Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Emergent Literacy

Children begin developing literacy long before they enter school. Unless they are disabled, all school-age children have acquired a fairly extensive oral language vocabulary and a sophisticated syntactic system. They have seen traffic signs and billboard advertising, printed messages on television, and printing on cereal boxes. They can tell the McDonald’s logo from that of Burger King and distinguish a box of Fruit Loops from one of Captain Crunch. They have seen their parents read books, magazines, newspapers, letters, and bills and have observed them writing notes or letters, filling out forms, and making lists. They may also have imitated some of these activities. Their parents may have read books to them and provided them with crayons, pencils, and other tools of literacy. All children, no matter how impoverished their environment may be, have begun the journey along the path that begins with language acquisition and ends in formal literacy. The teacher must find out where each child is on the path and lead him or her on the way.

The concept of emergent literacy is rooted in research conducted a number of years ago. Read (1971) reported on a study of early spellers who had learned to spell in an informal manner. The early spellers were preschoolers who were given help in spelling when they asked for it but were otherwise allowed to spell however they wanted. What surprised Read was that these young children, who had no contact with each other, created spelling systems that were remarkably similar and that, although not correct, made sense phonetically. For instance, er at the end of a word such as tiger was typically spelled with just an r, as tigr. In this instance, r is syllabic; it functions as a vowel and so does not need to be preceded by an e. For long vowels, children generally used the letter name, as in sop for soap, where the name of the letter o contains the sound of the vowel. Commenting on his findings, Read stated, “We can no longer assume that children must approach reading with no discernible prior conception of its structure” (p.34). Landmark studies by researchers in several countries echoed and amplified Read’s findings in both reading and writing (Clay, 1972; Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1982; Teale & Sulzby, 1986).

These revelations about children’s literacy abilities have a number of implications. First and foremost, teachers must build on what children already know. In their five or six years before going to school, they have acquired a great deal of insight into the reading and writing processes. Instead of asking whether they are ready, schools have to find out where they are and take it from there.

As children observe parents and peers reading and writing and as they themselves experiment with reading and writing, they construct theories about how these processes work. For instance, based on their experience with picture books, children may believe that pictures rather that words are read. Initially, children may believe that letters operate as pictures. They may believe that letters represent objects in much the same way that pictures represent objects. Using this hypothesis, they may reason that snake would be a long word because a snake is a long animal. Mouse would be a short word because a mouse is a short animal. As children notice long words for little creatures and little words for large creatures, they assimilate this and make an accommodation by giving up their hypothesis of a physical relationship between size of words and size of objects or creatures represented. They may then theorize that although letters do not represent physical characteristics, letters do somehow identify the person or thing named. They may theorize that the first letters of their names belong uniquely to them. Children need to see that other people’s names may start with the same letters as theirs but that some or all of the other letters are different.

Before children discover the alphabet principle, they may refine their theories of the purpose of letters and conclude that it is the arrangement of letters that matters. Through exposure to print, they will have noticed that words form patterns, and they begin to string letters together in what seem to be reasonable patterns. Usually, the words are between three and seven characters long and only repeat the same letter twice (Schickedanz, 1999). Known as mock words, these creations look like real words. After creating mock words, children frequently ask adults what the words say. The adult may attempt sounding out the words and realize that they don’t say anything and inform the child of that fact. Realizing that they can’t simply string a series of letters together, children may begin asking adults how to spell words or copy words from signs or books. As adults write multisyllabic words for children, they might sound them out as they write each syllable and also say the letters. Hearing words sounded out, children catch on to the idea that letters represent speech sounds. Since the the words they hear have been spoken in syllables as they were written, the children may use one letter to represent each syllable and one letter for the final sound and produce spellings such as jrf for giraffe.

If you have some insight into the child’s current schema for the writing system, you can provide the kind of explanation that will help them to move to a higher level of understanding. For children who are moving from a visual of physical hypothesis about how the alphabetical system operates to a phonological one, sounding out words as you spell them provides helpful information. Providing many opportunities to write also helps students explore the writing system.

