The Critical Role of Family Setting for Emergent Learning in Infants and Toddlers (page 3)
The family setting plays a critical role in providing literacy-related experiences for infants’ and toddlers’ observation and exploration. Home environments where young children have shown evidence of emergent literacy knowledge can be characterized by the following nine characteristics. These characteristics highlight the ways in which the contexts of literacy and the interaction with adults are associated with children’s early literacy transactions. A summary of these nine characteristics is located in the list below.
Characteristics of Home Environments Associated with Infants' and Toddlers' Emergent Literacy
- Parents value literacy.
- Parents use reading and writing in their daily activities.
- Parents engage children in frequent book sharing.
- Parents encourage children's early literacy explorations
- Parents respond positively to children's questions.
- Parents value children's early attempts to draw or write.
- Parents engage children in frequent conversations.
- Parents are sensitive to their children's developmental level and prior experiences.
- Parents use scaffolding and mediation.
Parents Value Literacy
Parents who expressed pleasure in reading and writing were more likely to encourage their children’s interest in books (Bus, 2002). In contrast, parents who did not enjoy reading and writing activities themselves were less likely to encourage reading activities for their children. Additionally, when they shared story books with their children, their interactions involved less complex discussions and showed less consideration of children’s developmental levels. For example, some mothers simply read the text and did not appear to consider their child’s ability to comprehend what was being read.
Parents Use Reading and Writing in Their Daily Activities
In homes associated with emergent literacy of infants and toddlers, there were many opportunities for children to observe their parents’ interactions with written language on a daily basis (Baghban, 1984; Crago & Crago, 1983; Lujan & Wooden, 1984; Sinclair & Golan, 2002). Throughout each day infants and toddlers had the opportunity to observe parents making shopping lists; reading a newspaper, magazine, or book, using a cookbook; writing a letter; and completing work-related documents. As infants and toddlers accompanied parents on their activities and errands in their communities, they may have observed further literacy-related events as groceries were purchased, packages were mailed at the post office, or magazines were read in medical waiting rooms, and as families participated in religious services.
Parents Engage Children in Frequent Book Sharing
From early in their children’s lives, parents have made picture-book sharing a part of their daily routines (Baghban, 1984; Crago & Crago, 1983; Joyner, 1987). This picture-book sharing is not simply motivated by the desire for their children to get a head start on reading. In fact, parents of young children are quite aware that it will be several years before their children will actually read in the conventional sense. Instead, this daily routine of sharing picture books stems from parents’ strong orientation to literacy and their past and ongoing personal satisfaction with their own experiences with books, as well as their personal pleasure in sharing books with their young children. The sharing of picture books builds upon the attachment bond between parent and child (Bus, 2002) and provides opportunity for parents to teach their children about the world around them.
Parents Encourage Children’s Early Literacy Explorations
As children observe their parents in daily literacy-related events, and as they experience frequent picture-book sharing events, they begin to show an interest in participating in these events. Children’s responses may involve nonverbal behaviors (pointing, gesturing, facial expressions, helping to turn the pages of the book) or verbal behaviors (babbling, laughing, and making animal sounds). These early explorations are encouraged by their parents. Parents carefully observe children’s interest in these language and literacy-related events and begin to nurture this interest by facilitating their children’s explorations. Perhaps this involves providing paper and markers to the toddler who is interested in “writing,” that is, drawing and scribbling (Baghban, 1984; Schickedanz, 1986). Or it may involve providing a range of developmentally appropriate picture books that are easily accessible and then responding positively when their toddlers select a book and ask for it to be read to them. It may also involve understanding that toddlers may like to sit and look at their books independently, but are not yet able to put the books away consistently.
Parents also encourage literacy explorations when they respond positively to their children’s attempts to participate in other literacy-related events, such as reading the mail, making a shopping list, writing a letter to a relative, locating the desired box of cereal at the grocery store, or singing in a religious service.
Parents Respond Positively to Children’s Questions
Children’s early explorations and participation in literacy-related events are often accompanied by questions directed to their parents. Parents’ positive responses focus on answering their children’s questions at a level they can comprehend and letting their children take the lead in continuing with the questioning or moving on to another activity. For example, when Ryan was two years, 10 months of age, his mother noted the following behaviors over a five-day period:
Episode 1: “Ryan brought a plastic box to me that had embossed print on it and said, “what dat?” I read the words for him. He turned the box over, found more print and said: “what dat?” I also read it to him. He then turned and went off to play.
