Literature Review (2010)

I. Literature Review

The last decade has brought a growing consensus on the range of skills that serve as the foundation for reading and writing ability (Dickinson & Neuman, 2006; National Reading Panel Report, 2000; Neuman & Dickinson, 2001; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). To become a skilled reader, children need a rich language and conceptual knowledge base, a broad and deep vocabulary, and verbal reasoning abilities to understand messages that are conveyed through print. Children also must develop code-related skills, an understanding that spoken words are composed of smaller elements of speech (phonological awareness); the idea that letters represent these sounds (the alphabetic principle), the many systematic correspondences between sounds and spellings, and a repertoire of highly familiar words that can be easily and automatically recognized (McCardle & Chhabra, 2004; McCardle, Scarborough, & Catts, 2001).

But to attain a high level of skill, young children need opportunities to develop these strands, not in isolation, but interactively. Meaning, not sounds or letters, motivates children’s earliest experiences with print (Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp, 2000). Given the tremendous attention that early literacy has received recently in policy circles (Roskos & Vukelich, 2006), and the increasing diversity of our child population, it is important and timely to take stock of these critical dimensions as well as the strengths and gaps in our ability to measure these skills effectively.

In the following sections, we first review the important skills that are related to early language and literacy achievement. We then provide recommendations for updating ECRR workshops.

I.1 The Critical Dimensions of Language and Literacy in Early Childhood

Language. Verbal abilities are consistently the best predictors of later reading achievement (Scarborough, 2001). Skilled readers typically draw upon multiple levels of the language system (Dickinson, McCabe, Anastasopoulos, Peisner-Feinberg, & Poe, 2003), with abilities encompassing vocabulary, syntax, and discourse. Vocabulary size in optimal settings may increase exponentially in the early years (some estimate about seven words a day) (Snow et al., 1998), with children learning to comprehend words spoken to them before they are able to produce them on their own. Word knowledge, however, is not just developed through exposure to increasingly complex language, but to knowledge-building language experiences (Neuman, 2001) that involve children in developing and refining networks of categorically-related concepts.

With opportunity and practice, children’s word knowledge is put to use in syntactic structures that grow in length and complexity. Children’s sentences often start at two words (Bloom, 1970), but quickly lengthen to four or more words as children communicate their ideas increasingly through language. Snow and colleagues (Snow, Baines, Chandler, Goodman, & Hemphill, 1991) have shown that conversations that are physically removed from immediate objects or events (i.e., ‘what if?’) are tied to the development of abstract reasoning and related to literacy skills like print production and narrative competence.

With word learning occurring so rapidly, children begin to make increasingly fine distinctions of words not only based on their meaning but also based on their sound. They begin to make implicit comparisons between similar sounding words, a phenomenon described by linguists as lexical restructuring (Goswami, 2001; Metsala, 1999). For example, a two-year old child probably knows the words “cat” from “cut;” “hot” from “not.” Distinguishing between these similar sounding words both quickly and accurately, children begin to hear sequences of sound that constitute each known word. Children with large vocabularies become attuned to these segments and acquire new words rapidly; children with smaller vocabularies may be limited to more global distinctions. Consequently, vocabulary size and vocabulary rate are important for lexical restructuring (i.e., making sound distinctions between words) (Goswami, 2001), and are strongly tied to the emergence of phonological awareness.

Recent analyses (Dickinson et al., 2003) have made it abundantly clear, however, that oral language skills, and more specifically vocabulary development, not only play a role in phonological awareness but also are critical skills for the development of reading comprehension later on. Therefore, it is essential for quality indicators in early childhood programs to recognize that oral language and vocabulary development is the foundation for all other skills critical to successful reading.

Phonological awareness. Based on a massive body of research (Burgess, 2006; Lonigan, 2006), phonological awareness is a critical precursor, correlate, and predictor of children’s reading achievement. Discriminating units of language (i.e., words, segments, phonemes) is strongly linked to successful reading (National Reading Panel Report, 2000). It is, however, as described above, both a cause and a consequence of vocabulary development and learning to read (Ehri & Roberts, 2006). Typically developing children begin first to discriminate among units of language (i.e., phonological awareness), then within these units (i.e., phonemic awareness). Phonological awareness refers to the general ability to attend to the sounds of language as distinct from its meaning. Phonemic awareness is the insight that every spoken word can be conceived as units of sounds that are represented by the letter of an alphabet (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).

