Home Literacy Experiences (page 4)
This article focuses on young children’s home environments in an attempt to discover factors that promote emergent literacy development.
Early studies in this area focused on umbrella characteristics such as family income and parents’ levels of education (Sulzby & Teale, 1991). Results revealed positive relationships between these variables and reading achievement in the early grades. For example, children from middle-income families tend to be better readers than those from low-income families. Unfortunately, such findings do little to explain how these variables directly affect children’s literacy growth.
Later studies have narrowed their focus and attempted to describe the actual literacy-related experiences that children have at home. These home literacy studies have identified several factors that appear to have important roles in emergent literacy acquisition. These factors are described below.
Access to Print and Books
In order to learn about literacy, young children must have opportunities to see lots of print and must have easy access to books. Plentiful home supplies of children’s books have been found to be associated with early reading (Durkin, 1966), interest in literature (Morrow, 1983), and positive orientation toward schooling (Feitelson & Goldstein, 1986).
Because of the literate nature of our society, all children are surrounded by large amounts of environmental print. For example, they see print on product containers (Cheerios, Pepsi) street signs (Stop), and store signs (McDonald’s, Pizza Hut). Differences do occur, however, in children’s exposure to books and other forms of reading materials. Bill Teale’s (1986) descriptive study of the home environments of twenty-four low-income preschoolers revealed that while some of the homes had ample supplies of children’s books, other homes contained none. This is not to suggest that all children from low-income families lack exposure to reading materials at home. Purcell-Gates’s study of twenty low-income families of differing ethnic backgrounds revealed great variability in the literacy experiences of children. The total number of literacy events in the low-income homes ranged from .17 to 5.07 per hour, meaning that some children had opportunities to experience more than twenty-five times the amount of literacy than other children! While on average the home literacy experiences of low-income children may not be as rich as those of average middle-class children, some nonmainstream children do have frequent interactions with print. Unfortunately, those children who do not have access to books at home are at a great disadvantage in acquiring literacy.
Larger societal factors, such as community access to literacy, also enter the picture. Neuman and Celano (2001), for example, found that low-income families had much more restricted access to public libraries and places to buy books. In addition, the school libraries in low-income neighborhoods had fewer books per child, lower-quality books, less-qualified librarians, and fewer computers. So limited access to literacy materials and good places to read, caused by societal inequities, may be contributing factors to many low-income children’s “at-risk” status.
Adult Demonstrations of Literacy Behavior
Children also need to observe their parents, other adults, or older siblings using literacy in everyday situations (Smith, 1988). When children see their family members use print for various purposes—writing shopping lists, paying bills, looking up programs in the television listings, and writing notes to each other—they begin to learn about the practical uses of written language and to understand why reading and writing are activities worth doing. If their parents happen to model reading for pleasure, so much the better. These children see literature as a source of entertainment. Children’s exposure to these types of functional and recreational literacy demonstrations has been found to vary greatly.
Early readers tend to have parents who are very supportive of their early attempts at literacy (Morrow, 1983). While these parents rarely attempt to directly teach their children how to read and write, they do support literacy growth by doing such things as (1) answering their children’s questions about print; (2) pointing out letters and words in the environment; (3) reading storybooks frequently; (4) making regular visits to the local library; (5) providing children with a wide variety of experiences such as trips to stores, parks, and museums; and (6) initiating functional literacy activities (such as suggesting that a child write a letter to grandmother or help make a shopping list).
The amount of such support that children receive during the preschool years varies greatly from family to family, and these differences have been found to have a considerable effect on children’s literacy learning during kindergarten and the elementary grades (Christian, Morrison, & Bryant, 1998; Leseman & de Jong, 1998).
Independent Engagements with Literacy
Young children need to get their hands on literacy materials and to have opportunities to engage in early forms of reading and writing. This exploration and experimentation allows children to try out and perfect their growing concepts about the functions, forms, and conventions of written language.
