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Literacy conversations between adults and children at child care: descriptive observations and hypotheses.

This study examines the nature of literacy-related, teacher-child talk in the daily routines of child care. The researchers focused on the incidence, features, and patterns of talk on a typical morning at three child care centers. With regard to the incidence of talk, observations indicated that the adults talked about reading and writing to a modest degree, compared to the total amount of talk with children. When adults did talk about reading and writing, it typically involved few children in brief exchanges that primarily gave information about print, or that met practical needs of daily routines. The incidence of the adults' literacy talk, aside from book talk, was primarily intermittent and spontaneous. Analysis of the discourse features of the teachers' literacy talk showed a similar pattern for all three teachers, namely one of getting/giving information and checking for understanding. Overall, the patterns reflected the natural teaching tendencies of telling, asking, and checking, features th at are characteristic of transmissive teaching practices. The patterns found do not ignore literacy, but do not promote it either. These findings support the argument for improving and enriching the professional education literacy curriculum as the surest route for enriching and bettering the literacy environment for children at child care.


The significance of parent-child talk for children's language and learning is well-established on several fronts. Sheer quantity is important, for example. The more parents talk with their children, the more opportunity children have to use language, thus quickening the mental process of learning language (Wells, 1986). Vocabulary is important. The words parents use as they care for their children expose them to meanings, synonyms, antonyms, and expressions that not only build up children's semantic abilities, but also promote an inquiring stance toward words as symbols for experience (Hart & Risley, 1995). Sentences also matter in that these convey temporal, causal, and qualitative relations that help children organize experience in literate ways (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Joint book reading is important, because it creates a situation wherein parent and child can engage in book-focused and meaning based conversations that expand linguistic awareness and disembed thinking from firsthand experience (Bus, van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995; Heath, 1983). Parent-child talk, in sum, teaches children not only to talk, but also to learn through talk in ways that contribute to emergent literacy and literacy acquisition.

The significance of teacher-child talk for emergent literacy development, however, is far less sure. Teacher talk, in general, is an under-researched topic in early childhood education (Kontos & Wilcox-Herzog, 1997). Compared to the large amount of empirical work on parent-child communication, relatively little is known about the precise nature of teacher-child talk and its range of styles in the preschool setting (Cross, 1989). At a global level, existing studies indicate that teachers talk relatively infrequently to individual children on a daily basis (about one-third of the children) and that their talk centers around routine matters (e.g., management and safety issues) rather than elaboration of children's play and thinking (Dunn, 1993). This is understandable, given the heavy demands for interaction and management on the teacher's part in the early childhood setting. It is not easy for a lone teacher to carry on a sustained conversation with a single child in the often interrupted and friendly din of ch ild care or preschool. Nevertheless, the rich, connected discourse between teacher and child offers the best opportunity for instructional conversation, out of which new words, new ideas, and new thinking are fashioned (Barnes, 1995). That such conversations are rare is far from ideal, since increasing numbers of children now spend considerable time in early childhood programs and away from their parents during the early period of language acquisition (Hofferth, 1996).

A few researchers have examined teacher talk in preschool classrooms from an emergent literacy perspective, focusing primarily on features of teachers' storybook reading discourse (e.g., Cochran-Smith, 1984; McGill-Franzen, Lanford, & Adams, 1997; Smith & Dickinson, 1994). An array of descriptive and correlational studies suggests that adults' reading styles differentially impact children's understanding of literacy, with some styles apparently more efficacious than others. For example, dialogic reading, whereby adults teach children to become storytellers themselves by prompting, encouraging, and adding to their responses during reading, has been shown to produce changes in children's vocabulary and language development (Whitehurst et al., 1994). (Also see Yaden, Rowe, & MacGillivray, 1999, for a review.)

In a study representative of this research work, Smith and Dickinson (1994) examined different phases (before-during-after) of 25 preschool book-reading sessions at the teacher-child utterance and interaction levels. They observed three categories of utterances in terms of content: cognitively challenging talk (e.g., analysis, prediction, clarification); lower cognitive demand talk (e.g., labeling, recall, chiming); and management talk (e.g., organization, attention). They also identified three interactional patterns in teachers' book-reading episodes, which they found to be typical: 1) a co-constructive approach, characterized by much talk between teacher and children of a cognitively challenging type during book reading, but little before and after; 2) a didactic-interactional approach, involving limited talk of a low cognitive demand and management type during reading, but also little before and after reading exchanges; and 3) a performance-oriented approach, which encouraged little talk during book readin g, but involved a mix of cognitively challenging and lower cognitive demand type talk before reading to set the stage and after reading to recall or react to the story.

