How Children Learn Written Language (page 2)
An Active Learning Process
When researchers began watching youngsters closely, they began to question traditional assumptions about how children learn. A constructivist view of learning emphasizes the personal and social as well as the intellectual nature of literacy (Gambrell & Mazzoni, 1999; Owocki, 2003). As with other kinds of language learning, becoming literate is more than memorizing what an adult tells or shows a child. Children do use information and examples from adults, but they must construct their own knowledge of how print works. Children direct their own process of learning to read and write by actively generating and testing a series of personal hypotheses about written language. The goal for teachers is to assist children in creating meanings in response to new experiences as opposed to learning meanings others have created (Owocki, 2003).
Informal, everyday experiences with print in their lives appear to be a crucial part of children’s literacy learning process (Neuman & Roskos, 2005a). These experiences include being read to, pretending to read and write, finding their favorite cereal labels at the store, and seeing how their own names are written. Youngsters do need to hear what the names and sounds of letters are, but becoming literate involves experiences with print and opportunities to think about how print works. Reading and writing are communication processes, not merely decoding and encoding sounds.
You may have noticed that we don’t talk about learning to read only; learning to read and learning to write are inseparable (Gronlund, 2006; Gullo, 2006a). Reading exposes a child to models for writing, and writing involves a theory of how to create something readable. Thinking about one enhances understanding of the other, and both are learned simultaneously. Now you will see both of these functions referred to by the term literacy.
Adults can act as models, advisors, resources, and cheerleaders to children when they learn to read, just as they do when children learn to talk. Older children also can assist younger ones in becoming literate, just as they help them with other language acquisition. Betsy’s four older brothers and sisters don’t realize that they teach the younger ones, but they do a fine job. The younger children in the family always want to do whatever the older ones are doing. When they see their older siblings reading, they want to read, too. At first, they know only that reading involves looking at the book or newspaper or cereal box. Then they discover that there is a message contained in books even beyond the fascination of the pictures. When big brother Joey was in second grade, he would invite his three younger brothers and sisters to sit on his bunk bed and would entertain them by reading library books. Children in this family learned that reading was fun, and in the process, they learned how to read.
When Joey was at school, two-year-old Amy would ask her four-year-old brother, John, to read to her if their mom was too busy. John couldn’t read actual words, but he could tell a story, turn the pages, and admire the pictures with Amy. In these sessions, both Amy and John were learning a great deal about reading. Amy was learning that books were a source of information and pleasure; John was practicing the idea of getting meaning from a book. He was aware of the print and its relation to the content but couldn’t yet decipher it. At this point in his development, John tried to put together a prize toy from a cereal box. He was having trouble, so Grandma offered to help, saying, “Let me read the directions.” John replied, “I already did.” Grandma persisted, saying, “Let me see if you missed anything.” John handed her the direction sheet, which contained both illustrations and printed instructions, and said matter-of-factly, “I missed the words.” John’s statement accurately described his current level of reading; he was able to make meaning from pictures but not from print. John’s approach to making sense of reading was typical for his age (Braunger & Lewis, 1997).
There’s so much reading going on in this family that you might ask, “Does this family have a television? Do they have a computer?” Television and, more recently, computers are often blamed for people’s not reading. The parents in this family enjoy books, but they also enjoy television and think that selected, limited viewing isn’t necessarily bad. They know there are many educational computer games available too. Like many parents, they know children learn new words and are exposed to a vast array of ideas and information through television, computers, or both. Also like many parents, they are often uncomfortable with some of this new learning. That is one of the reasons they limit their children’s screen time. When they relent and allow their children to watch shows the parents don’t approve of, an adult watches the show with the children. Discussion of these programs helps the children think critically about what they are seeing. In this way, the parents use what they believe is both the good and the bad on television for helping their children grow intellectually and emotionally. When a child asks to play a computer game, the parents may play with them or offer to play something else instead.
When adults make television viewing and computer use intellectually active rather than passive experiences, viewing can be a source of language development and critical thinking and a vehicle for transmitting values as well as a source of information. In this way, television can provide a valuable background for literacy. However, when families use television viewing or computer games as a substitute for talking, thinking, and family interaction, it has negative consequences (Berk, 2006; Neuman, 2006).
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