By Lucy Hart Paulson
After a recent training on developing early literacy skills, an early childhood educator shared this comment:
“The information I received in my educational training was not specific in literacy instruction. I feel early childhood educators lack the knowledge base to teach these skills. Even for teachers who have been trained, their opinions vary drastically as to the most appropriate way to teach these concepts.”
You can sense the level of frustration and concern this teacher felt with the depth of knowledge needed to help young children learn the early literacy skills vital to their development. The content was not provided at a preservice level in college, and there is a general lack of understanding of how to use evidence-based practice in early childhood settings. Within the field, early childhood educators hold a wide range of instructional beliefs and practices.
- A significant body of research has established the foundational skills of early literacy in oral language, phonological awareness, and print knowledge. Developmental sequences for what children learn within each of these areas have been identified in the preschool years that lead to success in early reading in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade.
- As identified by the National Reading Panel (NRP) in 2000, the two best predictive indicators of successful reading in second grade for children transitioning from preschool and entering kindergarten include phoneme awareness of sounds in words and letter knowledge.
- Teaching preschool children how to segment and blend phonemes in words has been determined to be twice as effective as the same instruction with children in kindergarten with much larger effect sizes for reading outcomes (NRP subgroups, 2000, chp. 2, pg. 24).
- From a developmental perspective, letter-name knowledge generally occurs before letter-sound knowledge (Neuman, 2000). The skills that are needed for letter-sound understanding reside in letter-name knowledge and phoneme or sound sensitivity. Letter-name knowledge often serves as a bridge to letter-sound knowledge.
- Preschool children can successfully learn these skills when they are intentionally and explicitly taught (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; NRP, 2000).
- Knowing what the target skills are in each of the early literacy foundations and having an assessment plan to assess them early to then provide needed instruction are components of high-quality early childhood settings.
- Young children are capable of learning a lot; and we have, at times, underestimated their abilities.
- Children who learn to be competent readers and writers are more likely to experience success in school and beyond with positive societal and economic impacts.
- The activities used to teach these skills can be fun, engaging, effective, and developmentally appropriate.
Historic Practices in Early Childhood Education:
- The scope and sequence of curricula broadly used in early childhood educational settings, such as those implemented in many Head Start programs, have not been designed to systematically, intentionally, and explicitly teach the early literacy skills that provide the foundation for early reading and writing.
- There is a strong focus within early childhood settings on creating language- and literacy-rich environments designed to follow children’s leads and respond to their interests.
- Skill development is more likely to be embedded into everyday classroom routines and activities through exploration and play.
- Intentional and explicit instruction is considered by some not to follow developmentally appropriate practice (DAP).
Characteristics of High-Quality Early Childhood Settings:
- Teachers are well-trained in understanding the developmental sequences and age expectations of the skills young children learn in building their early literacy foundations.
- An ongoing assessment process is in place to identify what children know and to monitor their progress.
- An evidence-based curriculum is in use with a scope and sequence that result in developmentally appropriate learning outcomes of the skills that children need to acquire.
- There is a balance between teacher-directed and child-directed activities.
- Developmentally appropriate practices are used.
Supporting Early Childhood Educators:
Developmentally appropriate practice includes teaching approaches that consider (NAEYC, 2009):
- Knowledge of the sequences of child development, learning to set achievable and challenging goals for literacy learning, and planning and using teaching strategies that vary with age and experience of learners
- An ongoing assessment procedure that identifies individual children’s progress in literacy in order to plan successive lessons or to adapt instruction when children do not make expected progress or are at advanced levels
- An understanding of social and cultural contexts that affect how children make sense of their learning experiences in relation to what they already know and are able to do
Early childhood educators are dedicated professionals who make a significant difference in the lives of the children in their care. Providing these professionals with the knowledge of early literacy foundations and the support to use evidence-based assessment and instruction strategies should be standard practice in all educational settings, beginning with preservice opportunities, continuing and ongoing in-service experiences, and follow-along coaching in the settings where young children are learning. Our children deserve nothing less.
Lucy Hart Paulson, Ed.D., CCC-SLP, is a literacy specialist with years of experience working with young children and their families in public school, Head Start, private, and university settings. She is on the faculty of the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at the University of Montana, sharing responsibilities for teaching, supervising, research, and service. Lucy is the lead author of Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) for Early Childhood Educators; Building Early Literacy and Language Skills (BELLS), a resource and activity guide for young children; and Good Talking Words, a social communication skills program for preschool and kindergarten classes.
Books by Lucy Hart Paulson: LETRS Second Edition, LETRS for Early Childhood Educators, Good Talking Words, Building Early Literacy and Language Skills (BELLS)