Evidence (Lonigan, 2006; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998) suggests that children achieve syllabic sensitivity earlier than they achieve sensitivity to phonemes, and sensitivity to rhyme before sensitivity to phonemes. Children’s entry to these skills typically begins with linguistic activities such as language games and nursery rhymes (Maclean, Bryant, & Bradley, 1987) that implicitly compare and contrast the sounds of words, and include alliterative phrases (i.e., bibbily bobbily boo begins with /b/). But implicit comparisons, alone, may be insufficient. Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness are meta-linguistic abilities (Adams, 1990). Children must not only be able to recite and play with sound units, they must also develop an understanding that sound units map onto whole or parts of written language.

Phonological awareness should not be confused with phonics. The term phonics, or decoding, assumes that children understand the phonemic composition of words, and the phoneme-grapheme (sound/letter) relationship. Studies that have attempted to accelerate learning through early phonics training have shown no effects (Snow et al., 1998); in fact, evidence suggests that such training, without a firm understanding of phonemic awareness, may be detrimental to remembering words and learning to spell.

Recent reviews and analyses (Dickinson et al., 2003; Scarborough, 2001) have placed phonological awareness as a critical part of a complex braid of language abilities which include strands of phonology, semantics, syntax, pragmatics, and discourse. Its tie to children’s ability to decode has been clearly established. At the same time, quality indicators would do well to recognize that phonological awareness skills are integrally connected to other important language skills which need to be strongly bolstered in these early education and care programs.

Letter knowledge: Knowledge of the alphabet letters is a strong predictor of short- and long-term reading success (Bond & Dykstra, 1967; Chall, 1990). However, its influence on later reading is not about knowing the letter names, per se. Rather, the learning of letter names mediates the ability to remember the sounds associated with the letters (Ehri, 1979). Once again, there is a reciprocal relationship between skills: Letter knowledge plays an influential role in the development of phonological awareness, and higher levels of letter knowledge are associated with children’s abilities to detect and manipulate phonemes. For example, the child who knows the letter ‘b’ is likely to remember the sound of /b/. Consequently, letter knowledge may reflect a greater underlying knowledge and familiarity with literacy related skills such as language and print.

Research (Gibson & Levin, 1975) indicates that children differentiate letters according to their visual form, that is, their horizontal, vertical and diagonal segments. Given the complexities of the visually distinct forms of letters (upper case, lower case, printed form), current learning theory (Adams, 1990) suggests that simultaneously teaching two versions of letters with their confusable sounds and labels may be overwhelming to the young child. However, there is no substantial evidence to suggest which particular form (upper or lower case) should be taught first.

A growing body of research suggests that a variety of extrinsic and intrinsic factors influence the development of letter knowledge. Exposure to letters is a primary vehicle for alphabet knowledge. Children who participate frequently in adult-child writing activities that include a deliberate focus on print have better alphabet knowledge relative to those who may spend time on other activities like shared reading (Aram & Levin, 2004). Further, some letters tend to be learned earlier by children than others. In a recent investigation, Justice and her colleagues (Justice, Pence, Bowles, & Wiggins, 2006) reported that the single largest advantage for learning letters were the child’s first initials, compared to the lesser advantage of phonological features of the letters themselves. Given the variability among children in the specific letters they know, multiple methods for gaining letter knowledge are recommended.

Background Knowledge. For children to become skilled readers (Neuman & Celano, 2006), they will also need to develop a rich conceptual knowledge base and verbal reasoning abilities to understand messages conveyed through print. Successful reading ultimately consists of knowing a relatively small tool kit of unconscious procedural skills, accompanied by a massive and slowly built-up store of conscious content knowledge. It is the higher-order thinking skills, knowledge, and dispositional capabilities that enable young children to come to understand what they are reading.