Smith and Dickinson's analyses showed a strong, enduring influence of analysis, prediction, and vocabulary utterances by children and teachers during reading on children's vocabulary and story comprehension. To a lesser extent, the results favored the performance-oriented discourse pattern, with its mix of cognitively demanding talk, over the didactic-interactional pattern, for bolstering children's vocabulary growth. What nourishes the roots of emergent literacy, they concluded, is "child-involved analytical talk" that occurs in the flow of the book-reading experience. In a comparison of five urban preschools, McGill-Franzen et al. (1997) observed similar book-reading discourse patterns, but also noted that children in private preschools were regularly engaged in "analytic conversations" in book reading episodes, whereas their counterparts in publicly funded preschools were not.

There is more to the preschool day, however, than storybook reading. Children arrive, they play inside and out, they share news, they do crafts and puzzles, they eat and nap, they help clean up, and they say good-bye. As in all of life's daily events, embedded in these less-structured and sometimes serendipitous occasions is talk that may be foundational in learning to read and write. Teacher-child collaboration that occurs during Show and Tell, for example, has been described as a kind of "oral preparation for literacy" (Michaels, 1983). To the extent that teachers help children clarify, expand, and focus their "telling," they help them to bridge the oral storytelling of home with the more literate discourse strategies of school. In this regard, teachers' sensitivity to cultural differences in narration appears key to providing sufficient practice in literacy-related narrative skills for all children. Play also provides an occasion for teacher-child literacy conversations that may contribute to children's li teracy knowledge and skills (e.g., Roskos & Neuman, 1993), although the nature of this discourse has not been well-articulated. Adult presence in dramatic play, for example, appears to inhibit children's elaborated language use (Pellegrini & Galda, 1998), but it also increases the amount of literacy-related play with props, roles, and ideas (Vukelich, 1991). The extent to which teacher-child talk in other regular preschool routines (e.g., snack time) contributes to children's emergent literacy has not been a specific research goal, as it has often been folded into studies of more global teacher interactions.

As the amount of research on teacher talk in preschool settings is small overall, that which has focused on emergent literacy development is tiny indeed. Yet, as Wells (1986) concluded, children's familiarity with the abstract uses of language essential to literacy acquisition depends on the "place and value of literacy" in adults' everyday lives--and this is no less true in early childhood settings, where children spend many hours under the tutelage and care of teachers (p. 12). The fact that research on the nature of teacher talk in the range of activity settings at preschool is minimal severely restricts our ability to understand how talk is shaped by these circumstances and how it, in turn, shapes the emergent literacy development of individual children who participate in them. Some early literacy researchers argue, in fact, that certain critical aspects of emergent literacy knowledge and skill are less cultivated in storybook reading interactions than in joint problem-solving activities, adult-child chat s, and informal "teaching moments" that arise in the course of daily activities (Leseman & de Jong, in press; Senechal, LeFervre, Colton, & Smith, 1999; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Acknowledging this possibility heightens the need for more research on teacher talk, especially on talk outside of the storybook reading setting.

This study examines the nature of teacher-child talk in the daily routines of the child care environment that may contribute to children's literacy knowledge, skills, and interest in print. Although several studies have investigated the relationship between teacher interactions and children's emergent literacy experiences in specific settings (e.g., storybook reading and circle time), this study focuses on the routine comings and goings of child care life in which literacy-related conversations between teachers and children maybe embedded. As part of an international research project on leadership in early childhood that examined the nature of adults' work in child care settings (Rosemary, Roskos, Owendoff, & Olson, 1998), this work was designed to analyze the extent to which teacher-child talk during activities provides opportunities for children to use language in ways that promote literacy-related concepts, strategies, and skills.


