Exploring Reggio: Meaningful Literacy


Hello friends!

This week’s Exploring Reggio topic is literacy. I was particularly excited to explore early literacy from a Reggio perspective because I find that this is one of the hardest areas for people who are new to the RE approach to grasp, including me! Since I get lots of questions from readers and other bloggers about Reggio and literacy, today I am going to talk a little about my interpretation of how literacy is approached with a Reggio mindset.  I’ll be following up with some more detailed activity posts as I begin to incorporate new things with the twins, so you can be assured that this is not the only literacy post I will be doing in the near future!  I want to remind you that I am still learning myself, so I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic- just an inquisitive mom trying to incorporate this new knowledge with what I already know from my professional experience.  If you have something to add or disagree with something I write on the subject, I invite you to leave a (respectful) comment- thoughtful discussion facilitates learning!

*No clue what I’m talking about? See my introductory post for the low-down on the Exploring Reggio series and an overview of the Reggio Emilia Approach to early learning.

Exploring Reggio: Meaningful Literacy

Wait- Where’s the Manual?

I think the main reason that the Reggio approach to literacy can be confusing stems from the fact that Reggio is not a method,  it’s an approach, or set of philosophies. There is no official manual, no regimented progression of steps to follow, no sanctioned set of materials to buy, no set age that certain skills should be introduced or mastered.  This may seem a bit scary for those that are used to following a specific program, but once you get comfortable with the idea, you realize that it makes perfect sense and leaves lots of room for you to choose what works for you and the particular children you are working with.

Breaking it Down

If I had to break down what Reggio-inspired literacy means to me, I would say it’s about keeping it meaningful, creating a literacy-rich environment, and adapting to each child’s learning style, interests, and preferred mode(s) of learning and expression.

Making it Meaningful

A key idea here is that literacy is so much more than strictly decoding print. Reading and writing are tools that we use to share ideas, collaborate towards goals, express feelings, and basically connect with other human beings.  A truly “literate” person not only knows how to read and write, but can use those skills to do all of these things. When children view reading and writing as a useful tool rather than just an academic exercise that they are forced to do, they are much more motivated to learn, and learning happens much more organically.  One big misconception is that Reggio-inspired classrooms don’t teach reading and writing. If you look at what Reggio-inspired classrooms are doing, you see games and activities that focus on these skills, but they are presented in a meaningful and developmentally appropriate way as part of a literacy-rich environment.

Exploring Reggio: Meaningful Language

Our family chalkboard is one way we create a literacy-rich environment.

Creating a Literacy-Rich Environment

If you are familiar with the RE approach, you know that one of the main principles is the environment as the third teacher.  We know that children’s play is influenced by the environment around them, so if we want to nurture their early literacy development, it is important to provide plenty of opportunities to engage in literacy activities. Here a just a few examples of ways to add literacy-rich elements to your classroom or home learning environment:

  • including print in the form of labels, signs, books and magazines
  • providing literacy-rich dramatic play opportunities/props (grocery shopping with a list, creating and mailing letters, ordering from a menu at a restaurant or taking orders as a waiter, etc.)
  • documenting and displaying children’s work with a mixture of photographs, print, diagrams, etc.
  • adding literacy props to block/construction areas (road signs, etc.)
  • keeping paper and writing tools available for children to incorporate into their play/project work
  • including relevant books and printed materials in project work, invitations/provocations, etc.
  • access to materials that encourage music and movement (instruments, CD players, ribbon wands/scarves)
  • modeling literacy behaviors- children should see adults reading for pleasure, seeking information in books, telling stories, etc.
Exploring Reggio: Meaningful Literacy

An example of play shaped by environment; my daughter pretending to grocery shop with a “list” in her cart just like Mama! She periodically stopped to “read” the items on her list out loud.

Adapting to Each Child’s Needs

Another key principle of the RE approach is the “100 languages of children” which basically refers to the idea that children use many different modalities (i.e. written/spoken language, art, drama, music) to understand and express ideas. This meshes with the more mainstream idea of tuning in to the different learning styles of children to present material in the ways that are most engaging for them.  What I’m taking away from this for my own use is that I need to find literacy activities for my children that incorporate many different modalities and see which ones they respond best to.

Another part of following the child’s lead is using their interests to guide their learning.  This is a central part of the RE approach and is also referred to as an “emergent curriculum.” Preschool-age children may work together to answer a specific question or solve a problem using literacy-based tools. Since my children are not yet three, we aren’t quite ready for this type of project work.  Instead I watch their play and provide literacy activities and materials that build upon their interests as they emerge.

Exploring Reggio: Meaningful Literacy

Incorporating books into provocations on subjects of interest, like this spider learning table, is a great way to connect hands-on activities to print.

What About Teaching Reading?

This, my friends, is the million dollar question and the one that I see asked most often.  Since the original Reggio Emilia classrooms are all early childhood classrooms (the children enter more “traditional” Italian grade schools at age 6), formal instruction in reading is not given. However, if learning is taking place as described, children who go through these programs will graduate highly communicative and well on their way to reading. Most importantly, they will have an idea of how to use reading and writing as a literacy tool, which is infinitely valuable.

Now, that being said, from my professional experience, I also believe that early reading skills (i.e. phonemic awareness) do have a place in early childhood classrooms/home learning environments. Although there are many, many viewpoints on this, what I am taking from the RE approach is that I need to find ways to make decoding practice meaningful and not an isolated academic skill that my children have to “get through.”  My little ones are still very young, but phonemic and phonological awareness activities will be introduced (and shared on the blog) as they become developmentally appropriate.

Phew! I know that was a heavy post.  I hope you found the information useful (or at least interesting)! Now don’t forget to visit my partners in this collaboration for even more amazing ideas for Reggio-Inspired Literacy:

Enticing Literacy: Making and Writing Words by Learn With Play at Home

A Literacy Rich Environment by An Everyday Story

Library Role Play Area by The Imagination Tree

Create A Literacy Table by One Perfect Day


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  1. Thanks for this! I really appreciate your examples for incorporating print, without teaching to print/read per se. My son just turned three, and loves books, and I have been tentative about how much letter talk to include; however, it has amazed me that from a young age, he inquired about letters, and I guess we have just followed his lead. There has been a noticeable increase in letter interest in the last six months, which confirms for me, that children show/tell you what they are ready for. Looking forward to future RE posts!

    • Stephanie says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! My little ones turn three in January and are also very interested in print in many forms- you’ll be seeing lots more emergent literacy posts in the near future, especially after the Christmas craziness dies down. Thanks so much for following along!

  2. The Reggio concept of the environment as the third teacher really resonates with me. Children observe and listen to EVERYTHING. Creating a print rich environment makes so much sense. You’ve included some really fantastic examples of how to do this and have me thinking about print and literacy in our own home environment.
    Great post, Stephanie! I’m so enjoying this series and learning along with you and your partners.

  3. Oh, I found it really helpful! I really enjoyed your summary and view of it all. Well written article! :)

  4. The environment has been a wonderful tool in my son’s learning how to read.

    • Stephanie says:

      It really does make a difference- and it doesn’t feel like “work” at all for the kids!

  5. little orchard says:

    “…thoughtful discussion facilitates learning!” Yes indeed! I have found that a bit of RE, following the childs creative discussion with a developed rich environment, and a bit of Montessori’s prepared academically rich environment has shown to be the best combination for a child to love learning and to learn at an ‘organic’ rate.


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