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October 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 2

Literacy Standards for Preschool Learners

Preschool and kindergarten educators can help young learners meet benchmarks for early literacy—without sacrificing developmentally appropriate practice.

In recent years, major studies (Why Children Can't Read, 1997; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) have found that the seeds of literacy are planted before children enter school. Knowledge about letters and sounds, print and pictures, and words and sentences is a prerequisite for learning to read and write. Further, these studies indicate that important literacy skills do not develop spontaneously: Instruction shapes them. Preschool, day care, and kindergarten programs, along with parents, must supply the experiences to build this basic knowledge.
To support early literacy, school districts, state agencies, and national organizations are setting early literacy standards. Accountability for teaching literacy in early childhood classrooms will likely grow stronger rather than weaker. But the path toward implementing literacy standards in these classrooms will present challenges that are quite different from those in the higher grades.
First, defining literacy in preschool and kindergarten requires more than adding "the student begins to . . ." to literacy standards borrowed from higher grades. At these early levels, the precursors of successful reading and writing often are not even called reading and writing. A young child's ability to draw and represent actions symbolically in dramatic play, for example, is not writing at all, but it is an important step in early literacy development.
Second, standards implementation requires a redefinition of the early childhood teacher's role in literacy instruction. Although the importance of setting the proper environment and providing opportunities for children to learn will continue to be essential, teachers may find their role broadening to include guiding and even directing learning, a role that many view with a certain wariness. With good reason, early childhood teachers are concerned about trading practices that contribute to the long-term growth and development of young children for the short-lived success of teaching narrowly defined literacy skills.
Third, successful early literacy instruction requires that teachers use instructional strategies specifically designed for young children. However, instructional techniques for primary-grades students cannot be imported wholesale for use with younger children. Neither can such techniques be diluted and used for a longer period of time to compensate for the fact that the children are less mature.
Despite these challenges, we believe that teachers can implement early literacy standards in the early childhood classroom—while maintaining a developmentally appropriate curriculum.

Redefining Early Childhood Literacy

The idea of developmentally appropriate practice dates back to 1987, when the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) published Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children Birth through Age Eight(Bredekamp, 1987). This book defines developmentally appropriate practice as curriculum that meets both age-specific and individual needs of young children by providing materials, activities, and settings that are best suited for their level of development.
The concept of developmentally appropriate education raises two issues that concern early childhood teachers. The first is the notion that to teach certain content and skills to young children is dangerous because it amounts to "hurrying" them, which may damage their ability to learn in later years. Although this might be true in certain instances, we have found that it is often not the content that is inappropriate, but rather the instructional techniques used to teach the content. For example, we would not expect young children to learn punctuation or word spacing by copying or writing long sentences—something an older child might do. However, we could teach punctuation to young children by using techniques that fit their developmental level. For example, a teacher could model for children how to write a message to a friend, pointing out the need for spaces and punctuation.
The second issue relates to the notion that a child will manifest his or her current level of literacy development naturally and unambiguously. For example, Mary will say, "I am ready to learn to write my name now," when she has the motor skills and the conceptual skills to learn to write. Although there is wisdom in following a child's lead, if taken too literally, this idea can cause teachers to wait for a child to demonstrate a need to learn literacy skills before beginning instruction. Such an approach wastes valuable time and may prevent some children from receiving the instruction that they need. A child can be ready to learn many things before he or she knows how to request them.
  1. What literacy concepts and skills are developmentally appropriate?
  2. What instructional techniques are developmentally appropriate?
  3. How do we know whether children are ready for specific concepts and instruction?