In an earlier study, the researchers developed a typology of adults' activity in child care settings (i.e., what directors, teachers, and teaching assistants do in a typical day). A systematic observation of adults' work at 43 different child care sites in northeastern Ohio (representative of the broad range of child care programs in the United States) found that teachers typically spent 27% of their time attending to children's basic needs, 24% monitoring play, 11% moving children from one activity to another, and 14% arranging the environment for various activities. About 15% of their time involved teaching large groups of children (e.g., circle time) or small groups or individual children (e.g., activities with manipulatives, arts and crafts); only 2% of their time was spent with curriculum matters (e.g., planning and assessment). The work of teaching assistants followed a similar pattern, although they spent slightly more time than teachers did handling children's basic needs. One-third of the directors' time was devoted to administrative duties and concerns, and the remaining time was spent helping children with basic needs, monitoring play, and making transitions. Directors spent only about 7% of their time working directly with children.

Working from these broad categories, the researchers more closely examined those adult-child interactions that occurred throughout the day and that give meaning and purpose to children's daily experiences. Of particular interest was evidence of literacy-related, adult-child talk that contributes to the accumulating language experience of the young child and that is critical in early literacy development and learning. The investigation focused on two questions: 1) What is the incidence of talk about reading and writing between adult and child at three different child care sites? and 2) What is the nature of this talk? The observational target was the teacher and the teacher assistant in the classroom environment because it is the adult who sets into motion the literacy interactions that eventually coalesce into patterns of talking and doing about reading and writing in the preschool environment.


Settings and Participants

The research sites were selected from the original data set of 43 child care centers, and thus provided background on the types and frequencies of the adults' daily activities. Using a stratified sampling method to select three sites, the researchers first categorized the centers according to their NAEYC accreditation status and type of administrative auspice: private non-profit, private for-profit, and public. This process yielded a pool of nine NAEYC-accredited centers, from which the researchers randomly selected one from each auspice category.

The selected centers were comparable in number of children served (N=94-103), number of personnel (an average of 15 adults), and hours of operation (10-12 hours per day). Two of the centers were located in suburban communities (all names of individuals and places are pseudonyms): Fairlake Child Care in a largely white, middle class neighborhood (median household income, $37,000) and Eastland Child Care in a racially diverse, upper middle class neighborhood (median household income, $66,000). Central Child Care Center serves primarily African American families and children in an urban, low-income community (median household income, $22,000).

At each center, the teacher and teaching assistant of the 4- to 5-year-olds participated in the study. As summarized in Table 1, the teachers at Fairlake and Eastland hold bachelor's degrees with certifications in early childhood education. The teacher at Central and two of the teaching assistants (at Fairlake and Eastland) have associate's degrees in early childhood. The highest level of education for the teaching assistant at Central is high school. The teachers' early childhood teaching experiences range from 11 to 20 years; the teaching assistants', from 6 to 11. All of the participants are female.


Data were collected through audiotaped recordings of speech and observations of the teacher and teaching assistant. For the duration of one day at each site, a researcher and trained research assistant shadowed the focal adult (i.e., kept her within viewing and hearing range) and kept running field notes of her actions (what she was saying and doing), her location in the classroom, and her use of objects in the environment; they also noted others with whom she interacted. As part of the field notes, the observer logged the time at no more than five-minute intervals. The observation period began when the focal adult arrived at the center, and it ended when her work day was over. Each focal adult carried an audiotape recorder in her pocket and wore a lavaliere microphone close to her mouth. The observer was responsible for keeping the equipment operable at all times.

Trained research assistants transcribed a total of 30 audiotapes, each consisting of 90-100 minutes of recorded talk. At appropriate places in the transcript, observation notes were inserted so as to provide a context for the events and utterances (Hart & Risley, 1995). To verify the accuracy of the transcripts, randomly selected two-minute segments of each tape were checked against the transcript. If the transcript was found to be at least 95% accurate, then it was allowed to stand. If the transcript was found to be less than 95% accurate, revisions were made as needed until accuracy was achieved. Those portions of the audiotapes deemed to be inaudible were omitted from the analysis. Overall, less than 10% of the audio recordings was not useable.

Data Analysis

The analysis focused on the adults' talk, with the goal of locating and examining literacy-related adult-child verbal interactions. Given that the working hours of the child care center teachers and teaching assistants varied, the researchers selected a four-hour time frame common to all of the participants (between the opening of the center and the children's nap time). Activities during this time frame consisted of free play, transitions, large-group and small-group work, gross motor and outdoor activities, and lunch. The analysis was confined to in-classroom activity, where it was easier to shadow the adult.