Episode 2: Ryan spontaneously pointed to some words in a storybook and said to me, “what dat write?” I read it to him. He asked no further questions.
Episode 3: At the breakfast table, Ryan spontaneously pointed to the words on the spout area of the milk carton and asked me, “what dat say?” I read him the words and showed him how to open it up. He smiled, and wanted to try opening it up himself.
These three episodes illustrate the curiosity young children express while exploring their world. As shown above, Ryan asked questions about print he noticed in various places in his environment: print on a plastic box, print in a story book, and print on the milk carton. In each of these instances, Ryan’s mother responded to his questions, continuing the interaction as long as he was interested. This type of interaction also occurs during picture-book sharing when children begin to ask questions about the events or concepts in the book.
Parents’ positive responsiveness to children’s explorations and questions is also characterized by an attitude of “acceptance and non-correction” (Lujan & Wooden, 1984, p. 5). This is especially important because parents have a significant role in nurturing their children’s general development as well as their opportunities to interact with literacy-related events. When parents attempt to rigidly control the interaction during story book time by insisting that their children just listen as the text is read and are not sensitive to their child’s nonverbal behaviors or interests, their children may show less interest in book interactions (Bus, 2002).
Parents Value Children’s Early Attempts to Draw or Write
In families where toddlers and early preschoolers are given opportunities to draw and scribble on paper, parents interpret these attempts as meaningful communication and respond to children’s questions and comments about the meaning of what they just “wrote” (Baghban, 1984). In these instances, children’s comments and labels for what was written (or drawn) are accepted without correction or question from their parents. Children’s early writing is also likely to be posted on the refrigerator along with other family notes and communications, indicating its value and meaningfulness to the family.
Parents Engage Children in Frequent Conversations
Families of young emergent readers and writers are also characterized by lots of talk between parents and children (Hart & Risley, 1995). Parents’ conversations with children show changes over time that mirror and enhance their children’s developing language competencies. Through these conversations, parents use a range of interaction patterns, such as eye contact and shared reference, verbal mapping, communication loops, and child-directed speech. For infants and toddlers, the focus of these conversations is on developing language that represents the objects, situations, pictures, and activities they encounter and experience. Picture-book sharing provides a context for many of these conversations (Moerk, 1974).
Parents Are Sensitive to Their Children’s Developmental Level and Prior Experiences
Successful literacy-related interactions with infants and toddlers involve parents’ awareness of their children’s developmental level. This knowledge includes awareness of their children’s physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development. For example, parents will have an awareness of their child’s experiences and developing concepts, such as their experiences with the family pet, a recent visit from a relative, or a trip to the zoo. Parents will also be aware of the child’s physical abilities, such as holding onto the book, pointing, and turning pages, as well as their developing attention span.
Based on their intuitive awareness, parents structure their interactions to provide opportunity for their children to participate as fully as possible. Parents carefully observe their children’s interest in and response to the specific literacy-related event and know when to continue the interaction, or when it is time to move on to another activity.
Positive learning interactions occur in settings that are relaxed and comfortable for young children. In these settings children feel secure and are able to become engaged (Berk & Winsler, 1995; Greenspan, 1997, 1999). Young children base their responses to an interaction upon their perception of the adult’s expressions (Trawick-Smith, 2006). If there is emotional or physical tension, young children will sense it and this will impact the learning interaction (Puckett & Black, 2001).
Adults’ sensitivity to children’s interest in the picture-book sharing is critical to the mutual enjoyment of the interaction (Dodici, Draper, & Peterson, 2003; Honig & Brophy, 1996; Lamme & Packer, 1986; Martin & Reutzel, 1999). In picture-book sharing events, “parents need to be sensitive to the infant’s signals of readiness and cooperation, sensitivity to behaviors that signal when the infant has had enough, awareness of the times most suitable to the infant’s daily routine, and receptiveness to the reading sessions in general” (Joyner, 1987, p. 22).
Parents Use Scaffolding and Mediation
The way in which parents engage their children successfully in conversation about a picture book is referred to as scaffolding. As parents share the book with their young children, they use a variety of strategies to keep their children involved, such as asking questions, labeling pictures, elaborating on actions that are illustrated, praising children’s responses, and responding to children’s questions (DeLoache, 1984; Loughner, 1993; Martin & Reutzel, 1999; Whitehurst, Falco, Lonigan, Fischel, DeBaryshe, Valdes-Menchaca, & Caulfield, 1988). Successful scaffolding is based upon parents’ knowledge of their individual child’s prior knowledge and competencies (DeLoache & DeMendoza, 1985). This knowledge informs the way in which parents then create the scaffold to support their child’s participation and learning.
