Supporting children’s literacy development: A collection of authentic tools
by Elizabeth Stephens and Kimberlee Spencer
While most preschoolers cannot read, exposing them to literacy every day helps foster strong reading and writing skills later in the child’s school years. High quality programs have teachers who understand the importance of, and work to create, literacy-rich environments. Finding such teachers and curricula is often hard for programs due to the cost of both educated staff and available resources. Additionally, teachers may become overwhelmed with the information available regarding print-rich and literacy-rich environments.
This article will explain the seven components of literacy and learning objectives as described in The Creative Curriculum for Preschool by Teaching Strategies; what the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) expects in regards to literacy instruction; and how teachers can provide these opportunities on a budget, using ideas from the Children’s Learning Institute, affiliated with the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.
How literacy develops
Language and communication are the beginnings of literacy development. Children are by nature social creatures. They learn to communicate first orally and then through print. According to The Creative Curriculum, literacy learning is based on constant verbal interaction with adults paired with opportunities to see literacy in use (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman 2002).
It is always important for teachers to understand that much of this verbal interaction happens during play. NAEYC describes key components of literacy in its Developmentally Appropriate Practice guidelines. All children need to be exposed to developmentally appropriate books, be read to in both small and large groups, have the opportunity to discuss the content of books and written words, and be encouraged to make connections between spoken and written language.
Early experiences, which can begin even as young as 6 weeks of age, include development of oral language, print awareness, letter knowledge, and understanding that letter sounds come together to make words (Ritchie and Willer 2005). Literacy awareness and instruction can occur during a number of activities throughout a child’s day. NAEYC encourages programs and teachers to incorporate literacy development and help children meet skill objectives by creating print-rich environments, providing an array of writing experiences, and emphasizing the availability of developmentally appropriate content books.
Seven components of literacy
The literacy components described in The Creative Curriculum include 1) literacy as enjoyment, 2) vocabulary and language, 3) phonological awareness, 4) knowledge of print, 5) letters and words, 6) comprehension, and 7) books and other texts (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman 2002). Both NAEYC and The Creative Curriculum impress the importance of teachers as nurturers and models of literacy. Teachers who show an interest and enjoyment in literacy-related activities enable children to engage in such activities.
Literacy as enjoyment. Teachers can ask themselves if they and the environment foster a joy of reading and writing. Do children see adults reading and writing? Are families encouraged to read together? Are the reading areas in the classroom inviting? Do environments contain materials found in real life? Are there many choices in props? Do children have a choice in materials and peers to interact with? Answering yes to each of these questions will help a teacher create an enjoyable space and attitude toward reading.
Vocabulary and language. Vocabulary can be broken down into four parts: listening to, speaking, reading, and writing words. As children move through the stages of vocabulary (talking and listening), they learn to put into practice each of the four parts. Teachers can serve as good language models, using complete sentences, introducing new words, talking with children often, and using the OWL (Observe-Wait-Listen) technique (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman 2002).
Example: A teacher watches a child building with blocks, waits as the child becomes engaged, and listens as the child says, “I’m making a skyscraper!”
Phonological awareness. Building the awareness of speech sounds (phonology) begins with helping children listen carefully. It includes understanding rhyme, alliteration, syllables, and the complex phoneme. Teachers promote this awareness through the use of songs, stories, and rhymes.
Examples: A teacher reads Cat in the Hat and asks what else rhymes with cat and hat. She emphasizes the first letter in words used in conversations, such as, “Sarah sits solemnly,” and pauses to distinguish syllables, such as Rum/pel/stilt/skin. She demonstrates how to place the tongue through the lips to pronounce the phoneme /th/ in this, that, those, them, and there.
Knowledge of print. Labeling children’s personal items is the first source of print knowledge in the classroom. Print can serve many other functions as well. It is also used to communicate, give directions, and express ideas or feelings.
Print comes in many forms: lists, labels, books, recipes, charts, and schedules, for example. All these need to be visible in the classroom. Teachers can display print at a child’s level, point out the difference between a child’s writing and drawings, and talk about the use of print.
Letters and words. Beyond the rote singing of the ABC’s, children need to learn that letters represent sounds. As children mature in their understanding of letters, they learn that combinations of letters form words. In order for letter and word instruction to be successful, teachers need to know how children learn concepts of letters and words.
The best starting point for children is to learn the letters in their names. After all, one’s name is the most important word to a child. Next, children recognize that the letters in their names are also in other words.
How letters are shaped (straight or curved lines) is the beginning of writing. The teacher promotes letter and word knowledge by giving letters and words meaningful attention in activities, displaying letters and words throughout the room, adding letters and words to all interest areas, giving opportunities for children to write while playing, and helping children compile a word bank that represents them or their families.
Comprehension. Encouraging children to seek out the meaning of what is being said or read is vital to comprehension. Children build this skill by participating in read-alouds, talking with peers and adults, and interacting with written and oral language.
Comprehension occurs as children break down what is being said or heard: words into sounds, sounds into letters. If children are not presented developmentally appropriate materials and activities, they will not be able to understand and make connections. Teachers need to provide a solid background of knowledge, support learning with materials and subjects interesting to the children, and make experiences related to real life.
One way to foster comprehension is the introduce-read-and-recall method (McGee and Schickedanz 2007). In a read-aloud, the teacher might introduce the book, read it with the children, and after reading, ask questions to encourage discussion. In order for a read a-loud to be an effective learning tool, the same book is read three separate times. Each time the teacher adds new vocabulary and asks why questions. Eventually the children are asked to retell the story from the pictures and previous readings.
