The last few days, I have been at the National Conference for Reading Research in Stavanger, Norway. I was invited to give a talk on the quality of language environments in Danish preschools. It has been a great conference, and it was interesting to see that Norwegian researchers and early childhood educators are preoccupied with the exact same topics that we are in Denmark. These included how to improve the educational odds of socially disadvantaged children, and the importance of building a more evidence-based approach to language and pre-literacy instruction.
The main theme of this year’s conference was reading development from the perspective of early childhood education, which is a very important topic in educational research. Language and pre-literacy skills determine, to a large degree, children’s success in learning to read when they start school. Therefore, I’m dedicating this blog article to this topic.
All parents want to know how they can give their children a good start in life, and preparing kids for developing literacy, is surely one of the most important.
What is literacy?
First of all, what is literacy? The ability to read can roughly be boiled down to two connected skills: (1) The ability to decode one’s writing system, and (2) the ability to understand the words that one decodes. Let’s start with decoding, and use our Roman alphabet as an example.
The alphabet is a code. Each letter represents phonetic sounds, and you need to know which sounds each letter represents in order to use the code. Furthermore, the correspondence of letters to sounds changes depending on the language. For example, the letter K in English usually refers to the sound you hear in the words car or task (In English, both the letters C and K can refer to this sound). However, in Swedish, K can refer to a sort of SH sound. In any case, alphabetic writing systems are codes, and children need to know the code in order to read.
When children start developing their decoding skills, they can start “sounding out words” as we call it in English. That is to say, that they can look at a word, and try to break it up into its individual speech sounds. For example, a child can look at the word ‘bookworm’ and break it up into its sounds: b-o-o-k-w-o-r-m. Using this method, the child will make an approximation of the word that will help him or her say it out loud, and hopefully identify which word he or she is decoding.
Once children start decoding words, the other important part of reading comes into play: comprehension. If the child has the word bookworm in his or her vocabulary, then the child will recognize the word, assuming his or her decoding approximation is close enough to the true phonetic structure (the alphabet is not perfect in English, and spellings seldom exactly represent how the words actually are pronounced).
So to sum up, children need to be able to both decode and comprehend in order to truly read. Interestingly, the foundations for decoding and reading comprehension are laid in early childhood.
The Connection with Early Childhood Education
Children vary in their knowledge of the written word and language skills when they start school. This is not necessarily a problem, as long as the variation is not too great. However, some children start school with both very poor language skills, and very little knowledge of what the written word is and how it works. This naturally makes learning to read more difficult, and facilitates the so-called “learning gap” that develops between children who succeed in learning to read, and those that struggle. A major goal in early childhood education is to eliminate these types of learning gaps.
Why do some children have better early literacy skills when they start school than others? Generally, research indicates that some children receive more stimulation at home than others, especially if they come from middle-upper class families, and this explains some of the variation. However, research also indicates that some children go to lower quality child-care centers, where there is a low language-learning environment, and there is little learning about how the written word works. Imagine growing up in a family where there is very little support for language development, and on top of this, you also attend a preschool of low quality. In such a circumstance, it’s hard not to see how some kids have the odds stacked against them.
So what do children need to learn in early childhood to get ready for reading? In high quality child-care facilities, educators work towards developing two skillsets: 1) pre-literacy skills, and 2) language skills. The pre-literacy skills are emergent decoding skills such as knowing the letters of the alphabet, and what sounds they represent, as well as something called phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is a child’s awareness of what sounds a given word consists of, and how these sounds can be manipulated. For example, a typical five-year-old will be able to hear the ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ rhyme, and identify the first and maybe last sounds in each word. The other skillset, language, supports children’s later reading comprehension. In high quality child-care centers, educators will have focus on developing children’s vocabulary and narrative skills.
Early Learning is Essential
To wrap up, learning to read is no easy feat. It builds literally on years of development over the first five years of life. In their early years, children build language and pre-literacy skills, and these facilitate later decoding and reading comprehension. To develop strong language and pre-literacy skills, parents do not need to go overboard. Just keep reading books to your kids and engaging in discussions with them on a daily basis. These early experiences will help ease their path to literacy when they start in school.