Some studies (Molfese and Molfese 1979, 1980, 1985) have used event-related potentials, or ERPs, to determine that children have some phonological processing skills as infants, evident in their measured brain activity, and these skills (which help discriminate phonetic contrasts) play an important role in a child’s later reading and writing skills. ERPs are noninvasive tests that record the electrical activity in a child’s brain, allowing his or hers cognitive processing to be measured. One 1985 study reported that strong ERP results in infants were related to strong verbal skills in the same children at age three—which further suggests that early phonological processing skills create an advantage for later language and literacy skills (Molfese and Molfese 1985).

Collectively, these results suggest that ERPs could become a testing method which determines an infant’s likelihood to have strong phonological processing skills. If an infant or young child shows decreased electrical activity during cognitive processing tests (and perhaps has a familial risk of dyslexia), early intervention and phonological processing strengthening activities could be incorporated into their home life before entering preschool or kindergarten. This publication also identifies the role of alphabetic knowledge, or the association between a letter’s name and its phonetic sound, in a young child’s emergent literacy skills attainment. Studies have found links between letter naming and phonological processing, which suggests that figuring out how the sound structure of the child’s language is dictated is a critical emergent literacy skill that can also be affected by poor phonological processing skills at the infant period of life. In 2004, one publication (McGuinness 2004) suggests that children who have strong phoneme-grapheme, or sound-letter, recognition skills are able to decode letters and words better. As a consequence, children with these strong alphabetic skills will have stronger writing skills (Molfese et al 2006).

“Identifying Early Literacy Practices” also suggests alphabetic and phonological strengthening activities that can help a young child build strong emergent literacy skills. The studies discussed in the publication all point towards the positive outcome of early practice in phonological processing and alphabetic knowledge. Simple home games, parent-child reading time, and time spent on reinforcing phoneme-grapheme associations are all practical examples of activities that entertain the child while also stimulating their brain and will help build strong emergent literacy skills that will potentially increase their reading and writing skills in the future.