Books and other text. Reading aloud is “the single most critical activity for later success in reading” (Landry et al. 2009). Books are the most obvious source of reading material, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Topics can include fiction or nonfiction, history or comics, science or folklore. Even wordless books, consisting solely of pictures or photographs, are useful.
One thing teachers need to overcome is the idea that print awareness, literacy development, and reading and writing skills can be taught only through the use of storybooks. But books are not the only or best source for early childhood. Children need to be exposed to a wide variety of genres (poetry, fantasy, songbooks, and historical fiction, for example). Adding materials beyond books, such as newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, brochures, maps, and charts, gives children more experiences with reading and writing.
Teachers also need to encourage children to become authors and illustrators (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman 2002). Encouraging the use of journals, picture collages, and notepads in interest areas give children the chance to write and draw. Adding materials such as cookbooks and menus to dramatic play or maps and charts to the blocks center gives meaning to text and print as real-world tools.
Language and literacy objectives
In addition to the literacy components, The Creative Curriculum contains 38 objectives for learning, eight of which are directly linked to literacy and language. A child’s levels of oral language and literacy skills have been prerequisites to success in other areas (Dodge, Colker, and Heroman 2002).
To meet these objectives, children need teachers who intentionally set up play that uses literacy materials, talk with them about their play, and use language to express feelings and thinking. Children need help in using both spoken and written language throughout the day, and teachers need to know how to provide those opportunities.
Roles for teachers
Incorporating the objectives and NAEYC standards may seem overwhelming and expensive to implement. Teachers as props is the least expensive of all learning center enrichments. By becoming an active participant in play, teachers are able to meet many of the standards and objectives proposed. Teachers can show enthusiasm when participating in or observing children’s attempts to communicate, use language, and read and write. This support gives children confidence in themselves as readers and writers.
Ideally the classroom is a place where children can experiment with both oral and written language without judgment. Even before teachers create literacy-rich environments, they can take on many roles during play. Each role will foster a different aspect of literacy success for their children.
Roles for teachers, as described by The Creative Curriculum, are the following:
observer (encourager). The observing teacher listens for understanding and encourages children to talk while playing.
facilitator (supporter). The facilitating teacher gives children the chance to make choices. Who will they play with, and what will they play?
player (extender). When the teacher becomes a player or extender, the children are able to hear and watch an adult’s actions and words. How does the teacher interact during a game or activity? Does the teacher challenge the children during play?
leader (director). Leading children in how-and-why conversations promotes critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The teacher provides materials, space, and time for children to experience reading and writing. During these times teachers model reading and writing and talk about what is being read and written. This is also the role taken when the teacher is assessing the children.
The CIRCLE manual, from the Children’s Learning Institute, offers activity ideas and explains the importance of each. Below is a list of activities for each of the areas of literacy addressed in the manual.
Phonological awareness. During whole group instruction, take roll by allowing children to say their names aloud and have the class echo each name while clapping the syllables in the name.
Written expression. Pose a question of the day in the daily curriculum, conduct a survey, and write children’s responses. Encourage children to share and dictate their thoughts as a group. Display the written dictation.
Language development. Beyond the everyday conversation with children, expose them to new words, label objects, and do comparisons. Invite children to show and tell, and use songs and chants throughout the day. Use rich adjectives, and ask questions about opposites and objects that would or would not belong in the same grouping. Through guided practice, children are given lots of chances to explore new language.
Letter knowledge. Display children’s own art, with the child’s name and the date clearly printed. Make a letter wall and display it horizontally where it can easily be seen by the children. For the wall, display letters of the alphabet with corresponding pictures that children can easily recognize. As time goes on, add simple words and gradually add harder ones. Invite children to cut out environmental print (words they would see in their community) from newspapers or magazines donated by families. Recycle all those catalogs sent to your center by letting children cut pictures from them. As a bonus, they will develop fine motor skill.
Book reading. Stock the classroom with age-appropriate and interesting books for children. Make reading part of your everyday routine, with the use of charts, story maps, and retells. Use a chart to display the title, author, and favorite part of a book, and then ask children to compare the charts of several books. Make a story map, which gives children a chance to read the story through pictures of major events in the story in the order they happened. Use puppets, stuffed animals, or other materials found in your classroom to have children retell the story while acting it out with the props. As much as possible, make reading interactive between teacher and children.
Create a literacy-rich classroom
Understanding how literacy develops in children is the first step in creating a literacy-rich classroom. By taking bits and pieces from multiple curricula sources, teachers can offer simple, inexpensive learning activities and strengthen daily routines. In addition, teachers can participate actively in play and conversation and model enjoyment and enthusiasm in reading and writing.
Dodge, D.; L. Colker; and C. Heroman. 2002. The Creative Curriculum for Preschool, 4th Ed. Bethesda, Md.: Teaching Strategies.
Heroman, C., and C. Jones. 2004. Literacy: The Creative Curriculum Approach. Independence, Ky.: Delmar Cengage Learning.
Landry, S.; P. Swank; J. Gasko; T. Waxley; E. Solari; and C. Guttentag. 2009. CIRCLE Preschool Early Language and Literacy Including Mathematics, Teacher’s Manual. Houston: Children’s Learning Institute, University of Texas Health Science Center.
McGee, L. and J. Schickedanz. 2007. Repeated interactive read-alouds in preschool and kindergarten. The Reading Teacher, Vol. 60 (8).
Ritchie, S., and B. Willer. 2005. Curriculum: A Guide to the NAEYC Early Childhood Program Standard and Related Accreditation Criteria. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
About the author
Elizabeth Stephens is a graduate student in family and child studies at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. She is also the program coordinator for the University’s Child Development Center.
Kimberlee Spencer, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Tarleton State University in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. She also directs the campus child development center.