II. Early Learning Experiences
Early learning experiences support literacy development in young children.
The National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) synthesized scientific research on the development of early literacy skills in children from birth to age five identifying interventions, parenting activities, and instructional practices that promote the development of early literacy in children. In the 2008 report of their findings, titled “Developing Early Literacy,” the panel concluded that, “Conventional reading and writing skills that are developed in the years from birth to age five (5) have a clear and consistently strong relationship with later conventional literacy skills.” The panel also identified 11 variables which consistently predicted later literacy achievement for preschoolers and kindergartners.
The Colorado Basic Literacy Act (CBLA) was enacted in 1997 by the Colorado General Assembly to ensure that all students, by third grade, have the literacy skills essential for success in school and life. CBLA calls for local school districts to identify students who are reading below grade level and give them the necessary reading interventions. The CBLA supports schools in implementing these 11 variables in early childhood and early elementary schools to positively impact student achievement.
Literacy and language skills are not isolated content subjects in early childhood best practice; they evolve as the child develops in a holistic manner across the learning domains. It is a highly important to recognize the need for young children to experience their worlds through play and intentional experiences in order to build a solid knowledge upon which to hang literacy content skills. Children must be provided many developmentally appropriate methods for encouraging emergent literacy that do not rely on code-breaking strategies alone. “Background knowledge forms the basis of children’s developing an understanding of the world and represents a key building block for reading comprehension. Without content, the words children read cannot map on to anything meaningful. The development of knowledge, early on, must be a central feature of literacy instruction.” (Dickenson, Hirsh-Pasik, Newman, Golinkoff, 2009, p. 4) “An important part of comprehension is concept development and knowledge of word meanings.” (National Research Council, 1998, p. 63)
But even educators who are providing rich background experiences for children need to recognize that developmental needs of children evolve very rapidly. Three year-olds, four year-olds and five year-olds are in very different places, all with appropriate (and inappropriate) approaches to enhance their early and emerging literacy skills. What one does with a three year old (e.g. experiences to form concept development, exposure to books, love of reading experience, relationship to care givers who nurture literacy experiences) and with a young four year-old (e.g. language experiences, print in the environment, introduction to words via context with direct meaning to the individual child) will vary from appropriate activities for an older four and five year old (e.g. specific emerging reading skills, phonological skills, print skills – seeing and producing). Each distinct developmental stage of child development requires a distinct approach to enhancing early literacy to match the child’s skills and needs. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC ), (2009, p. 2) defines the attributes of developmentally appropriate practice.
What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice?
- Developmentally appropriate practice requires both meeting children where they are—which means that teachers must get to know them well—and enabling them to reach goals that are both challenging and achievable.
- All teaching practices should be appropriate to children’s age and developmental status, attuned to them as unique individuals, and responsive to the social and cultural contexts in which they live.
- Developmentally appropriate practice does not mean making things easier for children. Rather, it means ensuring that goals and experiences are suited to their learning and development and challenging enough to promote their progress and interest.
- Best practice is based on knowledge—not on assumptions—of how children learn and develop. The research base yields major principles in human development and learning (the position statement articulates 12 such principles). Those principles, along with evidence about curriculum and teaching effectiveness, form a solid basis for decision-making in early care and education.
Early literacy programs and family involvement in children’s early learning are clearly beneficial to literacy development. According to Jule (1988), 88% of first graders who read below grade level will continue to read below grade level by fourth grade.
In testimony to the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Early Childhood Elementary and Secondary Education (2009), Dorothy Strickland stated, “Early literacy plays a key role in enabling the kind of early learning experiences that research shows are linked with academic achievement, reduced grade retention, higher graduation rates, and enabled productivity in adult life.”
Literacy development begins in infancy and continues through adult life. Many children who grow up in environments with few or no literacy experiences are already playing catch-up when they enter kindergarten and the primary grades (Wolf, 2007). Therefore, parents and educators must provide opportunities for continued literacy development through experiences with listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The importance of simply being talked to, read to, and listed to is the foundation of early language development; However, the reality in many families is that too little time will be devoted to these most basic elements before a child reaches the age of five (Wolf, 2007).
Results of the NELP study specifically indicate that code-focused programs, book sharing, parent programs, and language-enhancement instruction positively impacted children’s oral language/conventional literacy skills. Book reading activities help children develop basic early literacy skills, such as phonological sensitivity (Arnold & Doctoroff, 2003; Burningham & Dever, 2005; Darling, 2005; Weigel, 2005). Book reading also promotes vocabulary development and acquisition of syntax (Dickinson & McCabe, 2001).
Dever & Burts (2002) report the findings from the text Becoming a Nation of Readers that states “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children” (p. 359). At the time of entry to school, children who are exposed to richer home literacy environments have more early reading skills than those children who are not exposed to a wealth of literacy experiences (Darling, 2005; Kainz & Vernon-Feagans, 2007). Children as young as 20 months old will begin to develop an interest in reading activities when they are read to frequently. Subsequently, interest leads to increased exposures to books, which also leads to improved reading skills and word recognition development.