Children’s earliest experiences become organized or structured into schemas, building blocks of cognition. Schemas (Anderson & Pearson, 1984) provide children with the conceptual apparatus for making sense of the world around them by classifying incoming bits of information into similar groupings. Stein and Glenn (1979), for example, provided a compelling case for schemas and their usefulness for recalling information about stories. Well-read to children internalize a form of story grammar, a set of expectations of how stories are told which enhances their understanding. Knowledge becomes easier to access (Neuman, 2001), producing more knowledge networks. And those with a rich knowledge base find it easier to learn and remember.

Quality indicators of a rich content base for instruction in early childhood programs include a content-rich curriculum in which children have opportunities for sustained and in-depth learning (Neuman, Dwyer, & Newman, submitted for publication), including play; different levels of guidance to meet the needs of individual children; a masterful orchestration of activity that supports content learning and social-emotional development; and time, materials and resources that actively build verbal reasoning skills and conceptual knowledge.

Print conventions. Recognizing that concepts about print in the English language are not intuitive, Marie Clay (1979), in her pioneering work with Maori children in New Zealand, identified a set of conventions that could be understood without being able to read. These conventions included, among others, the directionality of print in a book (left-to-right, top-to-bottom, front-to-back), differences between pictures and print, uses of punctuation, and definitional characteristics of a letter and a word. Knowing these conventions, she found, helped in the process of learning to read.

With the exception of a study by Tunmer and colleagues (Tunmer, Herriman, & Nesdale, 1988) demonstrating the relationship of these skills to later reading success, however, there is little evidence to suggest the predictive power of these skills on later achievement. Rather, print conventions act as an immediate indicator of children’s familiarity with text, and are not integrally related to the other language based skills associated with reading success. Therefore, while such conventions might be helpful to young children in navigating through books, these skills may not in the long run play a powerful role in learning to read.

Children who are English language learners experience each of these critical dimensions in the context of learning two languages, which only increases the complexity of the processes of language and literacy development. In order to become proficient in their second language, young children will need to familiarity with the phonology to the [second language], its vocabulary (typical everyday discourse as well as academic vocabulary, its morphology and grammar (Geva, 2006). Further, to become literate in a second language, it is important to have an adequate level of oral proficiency in that language (Bialystock, 2007). Research with second language learners has shown that oral language and literacy skills in the first language contribute to the development of those skills in the second language. For example, phonological awareness skills in the first language have been found to predict phonological awareness sand word recognition in the second language (Chiappe & Siegel, 1999; Cisero & Royer, 1995; Durgunglu, 1998). Although much more research is still needed about the ways in which English language learners develop literacy skills, this knowledge can help guide the development of further interventions.

In sum, research supports a particularly strong linkage between oral language, phonological awareness, letter knowledge, background knowledge, and to a much lesser extent, print conventions, in the preschool years. These skills are highly interdependent. Phonological awareness appears to influence vocabulary development and vocabulary rate. Letter knowledge supports phonological awareness. Code-related skills are highly predictive of children’s initial early reading success while oral language skills and background knowledge become highly predictive of comprehension abilities and later reading achievement. Each of these skills, when integrated in meaningful activity, has an important role to play in children’s literacy development.

I. 2 Research on Constrained/Unconstrained Skills

In 2002, the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP, 2008) was convened to conduct a synthesis of the scientific research in the development of early reading skills for children ages 2-5. Their report, recently issued (2008), indicated that the most powerful predictors of reading achievement were alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, rapid automatic naming, and that oral language and vocabulary were only moderate predictors of achievement.

Paris (2005), however, has most recently demonstrated the flaws in what has come to be understood as this traditional view. Early literacy skills, such as letter knowledge (knowing the letters of the alphabet), phonological awareness (sensitivity to the sounds in words), and concepts of print are best described as constrained skills-—skills that predict later achievement early on but that quickly asymptote after the age of 5. Contrary to constrained skills are vocabulary, comprehension and background knowledge; these skills are unconstrained, essentially never asymptote as children get older. These skills have the potential to grow throughout one’s lifetime, and can dramatically influence children’s long-term abilities both in reading and content areas.

