Children Begin to Acquire Reading and Writing Processes Very Early
For much of the twentieth century, educators believed that reading instruction should be delayed until children reached a certain level of mental readiness. They believed that most children would achieve this level of readiness when they were about 6 years old. The most influential study (Morphett & Washburne, 1931) actually specified a mental age of 6 years as the right age to begin reading instruction (but their methodology was enormously flawed). Some educators believed that writing should be delayed until reading abilities were firmly in place and recommended that children begin writing when they were 8 or 9 years old.
To determine who was ready to read, most children were given readiness tests at the end of kindergarten or after a few weeks of first grade. These readiness tests assessed the skills then believed to be critical for success in beginning reading instruction. Most tests examined the skills of visual discrimination (find the shape that matches the first shape), phonological awareness (find the two pictures whose names begin with the same sound), letter naming, high-frequency word knowledge, and oral language vocabulary.
First graders who scored high on these readiness tests began reading instruction, usually with a basal reader. There were two schools of thought about how to proceed with poor scorers on the readiness tests. Some schools and teachers felt it best to "wait" for the readiness to develop. Other schools and teachers taught the skills—visual discrimination of shapes, phonemic segmentation of sounds in spoken words, letter names, and so on—in an attempt to develop readiness skills tested. But emergent literacy research found that reading development was more complicated than the readiness model assumed.
Emergent literacy research begins in the homes of young children, tracing their literacy development from birth until the time they read and write conventionally (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 2001). This observational research demonstrated that children in literate home environments engage in reading and writing long before beginning formal schooling. Children born into homes where someone reads and writes with them walk into school with an incredible foundation on which instruction can easily build. These children experience an average of over 1,000 hours of quality one-on-one reading and writing activities (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). They use reading and writing in a variety of ways and pass through a series of predictable stages on their journey from pretend reading and scribbling to conventional reading and writing. When parents read to children, interact with them about the print they see in the world—signs, cereal boxes, advertisements—and encourage and support their early writing efforts, reading and writing develop and grow with listening and speaking, concurrently rather than sequentially.
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