The researchers employed a reiterative, analytic process in identifying the literacy-related utterances in the transcripts. They numbered each utterance of the focal adult, defined as an uninterrupted speech segment (as brief as a single word or as long as several sentences) spoken by the focal adult when engaged in conversation with another adult or a child. Then, the researchers coded each utterance as either an adult-child exchange (AC) or an adult-adult exchange (AA). In the next pass through the data, AC interactions were identified that were literacy-related; the researchers marked the beginning and end of each such exchange. These sequences were labeled "literacy episodes."

Having identified the literacy episodes, the researchers then coded each utterance within the literacy episode, adapting Shachter's coding scheme for responsive talk (talk that is instigated by the child's verbal or nonverbal communication to the adult) and spontaneous talk (talk instigated by the adult without the stimulus of a prior communication of the child) (Schachter, 1979). Table 2 describes the codes used in analyzing the adults' discourse.

Figure 1 illustrates the analytical scheme used to code the literacy utterances. In this example (utterance number 486), the teacher initiates the interaction with the children as she directs their attention to the large chart paper, where she records the words they name that begin with the /v/ sound. She reports that they did not get all of their "V" words made yesterday, and directs them to recall the pictures they found beginning with that sound. She asks Mary for a word. After Mary responds, the teacher (utterance number 487) confirms Mary's correct response, and then elaborates on the response by constructing a sentence with the word "vehicle." The teacher repeats the word a second time, once again confirming Mary's word choice.

After coding the utterances, the researchers analyzed each literacy episode to identify its overall literacy purpose, based on the categories of literacy functions described by Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines (1988). Table 3 presents the six functions used in interpreting the main purpose of each literacy episode.

Finally, the researchers constructed a matrix for categorizing the specific features of each literacy episode (see Figure 2), including 1) its numbered location in the transcript (Utterance Number); 2) participant structure (adult-initiated or child-initiated); 3) activity period (e.g., group, free time, lunch); 4) discourse feature (e.g., explicating, confirming, elaborating, correcting, reporting, directing, asking); 5) literacy function (e.g., instrumental, confirmational); and 6) literacy object (e.g., book, chart). Figure 2 illustrates the matrix constructed from the data, which were tallied for each category. The marks on the matrix indicate that the teacher initiated the literacy interaction with children during group activity. In this specific instance, she directed a child's attention, reported information to the children, and asked an individual child for information. Applying the definitions of literacy function, the researchers interpreted the primary function of this episode to be educational.

At each level of analysis, interrater agreement was established by independently coding about 10% of each transcript (1 in 10-15 utterances). The researchers met to compare analyses, work out differences, and reach consensus on coding rules. After consensus was reached, a different set of randomly selected utterances was independently coded and the percentage of agreement was calculated. Having established an average agreement rate of .90, the researchers proceeded independently in analyzing the transcripts.

The coded data were compiled by determining the frequencies in each category of the matrix. The frequencies, along with observational data that provided contextual information, were used to discern patterns in the literacy talk episodes at each site.


Building on the work of others, such as Dickinson and Smith, the researchers developed a premise that patterns of interaction around literacy are set into motion in the preschool environment primarily by the adults in charge. An array of affordances has been found to contribute to the formation and maintenance of these patterns, such as the use of time, types of activities offered, teacher orientation to curriculum, access to books and print, and teacher talk about books. What gives rise to these affordances in educational environments and their meaning for young children's literacy development is of growing interest and concern as literacy education reaches deeper into the early years.

This analysis focused on the incidence, features, and patterns of literacy-related talk between adults and children on a typical morning at three different child care centers. It was anticipated that these data would be indicative of patterns of interaction shaping children's early literacy experience in these environments. The data also provide further evidence of the quality of the literacy environment at child care, as well as information about how differences among patterns of interaction might influence quality.

Incidence of Talk

Across all sites during a four-hour period, adults averaged about 721 utterances, with the majority of these made in exchanges with children. Of these, an average of about 76 utterances, or about 10% of the total average amount of adult talk, were related to reading and writing. This was a surprising observation.

Who talks. The adults, it appears, were talking quite a bit to children, but not very often about literacy matters. Generally, adults talked more often to children than they did to each other, and they included references to reading and writing in the course of their activity with young children. The percent of literacy talk, broken down by adult role in each of the three sites, is summarized in Table 4. As these data show, the teachers talked more about literacy (10%-27%) than did the teaching assistants (3%-10%), with the exception of the adults in Central, who engaged in literacy talk with children about the same amount. The similarities and differences in the literacy talk of teachers compared to that of teaching assistants is explained, in part, by the activity period in which most literacy talk occurred.