This research has significant implications for teaching and our focus on the skills necessary for children to read. It suggests that although letter knowledge, phonological awareness, and concepts of print are initially important and should be taught, they lead only to temporary gains on skills, and do not predict long-term outcomes. The critical skills are vocabulary, comprehension, and background knowledge—skills that take more time to teach and review and these skills should be a major focus in helping children learn how to read.

I.3 Features of the Environment that Support Literacy Development

The environment can play a major role in promoting these critical skills for literacy development. The organization, structure, and complexity of the early childhood setting influence patterns of activity and engagement. For example, a fairly sizable number of studies (Morrow, 1990; Neuman & Roskos, 1992, 1997; Vukelich, 1994) have revealed the powerful influence of access to literacy tools on young children’s involvement in literacy activities. This research indicates that in settings carefully constructed to include a wide access of literacy tools, books, and play materials, children read more (Neuman & Roskos, 1992), and engage more in literacy-related play themes (Morrow, 1990), with resulting effects on literacy improvement (Neuman & Roskos, 1990).

The use of space in settings influences learning (Roskos & Neuman, 2001). Children use space and its boundaries to regulate and guide their own responses. For example, studies (Morrow, 1988; Neuman & Roskos, 1997) find that smaller, well defined niches and nooks seem to encourage greater language and collaboration with peers and adults. Children are likely to use these more intimate settings to interact in longer and richer conversation with others.

Relatedly, studies (Fernie, 1985) show evidence that the physical environment can have behavioral consequences. Some materials seem to encourage more sustained activity than others and invoke children’s attention at different ages. Materials that involve children in constructive activity, for example, tend to generate more language than “pull toys” (Rosenthal, 1973). Some materials elicit greater social interaction and cooperation, like block building, whereas others encourage more solitary and or parallel play, such as puzzles (see review, Roskos & Neuman, 2001).

The physical placement of objects, as well, influences children’s engagement in literacy-related activity. Children become more involved in sustained literacy play when objects are clustered together to create a schema or meaning network. For example, in one study (Neuman & Roskos, 1993), placing props associated with mailing letters together in a play setting (envelopes, writing instruments, stamps and stationary) led to longer play episodes than when these props were scattered throughout the room. Further, props that were authentic, familiar and useful to common literacy contexts, like telephones in the kitchen area, or mailboxes in the office area, encouraged more complex language interactions and routines.

The proximity of quality books at children’s eye view supports involvement in literacy-like enactments (Morrow & Weinstein, 1986; Neuman, 1999). In one of the first intervention studies of its type, Morrow and Weinstein (1986) examined the influence of creating library corners in early childhood settings. These library corners were specially constructed to include the following elements: (a) a clear location with well-defined borders; (b) comfortable seating and cozy spots for privacy; (c) accessible, organized materials; and (d) related activities that extended whole- and small-group book activities. Morrow and Weinstein (1986) found that the frequency of use rose significantly when library corners were made more visibly accessible and attractive. Similarly, in a large-scale study in 500 child care settings (Neuman, 1999), library settings were created to “put books in children’s hands” (p. 286). Observations indicated that children spent significantly more time interacting with books when they were placed in close proximity to children’s play activities.

Consequently, there is clear and abundant evidence that certain physical design features in environments support young children’s literacy engagement and subsequent achievement. Physical design features, uses of space, and resources, may help to focus and sustain children’s literacy activity, providing greater opportunity to engage in language and literacy behaviors. This research indicates, therefore, that a more deliberate approach to the selection and arrangement of materials according to specific design criteria may enhance children’s uses of literacy objects and related print resources.

Libraries might benefit from this research on the ecological features of environment. Creating cozy areas for children to sit and read together; constructing play spaces that help them learn to engage in playful behaviors that mimic library activities; and clustering objects such as books, toys, and writing implements together to encourage their sustained use of materials might enhance children’s independent engagement in the library areas.

