The Beginning Years (Birth Through Preschool)

Even in the first few months of life, children begin to experiment with language. Young babies make sounds that imitate the tones and rhythms of adult talk, they "read" gestures and facial expressions, and they begin to associate sound sequences they frequently hear — words — with their referents. They delight in listening to familiar jingles and rhymes, play along in games such as peek-a-boo and pattycake, and manipulate objects like board books and alphabet blocks in their play. From these remarkable beginnings, children learn to use a variety of symbols. In the midst of gaining facility with these symbol systems, they acquire the insight, through interactions with others, that specific kinds of marks — print — can also represent meanings. At first, children will use the physical and visual cues surrounding print to determine what something "says." But as they develop an understanding of the alphabetic principle, they will begin to process letters, to translate them into sounds, and to connect this information with a known meaning. Although it may seem as though some children acquire these understandings "magically" or "on their own," studies (Anbar, 1986; Durkin, 1966) suggest that they are the beneficiaries of considerable, though playful and informal, adult guidance and instruction.

There will be considerable diversity in children's oral and written language experiences in these years. In homes and child care situations, children encounter many different resources and types and degrees of support for early reading and writing (McGill-Franzen & Lanford, 1994). Some children may have ready access to a range of writing and reading materials, while others may not; some children observe their parents writing and reading frequently, others only occasionally; some children receive direct instruction, while others receive much more casual, informal assistance.

What this means is that no one teaching method or approach is likely to be most effective for all children (Strickland, 1994). Rather, good teachers bring a wide variety of teaching strategies to encompass the great diversity of children in our schools. Excellent instruction builds on what children already know, and can do, and provides knowledge, skills, and dispositions for lifelong learning....

The single most important activity for building the understandings and skills essential for reading success appears to be reading aloud to children (Bus, Van Ijzendoorn & Pellegrini, 1995; Wells, 1985). High-quality book reading occurs when children feel emotionally secure (Bus, Belsky & Crnic, 1997; Bus & Van Ijzendoorn, 1995) and are active participants in reading (Whitehurst, et al., 1994). Asking predictive and analytic questions in small-group settings appears to affect children's vocabulary and comprehension of stories (Karweit & Waski, 1996). Children may talk about the pictures, retell the story, discuss their favorite actions, and request multiple rereadings.

It is the talk that surrounds the storybook reading that gives it power, helping children to bridge what is in the story with their own lives (Dickinson & Smith, 1994; Snow, Tabors, Nicholson & Kurland, 1995). Snow (1991) has described these types of conversations as "decontextualized language" in which teachers may induce higher-- level thinking by moving experiences in stories from what the children may see in front of them to what they can imagine.

A central goal during these preschool years is to enhance children's exposure to and concept about print (Clay, 1979; 1991 Holdaway, 1979; Stanovich & West, 1989; Teale, 1984). Some teachers use big books to help children distinguish many of these features, including the fact that print (rather than pictures) carries the meaning of the story, that the strings of letters between spaces are words, that the words in print correspond to an oral version, and that reading progresses from left to right and top to bottom. In the course of reading stories, teachers may demonstrate these features by pointing to individual words, directing children's attention to where to begin reading, and to recognize letter shapes and sounds. Some researchers (Adams, 1990; Roberts, in press) have suggested that the key to these critical concepts, like developing word awareness, may lie in these demonstrations of how print works.

Children also need the opportunity to practice what they've learned about print with their peers and on their own. Studies suggest that the physical arrangement of the classroom can promote time spent with books (Morrow & Weinstein, 1986; Neuman, 1997). A key area is the classroom library, a collection of attractive stories and informational books that children have immediate access to. Regular visits to the library and library-card registration ensure that these collections remain continually updated and may help children develop the habit of reading as lifelong learning....

Storybooks are not the only means of providing children with exposure to written language. Children learn a lot about reading in the labels, signs, and other kinds of print they see around them (McGee, Lomax & Head, 1988; Neuman & Roskos, 1993). Highly visible print labels on objects, signs, and bulletin boards in classrooms demonstrate the practical uses of written language. Children in environments rich with print incorporate literacy into their dramatic play (Morrow, 1990; Neuman & Roskos, 1997; Vukelich, 1994), using these communication tools to enhance the drama and realism of the pretend situation. These everyday, playful experiences do not by themselves make more children readers. Rather they expose children to a rich variety of print experiences and the processes of reading for real purposes.