Independent engagements with literacy often take place in connection with play. Don Holdaway (1979) has described how, as soon as young children become familiar with a storybook through repetitive read-aloud experiences, they will begin to play with the books and pretend to read them. He believes that this type of reading-like play is one of the most important factors promoting early literacy acquisition.
Young children also incorporate writing into their play. Sometimes this play writing is exploratory in nature, with children experimenting with different letter forms and shapes. At other times, emergent writing occurs in the context of make-believe play. For example, four-year-old Ben was engaging in dramatic play in the housekeeping center. He wrote a Post-it note message to another child, who was acting out the role of his mother, informing her that he was at soccer practice.
Young children also use literacy in functional, nonplay situations. An excellent example is Glenda Bissex’s (1980) account of how her four-year-old son Paul, after failing to get her attention by verbal means, used a stamp set to write “RUDF” (Are you deaf?). He also attempted to secure his privacy by putting the sign “DO NOT DSTRB GNYS AT WRK” (Do not disturb . . . Genius at work) on his door.
Opportunities for these types of independent engagements with literacy depend on access to books and writing materials. As mentioned previously, research on children’s home environments indicates that there are wide discrepancies in the availability of children’s books and other reading materials. Similar differences also exist in the availability of writing materials. Teale’s (1986) descriptive study of the home environments of low-income preschoolers revealed that only four of twenty-four children had easy access to paper and writing instruments. He noted that these particular children engaged in far more emergent writing than did the other subjects in the study.
Storybook reading is undoubtedly the most studied aspect of home literacy. Quantitative studies have attempted to establish the importance and value of parents’ reading to their children. A meta-analysis of twenty-nine studies spanning more than three decades indicated that parent–preschooler storybook reading was positively related to outcomes such as language growth, early literacy, and reading achievement (Bus, van IJzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995).
Other studies have attempted to describe and analyze what actually takes place during storybook-reading episodes and to identify the mechanisms through which storybook reading facilitates literacy growth (e.g., Altwerger, Diehl-Faxon, & Dockstader-Anderson, 1985; Heath, 1982; Holdaway, 1979; Snow & Ninio, 1986; Taylor, 1986; Yaden, Smolkin, & Conlon, 1989). These studies have shown that parent–child storybook reading is an ideal context for children to receive all of the previously mentioned factors that promote literacy acquisition:
- Storybook reading provides children with access to enjoyable children’s books, building positive attitudes about books and reading.
- During storybook reading, parents present children with a model of skilled reading. Children see how books are handled, and they hear the distinctive intonation patterns that are used in oral reading.
- Parents provide support that enables young children to take an active part in storybook reading. Early storybook-reading sessions tend to be routinized, with the parent first focusing the child’s attention on a picture and then asking the child to label the picture. If the child does so, the parent gives positive or negative feedback about the accuracy of the label. If the child does not volunteer a label, the parent provides the correct label (Snow & Ninio, 1986). As children’s abilities grow, parents up the ante, shifting more of the responsibility to the children and expecting them to participate in more advanced ways.
- Storybook reading encourages independent engagements with literacy by familiarizing children with stories and encouraging them to attempt to read the stories on their own (Holdaway, 1979; Sulzby, 1985a).
Other researchers have studied how cultural factors affect the manner in which parents mediate storybook reading for their children. Shirley Brice Heath (1982) found that middle-class parents tended to help their children link book information with other experiences. For example, John Langstaff’s popular predictable book Oh, A-Hunting We Will Go (1974, Macmillan) contains the following lines:
Oh, a-hunting we will go.
A-hunting we will go.
We’ll catch a lamb
And put him in a pram
And then we’ll let him go.
To help the child understand the term pram, a middle-class parent might say, “The pram looks just like your sister’s baby carriage.” Working-class parents, on the other hand, had a tendency to not extend book information beyond its original context and would simply define the word pram for the child. Sulzby and Teale (1991) speculate that these differences in story-reading style may have a considerable effect on children’s emergent literacy acquisition.
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