This scaffolding may vary depending on whether the book read was a narrative story or an informational book (Potter & Haynes, 2000). While this scaffolding serves to guide a child’s participation (Dixon-Krauss, 1996; Martin & Reutzel, 1999), it also is dynamic and unfolds based on the specific responses of the child. Parents will use their child’s preceding responses to make a related comment or question that serves to keep the interaction going (Snow, 1983). For example, see the below example for the interaction between Allison, one and a half years old, and her mother as they shared an alphabet book (Otto, 1996). Based on Allison’s responses, her mother used labeling and elaboration to keep the interaction going. With each new page, Allison’s mom appeared to wait to see what her daughter’s response or interest would be. Based on this, she would provide a comment or label to expand or confirm her daughter’s response.
This scaffolding also changes with the age of young children. With infants, parents use more attention-getting strategies (Martin & Reutzel, 1999), such as saying “Oh, look!” while pointing to an illustration. Parents also use more verbal elaborations (Sénéchal, Cornell, & Broda, 1995). For example, when sharing The Very Quiet Cricket (Carle, 1990) with an infant, the parent might say, “Oh, look at the worm! He’s peeking out of the apple. (Points to apple) He’s saying, ‘hello.’” With older infants, more questioning was used and more feedback was given to children’s responses (Honig & Shin, 2001; Sénéchal, Cornell, & Broda, 1995). For example, a parent reading The Very Quiet Cricket might ask, “Where’s the little worm? Show me where he is. (Child points accurately) That’s right! There he is wiggling out of the apple. What is he saying?”
In addition to using scaffolding, parents adapt the literacy event to fit their child’s developmental level (Bus, 2002; Honig & Brophy, 1996; Martin & Reutzel, 1999). The ways in which parents adapt picture-book sharing to their individual children’s level of comprehension is referred to as mediation. In this mediation, parents simplify the task to a level at which their children can participate.
For example, when a parent begins to use a particular picture book with a young child, the parent may become aware that the actual story text is too complex for the child to understand, or that the specific words used in the text are too advanced. Perhaps the child is at a level where he is interested in only the pictures. At this point, parents may focus on only the illustrations. Bus (2002) described parents’ mediation of illustrations as involving an emphasis on the illustrations that represent some emotional or conceptual tie to the child’s life experiences. This personalizes the book content and builds upon the child’s prior knowledge and experiences. For example, reading The Very Quiet Cricket, a mother would draw on her child’s experience of seeing a dragonfly in their backyard as they looked at the illustrations of the dragonfly. This mother might say, “Oh, look! There’s a dragonfly. Remember we saw a dragonfly in our garden today. Look at the big wings!”
Parents also adapt the text to fit the comprehension and interests of their children. This “oral text” may have little relation to the actual text of the book, but results in a story that has more appeal to the child, increasing the child’s interest and participation (Bus, 2002; Honig & Brophy, 1996; Martin & Reutzel, 1999). In this way parental knowledge of children’s concepts and experiences are used in mediating and integrating book illustrations and text with children’s experiences and developing concepts. This mediation provides a bridge between the real world and the world represented in books.
Example of Parent's Scaffolding During Picture-Book Sharing (Allison, 1.5 years old, and her mother are sharing an alphabet book)
Mom: (holding book in front of Allison.) What are those?
Mom: /a/, Uh-huh (points to letters A-B-C on the cover; Allison's eye contact follows and she also points to the letters), /b/, ABCs.
Allison: /buh/ (points to illustration)
Allison: (points to letter A)
Mom: and there's the A.
Allison: /a/ (pointing to letter)
Mom: that's A
Mom: big A and a little a
Allison: /a/ apple (pauses, points to airplane)
Mom: that's an airplane
Allison: (looks at page with bear picture) mama
Mom: oh, that's the mama bear, that's a B, mama bear
Allison: bear (points to picture)
Mom: giving the baby bear a bath. Baby bear has a bath.
Allison: (points to picture of bug)
Mom: and that's a little bug
Allison: (points to letter C)
Mom: C, that's for candle
Research Implications. These nine characteristics of home environments where young children have shown evidence of emergent literacy knowledge provide examples that could be transferred and integrated into early childhood settings. For example, because research has indicated emergent literacy in home settings that have opportunities for frequent story book sharing, early childhood settings should incorporate multiple opportunities for story book sharing throughout each day.
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