Literacy Research and Practice from the 1960s to the Present (page 2)
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.
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.
Definitions of Whole Language
Whole language is similar to the emergent literacy perspective, but considers all children at all ages. Advocates of whole language support the constructivist and natural approaches to learning fostered by many of the early philosophers, psychologists, and theorists already discussed. From a content analysis of 64 professional articles related to whole language, Bergeron (1990) composed this definition:
Whole language is a concept that embodies both a philosophy of language development as well as the instructional approaches embedded within, and supportive of, that philosophy. This concept includes the use of real literature and writing in the context of meaningful, functional, and cooperative experiences in order to develop in students motivation and interest in the process of learning. (p. 319)
From my perspective, whole language is a philosophy about how children learn, from which educators derive strategies for teaching. In a whole-language approach, literacy learning is child centered because it is designed to be meaningful and functional for children. The purpose and significance are drawn from the child’s life experiences at home or those created in school. For example, if a beehive is discovered at school and removed by an exterminator, children may be interested in discussing, reading, or writing about bees. Although learning about bees is not built into the prescribed curriculum, the teacher allows children to pursue this spontaneous interest (Collins & Shaeffer, 1997; Dunn, Beach, & Kontos, 1994; Fingon, 2005).
Literacy activities are purposefully integrated into the learning of content-area subjects such as art, music, social studies, science, math, and play. The use of social studies and science themes, such as the study of ecology, links content areas and literacy experiences. Equal emphasis is placed on teaching reading, writing, listening, and oral language, because all help create a literate individual. In the past, this program has been referred to as an integrated language arts approach. Varied genres of children’s literature are the main source of reading material for instruction. This method is called literature-based instruction. Classrooms must be rich with literacy materials for reading and writing throughout the room and also housed in special literacy centers. This design is often called the rich literacy environment.
In a classroom that uses holistic strategies, teachers place more emphasis on learning than on teaching. Learning is self-regulated and individualized, with self-selection and choices of literacy activities. Rather than only teaching lessons in literacy, teachers are more likely to provide models of literacy activities for children to emulate. There is adult and peer interaction as children observe one another and adults engaged in literacy acts. There is opportunity for peer tutoring and collaboration with each other in active literacy experiences. Children also can learn through practice by engaging in long periods of independent reading and writing and sharing what is learned—by reading to others and presenting written pieces to an audience. A major objective for literacy instruction is the development of a desire to read and write.
In classrooms that use holistic approaches, skills are taught when they are relevant and meaningful; for example, when studying a theme such as dinosaurs, the teacher may focus on some letters and sounds in the initial consonants found in the names of dinosaurs. In early implementation of whole-language programs, some thought that skills were not to be taught in any systematic way and that children would acquire those that they needed by being immersed in experiences with reading children’s literature and writing. Certainly, skills are assimilated through this immersion, but specific skills, such as how to use decoding strategies to figure out unknown words, require some explicit instruction by the teacher.
In a whole-language approach, assessment is continuous and takes many forms: Teachers collect daily performance samples of work, they observe and record children’s behavior, they audio- and videotape them in different situations, and they build a portfolio filled with information about each youngster. The evaluation process is for both teacher and child, and conferences are held to discuss progress.
In a whole-language orientation, teachers along with children are the decision makers about instructional strategies, the organization of instruction, and the instructional materials used. Commercial materials do not dictate the instructional program, although they may be used if desired. Literacy learning is consciously embedded throughout the curriculum in the whole school day. Large blocks of time are needed for projects. Children are able to read and write independently for long periods of time.
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