Finding the Sweet Spot for Early Literacy

It seems the older I get, the more I realize the importance of moderation.  Over and over again, I find that answers lie in between dogmatic extremes.  Perhaps nowhere is this realization more important than when considering approaches to early literacy.

When looking at the extremes of this discussion, you’ll find champions of developmentally appropriate practice who shy away from any intentional literacy experiences in the early years, relying on maturation alone to prepare young readers.  On the other extreme are those who recognize and capitalize on the young brain’s amazing ability to acquire new skills by promoting and using programs designed to churn out “readers” at astonishingly young ages.

I am a big proponent of early literacy.  I’m also a big proponent of developmentally appropriate practice.  So how can the two possibly go together? 

 Here are a few things I have considered as I form my (ever-evolving) personal philosophy of developmentally appropriate approaches to early literacy.

First of all, I defer to the experts!  Drs Carol Copple and Sue Bredekemp are recognized as experts on the topic of DAP,  and Susan Neuman is a well-known literacy expert.  Representing the IRA (International Reading Association) and NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) the three came together beginning in 1997 and crafted a joint position statement: Learning to Read and Write – Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children.   After that came even more in the form of a book by the same name (the intro is very informative and can be read here). 

Within the position statement is a careful balance between the two extremes.  In one point, the statement warns against holding to the extremes of maturationist view of reading development.  It notes that withholding literacy experiences until formal schooling puts children at a disadvantage and slows their progress.

Following right on the heels of this point, however, the next statement in the paper warns that research showing the early years to be a valuable time for acquisition of literacy skills, too often leads to the implementation of teaching strategies that are inappropriate  for young children.  These practices (the statement specifies extensive whole-group instruction and intensive drilling on isolated skills) are not only inappropriate for young children, but also less effective in building readers than is teaching a broad range of early literacy skills within the context of meaningful experiences, creating connections, and building upon prior knowledge.

The statement recognizes that literacy does not begin when a child reads his first word.  It doesn’t even begin when a child is introduced to his first letter.  The foundations for reading begin long before.  Early literacy skills include language and vocabulary, symbolic representation (think dramatic play), concepts of print, and phonological awareness.  (Read more about promoting early literacy.) 

 These skills aren’t hurried by drilling toddlers with flashcards, expensive videos, or computer programs. 

 These foundational skills are best built through rich conversation, print-rich environments, imaginative play, reading and discussing books together, singing songs, and playing with sounds.  Young children learn best in a culture of literacy, which may include snippets of direct instruction or very brief mini-lessons, but is largely based on emergent literacy, and those early literacy skills that provide the foundation for formal literacy and formal literacy instruction that will come later.

When I hear someone suggest that “formal instruction” of reading should wait until 6 or 7, I assume they don’t mean literacy shouldn’t intentionally be taught and developed in those younger children (that wouldn’t be in keeping with the position statement I cited above). I assume that they are referring to the need for children to develop these earlier foundational skills through an intentional but emergent curriculum, in order to be prepared for the more formal instructional found in the later grades.

 I think much of the driving force behind the joint statement was the discussion between the two extreme schools of thought –– those that suggested learning to read was entirely developmental and who believed adults should take a hands-off maturationist approach, and those who believed that reading is an adult-driven, learned skill that requires formal, direct instruction.

It is my personal philosophy, and I believe it is the philosophy put forth in that position statement, that there is a “sweet spot” that lies between the two. There are developmental aspects that need to be honored, natural and meaningful understandings that need to be constructed, environments and experiences that add richness, self-learning that can be encouraged and promoted, and appropriate and responsive amounts of direct instruction depending upon age and developmental levels.

Sometimes finding the sweet spot is more work than is sliding to the extremes, but experts, research, and my own experience testify that that is where young readers thrive.

What is your personal philosophy about early literacy?

Top photo by Jose A. Warletta
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12 responses to “Finding the Sweet Spot for Early Literacy

  1. bryssy

    I’m certainly not an expert – but I am a mom of 3 littles. My philosophy of early literacy is to have books everywhere. In every room. Bathroom included. We have 2 children’s libraries (bookshelves) – one upstairs and one downstairs. Each child has their own special books in their rooms. I keep a box of seasonal books that I rotate out (right now I have the Valentines and President’s Day books out). We go to the library every week and check out books that interest us. We read together, out loud, whenever the mood strikes. I read some research awhile back that said that boys especially need to have physical proximity to books. So I make sure my boys (2 1/2 and 5 months) out in their rooms all the time!

    When going to yard and tag sales, I buy tons of 5 and 10 cent books. We subscribe to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (she sends a book a month to anyone preschool age for free)! [This frankly puts her on the list of people who are changing the world.] My husband and I also read in front of our children. I read Time magazine each week and numerous books. My husband reads all kinds of trade magazines and books (he is in aviation). I also tell them about how I want them to be readers. The importance of reading and the value of it.

    Finally, we don’t watch TV.

    • notjustcute

      Having books around and being read to are probably two of the best things anyone can do for young readers. I love that you and your husband are also intentional in your modelling. That is powerful as well. I wasn’t aware of Dolly Parton’s book program. I agree with you, that puts her high on my list as well!

  2. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. You always make me think about my own philosophy and why I hold to it. I think I fall in the same group as you. Balance is the key. Using the interests of the children as well without pushing. As I talk to a child, I may mention a word or a letter. If the child wants to talk about it further, I do. If the child seems to direct the conversation elsewhere, I follow his lead. Keep books, other print, writing tools and paper, and alphabet toys (blocks, magnet letters, etc.) available for kids to explore and use. Piquing interest and following the child’s lead are strong ways to build that literacy foundation.

