There's a soft buzz throughout the room. A child sitting legged on a cushion leafs through the pages of a book, murmuring to herself. Two others huddle together over a drawing and talk about the story they're composing. Another child updates the weather chart - one of many signs posted around the room -- to show that the rainy morning has turned into a sunny afternoon.

This would be a realistic portrait of literacy activities in many early childhood classrooms. However, literacy doesn't take place only in school. It begins much earlier, in the world outside and especially at home. Each child who comes to you has already been busy actively creating his or her own definition of what it means to interact in a literate society. Still, a child's literacy experiences in the first years of school are pivotal in contributing to later success in reading and writing. This is a time when children connect what they have already discovered in their home and family settings to what can be learned in a classroom environment.

Exciting new research clarifies how language learning and literacy development actually occur and also documents what many of us dedicated to early childhood education have known all along - that almost all children have the potential and ability to become successful, lifelong readers, and the early childhood years set the stage for this potential to be realized.

One conclusion stands out strong and clear: Preschool and kindergarten classrooms should not be places of formal instruction that mirror elementary school programs. Instead, we must utilize approaches that set children on a successful path to literacy. From the research come four key foundational principles:

I. Children need to use language expressively and functionally

We already know the importance of a print-rich environment. Children thrive in early childhood settings filled with signs, labels, posters, and children's own work; learning centers should be stocked with a variety of paper, drawing and writing tools, recipes, menus, cards, charts, and reading materials. However, we can't forget the importance of oral language in fostering reading and writing success. As you think about your own environment, consider the following:

  • A print-rich environment inspires language-- rich experiences. Conversations and discussions about pieces of print (such as why a sign is posted in a particular spot) encourage vocabulary and oral language development.
  • A print-rich environment helps children understand that language, both written and oral, has a meaningful function in their lives.
  • Forms of print carry cultural meanings. For instance, a take-out menu can be a symbol of the cultural phenomenon of living in a busy world and eating at home without cooking.

To learn to use oral language expressively and functionally, children need to interact with each other. Dramatic play offers opportunities for children to use language in meaningful situations where scripts of experience get played out and practiced. For example, there are a variety of ways food can be requested. A waiter at a restaurant may ask a diner or customer, "Can I take your order, please?" A mother might say, "Honey, what do you want for dinner?" In both cases, the response might be "A hamburger." But a child who has had less experience in restaurant settings may have not yet acquired a script to both understand the question and respond to the setting (pointing to the children's menu and asking for the burger and fries). Your dramatic-play area provides the arena where all this can happen in many ways.

Choose print tools to place in your dramatic-- play area by observing the children in your classroom in terms of their scripts of experience. What knowledge or experience have they already acquired? What have they become interested in lately? What are they excited to talk about and share? Remember, without opportunities for oral language, print tools have little value. So, when you set up your learning centers:

  • Make sure the area reflects the knowledge and background children bring with them.
  • Periodically add new print tools to build vocabulary and extend scripts of experience.
  • Join in with children. You are a great model of functional language use as well as a source of imaginative, expressive ideas.
  • Remember that learning centers can be essential in helping children use language expressively and functionally, provided they reflect the cultural aspects children are immersed in outside your classroom door.

2. Children need to be read to.

Sharing a story with a child is so much more than an entertaining diversion. It is a time of anticipation and excitement, a time to build closeness, a time to get to know one another better and to develop a lifelong love of reading. Books can help you build on children's experiences and reach beyond.

They are developmentally appropriate ways of introducing children to and reinforcing their experiences with the diversity of the world. Through books and shared reading, children:

Learn the power of narrative. Stories are very much a part of the way we communicate. For example, when we feel compelled to tell a friend about a meaningful incident, we often tell it in story form, relaying details about the setting, who was there, and the critical events that took place. By constantly exchanging and retelling the stories of our lives, we proclaim ourselves as cultural beings. Children are socialized into this process. Almost from birth, children hear others share stories and tell stories about them.

At the same time, children are drawn to both strange and familiar characters in books, unconsciously playing out their own feelings, fears, and wishes. Shared reading creates a unique environment of intimacy between caregiver and child and also between the world of the storybook and the world of the child. Reading aloud also offers children intellectual opportunities to hear vocabulary and phrasing that may not be a part of their everyday conversation.

