Jordan glances hopefully at the bookshelf. He knew just where he had put his favorite story at the end of school yesterday. Was it still there? Yes! He grabs the book quickly and settles in on the rug to look at it one more time. Meanwhile, Clarissa and Bradley are working in the writing area. They've decided to write a special letter to Kio, who is at home with the flu. Together they draw, doodle, scribble, and ask their teacher for help in spelling some important words to describe their thoughts.

In another corner of the room, Jasmine is retelling last night's family trip to the vet while Curtis, Denise, and Sandra listen and look at the great puppy photos she's brought in to share. Still another group is busy in the dramatic-play area. For the past few days, they've been creating a restaurant, and today is opening day-complete with signs, menus, lunch specials, waitresses, waiters, and chefs. This is a classroom alive with literacy learning!

Literacy Alive!

How can we offer, children environments where literacy learning thrives? Try these four great ideas:

1. Create Print-Rich Environments. Books, paper, writing tools, functional signs and symbols-- these are the centerpieces that support literacy development in a young child's world. After all, children use literacy when there are interesting things to write and read about and when they have access to writing tools to express themselves in symbolic forms. signs that have meaning for children (not mere decorations), books placed all around your room, writing centers with plenty of supplies, and bulletin boards at children's heights (where they can look at posters, post their contributions, and leave written messages) invite children to use writing and reading in open-ended ways. Learning environments like these communicate the important message that literacy is an integral part of daily activity.

But it isn't enough to just provide a literacy-enriched environment. Young children must have plenty of opportunities for literacy-related play where they can explore the uses of language and literacy routines associated with authentic everyday activities. They need time to use their environment in their own ways. And who knows what may happen! During free activity time, the writing table may become a center for sharing and sending messages to friends, writing letters to family members, dictating stories both imagined and real, or retelling stories they've heard through pictures and words. The dramatic-play area may turn into a grocery store, restaurant, or doctor's office, allowing children to engage in imaginative interaction and discovery. Your classroom can be a place where children feel in control and begin to develop a sense of what writers and readers do long before they actually have all the necessary skills and knowledge. These feelings and experiences not only nourish children's interest and desire to become literate, they also provide motivation for working toward learning how to write and read.

2. Integrate Language Experiences With Children's Interests. Children are driven to learn language and literacy not for its own sake but for its function in their lives. Engaging children in in-depth investigations of real topics-explorations that evolve from their interests-creates an exciting springboard for literacy learning. Finding out how something works or how to care for a favorite pet - concrete activities based on what children really want to know about-are a far cry from set curricula that focus on colors, seasons, or community workers. And, in the course of working on projects that have emanated from their interests, children become involved in asking meaningful questions and finding ways to represent their findings in many symbolic forms.

Though a project may stem from a large group activity ("How do we plant our own garden?"), the real work begins as children work together in small-group investigations. In these kinds of situations, one child's skill in drawing may complement another's ability to write on the computer, along with another who enjoys talking in front of a group.

Keep in mind that projects differ from traditional theme-based units. Though both emphasize integrated curricula, project work develops from children's interests with goals established by the classroom as a community. A class that decides to create and maintain its own garden has decided on a clear and concrete goal children can work toward, learn from, and take credit for. Another group who become interested in multicultural roots might decide to write and illustrate their own Big Book about ancestries and customs or send letters to family members in other parts of the world.

Projects like these stem from the children's interests and actively engage their minds. Children practice what they know and use literacy for real-life purposes.

3. Make Reading Responsive. As you know, listening to stories and discussing them as a group is a vital part of literacy learning. Children need experiences with a variety of texts-stories, predictable books, concepts books, poetry, and books about children's worlds, concerns, hopes, and dreams. And, there are many ways to share stories with children, all of which will enhance children's understanding and delight in hearing the language of print. You can:

  • signal that it's time for story time with a song, a finger play, or a brief chant.
  • use your voice to convey meaning, pausing during the story to ask questions and make comments.
  • read without stopping, totally enjoying the language, cadence, and rhyme.
  • involve children in reenacting the plot, or engage the group in discussions or ask children to help retell the story with pictures and objects. (Some books become springboards for project work or class investigations.)

It is critical for children not only to hear stories read aloud, but also to have time to spend with books-time for independent reading and browsing, sharing favorites with each other, studying illustrations, becoming immersed in the smell of the paper, the sound of pages turning. Library corners need to be a central part of early childhood classrooms: Keep them stocked with comfortable chairs, take-out cards, stuffed animals to read to, and even a repair kit in case of accidental scribbles or tears.

4. Incorporate Skills and Strategies. In literacy-enriched classrooms, reading and writing become a part of the culture-the way in which much information is communicated throughout the day while children are engaged in meaningful activities. Through finger plays, songs, and chants, children begin to hear similarities and differences in language; through listening to and retelling stories, they begin to pick up new vocabulary; and after a while, through their writing, many discover and differentiate print from pictures.

