ERIC Identifier: ED319581
Publication Date: 1990-03-00
Author: McEachern, William Ross
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Supporting Emergent Literacy among Young American Indian
Literacy starts to emerge long before children begin school. Young
children--including Indian students--learn from those around them who read and
write, by having stories read to them, and by having access to writing materials
for experimenting with print.
McCormick and Mason (1986) studied emergent literacy (the development of
literacy in young children) in low-income homes. These children wrote less and
entered school with less experience in reading and writing than middle-class
children. Such findings may be significant for Indian children entering school,
since poverty is an enduring feature of many Indian communities.
What happens later, in traditional school programs, however, may be more
important. Reeves (1989) concludes that: (1) Indians have the highest dropout
rates of any racial or ethnic group; and (2) they are more likely than other
groups to be labeled handicapped or learning disabled. In the traditional North
American school, Indian students apparently confront serious academic dilemmas.
Perhaps what happens in school explains why these children generally fall
further and further behind in the development of literacy (Bureau of Indian
These facts are well known; the question is what teachers can do, especially
to improve mastery of the written word by Indian students. There is no more
logical place to start than the education of young children. This Digest links
the development of listening comprehension to the emerging reading comprehension
of young Indian students. It suggests ways teachers can develop instructional
routines that incorporate locally produced materials to enhance young students'
emergent literacy. Finally, it synthesizes three principles to guide such work.
READING COMPREHENSION AND INDIAN STUDENTS
comprehension is perhaps the key to literacy. The importance of background
knowledge for successful reading comprehension has become an accepted principle
in reading instruction (for example, Hayes & Tierney, 1982). As schools are
now structured, comprehending written material can be a major challenge for
Indian students. It is especially challenging for those whose native language is
not the language of instruction (Reyhner, 1988). Obviously, the commercial
reading materials traditionally used in schools do not reflect Indian students'
experience of the world.
Research in schema theory (for example, Rumelhart, 1980) suggests that prior
knowledge supports comprehension. It must be brought into play both before and
during reading. When students lack relevant prior knowledge, teachers must
either supply it or accept flawed comprehension. The latter alternative, of
course, is not professionally responsible.
Hall (1987) recommends that the early childhood language arts program: (1)
view the emergence of literacy as a continuous process; and (2) provide ample
time for discussion and reflection. These recommendations support use of the
techniques of "whole language" learning. In this approach Indian children, like
all others, need to be involved in experiences that use language that is
meaningful to them. Turner (1989, p. 283) notes, "If one believes that
vocabulary size and depth of reading comprehension are at the heart of
literacy....then one would be correct in taking the position that systematic
phonics contributes little, if anything, to literacy."
CULTURALLY RELEVANT MATERIALS THAT SUPPORT EMERGENT
There are direct implications for programs that serve Indian
students. Culturally relevant materials can provide the critical link between
prior knowledge and texts that students read. Such materials are absolutely
essential if Indian children are to succeed early in their progress toward
literacy (Reyhner, 1988). Comparatively few such commercial materials are
available to teachers of Indian students, however. There are many distinct
Indian cultural groups, and what is culturally relevant to one group is not
necessarily appropriate for another. The culture of the Haida on the Queen
Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, for example, is vastly different from the
cultures of the Sioux (on the prairies in the United States) or the Cree (on the
prairies in Canada). Hence, to offer generic, commercially produced, "Indian" materials is not an alternative.
There are solutions, however. Teachers, for example, generally acknowledge
the close links among the four strands of the language arts--reading, writing,
listening, and speaking. Listening comprehension is, in fact, one route to help
improve reading comprehension among Indian students. One study (McEachern &
Luther, in press) examined the effect of culturally relevant materials on
listening comprehension among a group of seven- and eight-year-old Indian
children in northern Alberta. English was a second language among these
children. The culturally relevant materials yielded higher listening
comprehension scores when two stories--one story from a commercially published
language arts program, and the other a culturally relevant story written
expressly for Indian children--were read to the students. This finding is
meaningful, considering: (1) the importance of background knowledge; and (2) the
links between listening and reading comprehension.
A further illustration might clarify this point. In a kindergarten class in
the same community, the children were listening to "Old Macdonald Had a Farm."
In addition to their comparatively limited English language proficiency, these
children had great difficulty understanding the basic vocabulary. Farms and farm
animals were simply unknown to them. If it had been "a moose in the woods"
rather than "a cow on the farm," the students would have understood better.
