Beginning Literacy: Research-Based Principles and Practices
by Lesley Mandel Morrow
Professor of Literacy Rutgers University

Children�s literacy and language skills begin to develop long before formal schooling begins. Current research suggests the likelihood that a child will succeed in first grade depends, most of all, on how much he or she has already learned before getting there (Adams, 1990). Therefore, it is important to provide even very young children with many opportunities to discover and explore books, environmental print, the alphabet, rhymes, and drawing and writing to convey meaning at whatever level they are capable of participating.

Thematic Instruction
Current reading research supports the use of thematic instruction. In support of a balanced approach to literacy instruction, literacy is taught through the use of thematic units (Morrow, 1997). Themes create a "context" for learning and by their very nature allow for curriculum integration. Morrow (1997) states, "Themes create meaning for students by integrating the language arts" and "literacy instruction should be meaningful and taught in combination with other content areas." With themes, children learn about their world by engaging in genuine projects that explore topics that interest and challenge them. They learn skills and strategies as COMPONENTS OF A PreK PROGRAM A prekindergarten program should engage children in rich beginning literacy experiences. Several key components of effective literacy instruction include: nursery rhymes, little books, and big books oral language development knowledge of the alphabet beginning print and book concepts phonemic awareness activities developmental writing activities auditory discrimination letter center activities comprehension skills visual discrimination modified instruction for ESL/ELL home involvement There are many advantages to thematic programs. Effectively chosen themes are both developmentally appropriate and engaging. Individual themes not only integrate reading, writing, listening, and speaking�but also integrate other areas of the curriculum, such as math, science, art, music, and dramatic play. In thematic programs, teachers can teach themes in any order based on the needs and interests of their students.

Using Nursery Rhymes
According to Opie and Opie (1959), traditionally nursery rhymes have long had a place in the preschool classroom, and the range of rhymes that can be used is very extensive. Maclean, Bryant, and Bradley (1987) determined that British children�s knowledge of nursery rhymes at age three was strongly related to phonemic awareness and early reading performance. Holdaway (1979) states, "Preschool teachers use nursery rhymes and songs with groups of children or the whole class, which has a real social benefit as children chant and sing in unison." Maclean, Bryant, and their University of Oxford colleagues report a link between children�s early knowledge of nursery rhymes, later development of phonological skills, and future success in reading and spelling (1987).

What is more, nursery rhymes can inspire the theme for an independent unit. To provide children with the multiple readings they require of the unit�s nursery rhyme, it is important to make the rhymes available in many formats. These could include posters for introducing children to beginning print concepts, big books for shared reading, little books for independent "reading", and recorded readings of the nursery rhymes to develop the concept of rhyme and other phonemic awareness skills.

Developing Oral Language and Vocabulary
Oral language ability plays a critical role in a child�s success in reading (Logan and Logan, 1981; Petty, Petty, and Salzer, 1989). Literacy development is enhanced by language competence, since the patterns of written language represent those in oral language (Goodman, 1967). That is, a child with strong oral language abilities is better able to anticipate and verify written words in context. Language acquisition is partially dependent on developmental maturity; however, we have also learned that children actively construct language (Halliday, 1973; Dyson, 1981; Snow, 1983; Wells, 1986; Sulzby, 1991).

Children generate language when their beginning efforts are accepted and reinforced. Environments that provide adult models for good language are rich in opportunities to practice language and receive supportive feedback from responsive listeners, and so improve a child�s production of language (Morrow, 1997). According to the National Research Council (1998), language development during the preschool years, in particular the development of a rich vocabulary and of some familiarity with the language forms used for communication and books, constitutes an important domain of preparation for formal reading instruction.

When English is the second language for the young child, a firm foundation in their first language will support academic achievement in the second language (Cummins, 1979). ESL children are more likely to learn to read and write English when they already have a firm foundation in the vocabulary and concepts of their primary language. They then need to be exposed to rich English language materials and models from teachers (Wong Fillmore, 1991).

