Timothy Shanahan, Ph.D., College of Education/UIC Center for Literacy, University of Illinois at Chicago
2007-09-04 06:50:40 (Revised 2012-05-14 18:52:59)
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Literacy is complex and requires the integration and coordination of many cognitive, perceptual, and linguistic skills and abilities. Literacy acquisition takes place gradually over time and the initial phases of development are occupied with the growth of precursor skills or enabling abilities more than with conventional literacy skills such as decoding, reading comprehension, or writing. In order to detail a specific sequence of growth and development of early literacy it is first necessary to identify the precursor skills or emerging abilities that appear early in the acquisition of literacy or that predate its acquisition, but that are clearly implicated in later literacy achievement. These skills are not well integrated in the early stages of literacy acquisition, and development implies not only increases in skill or ability, but also increases in the integration and coordination of these diverse skills. Most research on these issues has focused on reading, but some information on precursor writing skills and their development is beginning to emerge.
Key Research Questions
1. What precursor skills are necessary for successful reading and writing?
2. Is there a sequence of acquisition for precursor skills?
3. What are the relationships among the various precursor skills?
Recent Research Results
Essential precursor skills
The National Early Literacy Panel (Lonigan, Schatschneider, & Westberg, 2008) synthesized nearly 300 correlational studies to identify important early literacy skills and abilities that are related to later literacy learning. All of these studies measured children’s skills or abilities from birth through the beginning of Kindergarten, and correlated the results of these assessments with later attainment of conventional reading and spelling skills from the end of Kindergarten on. To be considered a precursor or early literacy skill an ability had to be measurable through some assessment of the child, the onset of the skill or ability had to predate or come very early in the development of conventional literacy skills, and had to be significantly correlated with later conventional literacy learning. To characterize a relationship as important, the panel required a minimum of three independent sources of data, and the correlation between the early literacy and conventional reading and spelling abilities had to be .30 or higher, meaning that the early literacy skill could reliably account for at least 10 percent of the variance in later literacy learning. Additionally, the panel considered evidence that showed whether a significant correlation was maintained even when other important demographic or developmental variables (such as family’s socioeconomic status or the child’s IQ)were controlled for statistically.
Separate analyses were provided for decoding, spelling, and reading comprehension outcomes and the average correlations of these with a wide range of early performance measurements ranged from .17 to .72, meaning the predictor variables explained as little as 3 percent and as much as 50 percent of the variation in literacy achievement. Some studies measured conventional literacy skills even at the earlier ages, and not surprisingly beginning decoding, spelling, and comprehension skills were highly predictive of later performance in these areas—showing stability in student performance over time (Lonigan, Schatschneider, & Westberg, 2008; Swanson, Trainin, Necoechea, & Hammill, 2003). The precursor skills that had strong to moderate relations with later decoding, reading comprehension, and spelling included:
ABC knowledge: the ability to name or provide sounds for randomly presented upper- and lower-case printed letters;
Phonological awareness: the ability to perceive, manipulate or analyze the sound structure of oral language independent of meaning
(including the ability to distinguish or segment words, syllables, or phonemes);
Concepts about print: knowledge of print conventions and concepts such as directionality and the distinction between pictures and text;
Rapid naming: ability to quickly name a sequence of random letters, digits, pictures, or colors;
Oral language: ability to produce or comprehend spoken language, including vocabulary or listening comprehension.
This list shows that early literacy growth is not a single sequence of development, but a series of separate growth curves, that eventually become closely integrated.
More recent investigations have reinforced the importance of these components, particularly with regard to phonological awareness (Melby-Lervåg, Solvieg-Alma, & Hulme, 2012). Also, recent studies have begun to examine the precursors of writing (Kim et al., 2011), finding connections between spelling, letter writing fluency, reading, oral- and syntax-level language, and beginning writing ability. Reading development is correlated with writing, but it has no independent correlation with reading when letter writing fluency, spelling, and oral language are controlled. However, oral language, spelling, and letter writing fluency continue to exert an influence on writing development when reading is entered first into the prediction equation.
Order of acquisition
Research shows that the roots of literacy begin long before children enter school or even preschool (Harste, 1984; Teale & Sulzby, 1986), which highlights the important role parents can play in helping to support this development. Studies show that children in Grade 1 make faster gains in literacy than in Kindergarten or earlier (McCoach, O’Connell, Reis, & Levitt, 2006). This increase in learning rate is probably due to increased instructional attention to literacy in first grade. Studies show that schooling (preschool–Grade 2) has a strong impact on decoding and reading comprehension, a medium impact on phonological awareness, and a weak impact on vocabulary, though the influence of school on vocabulary is strong in Kindergarten and first grade while attenuated in preschool and Grade 2 (Skibbe, Grimm, Bowles, & Morrison, 2012). Speed of early literacy acquisition is variable and is highly impacted by instruction and experience. First-grade learning patterns and rates are consistent with rates of later literacy learning (Wagner, Torgesen, Rashotte, Hecht, Barker, Burges, Donahue, & Garon, 1997). Studies disagree on the implications of low literacy at the Kindergarten level, with some studies suggesting lower progress for these children in Grade 1 (Stage, Sheppard, Davidson, & Browning, 2001) and others indicating faster rates of growth, albeit from lower levels (Compton, 2000).