When and how often literacy talk occurs.

A closer look at adult-child literacy episodes, consisting of a string of related utterances, revealed differences within and across the centers. Teachers averaged 19 episodes in a four-hour period; the teaching assistants averaged 8. Sixteen literacy episodes occurred at Central, 24 at Eastland, and 42 at Fairlake. These data are summarized in Table 5, which shows the types of literacy episodes and the scheduled period when the literacy episodes occurred.

Most literacy episodes occurred between adults and individual children during the course of a variety of morning activities, such as free play, group time, small-group activities, and transition. At Fairlake and Eastland, the literacy talk occurred most often during book reading when the teacher was more directly involved with the children than the teaching assistant. Book reading episodes (2-3 in each center) involved group storybook reading. At Fairlake, literacy talk also occurred between the teacher and an individual child during free play and transitions. At Eastland, the literacy talk usually occurred during group time, with a focus on literacy as the object of knowledge. Very few literacy episodes occurred in the context of free play, activity time, transitions, or meals. At Central, where the teacher and teaching assistant showed similar amounts of literacy talk, most of the episodes occurred during activity time, when they each rotated among the children as they worked at various centers (e.g., puzzl es, housekeeping, painting).

The average length of a literacy episode was 8 utterances for teachers and 2 for teaching assistants; thus, the teachers sustained their interactions with the children to a greater extent than the teaching assistants. Within the book reading episodes, the average number of utterances was 26. In a few non-book reading episodes, the teachers sustained literacy talk with individual children without interruption for as many as 40 verbal exchanges. Most non-book reading exchanges, however, were sporadic and brief.

Why literacy talk occurs. Literacy episodes were also analyzed for their overall function, which helps build meaning for children around the interaction. At Eastland and Central, the prevailing purpose for the adults' literacy talk was educational, which held true for both teachers and teaching assistants. In contrast, at Fairlake, literacy served primarily an instrumental function whereby children were guided to use reading and writing to negotiate the environment and to assist with daily routines. Figures 3 and 4 provide examples of literacy talk used for these two purposes. The educational function (Figure 3) is illustrated by a lesson on the letter "V," in which the children were asked to think of words beginning with the/v/sound and the teacher recorded their responses. Figure 4 illustrates the instrumental function through an exchange between a teacher and child who is searching for his name in order to locate his cubby.

While most literacy episodes served either an educational or instrumental function, in a few instances literacy talk was directed to other ends. At Eastland, for example, the teacher and teaching assistant used reading and writing to foster social relationships in a Valentine exchange activity. Use of literacy talk for such social purposes, however, was infrequent. It also should be noted that little to no talk aimed at fostering the recreational function of literacy was observed in the four-hour period.

In summary, the adults in these sites did talk about reading and writing, to a modest degree compared to the total amount of talk with children. When adults talked about reading and writing, it typically involved one or two children in relatively brief exchanges that were primarily meant to provide information about print or to meet the practical needs of the daily routine. In short, the incidence of the adults' literacy talk, aside from book talk, was intermittent and spontaneous, and in some respects rare (e.g., on the part of teaching assistants or for purposes of developing social relationships and fostering recreational reading).

Features of Literacy Talk

Although the researchers cannot interpret the significance of the incidence of talk, since there is no base line for comparison, the literacy episodes in these three sites do offer authentic examples of what the adults' literacy talk is like and can point to patterns of interaction that socialize children into the centers' literacy practices. This phase of analysis focused on the features of the adults' literacy talk at each center, in search of similarities and differences that might shed light on what children were experiencing and how it might shape their understanding of literacy as a tool and an object of knowledge. The researchers examined features of the adults' talk that was responsive to children's bids for attention, as well as those that stimulated and provoked their attention.

Similarities in teacher talk. Strikingly similar discourse features in the adult talk were observed at all three sites. The predominant tendency of the adults was to ask, explain, and confirm when interacting with children during literacy-related activities. This was apparent in all different types of literacy episodes, including book reading. Directing tended to occur moderately across all three sites. Elaborating, reporting, and correcting were less characteristic of the adults' discourse styles, with correcting used least often during the observed literacy episodes.