    • notjustcute

      Thanks, Scott. What a great example of finding opportunities for mini-lessons and following the interests of young children!

  3. Nina

    I read and wrote at age 4. As the 4th child in 5 years I can assure you my parents made no special effort to cause that beyond reading to us. I’m sure it was a sanity saver for my mother to get us to sit down and be quiet but some of our best childhood memories, collectively, were lying in bed and being read to. We all are voracious readers and my mother still laughs ruefully and admits she asked our teachers how to get us to stop reading (my oldest sister would read while riding her bike).

    I do recollect my mother guiding my hand to help me form letters but not consistently – I recall it was more me being amazed…I could form words and wanting that.

    Now most of my sisters lament that their children don’t seem as interested in reading as we were though some it is seeming to hit later as teens. I, too, want my son to love reading. We read alot! Our number purchase is books and he is constantly asking me to read to him and recently has started picking up books and explains what is happening. We also talk about letters and what words start with and have a few iPad games where he can trace them – which he’s gotten more interested in the last week or so. I also do a find the letter game I made up for him. But there’s no strict schedule to follow, if he’s not interested we move on. I want him to love books not find them to be something he tolerates. And thus far, I think he does love them. The othe day we went to the library and read all 15 books we got when we got home in one sitting.

    • notjustcute

      Thank you for pointing out that readers develop at different ages. I love how you mention that you were motivated by your amazement. That’s something we could work toward awaking in every child!
      I have to laugh to myself, picturing your sister reading while riding her bike! :0)

  4. Karen

    Thank you for another amazing post! You can cover an entire year of college curriculum in one page! I am a former kindergarten teacher and currently teach preschool. I just finished taking an early literacy class at a local community college to keep my certificate current. I came away inspired with a few fun ideas on how to use good quality literature in new ways, however I felt that the text (2009) taught only to the extreme DAP point of view. It was discussed that all direct instruction of lettters and letter sounds was always “inappropriate” for 3 and 4 year olds. I like the following quote in your post from NAEYC: “These practices (the statement specifies extensive whole-group instruction and intensive drilling on isolated skills) are not only inappropriate for young children, but also less effective in building readers than is teaching a broad range of early literacy skills within the context of meaningful experiences, creating connections, and building upon prior knowledge.” I think the words “extensive” and “intensive” are key. I think it can be appropraite to introduce letters and letter sounds briefly because some 3 and 4 year olds are interested, and for others it plants a seed for later. However I believe it must be introduced so that it relates and connects to a good book and theme within a play-based classroom. The teaching has to be creative and directly linked to literature, art projects, and other hands on discovery activities. Like you wrote in an earlier post, “Academics describes the subjects, play is the learning format.” We just has to be intentional on how to teach literacy skills within the play format. I think that early literacy comes down to the process of a child making meaning of it all, and that is such a personal and individual process. Thank you again for all you teach – your site is the best out there!

    • notjustcute

      Thank you so much, Karen. I think the experience you are describing is much of what worries me. As I’ve mentioned before, in its extremes, you end up with classrooms taking down their alphabet charts in the name of DAP, while other schools move out the dramatic play areas, citing academic progress. There’s a sweet spot in between that uses researched methods of reading instruction, a play-based program, and child-centered approaches. The exact same skills can be taught in appropriate or inappropriate ways. Great connection to the Academics vs Play post, it’s about the format and the method, not just the subject or skill set. Good luck finding the sweet spot!

  5. Stacey

    We are big advocates of reading in our family. We go to the library every week and bring home a big bag of books. With my son, we worked very hard over the summer between Kindergarten and first grade to build up his reading skills. With my daughter, she really wanted to start learning to read at age 4, so we began with the Little Bear books, moved on to Frog and Toad books (along with other Arnold Lobel books), and then moved on to chapter books. She is a new 6-year old and is reading Magic Tree House books (and loves them). I think it really depends on the child, and that learning should be, in the very early years, basically child-lead.

  6. You know, I hadn’t really heard about the maturation vs DAP extremes. Maybe because I was upper elementary??? Plenty of extremes in education, that’s for sure. Anyways, I just discovered some blogs that would fall under the maturation extreme. Although I liked a lot of things they were doing, the whole idea they were promoting didn’t jive with me completely. But I told my husband, I’m always taking a pinch of this and dash of that from philosophies, theories, ideas, programs, etc. So, I’d like to think we are pretty balanced by picking and choosing from the extremes the things that work for us. Literacy is my passion within my passion- so reigning myself in is sometimes necessary. Anyways, as always, thanks for a wonderful post and the food for thought.

  7. Christy

    I so agree with you about the importance of moderation, and I too seem to be embracing it more and more as I get older. There are so many extremes in education and it is easy to become judgemental about other people’s beliefs. I am an early childhood consultant and work with people from all different schools of thought. I have to be very careful not to prejudge the teachers I work with based on their teaching methods.

    Some of the teachers I work with expect the children to sit down and do worksheets and other teacher-directed activities all morning with no time for play, then turn around and make the afternoon a free for all with no direction or structure. My goal is to help these teachers find a balance between the teacher-directed and child-initiated activities. Moderation is the key!

    By the way, with my own children (ages 4, 2 and 1) we read all the time. My children are obsessed with books. My husband has forbidden me from buying anymore books, so I brought the Scholastic brochure to work with me so he won’t see me ordering them!

  8. As a Children’s Librarian and a mother of two, I wanted to say, you nailed it! Excellent article!

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