Early Childhood

Experts Eschew Narrow Reading of Early-Literacy Study

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 08, 2009 5 min read
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A long-promised review of early-reading research concludes that teaching the alphabet and letter sounds in preschool strengthens children’s chances of success in learning to read later on.

But while the report of the National Early Literacy Panel is earning praise for providing a needed tool for improving early-literacy instruction, it is also stirring concerns that skills-driven instruction could become a dominant focus for 3- and 4-year-olds, much as it has for the early-elementary grades.

The review of empirical research, released here this month, is likely to inform policy and practice at a time when advocates of expanded preschool options are pressing for new state and federal policies and funding for such programs.

While most experts agree that basic alphabetic skills are essential for developing literacy, the panel’s conclusion that other widely prescribed strategies have less potential for ensuring children’s future reading proficiency challenges some long-held principles.

Early-childhood professionals have worked to create learning-rich environments in which art projects, rudimentary science experiments, and extended conversations aim to build young children’s oral language and background knowledge. The impact of those activities on later learning may not have the same level of quantitative evidence, some experts say, but they have strong, and often indirect or delayed influence on how well children understand what they read.

Predictors of Reading Achievement

Six moderate to strong skills predict overall literacy development:

• Alphabetic Knowledge: knowledge of names and sounds associated with printed letters

• Phonological Awareness: detecting, manipulating, or analyzing parts of words

• Rapid Automatic Naming of Letters/Digits: naming a sequence of random letters or numbers

• Rapid Automatic Naming of Objects/Colors: naming a sequence of random sets of pictures or objects

• Writing or Writing Name: writing letters in isolation or one’s own name

• Phonological Memory: remembering spoken information for a short period of time

Five additional skills are moderate predictors of some aspect of later literacy development:

• Concepts About Print: knowledge of print conventions (read left to write) and concepts (book cover, author)

• Print Knowledge: combination of alphabetic knowledge, concepts about print, and early decoding

• Reading Readiness: combination of alphabetic knowledge, concepts of print, vocabulary, memory, and phonemic awareness

• Oral Language: producing or comprehending spoken language, including vocabulary and grammar

• Visual Processing: matching or discriminating visually presented symbols

SOURCE: National Early Literacy Panel

The panel’s report “places a very strong emphasis on the narrow range of skills related to decoding, phonemic awareness, and other memory kinds of skills, and places in a second-tier language and conceptual knowledge,” said David K. Dickinson, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Vocabulary, oral language, and background knowledge, he added, may not demonstrate their value until 3rd or 4th grade when children need to comprehend more complex texts and information across subject areas.

“I’m not at all questioning the importance of those skills outlined in the report,” he said. “What concerns me greatly is that the message that might be taken by practitioners is to further narrow [instruction] and focus on the discrete skills.”

The panel convened in 2002 to review the research on early literacy and included a survey of thousands of potential studies. In its report, “Developing Early Literacy,” the panel identifies the skills it found to be precursors to later reading success, including alphabet knowledge, the understanding of the sounds associated with letters, vocabulary, and the ability to write individual letters and remember information. The most effective instruction for preschool children, therefore, works to build those skills.

“This report is going to require a certain amount of translation for practitioners to be useful,” said Timothy Shanahan, the chairman of the panel and a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He served on the National Reading Panel, which conducted a similar review of K-3 research and whose 2000 report provided the framework for state and federal reading initiatives.

“The word that stands out for me from this report is multiplicity,” Mr. Shanahan said. “There is a range of kinds of activities that lead to those skills, including code-based stuff, vocabulary, and oral-language development.”

Insufficient Studies

Figuring out the balance of those elements, however, will likely prompt debate in the field. Although the report is based on a meta-analysis that combines the effects found in nearly 500 quantitative studies resulting from the panel’s literature search, many areas could not be studied because of a lack of empirical data.

The commonly recommended practice of reading to children, for example, was found to have a moderate effect on children’s oral-language development and knowledge of print features. The studies on shared reading were not adequate to judge whether those practices are sufficiently effective in building the foundations for reading proficiency, according to the panel.

The balance of research in favor of code-related interventions—there were far more empirical studies on teaching basic literacy skills, like naming letters, the results of which are easy to quantify—led to stronger findings in that area. Instruction that is “code-related,” meaning it builds knowledge of the alphabetic principle, had the greatest impact on children’s overall literacy skills, according to the panel’s analysis of 83 studies on that topic. That instruction was most effective when conducted with individual children or in small groups.

At a time when many states have been considering expansion of public preschool programs, the findings are intended to inform policymakers and educators seeking to improve early-literacy instruction, panel members said. During his run for the Oval Office, President Barack Obama proposed a $10 billion preschool program to better prepare children for kindergarten. The report and the high interest in the topic are likely to fuel discussions on how to infuse formal literacy instruction into programs for young children and how best to prepare educators to do so. But play time and nap time should not be substituted with structured activities that may not be age-appropriate, experts say.

“The report is all about code, because code is what has been studied, but what we know is that code alone is not going to solve our educational problems,” said Susan B. Neuman, a prominent early-childhood literacy researcher who served as assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education during President George W. Bush’s first term.

Ms. Neuman, who was asked to review a number of studies for the panel, said that some sound empirical research was not considered for the review because it did not fit the screening requirements. Many qualitative studies on effective instruction, she added, could help guide the field as well, but were not part of the panel’s review.

“My hope is that this report will be taken along with the findings of other reports that show the importance of developmentally appropriate practice to create comprehensive policies that promote early literacy,” Ms. Neuman said.

Translating the findings from research studies into practice will mean crafting lessons that teach skills through activities that appeal to 3- and 4-year-olds, said panel member Susan Landry, the director of the Children’s Learning Institute in the pediatrics department at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

“What we always have to keep in mind,” she said, “is that we are dealing with very young children, so the instruction needs to be playful and engaging.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as Early-Literacy Findings Unveiled

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