Differences in teacher talk. Although the discourse styles appear similar, a closer look at teacher-child interactions during book reading showed some differences. Book reading literacy episodes occurred at all three sites and offered clear examples of sustained verbal interaction with children, allowing for deeper analysis. Differences were found in who initiated the exchanges (teacher or child) and in the discourse features of the teachers' talk. The book reading examples that follow bring to light the teachers' respective tendencies that help weave a pattern of adult-child interaction in the environment.

At Fairlake, book reading occurred three times--once with a small group of children during free play and twice with all of the children during group time. In two of the three situations, the children requested that the teacher read their books to them. During book reading, the teacher typically requested information from the children, confirmed their responses, and explained or provided additional information. The example in Figure 5 illustrates the teacher's book reading style. As this example shows, the teacher asked the children for information related to the pictures or to what was just read. After confirming the accuracy of their responses, she extended information to their experiences. Her verbal interactions tended to be brief and direct.

In contrast to the teacher-child interactions during book reading at Fairlake, book reading at Eastland was characterized by the children (rather than the teacher) asking questions related to the reading, and the teacher, in turn, responding to their questions. Figure 6 illustrates the teacher's discourse style in her reading The Valentine Bears by Jan Brett (1983). In this episode, the children pressed the teacher for more information as they closely examined pictures and asked for definitions of unfamiliar words. The teacher although brief in her responses, gave them the information they asked for, offered her interpretations, and then returned expeditiously to reading the text.

Figure 7 illustrates a book reading episode at Central. Although book reading episodes at Central, much like at Eastland, were characterized by the children asking questions or commenting about the story; they did so infrequently. The teacher responded with an explanation or confirmation, and then continued to read. Occasionally, the teacher directed (or redirected) the children's behavior in order to keep them focused on the story.

It should be noted that teachers at Eastland and Central tended to explain in response to children's queries during book reading. If the children did not question, however, the overall opportunity for literacy talk during book reading was cut short. The teacher at Fairlake tended to elicit children's responses to text, but primarily in search of known-answer questions. None of the teachers tended to elaborate on ideas suggested by the children's queries or to elicit multiple responses from the children related to the story content. While reading to children exposes them to book language and prompts them to think if encouraged to do so as they listen during storybook reading, such exposure is not enough. It is the talk and ideas generated by book reading that undergirds vocabulary development and expands ways of thinking that supports children's comprehension once they become readers (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).

Patterns of Literacy Talk

Mindful of the intermittent and spontaneous nature of the adults' literacy talk, the researchers attempted to glean a bit more from the talk data in the final analysis. Because they were interested in the stream of talk on a typical day, they did not collect, for example, multiple samples of book reading or multiple instances of play. Stepping back from the particulars of the individual adult's talk, the researchers focused on more general patterns of literacy talk, as indicated by the frequency of the teachers' discourse features. The teaching assistants' talk data were excluded from this analysis, given the relatively low incidence of their literacy talk. Graphs showing the frequency of the teachers' discourse patterns are displayed in Figure 8.

Comparing the graphs, it is quite clear that the teachers' literacy talk followed a similar pattern, namely one of getting/giving information (asking/explicating) and checking for understanding (confirming). It is a simple, sparse pattern that briefly acknowledges literacy in the hurly-burly of the child care environment where the primary emphasis is on caring for children (e.g., meeting basic needs, maintaining the environment, moving children along) and monitoring their play. Literacy talk is responsive to children's bids and queries, but not necessarily elaborative or corrective. It is spontaneous in that it asks children to comment on reading and writing, but it is not too directive or revealing in this regard, as adults do not often seek to clarify literacy information and thinking. While the pattern does not ignore literacy, it does not promote it either.

The pattern, in fact, seems to reflect the rather natural human tendencies to ask, tell, and check for understanding as part of social communication, which may or may not be educative or beneficial to young learners. J.M. Stephens (1967) argued that such tendencies are the features of naturally occurring teaching that happen spontaneously in families and social groups. While an ancient and pervasive approach, the natural teaching that supports familial instruction can lead to serious pedagogical mistakes for emerging readers and writers learning outside of the home. Out of kindness, teachers may not challenge children, because they do not think children are capable or they have low expectations for them, especially if they are from different backgrounds from themselves. Out of ignorance, they may not scaffold children's thinking about print, because they think they must show and tell children, rather than helping them to construct their own knowledge through dialogue. Natural teaching, in other words, is neit her necessarily equitable nor instructive in the sense of being cognitively challenging, enriching, and conceptual. Nor is it particularly enlightened, for it clings to a transmissive view of how people learn (i.e., by telling and showing).