Learning the Alphabet

Although it seems logical that students would learn letters by memorizing their shapes, that is not the way it happens. They learn to tell one letter from another and to identify particular letters by noting distinctive features such as whether lines are curved or slanted, open or closed (Gibson, Gibson, Pick, & Osser, 1962). To understand the distinctive features, students must be given many experiences comparing and contrasting letters. When introducing letters, teachers should present at least two at a time so that students can contrast them. It is also a good idea to present letters that have dissimilar appearances – s and b, for instance. Presenting similar letters such as b and d together can cause confusion. It is recommended, too, that upper- and lowercase forms of the letters be introduced at the same time, because students will see both in their writing.

What Is Phonics?

“Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” was probably the first time I had heard the phrase “phonics” being used. Hooked on Phonics was a Learn to Read product developed in the 1980s by a father who wanted to help his son overcome reading problems. The companies catch phrase became popular in the 1990’s, and was widely used in pop culture to make tongue-in-cheek jokes. 

Today, the term “Phonics” gets tossed around in education circles so often, it almost seems impossible to have any discussion about reading without the word being brought up. Yet when I pose the simple question, “what is phonics?”, to those using it, I get such a wide range of responses. In the nearly ten years I’ve been working in education, I have spent many countless hours helping parents understand what this term really means and its role in their child’s reading development. 

Phonics is simply letter-sound correlation, or the relationship between the letters and the sounds those letters make. For example, a child could recognize the letter b but not know the sound the letter b makes. Therefore, this student has letter recognition down for the letter b but doesn’t have the necessary phonic’s skills to associate its sound.

What is Phonemic Awareness?

To understand phonemic awareness, you first have to understand what a phoneme is. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language that holds meaning. Almost all words are made up of a number of phonemes blended together. Consider the word “bat”. It is made up of three phonemes: /b/ /a/ /t/ . Each of its sounds affects the meaning. Take away the /b/ sound and replace it with /h/ and you have an entirely different word. Change the /a/ for an /e/ sound and again the meaning changes.

Therefore, phonemic awareness is simply the realization that a spoken word is composed of a sequence of speech sounds. For example, phonemic awareness is knowing that the word cat is made up of three distinct phonemes (sounds), /k/, /a/, and /t/.

How is Phonemic awareness different than Phonics? Phonics is concerned with the written symbol (grapheme) and its correlating phoneme (sound), where as phonemic awareness is just concerned with the phonemes (sounds) in words. Below are two examples that should help clarify what this would look like for a student.

Example 1 – Phonics

Teacher: What letter does the word bat start with?

Student: The word bat starts with the letter b.

Example 2 – Phonemic Awareness

Teacher: What three sounds do you hear in the word bat?

Student: /b/, /a/, and /t/

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Great Debate

One of the oldest living debates in our nation’s history is the “Great Debate” over how children should be taught to read. The origins of this argument can be traced back to the 16th century when a man by the name of Martin Luther and his followers transcribed the bible from Latin into English. Luther and his followers invented Phonics as a means for teaching reading of the newly transcribed bible. The following 200 years saw little change to the system of learning to read phonetically. Most of the 19th century was defined by further developments of phonics teaching. Sometime in the 1880’s a man by the name of F.W. Parker devised a program that did away completely with Phonics in exchange for a system that focused on learning to read through writing of books. Many people believe that his approach of “reading is thinking” would prove to be the first known formula for Whole Word Learning.

During the 1920s, educators began to split into two sectors, the traditionalists and the whole word supporters. The divide amongst these two groups grew over time, in large part because of the studies that were done by each side to further prove the validity of their own approach. During the 1950s many articles were written that turned the debate into a political one, leading to the “Reading Wars”. In 1955 Rudolf Flesch’s novel, “Why Johnny Can’t Read”, supported the traditional approach to reading, which furthered heated the Great Debate for years to follow.

Today we see a very similar debate amongst the two parties. However, a third party, which consists of many supporters from both sides are supporting an approach that combines the two apposing approaches. This blended approach now adds a third element for further review on how reading is acquired.