Our ideas about early literacy have come a long way since the days when young children sat on hard benches in dame schools reading from wooden paddles, called horn books, which hung around their necks. How have our ideas about early literacy developed? What researchers and educators have influenced the way reading and writing are approached today? It is important for teachers who work with young children and their families to be familiar with the history of early literacy as a foundation for current practices.

Maturationist Theory

Arnold Gesell (1925), the leader of the maturationist movement, compared cognitive maturation to physical maturation. Children would be “ready” to read, according to Gesell, when they had developed certain prerequisite skills that could be evaluated by readiness testing. According to this theory there is little teachers and parents can do to hurry the process of development. Reading readiness and readiness testing were central themes of early reading instruction until well into the 1950s.

Behaviorist Theory

Reading programs based on behaviorist theory, which are still used by some school systems today, are fast-paced, teacher-directed approaches based on the behaviorist science of the 1970s. Children learn language by repeating words and sentences modeled by their teachers, and working through sequences of reading skills in workbooks and programmed texts. The act of reading is seen as a series of isolated skills addressed by teachers hierarchically and scientifically.

Connectionist Theory

Another current theory of literacy acquisition is the connectionist theory (Adams, 1990). Proponents of this part-to-whole theory declare that literacy knowledge is built on a sequence of skills and experiences. Children are taught reading and writing through direct, explicit skill instruction following a predetermined scope and sequence. There is an emphasis on mastering the alphabetic code, reading words, automaticity of reading, over-learning, and reading for fluency and comprehension (Adams, 1990; Morris, 1999). Young children who do not reach the reading and writing benchmarks for their grade level within a reasonable time receive individualized remediation.

Social Constructivist Theory

The social constructivist theory, based on Vygotskian principles, adds a cultural dimension to the conversation about children’s acquisition of literacy (Vygotsky, 1978). The basic tenets of this theory are that (a) children construct knowledge within a socially mediated cultural context, (b) language is a key component in children’s appropriation of knowledge, (c) knowledge is constructed most effectively when adults scaffold, or support, children’s development at appropriate levels, and (d) children acquire knowledge with the assistance of an adult or more experienced peer within a continuum of behavior called the zone of proximal development (Bodrova & Leong, 1996).

Children who come from homes and communities in which adults model and discuss reading and writing have quite different literacy schemas and practices than do children whose caregivers interact less with the tools and processes of literacy (Heath, 1982). Thus, children’s development of language and literacy processes reflects the total cultural milieu in which they are raised (Bodrova & Leong, 1996). Emma, age 3 1/2 years, for example, has noticed her mother writing letters and bills, which she leaves clothes-pinned to the mailbox on their front porch for the postal carrier. Emma decided one day to write a letter to Elizabeth, her neighbor. Her “letter” was a crayon drawing, which she folded and clipped to the mailbox, just as her mom had done.

The relationship between social context and literacy development is based firmly on language, as supportive adults help young children reach higher levels of learning through scaffolding—assisting young learners with initial attempts at a task (Bodrova & Leong, 1996). When Maggie and her mother read Yoko (Wells, 1998) Maggie asked, “Why did Mrs. Jenkins fret about Yoko?” Natalie explained that “fretted” was just like “worried,” and Maggie asked why Mrs. Jenkins was worried. During this exchange, and many more like it, Maggie’s language and concepts were being socially constructed (Vygotsky, 1978), or learned with the assistance of someone more knowledgeable. Children are not passive learners; they reconstruct language as they learn and apply it, making it their own.

Critical Theory

Critical theory addresses the social and cultural backgrounds children bring with them when they come to school, and involves an understanding of the inequalities of certain groups in acquiring literacy (Freire, 1985; Gee, 1996). Young children from nonmainstream environments may have very different ways of “taking meaning” from the environment and from language than the mainstream population (Heath, 1983). Home literacy can take many forms that do not match the discourse of school communities (Taylor, 1997). Teachers who adhere to critical theory are sensitive to the ways some groups of children with diverse backgrounds “read the world” differently than mainstream children, putting them on an unequal footing in early literacy development (Freire, 1985). These teachers support a multicultural approach, address issues of social justice and nonviolence, and help children become critical thinkers and readers. Proponents of critical theory advocate social change and gender equality within the literacy curriculum (Shannon, 1998).

Emergent Literacy

The work of Marie Clay, a New Zealand educator, heralded changes in the way researchers and teachers viewed early reading. Her studies indicated that children know a great deal about reading and writing before they come to school, and they are able to experiment with and apply their knowledge in various ways (Clay, 1975). Reading readiness seemed to be an inaccurate term, since Clay’s research showed that there was not a specific sequence of skills children needed to master prior to reading and writing. The children she studied seemed instead to “emerge” into literacy—with writing, reading, and oral language abilities developing together.

Emergent literacy was recently defined as “the view that literacy learning begins at birth and is encouraged through participation with adults in meaningful activities; these literacy behaviors change and eventually become conventional over time” (Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp, 2000, p. 123). From a very young age, children who are exposed to oral and written language gradually gain control over the forms of literacy. Print-related knowledge develops similarly to the way children learn oral language (Morrow, 1997). When children are actively engaged with interesting and meaningful reading and writing experiences, they develop literacy knowledge early in their lives.


A Balanced Approach

In sum, current research reveals that “learning to read and write is a complex, multifaceted process that requires a wide variety of instructional approaches” (Neuman et al., 2000, p. 39). The debates over which method of teaching reading may be put to rest by the studies show that no single method is best for all children all the time. Many teachers now incorporate a “balance” of research-based strategies, believing this to be the most effective way to approach literacy development (Tompkins, 2003). There are three basic principles in a balanced approach to literacy: (a) developing skills and strategies while nurturing a love of literature, (b) varying instructional approaches to fit the needs of the children, and (c) immersing children in a variety of reading materials (Fitzgerald, 1999). The balanced approach to literacy instruction incorporates the best in research, stresses the role of the teacher as an informed decision maker, allows the teacher flexibility in building a literacy program, and is based on a comprehensive view of literacy that includes reading and writing (Spiegel, 1998). Cambourne’s Conditions for Literacy Development