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.

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.

Integrating the Language Arts with Thematic Instruction

With whole language based strongly on authentic, relevant learning, the integrated language arts concept combined with thematic instruction became important to the literacy curriculum. In classrooms that use an integrated language arts approach, literacy is taught not as a subject, but as a mechanism for learning in general. Literacy learning becomes meaningful when it is embedded into the study of themes and content-area subjects.

The main goal of thematic units is to teach content information and literacy skills in an interesting way. Thematic units use a science or social studies topic and consciously integrate literacy into all content-area lessons, including music, art, play, math, social studies, and science. Many selections of children’s literature are used as a major part of the unit; however, the literature does not drive the unit—the topic of the unit is the main focus. In this type of unit, the classroom centers are filled with materials that relate to the topic, including literacy materials to encourage reading and writing. In all science and social studies lessons, reading and writing are purposefully incorporated. Skills are taught when they seem appropriate; for example, in the unit on the farm, when the class hatches baby chicks in an incubator, journals may be kept on the progress of the chicks, and the digraph ch could be emphasized. Topics may be predetermined by the teacher, selected by the children and teacher, or spontaneously based on something of interest that occurs in the school, in someone’s home, or in the world.

Explicit Instruction and Constructivist Approaches: Phonics and Whole Language

Some problems evolved with the whole-language and thematic instruction. Schools did not provide adequate staff development, materials, and in-class support for the ambitious changes proposed in classrooms. Many misunderstood the philosophy when interpreting it. Many thought that whole language meant teaching children only in whole groups. Thus, teachers stopped meeting with small groups of children for instruction to meet individual needs. Many thought that whole language meant that one could not teach phonics. This was not the case at all. The manner in which phonics was to be taught involved immersion into literature and print, together with spontaneous and contextual teaching of skills. As a result of the misinterpretations, many children received little or no instruction in phonics. Many schools did not follow a scope or sequence of skills and did not monitor skill development. Because of misinformation, misinterpretation, and incorrect implementation, many children did not develop skills they needed to become fluent, independent readers.

The pendulum began to swing again to those who favored an approach to early literacy development with more explicit use of phonics, and they cited many studies to substantiate their claims. According to Juel (1989), as children first begin to experiment with reading and writing, they need to focus on the sounds that make up words. Knowing that words are made up of individual sounds and having the ability to segment these sounds out of the words and blend them together is called phonemic awareness. According to research, phonemic awareness instruction in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade strengthens reading achievement. Phonemic awareness is also thought to be a precursor to phonics instruction (Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1993, 1995; Stanovich, 1986). With phonemic awareness, children can learn principles of phonics including (1) alphabetic understanding (knowing that words are composed of letters) and (2) cryptoanalytic intent or sound–symbol relationships (knowing that there is a relationship between printed letters and spoken sound). Research also suggests that knowledge of sound–symbol relationships, or phonics, is necessary for success at learning to read and write (Anthony & Lonigan, 2004; Lonigan, 2006).

Those who propose a behaviorist or explicit-skills approach for literacy instruction have argued for a strong phonics program in early literacy. The materials for instruction are systematic and provide direct instruction of skills with scripted manuals for teachers to use. On the other side of the debate are the constructivists, who propose natural settings for literacy instruction based on function and meaning and the integration of skill development. The constructivists prefer children’s literature as the source for literacy instruction.

Politics, the U.S. economy, and the statistics about how children are doing in reading determine the type of reading instruction that is adopted. The First Grade Studies (Bond & Dykstra, 1967a, 1967b) tried to answer the question of which method was the best for early literacy instruction. This exemplary piece of work found that no one method was more effective than another. It seems certain to me that this debate will continue.

Balanced Literacy Instruction

A position statement by the International Reading Association, entitled Using Multiple Methods of Beginning Reading Instruction (1999), suggests that no single method or single combination of methods can successfully teach all children to read. Teachers must know the social, emotional, physical, and intellectual status of the children they teach. They also must know about the many methods for reading instruction. Only then can they develop a comprehensive plan for teaching reading to meet individual needs.

This perspective on literacy instruction, which emerged as a result of the whole language versus phonics discussion, is a balanced approach. A balanced perspective includes careful selection of the best theories available and use of learning strategies based on these theories to match the learning styles of individual children to help them learn to read (Figure ). More skill-based explicit instruction or some holistic and constructivist ideas, which include problem-solving strategies, might be used (Morrow & Tracey, 1997). According to Pressley (1998), explicit teaching of skills is a good start for constructivist problem-solving activities, and constructivist activities permit consolidation and elaboration of skills. One method does not preclude or exclude the other.

A balanced perspective is not a random combination of strategies. A teacher may select strategies from different learning theories to provide balance. One child, for example, may be a visual learner and not benefit much from instruction in phonics; another child, whose strength may be auditory learning, will learn best from phonics instruction. The balanced approach is a thoughtful and mature approach. It focuses more on what is important for individual children than on the latest fad in literacy instruction.

Balanced instruction is grounded in a rich model of literacy learning that encompasses both the elegance and complexity of the reading and language arts processes. Such a model acknowledges the importance of both form (phonics, mechanics, etc.) and function (comprehension, purpose, meaning) of the literacy processes and recognizes that learning occurs most effectively in a whole–part–whole context. This type of instruction is characterized by meaningful literacy activities that provide children with both the skill and desire to become proficient and lifelong literacy learners.