How can we help children on the path to literacy? Early Childhood Today asked nationally renowned professor Catherine Snow of Harvard University to share her latest research and offer tips on how we can help children become language lovers.
EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: What do you believe children need to know in order to become good readers?

CATHERINE SNOW: The three crucial sets of skills good readers have are an understanding of the alphabetic principle, an awareness that reading is about meaning, and sufficient fluency in reading.

ECT: And what's the best way to help children gain these skills?

SNOW: Well some children arrive at school with many of these skills already. But those who don't, need to be taught about the relationship of letters, the fact that letters represent small sounds in words, and the relationship of specific letters to specific sounds. In many cases, we also need to help children understand that the reason they read is to uncover a message. Obviously, these skills don't have to be taught by drill. The most important thing is to provide children with a language-rich environment.

ECT: What can we do to make our classrooms language-rich environments?

SNOW: A language-rich environment is a place where everyday activities get talked about. Where teachers and caregivers ensure that children are involved in one-on-one conversations about things that are of interest to them. A language-rich environment is a place in which children have many opportunities to see how print is used for a variety of purposes. And it's a place where language and print are incorporated in playful ways into everyday activities.

ECT: What about the importance of asking children questions?

SNOW: The kinds of questions we ask make a big difference in terms of the language opportunities we offer children. For example, if you read a book and then ask children questions such as "What is this?" or "Where did he go?" you're asking for specific, closed answers. On the other hand, if you ask questions such as "What do you think is going to happen next?" or "What do you like best about the book?" then you're asking for what we term non-immediate talk inspired, but not totally determined, by the book. In the context of daily life, questions that ask children how or why clearly help them think about using language in ways they never would if they're asked only questions that require predetermined answers.

ECT: Beyond creating the right environment and asking the right kinds of questions, what is our role as teachers in helping children develop language?

SNOW: First of all, notice and be a part of what is going on in the classroom. For instance, rather than viewing dramatic play as a time for children to be on their own, recognize that it offers tremendous opportunity for children to develop language skills. Introduce literacy props that build on children's simple scripts, such as menus, tickets, newspapers, magazines, and other items. Things that are related to the theme of their play inspire children to express themselves and, at the same time, expand their awareness of literacy. Good literacy props help children talk and play in more productive and elaborate ways.

ECT: What are specific things we can do to help children make connections between language and print and start identifying letters and words?

SNOW: By pointing out printed words in a child's environment, you give children opportunities to recognize those words. Of course, it isn't reasonable to expect that very young children are going to learn them. It will take a lot of repetition. But there's nothing wrong with using print as part of what you're talking about together.

ECT: Is there a specific order we should follow?

SNOW: Starting when children are two or three, you can label belonging with children's names, expose them to printed versions of the names of other children in their class, and label important containers or items that children use in the classroom. This helps them come to understand ways that print can be used meaningfully. Similarly, letting children see you write things down and make lists helps them realize that print is useful and that using print is a productive thing to do.

ECT: Should the environment be different for preschoolers than for kindergartners?

SNOW: To some extent, yes. The major differences, of course, have to do with the fact that as children get older they know more words and can understand more words. So teachers of kindergartners need to expose children to an even greater wealth of vocabulary. This can be accomplished by having conversations with children about lots and lots of different topics. And, of course, by incorporating literacy activities into everyday talk.

ECT: We've been hearing a lot about teaching phonics in kindergarten. Do you think kindergarten teachers should begin to focus on sound-symbol correspondence?

SNOW: For children who come to kindergarten with reasonable spoken-language skills and who know a lot of words, it makes sense to begin to engage them in analyzing words they know. Appropriate kindergarten activities involve having children learn and make up rhymes and play games such as "Let's think of all the things you can eat that begin with the bu sound." And if you're doing that anyway, it makes perfect sense to use the written letter, to write a b on the board and say, "Look, all of the things on the list we just made of things that begin with the bu sound start with this letter."

ECT: As teachers, we know that adults play an extremely important role in encouraging literacy. What role do peers play in language development?

SNOW: There is some evidence that children who spend time in preschool environments learn how to be sociable through language - so their social talk develops more quickly. Children who are at home tend to be better at doing things like telling stories, which is more descriptive, or analytic talk.

ECT: One last question. What general advice would you give to teachers on encouraging language and literacy development?

SNOW: My advice is to focus on language and on ensuring language development. It's crucial to recognize that you have a particular capacity to help children's language development just by talking to them, by listening to them, and by developing the expectation that there will be real conversations going on during the course of your day together. And with kindergartners, include opportunities that help children think about and analyze language. I truly believe that we as teachers have a responsibility to focus on language and to help develop children's literacy.

Catherine Snow, PhD, chairperson of the Department of Human Development at Harvard University, and Henry Lee Shattuck Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, carries out research on first- and second-language acquisition, and literacy development in monolingual and bilingual children. She chaired the committee that produced the National Research Council Report, "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children" (1998), and the study group that produced "Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension" (2002). She is a former president of the American Educational Research Association and a member of the National Academy of Education. Her research focuses on the social-interactive origins of language and literacy skills, the ways in which oral language skills relate to literacy learning, the literacy development of English-Language Learners, and implications of research on language and literacy development for teacher preparation.

This interview originally appeared in the August, 1998 issue of Early Childhood Today.