Proceedings from a Working Meeting on School Readiness Research: Guiding the Synthesis of Early Childhood Research. Language and Literacy

12/15/2009

In many respects, the conceptualization of the critical foundational skills to be acquired during preschool has moved furthest along in the area of language and literacy. There has been a wealth of theoretical writings, professional opinions, and best practice documents proposing which skills are the precursors or foundational skills for reading achievement, and, it is only in the field of language and early literacy that we [soon] will have a systematic empirical summation of research demonstrating which early literacy skills predict later conventional literacy (via the National Early Literacy Panel). There is beginning to be a structure for understanding the developmental precursors to later reading and writing abilities. Further, in the challenge of defining school readiness, this domain has the advantage of the widely-shared criterion of the critical long-term academic outcome-becoming a skilled reader (with strong decoding and comprehension skills, a strong vocabulary, automaticity in reading).

Before the NELP, the field was driven in its thinking about "readiness" skills by two documents that provided consensus or narrative summaries of a portion of the research literature concerning the relation between early precursor skills and later conventional literacy skills: Whitehurst and Lonigan (1998) identified skills in the domains of oral language, print and letter knowledge, and phonological processing as encompassing two aspects (outside-in and inside-out skills) of emergent literacy that are related to later conventional forms of reading and writing; and Snow, Burns, and Griffin (1998), in their report of the National Research Council's panel on preventing reading difficulties in young children, identified weaknesses in oral language, phonological awareness, and alphabet knowledge as prime targets of intervention to prevent the occurrence of significant reading problems. Neither of these documents, however, was based on a comprehensive summary of the published literature.

The NELP provides an evidence base about early or foundational skills/knowledge that are the strongest predictors of reading achievement, as well as a summary of the average effects of the number of interventions to improve early literacy/language skills. In the ensuing discussion, we start with oral language and then move to early literacy, for the reasons spelled out above.

Oral Language

Oral language skills can be conceptualized as including productive language skills (forming sounds correctly, using the right forms of words, forming correct sentence syntax), language use (using words to express thoughts or ideas or to transmit information); and language content (understanding of vocabulary and narrative). In describing a child who is ready for school in terms of his/her oral language skills, the following skills are included:

  • Ability to express thoughts, ideas into spoken words;
  • Ability to understand other people when they talk;
  • Ability to carry on a back-and-forth conversation with another person;
  • Ability to use correct versions of plural, past and future tenses.
  • Ability to understand narrative sequence (logical order of events);
  • Expressive vocabulary that includes knowledge of words likely to be encountered in early readers; understanding of superordinate words for categories of objects (silverware, clothes, tools, etc).

As described in the synthesis paper by Caswell and He, numerous research studies have demonstrated a relationship between early, well-developed oral language skills and later reading abilities. Despite the primary of oral language skills in a child's cognitive readiness for school and, ultimately, for learning to read, the evidence for intervention effects is somewhat disappointing. Across the large number of interventions concerned with children's oral language outcomes, most show small to medium effects.

The synthesis paper describes some of the variety in the oral language activities used to promote children's understanding of vocabulary, comprehension of concepts, and language use. The problem with the research is that in most instances, the intervention being examined includes more than one type of oral language activity, as well as other literacy-related activities, so it is impossible to isolate the impact of the any one type of oral language activity. For example, a number of programs use dialogic reading to promote children's oral language skills. This includes dialogic reading as the sole intervention activity and dialogic reading that is integrated into a broader curriculum with additional activities and goals. There were inconsistent results of these interventions on children's outcomes, although most did find at least a small effect on children's vocabulary. Again, where dialogic reading was just one activity in the curriculum, we cannot know whether it was the dialogic reading was responsible for the impacts on vocabulary that were found.

Most of the research on oral language effects comes from studies of comprehensive or multi-dimensional curricula that included some oral language activities but were not focused on language specifically. The findings for impacts on oral language skills were inconsistent across studies.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is a component of the broader skill area of phonological processing, which includes not only the child's awareness of sounds, but also the ability to hold sounds in memory and to be able to access sounds from memory. Phonological awareness refers to the child's understanding that words are made up of smaller sounds that can be manipulated, combined and separated. This knowledge helps children understand the relationship between written language (letters) and spoken language (sounds). Research has established that phonological awareness develops in the preschool period starting with sensitivity to words and moving toward sensitivity to smaller and smaller units of sound (syllables, onset-rime, and phonemes).

Phonological awareness has been shown to be a strong predictor of reading success. At the same time, there is inconsistent evidence of our ability to impact children's phonological awareness skills. The strongest evidence comes from research on individual literacy curricula with some explicit attention to sounds in language, including two curricula studies in Project Upgrade and a couple of individual PCER studies of literacy curricula. In these evaluations, the children receiving the literacy curricula scored higher on a test of sound blending and elision. No evidence of an effect on phonological awareness was found in the Head Start Impact evaluation or the Early Reading First evaluation, possibly because local programs vary widely in the extent to which instruction incorporates an intentional and consistent focus on sounds.

Print Knowledge

Research indicates that print and letter knowledge are strongly related to later reading performance. Children's knowledge of the alphabet when they enter school is one of the single best predictors of later reading achievement, most likely because the ability to recognize and distinguish individual letters is a necessary precursor to learning the sounds that the letters represent. Overall, this component of early literacy is the one most often targeted by interventions.

The majority of the interventions reviewed targeted children's print knowledge as an essential skill and there was consistent evidence that the interventions were effective in improving children's print and letter knowledge. This included the large national early childhood studies, where there was substantial variation across sites in the programmatic activities and individual curricula.

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