I.4 Interactional Supports for Literacy Learning

Environments include not only physical settings, but psychological settings for literacy learning as well (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). Children are influenced by the participants present in a setting, their background experiences, their values and it is the integration of place, people, and occasion that support opportunities for learning. These individuals act as social and psychological resources that provide information and feedback through demonstrations and interactions. From a Vygotskian perspective (Vygotsky, 1978), the participants in the setting have the potential to help children perform at a higher level than they would be able to by interacting with their physical environment alone. It is the contrast between assisted and unassisted performance that differentiates learning from development.

A great corpus of research (Dickinson & Neuman, 2006; Neuman & Dickinson, 2001) identifies the types of supports that promote children’s language and literacy development. Essentially, they highlight both instructional and relational components. Since language represents the foundational basis for literacy learning in the early years, there is evidence that the amount of verbal input in settings enhances children’s language development (Hart & Risley, 1995; Hoff-Ginsberg, 1991). Children whose teachers engage them in rich dialogues have higher scores on tests of both verbal and general ability (Whitehurst et al., 1994). This is especially the case when discussions consist of adults encouraging, questioning, predicting and guiding children’s exploration and problem-solving (Palinscar, Brown, & Campione, 1993). Such verbal interactions contribute to children’s vocabulary growth which, in turn, is strongly correlated with phonological awareness, comprehension, and subsequent reading achievement.

Adults also engage in activities that are highly supportive of literacy development. Reading stories to children on a regular basis is regarded as one of the more potent supports for literacy learning (Bus, Van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995). Studies (Dickinson & Smith, 1994; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998) have shown that a parent’s style or approach to reading storybooks to children has both short-term and long-term effects on language and literacy development. Shared book reading activities, such as dialogic reading (Whitehurst et al., 1994), for example, and repeated readings (Biemiller, 2006) have been widely studied and identified as an important source of knowledge about vocabulary, about letters, and about the characteristics of written language. Recent studies (Beck & McKeown, 2007; Duke, 2000) also highlight the importance of introducing children to a wide variety of books in different genres such as information books, poetry, and popular folk tales.

Attention to and support of emergent writing (Clay, 1991) has also been shown to strongly connect with children’s developing phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and readiness skills. Activities involve ‘driting (drawing and writing), and adult scaffolding help to build the alphabetic principle (Adams, 1990). Further, interactions in literacy-related play have been shown to relate to children’s length of utterances, and sustainability in play themes (Neuman & Roskos, 1992). Taken together, activities that engage children in reading, writing, talking, and playing create occasions for meaningful communicative interactions involving language and print.

This research highlights the central role of the caregiver who evokes children’s interest and engagement in literacy learning. According to Bus, Van Ijzendoorn, and Pellegrini (1995), children build a mental representation of their interactions with caregivers that influence their expectations and responses to activities. When children feel secure, they engage in learning; when insecure in situations, they may use digressive tactics to avoid activity. For example, in a cross-sectional study of interactive reading with 18-, 32-, and 66-month children, Bus and van Ijzendoorn (1995) found that the atmosphere surrounding book reading was more positive among securely attached caregiver-child dyads than anxiously attached dyads. For securely attached children, book reading was ultimately an enjoyable task, tied to learning improvement; for insecurely attached children, it was negative, with caregivers often using verbal and nonverbal cues to discipline behavior.

Other studies (Blair, 2002; Blair & Razza, 2007; Hamre & Pianta, 2005; Miles & Stipek, 2006; Pianta, La Paro, Payne, Cox, & Bradley, 2002), as well, support the linkage between children’s emotional security and cognitive activity. For example, Howes and Smith (1995) report that in settings rich with creative play activities and staffed by adults who provide children with emotional security, children not only thrive socially but cognitively as well. Similarly Peisner-Feinberg and her colleagues (Peisner-Feinberg et al., 2001) found that the influence of close attachments between caregivers and children yielded even stronger positive effects for children from disadvantaged backgrounds than for children from more advantaged backgrounds. Recent studies (Hamre & Pianta, 2005) have shown that these emotional supports may have important moderating effects during the elementary school years as well. Shown in a recent study by Powell and his colleagues (Powell, Burchinal, File & Kontos, 2008), these types of supportive adult interactions are more likely to occur in small group and one-to-one instructional settings, rather than in whole group instruction.

