Early Childhood Today interviewed Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development, National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and Susan Neuman, chair of Reading in Early Childhood Committee, International Reading Association (IRA), to learn more about the organizations' joint position statement.

EARLY CHILDHOOD TODAY: Why did NAEYC and the IRA decide to come together to redefine early literacy?

SUE BREDEKAMP: We had gone through a lengthy process of revising developmentally appropriate practices [DAP] to fix some misinterpretations. One of the worst: that child-initiated activity is all that's important and that teacher-directed instruction or any form of teacher-directed activity is not appropriate. We also felt that teachers who understand the developmental continuum of learning to read and write would certainly use a document to help plan curriculum. So, together, IRA and NAEYC developed the joint position paper "Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children."

SUSAN NEUMAN: When Sue sent me previews of the new DAP, I was concerned about their focus on literacy, and the president of IRA, at the time, was disturbed by the fact that many kids were coming to school unprepared for literacy instruction in kindergarten. The three of us got together and asked ourselves: What can we do to ensure a better sense of literacy at each developmental level?

BREDEKAMP: What has been ironic about this whole experience is that I really thought we would have a difficult time agreeing. And I have to say, I was knocked out, overwhelmed by the amount of agreement among the early childhood people. The statement was really a powerful communication tool and we were able to have a fascinating dialogue.

NEUMAN: NAEYC was absolutely incredible in saying "Tell us how to make it better."

ECT: How does the new developmentally appropriate practice statement differ from the old one?

BREDEKAMP: Developmentally appropriate practices are ways of teaching that vary for or adapt to the age and experience of the individual learner. So fundamentally the definition has not changed. Instead, it has been expanded to include the fact that not only do you have to consider children as individuals, but you also have to consider children as members of groups with their own cultural identities.

ECT: Could you talk about your process?

NEUMAN: We began to define benchmarks of development expected at various age levels and grade levels - preschool, kindergarten, first through third grades. We asked, "What should children be able to do at each grade level to succeed by the end of third grade? What should teachers do to prepare children? How can parents support these kinds of activities?"

We felt very strongly that preschool teachers need to know the developmental continuum of reading, because when you know how reading and writing develop, then you know what is appropriate to teach. So we began to define, which has never been done before, and that was critical. We specified not only oral language activities, but also written language activities. We talked about grades and not ages.

ECT: Do you think the early childhood community is or was feeling pressure to get children to read at an earlier age?

BREDEKAMP: No question. The early childhood community has felt this pressure for a long time.

NEUMAN: I think there's the notion that all children should be expected to read by age five, and that's just not appropriate.

BREDEKAMP: The statement is saying that there is an appropriate expectation against which you can compare kids' development so you can determine whether they're making good progress. There is also a huge range of individual variation that is absolutely normal. So the bottom line is, for the kids who aren't reading at the end of third grade, your responsibility is to intervene and individualize in strategic ways not to flunk or hold kids back in third grade but to set up systematic, individualized intervention.

NEUMAN: We would argue that by the end of first grade, children should be able to read, though it may be in a hesitant, non-fluid manner. By the end of the third grade, however, they should be able to read fluently as well as write conventionally with all the tools in place so that by the fourth grade children can really read to learn and develop more complex understanding.

ECT: Are there specific techniques or materials that you feel are really important?

BREDEKAMP: The ironic part is that it's not rocket science. It's just a specific set of things that you absolutely have to do. Dramatic play, having favorite books of your own, having them read to you, lap-book reading, books in the home, parents as role models discussing what they read, all these things are absolutely critical. One method is not going to work for all kids. Reading is a complex process that requires a variety of strategies teachers can adapt.

NEUMAN: I think storybooks are crucial; information books are critical, too, especially for those children who don't come with a great deal of background knowledge. Children need books to help them label information as well as predictable books so they can hear rhymes and rhythm. And we need to provide functional print activities all through the day.

Every classroom needs to have a library, and in addition to those libraries, books need to be placed in interest centers so children get the message early on that we learn from books. We need writing centers to help children understand that writing has a purpose, too.

ECT: Do you think that pre-k teachers should teach phonics?

BREDEKAMP: They don't need to, but they must have a variety of strategies that lead to kids' development of phonemic awareness, the understanding of sounds. Teachers need to read aloud and give children exposure to print, alphabetic principle, linguistic awareness, etc., not direct phonics instruction. Phonics instruction is really best left to first grade. That's the same conclusion that the National Academy of Science came to in their work.

NEUMAN: We know that children need lots of opportunities to develop de-contextualized language; that is, language not focused on concrete activity but words they can imagine and envision. We know they need lots of opportunities to engage in pretend reading and to play with books. These are the basic processes that allow children to practice literacy, both with assisted instruction and on their own.

What we often don't know is how much phonemic awareness is necessary. We know it's important, but we don't necessarily know the most effective way to teach it or how much is needed.

ECT: How do you think the new research on brain development relates to the current thinking about early literacy?

BREDEKAMP: If the first three years of life are deprived in terms of stimulation and interaction with warm, nurturing human beings, it's going to be real tough for the child to acquire the depth and breadth of verbal language needed to build reading abilities.

NEUMAN: I think the research verifies essentially what we've always said: that there are certain critical learning - spurt periods - teachable moments. But I worry a little that people will be afraid they've missed specific teachable moments. Our statement strongly says, "Never give up!"

Sue Bredekamp, PhD, of NAEYC.

Susan Neuman, EdD, of IRA.

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