Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Literature Review - Literacy Learning in the Early Years

Dear Reader,

I am obsessed by a burning question: How do the very young, nail down all the important bits needed to understand how print works and how do their unique understandings contribute to becoming a strong life long reader?

Most of my friends and family think this is not the most important question in the world and that I should “get a life”... (Oldest adult daughter’s comment).  I could not disagree more and as to the suggestion that I need to spice up my humdrum life, I most adamantly protest!  This question IS the “spice of life”.  It “toe dips” into the really big questions... how do children learn, how do they think, communicate, empathize, infer, OMG do not get me going! It is SUCH a BIG QUESTION!

Anyway, I decided to review the literature and determine if everything that I have collected and confidently deposited into in my “early learner’s schema” is accurate and up to date.  I am looking for evidence that the actual understanding of print concepts is underdeveloped. I am a consummate kid watcher...specifically grandkid watching of late, and what I learn from watching and listening to the very young has convinced me that there are great big holes in the research. However, before I pontificate and spill the beans on this topic, I thought you might like to read what I found and ask you what you think about this topic. 
In friendship, 
Donna Klockars
P.S. I wanted to go back to the early eighties and revisit my favourite folks like Gordon Wells, Holdaway  and Marie Clay, but one must be totally current if you are to enter into the conversation about concepts about print with those in the academic community.   I tried to stick with the last ten years and tease out the works that I thought were the most promising for the purpose of guiding and directing me in my life long inquiry.)

Donna Klockar’s Review of the Literature

The purpose for this research project is to identify and explore emergent literacy foundation skills necessary for success in learning to read. This project will focus on very young learners, their families and caregivers.  Thoughtful early literacy initiatives must be guided by proven research -based assessment strategies, joyful explicit literacy learning experiences that address all foundational early literacy skills.  The proposed literacy research project will also reflect the established importance of  culturally appropriate practices. Early literacy learning experiences and the assessment of early literacy foundation skills will be mindful of the recommendations provided by recent British Columbia projects and studies in early literacy learning curriculum, the role of assessment and how culturally appropriate practices impact later academic achievement.

Importance of Early Years intervention
Decades of research confirms the importance of the early years, commonly defined as the period from conception to six years of age, in laying the foundation for an individual’s growth and development over the course of their lifetime. We know that children who get off to a good start rarely struggle, while those who fall behind tend to stay behind throughout their school years (1998 Learning to Read and Write: developmentally appropriate practices for young children Young Children 53:30-46). 
British Columbia recognizes that families provide the primary and most important environments to support optimal development of young children, The pre-schools, daycare settings, neighbourhoods and communities in which children are raised also strongly influence their developmental outcomes (British Columbia’s Early Years Annual Report-2011-2012). Despite many early years programs and research studies, children in B.C.  continue to reach formal schooling without the foundation skills needed to succeed. One-quarter of Canada’s children between birth and age 6 are experiencing some learning or behavioural difficulty.  These problems in the early years have been shown to correlate with later difficulties in school performance, social adjustment and health (McCain et al, 2007). 
Achieving educational excellence for all requires an understanding of why these disparities continue to exist.  Poverty, race, and ethnicity, are of some of the identified factors that place students at risk for academic failure and can predict likelihood of low literacy skills and longer-term school achievement (McCain, et al., 2011 Burns, M Griffin, P., & Snow, 1998).  The Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) at the University of British Columbia has conducted extensive early childhood development research in BC for over a decade to understand more fully how environments and experiences in the early years,  impact later success in school and life.  A review of current research indicates that quality early childhood environments are believed to be a strong protective factor against poor socio-economic effects (Nguyen, 2011, (Harre & Anderson, 2010).  

Although not as current, an impressive long-term study conducted in the U.S., provided an evaluation of a wide array of well coordinated educational, medical, kindergarten transition programs and family outreach services.  
Follow up studies showed that when the children reached ages 8, 12, and 14; they still outperformed the control group on achievement tests.  Significantly, fewer children had been held back or placed in special education (1994 Campbell, F.A., and C.T. Ramey).  Quality early year’s programs can make a difference. Not surprisingly, the children’s development was enhanced by quality early learning experiences.  
The National Early Learning Panel Report: Developing Early Literacy, looked at studies of early literacy and found that there are many things that parents and preschools can do to improve the literacy development of their young children and that different approaches influence the development of a different pattern of essential skills. (2002).  
The rationale for public investment in vulnerable young children is founded on the direct benefits of investments on children and their parents as well as the broader benefits to communities, society and the economy. (Early Years Annual Report, 2011-2012). Other researchers have concluded that early childhood programs are an excellent economically prudent investment...for every dollar invested in early childhood programs there is a minimum return to society of three dollars ( Jacques Van der Gaag, Centre for Universal Education). Savings are “most pronounced for disadvantaged children.” (As quoted in McCain et al., 2007, p. 137, Masi, 2012). 
Based on the tremendous influence of early childhood on later reading and academic success, careful examination of successful early year’s programs is needed if we are to fully understand the key elements necessary to make a significant impact on the future academic success for the vulnerable child. Because the proposed research project will focus on Aboriginal families and their very young children, particular attention has been paid to the evaluation of, and recommendations for, early learning experiences for indigenous children in British Columbia. 
The recent publication “Transition into Kindergarten: A Community Approach to Integrating a Child’s Fragmented World” (Beaton, W. & McDonell, L., 2013),  provide extensive information on building positive relationships with Aboriginal parents or alternative caregivers and promoting positive activities that focus on healthy, holistic child development.

