The Three-Stage Literacy Program: Stage 1 Overview

Mari Nakamura

Hello, colleagues! It is said that “autumn is the best season for reading” (dokusho no aki) in Japan. Are you having fun reading books with your students and family? I sure hope so. 

In the previous issue, I introduced the Three-Stage Literacy Program that I have developed for my students in the hope of fostering their literacy independence. I hope some of you have found it informative - or at least interesting. 

In this small article I will describe Stage 1 of the program with some theoretical information and practical tips. 

Stage 1: The Theoretical Background and Practice

I regard this stage to be a pre-literacy phase in which children prepare themselves for literacy skills development in later years.  Stage 1 specifically aims to develop their oral language and also to nurture their love of literature. I use picture books as the core learning material to serve these purposes. 

The value of picture books as a learning tool in language classrooms has been discussed extensively in literature, (for example, Bourke, 2006; Cameron, 2001; Ellis and Brewster, 2002; Linse, 2007; Loukia, 2006; McKay, 2006). To provide some fresh perspectives, I will now discuss why picture books can constitute a major element of classroom practice referring to some findings in neuroscience.  

Neuroscience research indicates that learning is enhanced when a learner is in the state of “relaxed alertness”. Relaxed alertness is defined as an optimal state of mind that “combines the moderate to high challenge that is built into intrinsic motivation with low threat and a pervasive sense of well-being” (Caine & Caine, 1994, p. 134). Learning under such a condition “allows all students ongoing opportunities to experience competence and confidence accompanied by motivation linked to personal goals and interests.” (Caine, Caine, McClintic & Klimek. 2009, p. 7).

When children and their teacher gather around a well-chosen picture book and share the story, it naturally brings about a relaxed atmosphere. At the same time, encountering new language items embedded in a fun and imaginative context, children become motivated to make sense of the story and predict how the story unfolds by connecting what they hear and see with their own prior experiences and knowledge. Having witnessed how well children stay focused and how quickly they acquire oral language during shared literacy experiences, I consider picture books to be one of the most ideal tools to bring children’s brains into the state of relaxed alertness. 

Brain science also informs us that our brain processes whole and parts simultaneously and we learn more effectively when our experience gives us a sense of the whole that links the details. Two hemispheres of the brain, the left one that deals with details and the right one that deals with the whole, work simultaneously and inextricably, interacting with each other. Regarding the power of story in presenting information as a whole, Caine, (2009, p.137) state that “there is a sense of wholeness, connectedness and meaning that is conveyed in a story that would otherwise be only irrelevant fragments of experience”. 

By using a developmentally appropriate picture book as a teaching tool, we can introduce new linguistic items as a whole in a context that is engaging and meaningful for children. Furthermore, we can provide children with opportunities to experiment with newly learned language in a holistic atmosphere through story-based activities such as miming, role plays, and creative plays. 

These are two of the theoretical reasons, among many others, which I believe justify the use of picture books as a core material at Stage 1. 

The following is a brief description of the Stage 1 curriculum:  

  1. The curriculum aims to foster children’s interests in literature and to develop their oral language through shared and interactive reading experiences. 
  2. It consists of several units of study that typically last for 4 to 6 weeks. 
  3. In each unit, one picture book and several supplementary materials such as flashcards, songs, videos and toys are used to enrich children’s pre-literacy experience. 
  4. Each unit covers several topic areas which are related to a picture book, and linguistic materials under the target topics are presented and practiced in an integrated manner. 
  5. Children learn age-appropriate contents and subject matters, such as hygiene, geography and science, as well as language, by actively participating in interactive activities in a safe and facilitating classroom environment. 
  6. They have opportunities to express their own ideas and imagination using newly learned language. 

At the workshops where I introduced this curriculum, some teachers raised concerns in selecting appropriate materials for their students. A rule of thumb is to start small. Do small experiments with books that you think may appeal to the students in your class. Then observe your students’ responses to the story and activities carefully, make necessary changes to the way you introduce the story and adapt activities. Once you feel confident in using the picture book as a main tool of the lesson, you can start designing a unit of study around it. 

Some of you may find it helpful to refer to the checklist below that focuses on the linguistic, psychological, cognitive and social aspects of learning and teaching experience. 

  1. Is the story engaging? 
  2. Is the language appropriate for students’ linguistic level? 
  3. Do the illustrations support comprehension? 
  4. Does the book allow you to teach several topic areas? 
  5. Does it provide opportunities for interaction and self-expression? 
  6. Do you like the story? 

In the next issue, I will share one of my favorite picture book based units from this stage. Stay tuned for a fun and adventurous literacy experience!  


Bourke, J. (2006). Designing a Topic-Based Syllabus for Young Learners. ELT Journal, 60/3: 279-286.

Caine, R.N., & Caine, G. (1994). Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley 

Caine, R.N., Caine, G., McLintic, C., and Klimek, K.J. (2009). 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles in Action (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching Languages to Young Learners. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, G., & Brewster, J. (2002). Tell It Again! The Storytelling Handbook for Primary Teachers. Harlow. Pearson Education. 

Linse, C. (2007). Predictable Books in the Children’s EFL Classroom. ELT Journal, 61/1: 46-54. 

Loukia, N. (2006). Teaching Young Learners Through Stories: The Development of a Handy Parallel Syllabus. The Reading Matrix, 6/1: 25-40.

McKay, P. (2006). Assessing Young Language learners. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.