Developmentally Appropriate Literacy Concepts and Skills

The National Academy of Sciences (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), the International Reading Association (IRA), and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (IRA & NAEYC, 1998) describe appropriate expectations for children of different age levels beginning at birth. Known as milestones, developmental accomplishments,and benchmarks, these markers represent substantial work toward the articulation of early literacy standards.
Reading research of the last 30 years also helps us know what concepts and skills are developmentally appropriate. For example, studies have shown that children must first develop an understanding of concepts that underlie the acts of reading and writing. They must also learn skills to decode and encode words. Further, children must develop an awareness of certain overarching attributes of written and spoken words. They must learn, for example, that the order of words in a sentence is important and that words are completely separate from the things that they represent (for example, Rob can be Benjamin's father, even though Rob is a "little" word and Benjamin is a "big" word). Most researchers agree that the mastery of these concepts and skills is what distinguishes children who read easily from those who develop later reading difficulties (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).
Milestones must also be translated into everyday practice. We must make sure that any new standards document functions as a helpful teaching tool and not as just another laundry list of concepts and skills that takes up valuable time and interferes with established practices. Teachers need clear markers within each early literacy standard. These markers should identify targeted knowledge in such a way that a teacher will be able to evaluate student performance and set teaching priorities.
At McREL, we are involved in defining benchmarks for early literacy that not only reflect the expectations of national and state agencies and professional organizations, but also incorporate current research findings about early literacy. Teachers can use these benchmarks to determine where children are in their literacy development and what to expect next.
Another barrier to translating standards into everyday practice is that concepts and skills are not always detailed enough to shape classroom practice. For example, teachers know, and research confirms, that by the end of the year, kindergartners often can read some common sight words. By the end of 1st grade, children can be expected to possess a reading vocabulary of 300 to 500 words (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).
Still, teachers may not have specific guidelines on which words to teach. Should they teach the words that young children are most likely to encounter in their classrooms or the words that they will most likely encounter in books? If books, which books? If teachers use frequent-word lists, they may find that these lists actually miss words such as mom, dad,<!-- Note: commas italicized in printed text --> or zoo—words common to every young child's vocabulary—because the lists are based on books spanning 1st through 6th grade. As part of our research, we compared this type of list with a word list we derived from more than 1,000 books commonly read by beginning readers. We found that they overlapped by only 75 percent, at best. We also found that young children show a higher percentage of word recognition when the sight words come from the books that they actually encounter in the early stages of reading.

Developmentally Appropriate Instructional Techniques

Many instructional techniques that are appropriate for 1st and 2nd graders demand underlying cognitive skills that younger children do not yet possess. This is particularly true for any large-group instruction during which children must stay focused for a long period of time. Teachers should not mistake enthusiasm for focus; the attention of young children may not be focused where the teacher thinks it is.
In our own research, for example, we found that many teachers teach the alphabet by saying or singing the letter names in alphabetical order and while pointing to the letters. Because they are pointing and saying the name at the same time, teachers assume that children are correctly associating the letter name with the letter to which they are pointing. However, we found that many kindergartners assigned the letter name incorrectly to the letter either just before or just after the correct letter. This error pattern increased for letters found at the end of the alphabet. Although a teacher may be pointing to a letter and saying it, some children are still looking at the previous letter or have jumped ahead to the next. The teacher doesn't catch the error because he or she cannot monitor where each child's eyes are focused at every second. Although the children may look as if they are learning the correct letter name, some children actually may be making the wrong association.
This common problem is an example of a mismatch between content that is appropriate for young children (learning the letters of the alphabet) and a teaching method that is not appropriate. Most preschoolers and many kindergartners cannot follow directions or sustain attention throughout the activity; their reactive and impulsive behavior may be such that they attend intermittently, making it difficult for a teacher to notice when the formation of incorrect associations occurs. Thus, this type of instruction will not benefit a young child—whereas an older child, who is capable of following the teacher's pointer precisely, can benefit from the same activity.
There are several ways to adjust the technique to meet the needs of young children. Each child could have an alphabet chart to point to as he or she sings, because mental and physical actions support each other at this age. The teacher could stop the song at various letters to check where different children are pointing. The teacher could also vary the context in which children make this association: The teacher could make mistakes on purpose or have children take turns pointing and checking one another. Children also could look for letters out of the context of the song or out of alphabetical order.