In the prekindergarten classroom, children should be encouraged to talk about the activities they are engaged in during the school day. They should also be encouraged to orally share their own experiences. Word cards can be used to introduce children to new vocabulary words. The cards can be made up for color names and shape names to help children engage in instructional activities. Puppets, dolls, and stuffed animals can be used as conversation companions as children ask the puppet, doll, or animal questions, respond to stories, and create stories of their own. Children should be encouraged to speak in complete sentences, use descriptive words, ask questions, and to recite rhymes.

  • To hear rhymes and alliteration as measured by knowledge of nursery rhymes (PreK)
  • To do oddity tasks (compare and contrast the sounds of words for rhyme and alliteration)
  • To blend and split syllables
  • To perform phonemic segmentation (such as counting the number of phonemes�sound units smaller than a syllable�in a word)
  • To perform phoneme manipulation tasks (such as adding, deleting a particular phoneme and regenerating a word from the remainder)
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication, Bloomington, IN (ED400530 96).

Teaching Phonemic Awareness
Research suggests that it is beneficial for preschool-aged children to be exposed to beginning phonemic awareness activities. Preschoolers who were given training in phonological awareness show significant acceleration in their later acquisition of reading (Adams, 1990). There is evidence that some form of phonemic awareness is necessary for successfully learning to read alphabetic languages (Bradley and Bryant, 1983; Tunmer and Nesdale, 1985; Juel, Griffith, and Gough, 1986). According to the Office of Research in the U.S. Department of Education (1993), phonemic awareness is one of the predictors of later success in reading. Yopp (1992) states, "Activities to foster the development of phonemic awareness should be included in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade."

In phonemic awareness activities based upon this research, children should be given many opportunities to "play with" and "manipulate" sounds in spoken words. Activities that focus on specific phonemic awareness tasks include: rhyme, stretching words, alliteration, matching sounds, clapping syllables, listening for words that are the same, and blending. Sounds can also be explored simply by chanting nursery rhymes and singing songs. Auditory activities that require children to listen for specific purposes and to distinguish and compare sounds are also effective ways to encourage the development of phonemic awareness.

Beginning Print Concepts
Introducing children to the concepts of print is significant in the learning-to-read process. Several researchers have documented that a central goal during the preschool years is to enhance children�s exposure to and concepts about print (Clay, 1979, 1991; Holdaway, 1979; Teale, 1984; Stanovich and West, 1989). Big books and storybooks provide children with exposure to written language, as does environmental print�print on bulletin boards, signs, and labels in the classroom. In environments rich with print, children incorporate literacy into their dramatic play (Morrow, 1990; Vukelich, 1994; Neuman and Roskos, 1997).

Beginning print concepts such as print directionality, recognizing one�s own name, understanding that messages come from print, understanding that print stands for spoken language, and under-standing the concept of a word, are lessons that can be taught in the prekindergarten classroom. Teachers can explain and model these print concepts using posters, little books, big books, trade books, and environmental print.

Alphabetic Knowledge
The ability to name letters is a predictor of early reading success (Chall, 1967; Torgesen, 1998). Adams� (1990) review of several studies concurs with this finding, and she states, "familiarity of the letters of the alphabet and awareness of the speech sounds, or phonemes, to which they correspond are strong predictors of the ease or difficulty with which a child learns to read." According to the International Reading Association�s (IRA) and National Association for the Education of Young Children�s (NAEYC) joint statement on early literacy (1998), one goal for the preschool-aged child is to be able to identify some letters and make some letter-sound correspondences.

It is likely that preschoolers will have a wide range of abilities when it comes to alphabetic knowledge. Some children will not recognize any letters, others may be able to name a few letters, and others may enter preschool with some letter-sound correspondences already mastered. The preschool classroom is the ideal place to introduce children to all of the uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet. Teachers can even set up an Alphabet Center in the classroom with hands-on learning center activities, and a recording of the "Alphabet Song" as well as other versions of this song.