For children whose primary language is not English, studies (Cummins, 1979) have shown that a strong basis in a first language promotes school achievement in a second language. Children who are learning English as a second language are more likely to become readers and writers of English when they are already familiar with the vocabulary and concepts in their primary language. In this respect, oral and written language experiences should be regarded as an additive process, ensuring that children are able to maintain their home language while also learning to speak and read English (Wong Fillmore, 1991). To the extent possible, including non-English materials and resources can help to support children's first language while they acquire oral proficiency in English.

A fundamental insight developed in these early years through instruction is the alphabetic principle (Adams, 1990), the understanding that there is a systematic relationship between letters and sounds. Research (Gibson & Levin, 1975) indicates that the shapes of letters are learned by distinguishing one character from another by their types of spatial features. Teachers will often involve children in comparing letter shapes, helping them to differentiate a number of letters visually. Alphabet books and alphabet puzzles in which children can see (and compare) letters may be a key to efficient and easy learning.

At the same time, children learn about the sounds of our language through exposure to linguistic-awareness games, nursery rhymes, and rhythmic activities. Some research (Bryant, MacLean, Bradley & Crossland, 1987), found that three-year-old children's knowledge of nursery rhymes specifically related to their more abstract phonological knowledge later on....

Although children's facility in phonemic awareness has been shown to be strongly related to later reading achievement, the precise role it plays in these early years is not fully understood. Training studies have demonstrated that phonemic awareness can be taught to preschoolers as young as five years old (Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Bryne & Field-Barnsley, 1991; Cunningham, 1990; Lundberg, Frost & Petersen, 1988). These studies have used tiles (Elkonin boxes, 1973) and linguistic games to engage children in explicitly manipulating speech segments at the phoneme level. Yet, whether such training is appropriate for younger children is highly suspect.... Rather, in the preschool years, sensitizing children to sound similarities does not seem to be strongly dependent on formal training but on their listening to patterned, predictable texts while enjoying the language and getting a feel for reading.

Children acquire working knowledge of the alphabetic system not only through reading but through writing. A classic study by Read (1971) found that even without formal spelling instruction, preschoolers use their tacit knowledge of phonological relations to spell words. Invented spelling (or phonic spelling) refers to beginners' use of the symbols they associate with the sounds they hear in the words they wish to write. For example, a child may initially write "b" or "bk" for the word "bike", to be followed by more conventionalized forms later on.

Some may wonder whether invented spelling promotes poor spelling habits. To the contrary, studies (Chomsky, 1979; Clarke, 1988) suggest that temporary invented spelling may contribute to beginning reading. One study (Clark, 1998), for example, found that children benefited more from using invented spelling than from having the teacher provide correct spellings. Although children's invented spellings did not comply with correct spellings, the process encouraged them to think actively about letter-sound relations. As they engage in writing, they are learning to segment the words they wish to spell into their constituent sounds.

Classrooms that provide children with regular opportunities to express themselves on paper, without worrying about correct spelling and proper handwriting, also help children understand that writing has real purposes (Dyson, 1988; Graves, 1983; Sulzby, 1985). Teachers can organize situations that both demonstrate the writing process and get children actively involved in it. Some teachers serve as scribes and help children write down their ideas, keeping in mind the balance between children doing it themselves and asking for help. In the beginning, these products will likely emphasize pictures, with few attempts at writing letters or words. With encouragement, children may begin to label their pictures, tell stories, and attempt to then write stories about the pictures they have drawn. Such novice writing activity sends the important message that writing is not just handwriting practice — children are using their own words to compose a message to communicate with others.

Thus, the picture that emerges from research in these first years is one that emphasizes wide exposure to print and to developing concepts about reading and writing, their forms and functions. Classrooms filled with print, language and literacy play, storybook reading, and writing allow children to experience the joy and power associated with reading and writing while mastering basic concepts about print that research has shown to be a strong predictor of achievement.


This text is excerpted from a joint position statement of the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). This document also includes research information on children in kindergarten and the primary grades.