Knowing Whether Children Are Ready

The third question—How do we know whether children are ready?—is the most difficult to answer because it requires tremendous teacher expertise, not just in general child development, but specifically in literacy. We must first define what we mean by "readiness."
Research suggests that children make the most significant gains in learning when they are presented new concepts and skills that are slightly ahead of what they can do independently. In other words, instruction should challenge the child and aim toward the upper levels of what Vygotsky (1978) calls the "zone of proximal development." The trick is to find the match between what the child knows and the optimal degree of assistance needed to move the child toward the next developmental step.
The idea of readiness should include not just when the child can start to benefit from exposure to a specific instructional method, but also when the technique is no longer beneficial for the child. For us, readiness is best conceptualized as a "window of opportunity" when an instructional method will be most potent.
Most teaching strategies have an optimal window of opportunity, a time at which they can have the greatest effect on a young child's literacy learning. If applied earlier or later, or for a shorter or longer period, a teaching strategy loses its power. For example, a common early literacy technique is to have a child draw a picture and then write a story about the picture. This technique is predicated on the idea that when a child is writing his or her own message, the context is more meaningful and the child is more likely to establish a connection between sounds of the spoken word and letters in the written word—a skill frequently emphasized in literacy standards documents. Although successful with 1st graders, this method doesn't accomplish its goal with younger children, who can create wonderful pictures and tell wonderful stories but usually are not yet able to use words to represent these stories on paper. Early childhood teachers often give up this method altogether, labeling it developmentally inappropriate and resorting to "taking dictation." From our perspective, what children need at this stage is a technique that encourages their own writing, but still provides a significant amount of assistance—something in between dictating and independent writing.
We have developed a powerful approach to help children make this transition. In scaffolded writing, a teacher "takes dictation" by drawing lines, each line standing for one word in the child's message. The child then writes as much of each word on each line as he or she can, gradually developing the ability to write complete words and complete sentences. Studies (Bodrova &amp; Leong, 1998) show that scaffolded writing increases the number of phonemes in a child's writing and the complexity of his or her messages. We consider scaffolded writing an example of how an effective teaching technique can preserve the developmentally appropriate context and at the same time optimize learning.
To identify a window of opportunity for a child, a teacher must frequently assess the child's progress and use the results immediately. Such ongoing assessment can guide decisions about whether a specific instructional technique matches a child's individual needs and can help that child meet state and national standards. Assessment, if properly constructed, can thus reconcile standards and developmentally appropriate practice.

Example of Scaffolded Writing

el199910 bodrova fig
In scaffolded writing, a teacher
"takes dictation" by drawing one line for each word in a child's
message. The child then writes as much as he or she can. This message from a
5-year-old says: "My mom bought me a yo-yo. I played with my yo-yo and it
was really fun. Then I went to bed."

Helping Teachers Meet the Challenge

To be able to constantly align teaching strategies with standards and with the changing developmental needs of children, teachers require much staff development. But even when staff development is focused, is provided by literacy experts, and encourages ongoing assessment, it still cannot help teachers with the day-to-day classroom problems that they encounter.
The ideal solution is to have an expert in every classroom who helps teachers collect assessment data, updates them on research findings, knows the standards, and gives advice on optimal teaching techniques. Although every teacher cannot have such a perfect mentor, technology can be a means to deliver this expert knowledge. Already, the medical field uses computerized "expert systems" that model the decision-making process of experienced physicians.
At McREL, we have built a computerized "expert system" that helps teachers more effectively "diagnose" a child's literacy performance and progress alongside standards and benchmarks and prescribe appropriate teaching techniques. For five years, we have been exploring ways of helping teachers use the latest research in creating developmentally appropriate classrooms for early literacy learning. Through the integration of research, best teaching practices, and advances in technology, we have eliminated among teachers in our pilot classes the tension between preparing children to meet benchmarks and standards and implementing developmentally appropriate practice. This gives us hope and evidence that the two need not be irreconcilable opposites but can be compatible partners on the road to early literacy.

Bodrova, E., &amp; Leong, D. J. (1998). Scaffolding emergent writing in the zone of proximal development. Literacy Teaching and Learning, 3(2), 1–18.

Bredekamp, S. (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children birth through age eight. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

International Reading Association (IRA), &amp; National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEP). (1998). Learning to read and write: Developmentally appropriate practice for young children. Young Children, 53(4), 30–46.

Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., &amp; Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington DC: National Academy Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Why children can't read: Hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, 105th Cong., 2d Sess. (July 10, 1997) (testimony of G. Reid Lyon).

Elena Bodrova has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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