Reading Aloud to Children
Much research has been done indicating the positive results of reading aloud to children. Language development has been found to correlate with reading success, and both can be improved by regular use of children�s literature in read-aloud situations both at home and at school (Cullinan, 1987). Additional research demonstrates that it is important to provide children daily with positive experiences involving stories and other literature that include reading and telling stories; integrating literature into themes being studied; and encouraging children to share books they have read, to respond to literature through written and oral language, and to participate regularly in social periods set aside for reading and writing (Hoffman, Roser, and Farest, 1988; Morrow, O�Connor, and Smith, 1990; Morrow, 1996). Children who have stories read to them frequently develop "favorite books" that they request over and over again. Research suggests that each rereading provides a different level of listening, understanding, or comprehension of the text. Books need to be discussed, and children should be asked to react to stories. Listening to good literature fosters important knowledge about story structure, book language, conventions of print, and the world (Morrow, 2001). Programs that incorporate enjoyable experiences with literature create interest in and enthusiasm for books that in turn increase children�s voluntary use of books (Morrow, 1982, 1983, 1987, 1992).

A primary goal of any preschool teacher or program is to engage children in enjoyable experiences with literature. Beautifully illustrated nursery rhymes, little books, and take-home books can be read aloud to children. Opportunities to discuss, dramatize, and use puppets enable children to retell stories. Recordings of favorite stories can be kept in the Listening Center. Letters to the family are ideal for developing literacy in children�s home environment as well as in school.

Beginning Writing
Research supports that writing is an important aspect of beginning literacy instruction. In fact, young children want to write. Through samples of children�s first attempts at writing, it is clear that they model writing behaviors of adults, and that their scribbles, drawings, random letters, and invented spelling are very early forms of writing (Clay, 1975). Studies have shown classrooms that provide children with regular opportunities to express themselves on paper, without feeling too constrained for correct spelling and proper handwriting, help children understand that writing has real purpose (Graves, 1983; Sulzby, 1985; Dyson, 1988).

Research has also demonstrated that children who write become better readers (Stosky, 1983). According to Morrow (1997), it is only recently that we have included writing in the early childhood curriculum. At best, teachers took dictation from children�which is still a recognized practice�but today teachers also encourage children to do "preschool" writing.

Sample of "preschool" writing by Olivia, 1999

This suggests that we know that it isn�t grown-up or conventional writing but it is indeed writing done by a preschooler. Teachers can accept invented spelling in the beginning stages of writing but expect spelling to become conventional over time. Encouraging writing in preschool and kindergarten and praising children�s first attempts to write have become standard practices in early childhood classrooms.

By setting up a Writing Center in the classroom, preschool teachers can encourage developmental and functional writing, and ask children to draw and write to share their experiences. They can also draw and write to respond to theme books and nursery rhymes that are read aloud. Through their early attempts at writing (whatever level that may be), children will have a first hand opportunity to learn about print and writing.

Home Involvement
A review of 200 studies by White (1982) showed that beginning reading achievement can be attributed more directly to family characteristics � such as the availability of reading materials, home conversations, academic guidance, cultural activities, and attitudes toward education � than to socioeconomic status. Children�s attitudes about literacy practices are developed at home. Parents, other family members, and caregivers play powerful roles both as models and sources of encouragement. Their involvement through their help, guidance, and modeling of literacy behaviors is an important component of successful literacy development (Morrow, 1995). Parents want to be involved in the education of their children, and they want to be informed about what their children are doing and what they can do to help (Cleve, Jowett, and Bate, 1982; Epstein, 1990; Galinsky, 1990; Mayfield, 1990). Activities such as family storybook reading promote positive feelings about books and literacy (Taylor and Strickland, 1986).

To actively involve caregivers and parents in their children�s literacy development, it is important to provide them with activities that reinforce the concepts being taught in the classroom. The activities should focus on developing a single literacy skill. Addition-ally, if students are being sent home with activity sheets, it is a wonderful idea to add a brief note to the sheet with a simple activity that can be done at home. Take-home books allow parents and caregivers to help their children learn book concepts and beginning comprehension skills and may also be used to promote home involvement. Little books that include a letter to the family with directions for sharing and reading the book aloud to children encourage meaningful at-home reading experiences.

About the Author
Lesley Mandel Morrow is a Professor of Literacy in the Department of Learning and Teaching at Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education. She is also the senior author of Getting Ready to Read with Mother Goose � 2001, a beginning literacy program published by Sadlier-Oxford.

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