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.
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.
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.
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.