In Kindergarten (the year prior to school), interviews are held with the parents to develop a rapport, and to develop a shared understanding of their child. Parents are asked about their child’s needs, strengths and interests, and their expectations for the year ahead. Every year there a number of comments related to school readiness, prompted by educators querying “What does school readiness mean to you?” This paper will focus on parents’ frequent response “Will you teach my child to read? Will you teach them their letters?” – basically what are you going to do to help my child be a successful reader.
“How do children learn to read?” or “what skills do children need to be able to read?” is an ongoing topic of contentious discussion (e.g., Reading wars debate Whole language vs Phonics, Cognitive vs Social (Giles & Tunks, 2015, p. 523)). Dickinson, D, Golinkoff R, and Hirsh-Paske, K in their article Speaking Out for Language: Why Language is Central to Reading Development (2010), critically review the National Early Literacy Panel Report (NELP). They believe the NELP identification of “code-related abilities” for example letter knowledge, as the main predictor of reading success, undervalues the long term importance of language-based skills such as oral language. Dickinson et al, draw on a diverse range of research, much of which they acknowledged was published after the completion of the panel’s literature review ending in 2003. They outline the “indirect pathways from early language to later reading” (2010, p. 306), at the same time acknowledging “teaching and testing code skills is relatively easy” in comparison to assessing and teaching oral language skills (Dickinson et al., 2010, p. 308).
Riechgel’s (2004), article Theory and Research into Practice: Paying attention to Language posits educators should utilise the notions of linguistics theory to inform literacy instruction. He explains explicitly how teachers who ‘pay attention’ to the formal aspects of language e.g. phonology, syntax etc and non-formal aspects, e.g. functions of oral and written language, modify their practice based on their observations and knowledge of linguistics, leading to children’s literacy success.
Noting that it is nothing new, Riechgels states that children’s success in learning to read can be predicted by letter identification, concepts of print, phonemic awareness, verbal memory and vocabulary (Snow et al., 1998 cited in Richgels, 2004, p. 475). He upholds the importance of phonemic awareness, but suggests phonemic awareness and other language abilities many accept as precursors for literacy success can be fostered through “long-term nurturing of language abilities and rich interactions” (Richgels, 2004, p. 477).
Raban’s (2014), article Talk to Think, Learn, and Teach utilises research findings to examine the role of oral language in the early years, and its impact on literacy learning. Within this article there are two main themes that link into how children learn to read: The first is that children’s language development is fostered through oral language, which is a shared, “primarily social” (Raban, 2014, p. 6) experience. Children need to participate in rich sustained conversations with a familiar, “mature, more-knowledgable speaker” (Raban, 2014, p. 5), with the opportunity for “sustained shared thinking” (Siraj-Blatchford 2009, cited in Raban, 2014, p. 7). This goes beyond developing children’s “skills for social talk” (Raban, 2014, p. 9) exposing children to the “richness and complexity of language”, extending both their vocabulary and sensitivity to decontextualised language (Raban, 2014, p. 6).
The role of the adult – in this situation the educator – leads to the second theme: Educators need linguistic knowledge of pragmatics, semantics, syntax and so forth (Raban, 2014, p. 5), because “Linguistic analysis is the most-frequent common dominator of language study and the least understood” (Raban, 2014, p. 5). Rabin cites Clay, stating “children learn on all levels at once” (1975, p. 19 cited in Raban, 2014, p. 6), not through a series of cumulative steps. As a result, language needs to be explored “within the context of a larger frame of meaning” so that children understand not only the language, but the meaning behind the language (Raban, 2014, p. 6).
Learning to read is a “complex interrelation of subsystems,” which develops recursively “not in a single trajectory” (Richgels, 2004, p. 5). Children don’t suddenly know how to read once they know their letters, thus to become successful readers, they need adults who are knowledgable and pay attention to each subsystem, providing the scaffolding when needed.
