When our ancient ancestors began painting horses and mammoths on cave walls, they couldn’t have fathomed that by communicating through symbols, they were helping mankind take its first steps towards literacy. From clay tablets to computer tablets, literacy has come a long way and is now a critical predictor of success in school and life after graduation. It’s now the responsibility of teachers and reading specialists to ensure that students are given every opportunity to succeed when it comes to reading and writing. 

Let’s take a look at the history of literacy and see how the lessons of the past are shaping lessons taught in the classroom. Today’s teachers are learning to shape lessons and tasks to accommodate students’ needs, rather than forcing students to achieve identical reading levels at the same pace. If you’re interested in following in their footsteps, The University of Texas Permian Basin’s online Master of Arts in Literacy program may be right for you.  

The History of Literacy Education  

What is literacy in education? Literacy is defined as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.” Literacy has been applied to a diverse array of activities (e.g., computer literacy and dietary literacy). However, for the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on literacy in the context of reading and writing and literacy education, which by extension is the process of receiving instruction in how to read and write.  

From Clay Tablets to the Printing Press 

The origins of literacy can be traced back to southern Mesopotamia circa 3,000 BCE. Ancient Sumerians began writing on clay tablets and subsequently invented cuneiform script, the first known writing system. While this early writing was comprised of rudimentary symbols, it would be a precursor to full scripts and modern language.  

For centuries, only a select few were taught to read and write. That changed with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Guttenberg in the 1450s. Books went from being hand-copied, rare commodities to common items. The invention of the printing press kicked the renaissance into high gear, and literacy suddenly became a gift for the masses, rather than a luxury for the wealthy elite.  

Literacy Education in America  

Fast forward to colonial America, where literacy education was motivated by the belief that salvation required the ability to read the bible. Children were taught to read at an early age—sounding out syllables before learning the meaning of a word—but most weren’t taught to write until around the age of seven. In these early years, literacy education was taught by mechanical repetition and harsh discipline, without much emphasis given to a student’s capacity for understanding. It wasn’t until the 1970s that educators began to decipher how the mind receives, processes, stores, and retrieves information. Since that time, passionate debates have been continuously held regarding the most effective methods for teaching reading and writing.   

The Most Effective Teaching Approach 

What’s the best way to teach literacy to children? In 1997, the National Reading Panel was formed to answer that very question. The panel reviewed decades of research and found that the most effective approaches were well-planned, consistent, and clear and incorporated: 

  • Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness; 
  • Systematic phonics instruction; 
  • Methods to improve fluency; and 
  • Ways to enhance comprehension.  

Today, we know that the ideal approach to teach and learn literacy depends on the student. Every student is an individual with unique strengths, weaknesses, interests, and ways of learning. Literacy educators have the challenge of making instruction relevant and meaningful to students who may be at different stages of development. Rather than trying to “fix” students, this student-centered approach tasks teachers with guiding students as they navigate the stages of literacy development.  

The Five Stages of Literacy Development  

The five stages of literacy development begin at six months of age and continue all the way into adulthood. Learning to read and write is a lifelong process, and barriers at any stage can be detrimental no matter where an individual is in their development.  

1. The Emergent Pre-Reader 

The early stages of literacy development are crucial for children, as this is when the connections in their brain—the foundation for learning, behavior, and health—are most adaptable. During the emergent pre-reader phase, which spans from six months to six years of age, a child is like a sponge, absorbing sounds, words, and images they encounter. While trying to teach a child to read before the age of four of five can be counterproductive to their development, they should already understand thousands of words by the end of this stage.  

2. The Novice Reader 

Between the ages of six and seven, a novice reader is beginning to learn the relationships between letters and sounds (phonics). During this brief yet important stage, children are figuring out the alphabetic principles that took our ancestors thousands of years to develop. They are learning new words by sounding them out, building upon prior concepts to learn new concepts. Reading out loud is one of the most important things an educator can do to help novel readers bridge the gap between oral and written language.  

3. The Decoding Reader 

Decoding readers are able to read simple, familiar stories with ease. Between the ages of seven and nine, children are able to not only understand words but also their components, including their letters, meanings, and grammatical functions. Moreover, they are able to understand how words with similar components and meanings relate to each other despite being pronounced differently, such as “sign” and “signature.”  

4. The Fluent, Comprehending Reader 

Between the ages of nine and 15, a child becomes a fluent, comprehending reader, able to fluently comprehend what they read from any source. They are able to access knowledge at any time to help them interpret what their reading. While a child may be able to accurately pronounce words with ease by this stage, it doesn’t guarantee comprehension. The goal by this stage is for a child to be able to look beyond surface meaning and read between the lines. Guidance from teachers along with a genuine interest in reading can help fluent readers become expert readers.  

5. The Expert Reader  

Fiction, science, politics—no subject or viewpoint is beyond the comprehension of an expert reader. In the fifth stage of literacy development, reading comprehension finally surpasses listening comprehension, and expert readers are better able to understand complex concepts by reading. After the age of 16, an expert reader continues their development, which depends largely on how and what they read. However, their journey is never complete, as learning to read and write is an endlessly rewarding, lifelong pursuit.