That the three teachers' talk about reading and writing reflected a similar pattern of spontaneous teaching suggests their reliance on natural teaching methods, even though their educational backgrounds differed. More professional education (teachers at Fairlake and Eastland), in this instance, did not appear to affect the natural contour of literacy talk, although it may have influenced the frequency with which characteristic strategies occurred. For example, the teachers at Fairlake and Eastland, who held baccalaureate degrees, talked more overall than did the teacher at Central, who had an associate degree. The higher incidence of literacy talk, however, only intensified the same pattern of interaction.

Still, while the teachers' literacy talk showed a similar pattern of interaction, they nevertheless sought different outcomes, which may have consequences for literacy acquisition and learning. Teachers in Eastland and Central, for example, applied the pattern to educational purposes, such as learning to write names and recognize the letters of the alphabet, in an effort to prepare children for kindergarten. Their talk tended to emphasize procedural knowledge about print (or print-specific literacy, such as alphabet naming) in fairly well-structured word learning, storybook reading, and writing contexts. As Senechal, LeFervre, Colton, and Smith (1999), among others (e.g., Whitehurst et al., 1994), have observed, favoring this dimension of emergent literacy has significance for children's grasp of early reading and writing skills (declarative knowledge), but not for their conceptual knowledge of literacy (e.g., vocabulary, story sense, and phonological awareness).

The teacher at Fairlake, on the other hand, applied the pattern to instrumental purposes that guided children to use print as a practical tool in the environment. Her talk helped to situate reading and writing in matters of the moment, thus creating authentic and functional learning opportunities. While she, too, emphasized procedural knowledge (e.g., stressing letter names and scaffolding word reading), she did so under highly contextualized conditions (e.g., finding one's cubby) that made print-specific facts and ideas more immediately apparent, and thus perhaps more accessible. What bearing this "press" for literacy information in the pattern of interaction may have on children's developing literacy knowledge is not well-marked, although the apprenticeship it affords may facilitate concept formation more readily than less meaningful situations (Lave, 1996; Mercer, 1993). As realists argue (Butterworth, 1993; Resnick, 1994), the physical circumstances of situations lend structure to ideas transmitted throug h language within them, and they prop up pragmatic reasoning schemes that are the foundations of abstract conceptualizations.

Setting aside the different goals of the teachers' talk, the pattern for all reflected the natural teaching tendencies of telling, asking, and checking, constituting essentially transmissive teaching practices with respect to literacy in the child care setting. The profile of discourse features emerging as a pattern of interaction supports this observation. But the fact that a transmissive view prevailed is also made more visible when taking into account the frequency of children's questions, interest in, and curiosity about literacy to which teachers responded, but did not elaborate upon, clarify, prompt, or encourage. The pattern of interaction, therefore, allowed children access to literacy knowledge, but only to a certain level.


What, then, can we make of these results? How do they help us understand the literacy learning potential of the child care environment for young children? Given the data, interpretation might best serve to extend the analysis by pointing to credible observations and themes also evident in prior research.

As described, in a typical morning at these three child care centers, adults do talk about reading and writing, but they do so incidentally for the most part. Their general reasons for talking about print vary; with educational purposes more prevalent at two sites (Eastland and Central) and instrumental goals more so at the other (Fairlake). Predominant features of the teachers' literacy talk, which was more frequent than that of teaching assistants, included asking, explaining, and checking with children for understanding. These features resembled the cadence of spontaneous teaching found in everyday life.

Adults are the richest social resource in the environment for children and a powerful influence on the shape and direction of interaction patterns that arise in the setting. The researchers were interested in what this influence might look and sound like with respect to literacy interactions, yet recognized that this only partially reflected the language and literacy environment. Children themselves also press for and shape literacy interactions that transpire between them and with adults. In addition, broader institutional goals and policies bring pressure to bear on the kinds of literacy experiences the environment might offer. For example, parents may expect more exposure to books and print in some child care programs.