Key aspects of language and literacy learning
Early research dating back to the 1930s suggested there was little use in teaching a child to read until they had mastered specific skills such as fine motor control, understanding of left and right.  
Today, researchers know more.  Kindergarten is the time when, for most students, formal reading instruction begins.  Learning to read, however, starts at home and in pre-school and day care settings before children ever enter school.  A wide range of experiences with printed and spoken language, from infancy through early childhood, strongly influences a child’s future success in reading. (Burns, M Griffin, P., & Snow, 1998). 

Identifying the key aspects of language and literacy learning for very young children is essential information for parents, teachers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, day-care providers-in short; everyone who is important in the child’s life and who cares. 

When we know what is important we can provide quality learning activities that prevent future reading problems. A survey of the literature identifies many of these components. Diamond and Mandel (1996) identified phonemic (letter sounds) awareness as a potent predictor of success in learning in to read.  The ability to recognize and name upper and lower case letters is a powerful predictor of future reading success according to Bond and Dykstra (1967).  Explicit instruction and practice in phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary comprehension and fluency are also considered essential literacy experiences (Adams M.J.1990). The B.C. Ministry of Education also has provided information on important aspects of early literacy learning in the document “Kindergarten Learning Project and Support Materials: About the Kindergarten Learning Project Assessment Framework” (B.C. Ministry of Education Early Learning 2010).

The literature has suggested that early childhood educators should be cognizant of certain limitations in the literature.  Cathy Nutbrown wrote an article called “Early assessment-Examining the Baseline” (1998), where she raised concerns about areas of learning that are often missed in the assessment process. The current research on foundational emergent literacy skills is impressive yet important aspects or foundations of early literacy learning remain under-researched.  For example: the importance of strategies to support and nurture the caring adult’s role in motivating and encouraging the young learner is not addressed. The Commission on Reading in its summary of research (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985) concluded that “becoming a skilled reader requires...learning that reading material can be interesting. They identify the emotional response to reading as the primary reason most readers read and probably the main reason non-readers do not read.  

There is a growing body of new research that acknowledges that children may be literate in a variety of ways.  The literacies that indigenous children develop in their families and communities are important because they often embody cultural knowledge. How to teach foundational concepts about how print and books work as well as the importance of developing the motivation to read through culturally and developmentally appropriate materials and books are important areas to investigate. (L McDonnell 2013).   Ball (2012) states that it is imperative that indigenous children and their families are provided with culturally sensitive curriculum. She identifies key elements necessary for a comprehensive strategy to improve emergent literacy development among young Indigenous children. Ball’s strategies embrace ecological, holistic, and cultural perspectives.

Assessment Matters
Recent research on promising practices suggests that the six principles embedded in the strategy known as “Assessment For Learning” has the power to transform learning and teaching. (William, Dylan (2008). Educators need to frequently assess the emerging literacy skills of young children if they are to make informed decisions about reading instruction.  Systematic assessment assists the entire literacy team in providing high quality instruction (Clay, 1993; Fountas and Pinnell, 1996).  
However, educators should approach assessment of young children with caution. According to Clay (1993), many of the standardized reading tests used to assess young children do not produce reliable results. Jessica Ball (2008) investigated aboriginal early childhood development screening and assessments.  
The full report was summarized in the booklet “Early Childhood Development Intercultural Partnerships Screenings and Assessment Practices”. She noted that the approaches to assessment used most frequently included questionnaires, observations, the Nipissing Screen, The Work Sampling System, the Gessell Developmental Assessment and the Batelle Developmental Inventory.  The Test of Early Reading Ability (TERA-2) has been used to evaluate early literacy projects in B.C. (Annual Report 2012 B.C. Ministry of Education). 
Persistent educational inequities (The Achievement Gap) among indigenous children and vulnerable young learners indicate an urgent need for providing thoughtful, research-based early literacy programs.   Recent publications by British Columbia early childhood educators suggests early literacy projects designed to improve success of Aboriginal learners and vulnerable young children should continue to explore early literacy learning strategies and embed the powerful principles of formative assessment (AFL). Goelman, Ford, Pighini, Dahinton, Harris, Synnes, Tse, Ball, and Hayes (2010). 
There is important work to be done.  Literacy learning and literacy instruction is complex (SEDL 2010).  Although there are many, identifiable concepts and skills our young readers must master, they cannot be taught in isolation or out of context.  The art of teaching early literacy to the very young can be compared to the weaving of a beautiful blanket.  The tightly woven foundational threads that are so carefully chosen, create a literacy blanket for each child that is unique and will function for an entire lifetime. We need to work tirelessly to provide quality early years learning experiences, create assessment strategies that support all of the child and the caring educators who pass on the legacy of literacy.  Quality programs must acknowledge the impact of the caring adults play in every child’s unique literacy.

 Finding ways to strengthen early literacy experiences that are culturally linguistically and responsive to current research will better support all parents, their young children and those caring folks who work with their children.   The very young require explicit support in mastering the foundational concepts about how print works.  When we accomplish this, we will blanket the child in strength and confidence.  Wrapped in their unique Literacy Blanket, they will participate in a lifetime of reading, writing, learning and joyous inquiry.

References list available 

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