Studies of individuals reveal multiple pathways to success in learning literacy, with different orders of learning possible (Konold, Juel, McKinnon, & Deffes, 2003); however, studies of populations show that some useful generalizations can be made concerning order of acquisition (Kaplan & Walpole, 2005). Literacy knowledge usually progresses from the development of letter recognition to sensitivity to beginning sounds and their associated letters. As children gain mastery over the relationships of letters and sounds at the beginnings of words, they begin to develop sensitivity to the ending sounds and letters, and then true word reading develops, followed by simple levels of reading comprehension. This order of growth takes place over approximately a two-year period for most children, from Kindergarten to Grade 1, with little variation in the order of performance (Kaplan & Walpole, 2005). Many children know their letter names by the time they enter Grade 1, and most know the sounds of the letters by the middle of Grade 1; rapid naming, phonemic awareness, and word reading skills all continue to develop through first grade (Compton, 2000).
It is also possible to describe this kind of general ordering or patterning of learning across at least some early literacy skills. For example, the development of phonological awareness proceeds from gross auditory distinctions to more refined ones. Specifically, this means children can usually recognize the auditory separations between words and syllables prior to when they can separate onsets or initial phonemes from rimes (the medial vowel and ending), and skill with onsets and rimes precedes full segmentation of words into individual phonemes (Lonigan, 2006). This progression from larger-to-smaller units of phonological sensitivity seems to be independent of children’s instructional experiences and may be the result of neural maturation and how brains are organized to learn language. On the other hand, children usually learn the names of upper-case letters prior to lower-case ones, but this progression is more attributable to the nature of print exposure (young children see more capitals) and the relative complexity of letters (Adams, 1990; Smythe, Stennett, Hardy & Wilson, 1971). Children also simultaneously gain speed in their ability to name various stimuli, their knowledge of print concepts such as directionality and word boundaries expand, and their oral vocabularies increase as well; however, research has not provided a reliable description of the developmental progressions of these early skills. There may be a fairly consistent sequence of oral vocabulary development, but the specifics of this sequence have not yet been delineated, nor has there been an identification of when higher levels or more abstract aspects of vocabulary development emerge, such as the ability to formally define words (Biemiller, 2006).
The various orders of acquisition of early literacy skills are overlapping. This means that children can make gains in all of these aspects of learning simultaneously. It also means that development within a particular sequence can be overlapping as well. Phonological development proceeds from gross to specific; but children can learn to hear some phonemes as separable while they are still mastering the auditory distinctions among syllables.
While it is possible to describe these general sequences of development, there appears to be no set order of acquisition for the specific skills within each of the varied lines of early literacy development. There is, for instance, no set order that letters or sounds must be learned, nor is there any evidence suggesting that it would be particularly facilitative to teach certain letters or sounds earlier than others.
Growth of precursor skills
Growth in the various precursor skills can be somewhat independent (Wood, 2004). This means that children can gain sensitivity to sounds without knowing the letter names, or that oral language development can proceed whether or not children are developing an understanding of print or book concepts. However, ultimately, all of these lines of development must be closely integrated and coordinated if literacy is to be fully attained, and these lines of development begin linking up early on in important ways. For example, while perception of gross phonological units does not require any concurrent knowledge of letter names, it appears that knowledge of letters is facilitative, and perhaps even necessary, for more fully-realized phonemic awareness to be achieved (Ehri, Nunes, Willows, Schuster, Yaghoub-Zadeh, & Shanahan, 2001; Lonigan, 2007); awareness of individual phonemes develops more quickly when children know letters or when letters are used within phonemic awareness instruction. Similar claims have been made concerning the importance of recognition of word boundaries in printed text, an important concept of print (Morris, Bloodgood, Lomax, & Perney, 2003). Oral vocabulary development also may play a causal role in helping to stimulate the development of phonological awareness (Cooper, Roth, Speece, & Schatschneider, 2002), though phonological awareness does not exert any reciprocal impact on vocabulary development (Lonigan, 2007). Research suggests that phonological awareness depends upon the segmental structuring of lexical representations of words (Metsala & Walley, 1998). It is unclear at this time how rapid naming abilities or concepts about print fit into this sequence, though there has been speculation on where they might fit (Compton, 2003).
Similarly, it should be noted that while growth in all of these early literacy skills stimulates conventional literacy learning, it is also true that there is a reciprocal relationship between literacy and these skills. Students can begin to learn conventional literacy without fully mastering all of the precursor skills, and can even learn some of these precursor skills from literacy (Burgess, & Lonigan, 1998; Compton, 2003).
Conclusions and Future Directions
Future research needs to clarify the nature of key precursor elements in literacy development and to identify how these elements work together to support early literacy learning. For example, alphabet knowledge is a consistent precursor skill, although the research has not determined what role alphabet knowledge actually plays in early literacy learning. Experts have speculated that it may be a proxy for cognitive development or parental involvement, but knowledge of letters contributes to early reading growth even when those variables are accounted for, and it is closely connected to reading comprehension as well as decoding. The role of oral language in learning to read also requires further consideration; there are still no studies showing that stimulating greater oral language growth in the early years culminates in higher literacy performance, though the various correlations are provocative. Other variables that need further exploration include rapid naming (can it be taught?) and concepts about print (is this knowledge essential to learning or just a correlate?). As the roles of these individual variables become clearer, it will be possible to construct more elaborate models that show the sequence of development of these various skills and how they interact with each other in supporting literacy learning.
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