1.5 Addressing the Needs of English Language Learners

All of these environmental supports are especially important for young English language learners (ELL). Their numbers have increased dramatically in the past 15 years in the United States. For example, in 1990, 1 in every 20 children was ELL, that is, a student who speaks English either not at all or with enough limitations that he or she cannot fully participate in mainstream English instruction. Today the figure is 1 in 9 (Goldenberg, 2008). Although these children come from over 400 different language backgrounds, by far the largest proportions of students are Spanish-speakers (over 80%) (U.S. Department of Education, 2005).

Recent syntheses of research (August & Shanahan, 2006; Rolstad, Mahoney, & Glass, 2005; Slavin & Cheung, 2005) suggest that when feasible, children should be taught in their primary language. Primary language instruction helps to promote bilingualism and, eventually, biliteracy. Further, children will need support in transferring what they know in their first language to learning tasks presented in English. Engaging children actively in meaningful tasks and providing many opportunities for them to participate at their functional levels will enable children to feel more efficacious, and to become contributing members in mainstream classrooms.

Adults will need to make adjustments and accommodations—sometimes described as ‘instructional scaffolding’—to support children who are beginning English speakers (Goldenberg, 2008). They may have to speak slowly and somewhat deliberately, with clear vocabulary and diction; they may need to use pictures or other objects to illustrate the content being taught; or ask for children to respond either non- verbally (e.g., pointing or signaling) or in one- or two-word utterances (Snow et al., 1998). ELL’s language needs are complex. These young children are not only learning a new language, but also a new set of social rules and behaviors that may be different from their home. Given the great variability among ELL children, adults will need to know the different stages of language learning to be able to implement the most appropriate accommodations (for addition information on accommodations (see Carlo et al., 2004; Francis et al., 2006; Vaughn et al., 2006). Consequently, these and other factors are especially important to ensure that these ELL children have many opportunities to use their second language (i.e., English) and their native language in meaningful and motivating situations.

From an ecological perspective, therefore, the physical and psychological environments play vital roles in children’s learning about literacy. These supports mediate opportunities for literacy engagement and practice, and will likely influence children’s attitudes and efforts to engage in literacy activities despite difficulties they may encounter as they learning to read proficiently.

To summarize, program features that support literacy development include:

• A supportive learning environment in which children have access to a wide variety of reading and writing resources.
• Developmentally appropriate practices that actively engages children’s minds and builds language and conceptual development.
• Adult engagement in children’s learning through conversations, discussions, and contingent responses to children’s questions and queries.
• A daily interactive book reading routine that introduces children to multiple genres, including information books, narrative, poetry, and alphabet books.
• Activities that support small group and one-to-one interactions and differing levels of guidance to meet the needs of individual children.
• A masterful orchestration of activities that supports play, learning and social-emotional development.
• Adjustments and accommodations for English Language Learners that allow them to successfully engage in learning activities in the classroom.

1.6 Potential Avenues for Revisions of ECRR materials

The ECRR kit includes activities that support six critical skills: Print motivation, phonological awareness, vocabulary, narrative skills, print awareness, and letter knowledge. All of these skills are important. At the same time, however, the library community might wish to do the following:

• Rename some of the skills to be better aligned with current research. This would include: phonological awareness, vocabulary and oral language development, print concepts that include letter knowledge and specific concepts about print, and background knowledge and comprehension. Specifically, the library community would be wise to emphasize the informational aspects of book reading and its important relationship to background knowledge and conceptual development.

• Some skills, particularly in these early years are more important than others. The library community might consider focusing on language, vocabulary and its relationship to comprehension and reading success. Letter knowledge, print concepts are constrained skills, with limited predictive power in the long-run for children’s achievement.

• The research literature clearly focuses on the importance of materials and interactions, as well as the social components in learning. The library community might consider adding these ecological factors which are critical for literacy motivation and learning.