ERIC Identifier: ED426818
Publication Date: 1999-01-00
Author: Snow, Catherine E. - Burns, M. Susan - Griffin, Peg
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood
Education Champaign IL.
Language and Literacy Environments in Preschools. ERIC Digest.
Children live in homes that support literacy development to differing
degrees. Because of this variation in the home environment, many children need
high-quality preschool and school environments and excellent primary instruction
to be sure of reading success. This Digest discusses the research on preschool
literacy environments and their contributions to reading skills development.
This research has important implications for those who are making instructional,
programmatic, or policy decisions that may affect children's preschool literacy
PROGRAM QUALITY OF PRESCHOOLS
The overall quality of a
child care program has been found to be an important determinant of positive
effects on language and preliteracy skills (see Barnett et al., 1988, for a
review). The evaluation of public preschool programs in North Carolina found
evidence that participation in the programs reduced the degree of delay of
high-risk children in communicative skills (Bryant et al., 1993). Assessments of
several early childhood programs (Roberts et al., 1989; Wasik et al., 1990;
Infant Health and Development Program, 1990; Brooks-Gunn et al., 1994; St.
Pierre & Lopez, 1994; St. Pierre et al., 1993) have documented the enhanced
value of high-quality classroom-based experiences for children in poverty, with
bigger effects from more intensive and higher quality programs, as well as
evidence for positive effects on language development in particular.
STUDIES OF LANGUAGE ENVIRONMENTS IN PRESCHOOLS
of preschools using broad-gauge tools that include language and literacy as only
one small portion of the assessment have found that it is precisely on measures
of the language environment that many preschool programs serving poor children
have scored in the inadequate range. A study of children in North Carolina
public preschools found that they had lower ratings on language and reasoning
measures than on other aspects of the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale
(Bryant et al., 1993). Scores were particularly low for items involving dramatic
play (an important context for rich language use), cultural awareness, and
professional opportunities, suggesting that the children's language development
needs were not being served optimally. A study of 32 Head Start classrooms
similarly found the lowest scores for language and reasoning on the same test
(Bryant et al., 1993). Other studies have also focused on the language
environments in preschool classrooms (Phillips et al., 1987; Dickinson &
Smith, 1994; Dickinson et al., 1993). These studies suggest that the quality of
adult-child discourse is important, as is the amount of such interaction. One
study found that the amount of cognitively challenging talk that children
experience is correlated with the amount of time they talk with adults (Smith
& Dickinson, 1994). Given the importance of adult-child interaction, it is
disturbing that some children may rarely interact with a preschool teacher,
receiving little or no individualized attention (Kontos & Wilcox-Herzog,
1997). Modest enhancements of the quality of classroom experiences show positive
effects on children's language development and preliteracy skills (Whitehurst et
Finally, Neuman (1996) studied the literacy environment in child care
programs. Day care providers were targeted because of their role in providing
care for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers; in many situations, the language
and literacy needs of these children are not the caretakers' primary concern.
Traditional caretaking tasks, such as keeping children safe, fed, and clean, are
often the main focus. Yet many of these children are in special need of early
language stimulation and literacy learning.
In one program, caretakers were given
access to books and training on techniques for (1) book selection for children
of different ages, (2) reading aloud, and (3) extending the impact of books. The
program was evaluated with a random sample of 400 3- and 4-year-olds who
received the intervention, as well as 100 children in a comparison group.
Results showed that literacy interaction increased in the intervention
classrooms; literacy interactions averaged five per hour before the intervention
and doubled after the intervention. Before the intervention, classrooms had few
book centers for children; after the intervention, 93% of the classrooms had
such centers. Children with caretakers who received the intervention performed
significantly better on concepts of print (Clay, 1979), narrative competence
(Purcell-Gates & Dahl, 1991), concepts of writing (Purcell-Gates, 1996), and
letter names (Clay, 1979) than did children in the comparison group. At
follow-up in kindergarten, the children were examined on concepts of print
(Clay, 1979), receptive vocabulary (Dunn & Dunn, 1981), concepts of writing
(Purcell-Gates, 1996), letter names (Clay, 1979), and two phonemic awareness
measures based on children's rhyming and alliteration capacity (Maclean et al.,
1987). On these measures, children in the reading-aloud group performed
significantly better on letter names, phonemic awareness, and concepts of
BEYOND LANGUAGE AND LITERACY
Given the pervasive evidence
of differences in language and emergent literacy skills associated with class,
culture, and linguistic background, it is heartening that preschool has been
shown to benefit children's performance in school (Haskins, 1989). The number of
months that children spend in preschool has been found to be related to
achievement test scores in second grade, behavior problems in third grade, and
school retention in kindergarten through third grade (Pianta & McCoy, 1997).
A recent comprehensive review of early childhood programs for children from
low-income families concludes that preschool programs can produce large effects
on IQ during the early childhood years and sizable persistent effects on
achievement, grade retention, special education, high school graduation, and
socialization (Barnett, 1995).
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRESCHOOL EDUCATORS
Prevention of later
reading difficulties involves ensuring that families and group care settings for
young children offer experiences and support that make language and literacy
accomplishments possible. Parents and caregivers can:
* spend time in one-on-one conversation with young children;
* read books with children;
* provide writing materials;
* support dramatic play that incorporates literacy activities;
* demonstrate the uses of literacy; and
* maintain a joyful, playful atmosphere around literacy activities.
For most children, these simple primary prevention efforts will ensure that
they are ready for formal reading instruction.
Adapted from Snow, Catherine E.,
Burns, M. Susan, & Griffin, Peg (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading
difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Research Council.
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