The experiences encountered in early childhood (birth to 8 years of age) have a significant impact on future literacy development. Piasta (2023) provides a comprehensive overview of the current research (especially in relation to 3 to 5 year olds) and how these findings have shaped our understanding of literacy development, risks and resiliency factors related to literacy acquisition and minimisation of literacy difficulties. This post provides an outline of the key points made in this article.
Many important preliteracy skills are developed in young children prior to receiving any formal reading instruction and the extent to which children acquire these skills is highly predictive of further reading and spelling competency. These include:
- Oral language – ability to produce and understand spoken language, encompassing comprehension, vocabulary, syntactic and morphological awareness, and narrative.
- Phonological awareness – ability to hear and manipulate sounds used in speech.
- Print concepts – knowledge about the function, form and organisation of written language, encompassing an understanding that text maps to the spoken language, as well as an understanding of book/print conventions such as directionality and punctuation.
- Alphabet knowledge – basic knowledge of letter-phoneme correspondences.
- Emergent reading – includes pretend reading, reading environmental print and beginning to apply alphabet knowledge to decoding words.
- Emergent writing – includes pretending to write to convey meaning and beginning to apply alphabet knowledge to encoding words.
Risk & Resilience Factors
Children with low levels of the above emergent literacy skills are at increased risk of later reading and writing difficulties. Researchers have:
- Developed tools for assessing emergent literacy skills and monitoring progress which in turn enables early identification of ‘at risk’ children and instructional targets to improve literacy success.
- Documented factors associated with emergent literacy skills and identified early risk factors. (e.g., socioeconomic status, cultural and linguistic differences, lack of quality early childhood experiences, etc.).
- Identified resiliency factors that help to mitigate literacy difficulties including, higher levels of caregiver education, psychosocial, cognitive and self-regulation skills, positive attitudes, an interest in reading, early oral language skills, and quality early childhood experiences.
- Identified home environments and literacy practices contributing to high quality early literacy experiences including, positive attitudes and high expectations regarding literacy, literacy-rich environments, home teaching of basic literacy skills, a rich linguistic environment.
Minimising Literacy Difficulties
Early prevention rather than remediation is preferable in terms of psychological well-being and financial cost. The key findings include:
- Recognising and incorporating key emergent literacy development skills in early instruction.
- Immersing children in high-quality classroom linguistic and literacy environments.
- The need for high-quality, research-based classroom curricula and instruction.
- Shared book reading in which an adult reads aloud to children and play in which children are provided opportunities to learn and apply emergent literacy skills.
- Targeted, supplementary interventions for small groups of children identified as needing additional literacy support.
- Supporting teachers via professional development which targets critical components of literacy development, effective formats and structures, administrative and policy support and effective coaching.
Direction of Future Research
- The systematic testing of popular early childhood literacy curricula, interventions and practices.
- The most effective way of teaching lower versus upper case letters.
- Is it more effective to introduce phonological awareness with larger sound units first or should the focus be solely at the phoneme level?
- What is the role of technology and media?
- What are realistic literacy expectations at each age level?
- How can we best balance literacy instruction with other activities and instructional areas.
Piasta, S. (2023). Contributions of early childhood research to reading science. The Reading League Journal, 4 (2), 4-16