Dever & Burts (2002) also write that preschool age children will “advance their linguistic development and develop a schema from written narrative language” (p. 360). Performance in reading is better for children whose parents engage them in literacy activities (Ordonez-Jasis & Ortiz, 2006; Weigel, Martin, & Bennett, 2005) and the initial advances in reading skills remain even beyond the first year of school. Aikens & Barbarin (2008) found that children who have more books at home continue to have “enhanced time-specific reading performance during the first four years of school” (p. 244).
Moats writes, “Children need many interactions with adults who talk to them, read and tell stories to them, point out print in their environment, and encourage them to scribble and write messages.” She also indicates three major areas identified by research as “essential components of early literacy development”, oral language, phonological awareness, and print knowledge. Providing children with these experiences will greatly impact their future literacy achievement. (2010, p. 7).
Oral language is critical to early literacy development. National Center for Family Literacy. (2009, p.4) defines oral language as “the ability to produce or comprehend spoken language, including vocabulary and grammar.” Oral language development provides the basis for all other components of reading instruction as portrayed in Eisenhart’s model for Beginning Reading Instruction presented at the 2008 Massachusetts Reading First Conference.
Educators can use a variety of instructional practices to increase oral language. “Children who do not hear a lot of talk and who are not encouraged to talk themselves often have problems learning to read.” (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2006, p. 3) Frequent conversations with individual students can increase oral language. These should include multiple purposefully planned opportunities for students to listen to language, to produce language, receive feedback on language production, to participate in extended conversations on a topic (by generating dialogue that requires more than a one word response), to be exposed to varied vocabulary, and to be exposed to models of appropriate syntax and prosody. Paulson & Moats (2010) assert that “quality interactions require the use of effective language-stimulation techniques” (pp. 40-41). Those include:
- Parallel Talk: An adult describes what the child is doing.
- Self-Talk: An adult talks about what he or she is doing, using short sentences.
- Expansion: An adult adds more information to the sentence that the child expresses. When a child speaks in words or phrases, the adult repeats the child’s words and adds more language to make those utterances complete sentences. (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2006)
- Read-Alouds can also be used to develop oral language. Narrative and expository texts from varied genres should be read to children. Read-Alouds should be well-planned to include a limited number of Tier 2 words (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002) chosen for explicit vocabulary instruction. Teachers should also incorporate Think Alouds to model their thinking while reading the text.
Phonological awareness is another critical element in early literacy development. Phonological awareness is an awareness of all levels of the sound system used for speech including words, syllables, rimes, and phonemes. A child’s future reading skills are impacted by the understanding that speech is made up of smaller units (words, syllables, and sounds) and words can be manipulated by segmenting them into smaller units or blending smaller units into larger words . This awareness is critical because children must be able to hear and manipulate oral sound patterns before they can relate them to print.
Letters and sound spellings (combinations of letters that make up the spelling of a sound) can then be attached to phonemes, and proficiency in manipulating these components predicts later ability to read words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs thereby transferring oral skills to printed words.
Print Knowledge defined by NELP as a combination of elements of alphabet knowledge, concepts about print and early decoding. Knowledge of the names and sounds associated with printed letters (sound spellings) impact early literacy development. “Students who understand that written language is related to oral language and that printed language carries messages have print awareness” (Linan-Thompson & Vaughn, 2007, p. 36). “Explicit instruction in sound identification, matching, segmentation, and blending, when linked appropriately to sound-symbol association, reduces the risk of reading failure and accelerates early reading and spelling acquisition for all children“ (Learning First Alliance, 2000).
Linan-Thompson & Vaughn (2007, p. 36) state:
To help students develop print awareness, you can reinforce the forms and functions of print found in classroom signs, labels, posters, calendars, etc.; teach and reinforce print conventions, such as print directionality, word boundaries, capital letters, and end punctuation; and teach and reinforce book awareness and book handling.
Awareness and recognition of print in the environment, traffic signs, store signs, billboards, can be fostered in planned activities with students. Educators can encourage awareness of environmental print by having students collect artifacts focused on a targeted letter or sound.
Recognition of alphabet letters is also a critical skill. Use of Alphabet Arcs and magnetic letters promotes automatic recognition of letters. Teachers can label objects in their classrooms to promote print knowledge. “Knowing that spoken words are represented by written symbols is a first step in learning to read” (Moats 2010, p 8). Educators must provide students with explicit experiences with print to make connections with how print works.
- Colorado’s newly adopted (2009) Academic Standards recognize the importance of early literacy skills development.
- Through CLEL (Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy), a partnership with other Colorado public libraries, the Colorado State Library educates and trains public library staff in providing early literacy story times for children and caregivers.
- The Colorado Preschool Program’s 2010 Legislative Report notes that the foundational literacy support provided by the Colorado Preschool Program is helping children to enter Kindergarten well prepared for reading success.