Literacy Research and Practice from the 1960s to the Present

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

In the 1960s through the 1980s, researchers investigating early childhood literacy development brought about many changes in practice. Investigators looked at the cognitive development of the child using varied research methodologies for data collection. There were experimental studies with treatment and control groups, correlational research, interviews, observations, videotapes, and case studies. The research was done in diverse cultural, racial, and socioeconomic settings. The research was field based, taking place in classrooms and homes, rather than in laboratories as in the past. Research in the areas of oral language development, family literacy, early reading, and early writing had a strong impact on our understanding of how children learn and consequently how we should teach reading and writing.

The findings of the research from the 1960s through the 1980s enabled us to understand more of the processes involved in becoming literate. To acquire skill in oral language, writing, and reading, children need models to emulate and the freedom to create their own forms of reading, writing, and speaking. The work that was done brought about the emergent literacy perspective in early literacy instruction.

Emergent Literacy

Research concerning early readers and what they learn about books, print, and writing before going to school has changed attitudes and ideas about early childhood strategies for literacy development. One such concept is emergent literacy, a phrase first used by Marie Clay (1966). Emergent literacy assumes that the child acquires some knowledge about language, reading, and writing before coming to school. Literacy development begins early in life and is ongoing. There is a dynamic relationship among the communication skills (reading, writing, oral language, and listening) because each influences the other in the course of development. Development occurs in everyday contexts of the home, community, and school through meaningful and functional experiences that require the use of literacy in natural settings. The settings for the acquisition of literacy are often social, with adults and children interacting through collaboration and tutoring. Literacy activities occur and are embedded purposefully within content areas such as art, music, play, social studies, and science to ensure that meaning is involved. For example, in art, children should have a recipe to read in order to be able to make play dough.

Children at every age possess certain literacy skills, although these skills are not as fully developed or conventional as we recognize mature reading and writing to be (Baumann, Hoffman, Duffy-Hester, & Ro, 2000; Morris & Slavin, 2003). Emergent literacy acknowledges a child’s scribble marks on a page as rudimentary writing, even if not one letter is discernible. The child who knows the difference between such scribbles and drawings has some sense of the difference between writing and illustration. Similarly, when children narrate familiar storybooks while looking at the pictures and print and give the impression of reading, we acknowledge the activity as legitimate literacy behavior, even though it cannot be called reading in the conventional sense. Literacy development approached in this manner accepts children at any level of literacy at which they are functioning and provides a program for instruction based on individual needs. The emergent literacy perspective exposes children to books early; it is a child-centered approach with more emphasis on problem solving than on direct instruction of skills.

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