Gain a sense of story. As children are read to, they begin to acquire a "story framework." Intuitively, they begin to understand plot structure, recognize character roles, realize the importance of setting, and follow the sequential development and flow of a story. Not only does this beginning awareness provide a context for later growth in reading, it also gives children shared experiences as they talk about these concepts. And, as favorite books are shared over and over, children have a chance to re-experience the flow of a story, as well as gain command of it.

3. Children need to hear and play with the sounds of language.

New in the research is conclusive documentation that rhymes, chants, and other ways of playing with language have a powerful role in literacy development. In fact, the number and variety of songs and rhymes a child has memorized and can sing by heart is a strong predictor of later reading success. Watch and listen closely. You will see evidence of rhymes throughout children's play, in their drawings, even in their oral language as they try out certain words and phrases in new contexts.

Because of the importance of playing with sounds, a great deal of attention has been given to the role of phonemic awareness in language-- and literacy-focused early childhood settings. Phonemic awareness refers to a child's ability to hear and manipulate sounds in language.

It is well documented that children's abilities in phonemic awareness are strongly related to later reading achievement. However, phonemic awareness is not a skill that children simply have or don't have. Instead, it is a complex set of abilities that is gradually developed and refined.

To help children successfully develop this important set of skills, many foundational experiences must occur in preschool and in kindergarten before formal instruction can effectively and beneficially begin. Many experts agree that specific training in phonemic awareness is not beneficial to children under age five. Instead, there are activities and strategies that can build on children's fascination with words and increase their sensitivity to and awareness of language and its sounds. These activities include:

  • Choral reciting of rhymes, emphasizing emotional voice tones.
  • Playing name games that accentuate syllables within names.
  • Singing songs; improvising on lyrics by substituting funny words or made-up phrases.
  • Exaggerating or adding extra emotion to the reading of key words or phrases that are repeated often in a read-aloud.
  • Encouraging imaginative use of sound effects, such as the sputtering of helicopter propellers or the roar of an engine versus the roar of a lion.

4. Children need to be exposed to and experience writing.

Learning to read and learning to write have a strong connection to each other and, of course, to literacy achievement. Through writing, children acquire and apply a working knowledge of the alphabetic system and realize early on that writing is a way to express thoughts and feelings. Children's writing lets adults glimpse minds at work during the process of discovering how written symbols combine to convey meaning. And writing is important as a cultural tool integrated into the process of becoming literate.

By deliberately exposing children to the forms and functions of writing and by purposefully including appropriate writing and drawing activities in the routines and events of your day, you can involve children in one more essential component of reading success. The following are specific ways that writing can be effectively integrated into your early childhood setting:

  • Create a sign-in system that children can learn to use independently over time. Understanding and knowledge of symbolic sign systems begins with learning that a person's identity can be represented in abstract ways. It is easy to see how children acquire letter knowledge as they learn to write their own names. Less obvious, but still enormously powerful, is the cultural value in proclaiming who you are by writing your name.
  • Notice and support children's attempts to incorporate aspects of print from their environment into drawings and writings, such as creating or recreating a functional sign they see in the room or copying letters from an alphabet wall chart.
  • Write often in front of children and verbalize what you are doing. For example, when you take attendance, explain why what you are doing is important (perhaps someone is sick), or as you say various names, point out that many begin with an s.
  • Encourage children to express themselves through writing - stories, letters, creating props for their play, making posters, recording science findings, and so on.

It has been understood for some time that reading and writing development occur along a continuum. Despite this knowledge, however, we are often at a loss to understand why some children progress more easily and successfully than others. The critical importance of literacy experiences in early childhood years has now been documented as a determining factor.

It is up to those of us in preschool and kindergarten settings to pick up on and support the diverse beginnings of literacy children have been exposed to in their homes and communities, building open and positive connections between home and school. By doing so, we will make great strides in preventing reading problems in these children later on. At the same time, we must actively embed exciting and challenging language and literacy opportunities in all aspects of classroom life, from circle time to snack to outdoor time, teaching children in developmentally appropriate ways that do not mirror the formal instruction of reading programs in the elementary grades.