Learning new skills helps children develop a sense of competence and accomplishment, leading toward greater independence in learning. Much attention has been drawn to concerns about isolated skill teaching, such as workbook drills or out-of-context repetitive tasks. Clearly these activities are inappropriate for young children, but that doesn't mean that all direct skill-based instruction should be abandoned. It is important for us to adjust our teaching strategies to meet individual children's needs. One child might thrive on activities that implicitly use language and literacy in context. Another might need explicit instruction on how to behave when visiting a library or hearing a story. When we recognize where children are, we are better able to meet individual challenges.

Implicit in these guidelines and suggested practices is the assumption that any approach to early literacy development must begin by getting to know each child and asking: What kinds of literacy experiences has this child already had? Then, with a set of basic guidelines of good practice, we can tailor our programs to create integral connections between children's earliest experiences and long-term literacy development, basing literacy learning on contexts and activities that have personal meaning and value. Responding to this challenge defines both the hard work and the exhilarating rewards of early literacy teaching.

Best Literacy Practices

Early childhood is a time when children are naturally excited about words, when they are eager to take part in literacy learning. As you work together to actively engage children in this process, consider the following:

Offer children a variety of resources and ways to approach learning. By the time children come to school, some may have had ready access to a broad range of writing and reading materials, while others may have had much less support for literacy learning. Because each child is unique and brings with him very different experiences, no one method or approach is likely to work with every child. This means we, as teachers, need a wide variety of resources.

Let literacy be a social experience. Young children often become interested in writing and reading because it can be useful in social relationships, giving them power and enabling them to express their feelings. In these early years, children learn about language and how to use it as they engage in collaborative activities, testing problems and solutions, sharing expertise, and helping one another.

Help children develop knowledge and skills. Young children bring their curiosity and an interest in communicating with others to so many of their activities. It's important, then, to remember that children feel a welcomed sense of power and mastery when they begin to develop the skills and knowledge of readers and writers. The more children desire to know and to be able to do, the more skills they want-and need-to learn.

Encourage real skills that have real meaning in children's lives. Children love to be able to sing an alphabet song or recite numbers and letters. There is no reason to deny these technical skills; however, it's important to recognize that real reading and writing skills involve more than reciting something by rote or "making" letters. Learning to be good communicators, to interpret information, and to reason are vital literacy skills that develop when children engage in activities in which they make decisions and offer individual contributions.

Help children learn how language works. Children combine different kinds of symbols to communicate meaning-drawing, talking, pretend play, and so on. Through their conversations, writing, and interactions, children reveal their knowledge about the functions of reading and writing. In other words, children express literacy in many ways-through gestures, talking, dancing, singing, and acting out familiar routines.

These expressions happen in your classroom every day and suggest that children know a great deal about literacy. So it is especially important that we provide time and opportunities for them to use their literacy capabilities. When young children discover new insights through creative projects, try on literacy-related roles, and participate in meaningful routines, they are not just rehearsing for the real thing: They are involved in critical, purposeful activities necessary for writing and reading development.

Strive for inclusion. Some young children may have special physical or instructional difficulties and need additional literacy-learning support. Typically, these children have been sent to special resource rooms or individualized programs. But it's important to consider the messages this conveys. There is no doubt that inclusion presents real challenges to teachers' time, energy, and in some cases, instructional expertise. Nevertheless, in-class support enables young special needs children to learn literacy by engaging in literacy practices within their classroom community where they also have a continuity of experience.

Involve family members. Young children stand the best chance of developing a strong foundation in literacy learning if their experiences are tied to contexts and activities that have personal meaning and value. Communication with families, built on mutual respect and the sharing of information, can create continuous, purposeful, and consistent bonds.

Avoid standardized, paper-and-pencil tests. It is vital to remember that children are complex and multifaceted individuals who have different learning styles. Assessment strategies must reflect these many complexities, or they run the risk of doing more harm than good. Sound assessments must be anchored in real-life writing and reading activities, continuously chronicling a wide range of literacy activities in a variety of situations. (See Staff Workshop Handout, page 18.)

The key to quality early literacy learning lies within a delicate balance of providing rich, meaningful, engaging content experiences, creating classroom cultures that motivate children, honoring children's choices about what they want to learn, and encouraging their independence. When we, as teachers, offer children these kinds of opportunities, literacy achievement is within every child's reach.

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Adapted from Neuman, S.B. (1998). "How Can We Enable All Children to Achieve?" In S.B. Neuman & K.A. Roskos, Children Achieving: Best Practices in Early Literacy. Copyright 1998 by Susan B. Neuman and the International Reading Association. All rights reserved.

To order from the International Reading Association: Children Achieving: Best Practices in Early Literacy $28.95 Neuman & Roskos, Eds. 366 pp. Order No. 193 Phone credit card orders call 800-336-READ, ext. 266 MasterC/Visa Buy it on the Web at bookstore.reading.org.

OUR THANKS TO THE STAFF AND CHILDREN AT THE RHINELANDER CHILDREN'S CENTER, CHILDREN'S AID SOCIETY IN NEW YORK CITY, FOR LETTING US SHOOT THE PHOTOS FOR THE COVER AND COVER STORY