Children’s knowledge and understanding of code-related skills such as letter knowledge, phonological and phonemic awareness is important to their emergent literacy development (Dickinson et al., 2010, p. 305; Raban, 2014, p. 5; Richgels, 2004, pp. 475-476) As Richgels eloquently states however, this “is not the be-all and end-all of early literacy learning or teaching” (2004, p. 472).
Language use provides a critical contribution to life-long literacy (Dickinson et al., 2010, p. 308; Raban, 2014, p. 6; Richgels, 2004, p. 474), which develops through interactions and conversations with more knowledgable others (Raban, 2014, p. 5). The Kindergarten needs to be an environment where children have the opportunity to converse with knowledgable others who appropriately model language (Raban, 2014, p. 5). Raban states that children’s language development “depends directly upon the amount of conversation that occurs” between the child and familiar adults (2014, p. 6). Dickinson and Sprague assert that teachers “use of rare words, and their ability to limit how much they said and, hence, listen to what children were saying” during conversations, which has a powerful impact on the children’s language development (2001, p. 271 cited in Dickinson et al., 2010, p. 476).
Children’s vocabulary is a vital aspect of language development (Dickinson et al., 2010, p. 307; Raban, 2014, p. 11; Richgels, 2004, p. 473). The number of words in their vocabulary is indicative of linguistic health, and is also a factor in their ability to use language for multiple purposes and in varied contexts (Raban, 2014, pp. 10-12; Richgels, 2004, p. 473), strongly correlating with later literacy success (Snow, 1991, p.9 cited in Raban, 2014, p. 9; Gee, 1990 cited in Richgels, 2004, p. 475). Educators can broaden children’s vocabulary by exposing them to decontextualised language, “the language of books” (Raban, 2014, pp. 6-12), ‘rare’ words (Jordan, Snow, and Porche, 2000, p. 529 cited in Richgels, 2004, p. 476), and by utilising vocabulary that is not usually found in their day-to-day conversations.
Conversations that lead to sustained shared thinking, where individuals “‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, or extend a narrative” (Jordan, Snow, and Porche 2000, p. 529 cited in Raban, 2014, p. 7; Richgels, 2004, p. 476; Siraj-Blatchford, 2009, p. 78), are powerful in supporting children’s new language acquisition and associated world knowledge which is pivotal to later reading comprehension (McKeown, Beck, & Blake, 2009; Neuman & Celano, 2006; Willingham, 2006–2007 cited in Dickinson et al., 2010, p. 308).
Activating children’s prior knowledge (Dickinson et al., 2010, p. 305; Raban, 2014, p. 7), also supports the learning of new information, linking to what they already know. Educators need to be alert, however, as to whether this new information conflicts with the child’s pre-misconceptions, as then the role of prior knowledge is paradoxical – it can either support or hinder children’s learning (Raban, 2014, p. 7).
Richgels proposal makes sense, so Kindergarten programs should be based on “long-term nurturing of language abilities and rich interactions involving language [which] are key to promoting phonemic awareness and the other language abilities that, along with print abilities, predict literacy success” (2004, p. 476). Since “language is a complex interrelation of subsystems,” the variety of which is the marker of language development (Raban, 2014, p. 5), educators need to pay attention to language, as it will guide decisions in how and what to teach (Richgels, 2004, p. 470).
Implications for teaching practice
Richgel proposes that ‘rich interactions’ are the key for literacy success (2004, p. 476), acknowledging that this is not just an opportunity to develop language abilities like oral language and vocabulary, but also phonemic awareness and print abilities. Considering Richgel and Radan’s directions, educators need to be knowledgable of the variety of systems that lead to language development (Raban, 2014, p. 5; Richgels, 2004, p. 470).
Raban’s observation that “language develops recursively” and “works on many levels, frequently simultaneously” (2014, p. 6), has encouraged me to stop and reflect on whether are we paying enough attention to children’s rapid and diverse language development. Do we have the linguistic knowledge to fully support children’s emergent literacy? Are we confident enough in our knowledge to create a shared understanding with families in relation to their child’s literacy development? Does our self-doubt undermine an otherwise sound opportunity to establish reciprocally acceptable expectations, aligning our goals in the setting and at home?
Inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach (Malaguzzi, Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1998), the Kindergarten program has a strong sociocultural focus, and the educators intentionally create language-rich environments utilising experiences such as drawing, drama, sculpture, music, movement, and so forth. Embedded in our literacy practices is the process of meaning-making through social interactions between children and educators (Kim, 2011, p. 490), children are encouraged to be active participants in group dialogue providing opportunities to strengthen their language development through practice.
Although these authors’ arguments are much in line with the Victorian Early Years Learning and Developmental Framework (VEYLDF) (DEECD, 2009), from a professional standpoint, there is need to re-evaluate our existing knowledge and beliefs about children’s early literacy learning which have a critical impact on our pedagogical practices (Miller & Smith, 2004, p. 131). Such re-evaluation must be of a critical nature, questioning and challenging our existing beliefs rather than seeking to reaffirm them through confirmation bias (Fendler, 2003, p. 16).
A language-rich environment provides opportunities for the use of “abstract language and concepts not commonly experienced in typical adult-child conversation”, (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008), including inferencing, reasoning, predicting, and explaining (Massey, 2013, p. 125). This is supported through teacher scaffolding with questions and comments to extend children’s language development. Reading aloud to children is a commonly employed practice in early childhood settings, as the NELP report found, because shared reading activities support the development of oral and print language, comprehension, world-knowledge and context and vocabulary (Kindle, 2010, pp. 67-68; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008). “Read-alouds are adult-mediated interactions, and thus provide a supportive context for learning” (Kindle, 2010, pp. 67). Delivered by a skilled, knowledgable educator, the interaction role-models “intonation, gestures, and facial expressions, [and] teachers provide clues about about word meanings” (Kindle, 2010, pp. 67). The educator may pause to add additional context or examples, or build print awareness, and can further encourage deep processing through questioning. (Kindle, 2010, pp. 67).
Dickinson & Smith (1994), suggest that “variation in how teachers in typical early childhood classrooms discuss books with 4-year- olds in full-group settings is strongly related to long-term growth in early vocabulary development and story comprehension skills” (1994, p. 117 cited in Kindle, 2010, p. 67). Kindle cautions however, that “all read-alouds are not equal in terms of word learning potential” (2010, p. 85). Key to the effectiveness of the educator’s delivery was some prior planning, at least a familiarity with the text and the possibilities it offers. Some educators, however, view shared-reading as merely a transition or pleasurable experience rather than a powerful teachable moment (Kindle, 2010, p. 84). It is important, however, that the teachable moment remains an enjoyable one, and finding this balance will require skill and experience, together with a knowledge of the children.
Educators’ views and beliefs are informed by their prior experience and training, which may see some conflict between their “theories of development and theories of practice” (McLachlan-Smith & St. George, 2000, p.37 cited in Miller & Smith, 2004, p. 122). Some educators are aware they should use shared-reading as a teachable moment, but may lack the skill and knowledge to do so successfully. Their decisions may be “based on personal and practical knowledge, rather than technical knowledge” (Vartuli, 1999, cited in Miller & Smith, 2004, p. 122), which is needed to recognise potential teachable moments. Others may simply lack the inclination, or be caught between conflicting philosophies and beliefs regarding appropriate curricula and instructional strategies for preschoolers (Kindle, 2013, p. 177).
Within our practice, educators are likely to benefit from focused professional development on the learning possibilities which can arise from planned shared-reading. Role-modelling these techniques will also produce the flow-on effect of showing families how daily book-reading can lead to their support of their children becoming successful readers without focusing solely on letter knowledge.
Parents will benefit from greater understanding and wider view of their role in early literacy, and will have more realistic and reasonable expectations and concept of ‘success’, and our parent interviews will result in greater alignment between our educational practices and their expectations.
DEECD. (2009). Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework: For all children from birth to eight years. Melbourne: DEECD
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