Such findings strongly suggest that continuing efforts to produce
instructional materials locally are warranted. They also suggest that efforts to
include the local community in storytelling make a great deal of sense. In most
Indian communities storytellers would be glad to visit classrooms. Their stories
hold the children's interest more than some of the stories that appear in
commercially produced English language books. Such efforts will inevitably help
improve listening comprehension.
At the same time, successful experiences in listening comprehension must be
linked with improved reading comprehension. Provisions must be made to record,
in writing, the presentations of culturally relevant stories delivered orally.
This step is crucial for accumulating a reservoir of locally produced reading
material. It takes substantial work, but in this way, the stories will be
preserved and can be read by classroom teachers to the children. Later, the
children will be able to read the stories themselves.
Finally, teachers must use a variety of approaches with young children. For
example, children can develop their own stories. They can imitate the models
provided by storytellers, or they can develop stories based on their own
experiences. Such techniques can be applied both to stories in English and to
stories in Indian languages. Depending on the resources of the school, moreover,
stories can be translated from one language to another. These techniques have
advantages for Indian students. Not only can they promote successful reading
comprehension, but they can preserve and extend local traditions in an
educational context. This work is important in any educational setting, but it
is of the essence in Indian education.
There is no simple way to make reading
and writing meaningful activities for the diverse population of Indian students.
Not only do Indian cultures differ substantially from one another, but great
diversity in English language proficiency characterizes native communities
(Morrow, 1988). In some, children come to school with English as their first
language, while in others English is a second language or dialect.
Teachers must take this linguistic background into consideration when
designing a language arts program. If students begin school with English as a
second language, for example, teachers should focus on oral language that
reflects local culture. If students use English dialects that vary from standard
English, teachers must strive to avoid negative comparisons of the dialect with
In a school in which the author worked, for example, a teacher prepared
charts with one column containing phrases based on "community language" and
another containing phrases based on "school language." The children had little
difficulty distinguishing between the two categories, and the teacher never
indicated that one list was "better" than the other. This approach, used
consistently and reflected in everyday interactions with students, should help
to make school a more hospitable place for Indian children.
What, then, are the essential principles for
supporting the emergent literacy of young Indian students? First, language arts
programs must incorporate the linguistic background, prior knowledge, and
experiences of Indian students to support the key function of comprehension.
Second, the links among the strands of the language arts must be actively
nurtured, so that improvement in one strand carries over into another. Teachers
need to develop explicit techniques (such as those illustrated above) to make
the links part of the daily instructional routine. Finally, teachers must be
caring individuals, respectful of both their students and the community of which
they and their students are a part. These principles can help teachers validate
their students' lived experiences to bring about learning and to empower young
Indian students' emergent literacy.
Bureau of Indian Affairs. (1988). Report on BIA
education: Excellence in Indian education through the effective schools process
(Final Review Draft, selections). Washington, DC: Office of Indian Education
Programs, Bureau of Indian Affairs. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED
Hall, N. (1987). The emergence of literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Educational Books, Inc. (see ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 282 179
for an abstract of this book).
Hayes, D., & Tierney, R. (1982). Developing readers' knowledge through
analogy. Reading Research Quarterly, 17, 256-280.
McCormick, C., & Mason, J. (1986). Intervention procedures for increasing
preschool children's interest in and knowledge about reading. In W. Teale &
E. Sulzby (Eds.), Emergent literacy: Writing and reading, pp. 90-115. Norwood,
McEachern, W., & Luther, F. (in press). The relationship between
culturally relevant materials and listening comprehension of Canadian Native
Indian children. Language, Culture, and Curriculum.
Morrow, P. (1988). They just want everything: Results of a bilingual
education needs assessment in southwestern Alaska. Paper presented at the
International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Zagreb,
Reeves, M. (1989, August). The high cost of endurance. Education Week, pp.
Reyhner, J. (Ed.). (1988). Teaching the Indian child: A
bilingual/multicultural approach (2nd ed.). Billings, MT: Eastern Montana
College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 301 372)
Rumelhart, D. (1980). Schemata: The building blocks of cognition. In R.
Spiro, B. Bruce, & W. Brewer (Eds.), Theoretical issues in reading
comprehension. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Turner, R. (1989). The "great" debate: Can both Carbo and Chall be right? Phi
Delta Kappan, 71, 276-283.