Mixing these results with those of other researchers, however, may lead to an inference about what the literacy environment at child care might offer children as growing readers and writers. Combining the findings from this study, which showed the incidence of literacy exchanges between children and adults in a four-hour period, with those of Smith and Dickinson (1994) and McGill-Franzen et al. (1997), for example, it appears that the quality of talk about reading and writing at preschool is limited. (See also Dunn, Beach, & Kontos, 1994.) Whether observing the focal adult (as done here) or the focal child, the amount of talk around literacy that occurred in these research sites was modest compared to the full measure of verbal interactions across the preschool day. This was both surprising and encouraging because literacy talk was occurring throughout the day, and it was occurring in multiple contexts. There is, however, evidence of considerable unevenness in the quality of children's literacy interactions, with some being more instructive and geared to school literacy than others (e.g., the educational purpose of interactions at Eastland and Central).

In the activity stream of child care, opportunities exist for children to learn about literacy, the print/sound code, and habits of mind associated with reading and writing. However, it takes knowledgeable adults to recognize and act on these opportunities as they interact with children in the course of everyday occurrences at child care. Moreover, for children whose home literacy-related experiences are infrequent, the adults at child care need to deliberately provide language and print experiences that support literacy acquisition. The thought that young children are building meanings about literacy from early in life is a new idea to many, and one only recently acknowledged in the professional community. The image of the young child as a capable reader and writer is just beginning to work its way into the collective consciousness of the early childhood education community.

Still, the quantity and quality of the adults' literacy talk, compared to their total talk with children in the daily activity at these child care centers are matters of importance. These places constitute a primary source of exposure to literacy for the children, who are there for long stretches of time every day. When the exposure is limited, the best hope is that children's home environments offer a great deal more. However, all too often importance of raising awareness of literacy-related talk in preschool environments so that literacy ideas and information become more prevalent.

Meeting this need may not simply be a matter of degree--that is, getting teachers to talk more about reading and writing to children throughout the day. On the contrary, it is likely to demand far more from professional educators than they have heretofore provided when preparing child care personnel and early childhood teachers for the language and literacy curriculum. Essential for teachers and teaching assistants alike is a better grasp of the shape and direction of literacy exchanges as patterns of interaction that bring meaning to what children experience as literacy. These data demonstrate a fundamentally transmissive pattern of interaction, wherein teachers and assistants told children about literacy, but did not necessarily attempt to explain it in the sense of scaffolding children's understanding (Kennedy, 1996). Some evidence indicates that this approach may have its benefits, particularly when focused on print specifics, such as letter names and sounds. If told such information often enough in the e arly years, children seem to recall and use it when engaged in the learning to read process, where specifics count, although this knowledge appears to quickly give way to school instruction (Leseman & deJong, 2001; Senechal et al., 1999). From this vantage point, therefore, getting teachers and teaching assistants to talk more about reading and writing during the ebb and flow of activity may have its advantages. Embedding this principle in the professional education of child care and early childhood teachers is not necessarily easy, as teachers' discourse habits are particularly resistant to change. Nevertheless, increasing awareness of the need to talk out loud about reading and writing specifics may result in teachers' conscious effort to do this more often in the workplace and in front of children.

A deeper pedagogic issue related to teacher talk may have further-reaching consequences for children's achievement of literacy. The teachers and teaching assistants observed here did not teach for understanding very much in the context of literacy exchanges as a constructivist might see it (i.e., placing cognitive demands on children by asking them to label, designate features, compare, or give reasons). Yet these are the kinds of cognitive challenges that are linked to those conceptual understandings that produce what Bruner (1983) refers to as the comprehension of the act of literacy. Some evidence indicates that more general conversation, as well as literacy-talk interactions that provoke inference making, hypothesis testing, and vocabulary use, may influence reading comprehension in ways that last into the later primary school years (Leseman & deJong, 1998; Snow, 1999). Asking teachers to talk more about reading and writing and texts at child care, however, does not guarantee this kind of teaching, or the talk that characterizes it. Moreover, developing this level of discourse skill in teachers' practice is particularly difficult because it often does not come naturally. In fact, it can seem counterintuitive to teachers, thus requiring persistence and intense practice to overcome personal tendencies in order to achieve a more professional stance. This places heavy demands on adults to adapt their discourse in favor of pedagogic aims (over relational ones) and, in turn, places greater demands on teacher educators to educate adults how to do so appropriately, accurately, and sensitively.

Having extended the analysis this far, it points to the significance of professional education in preparing adults who teach and care for young children as teachers of early reading and writing. Like the parents of the children they serve, these adults, too, are children's first literacy teachers, and so how they carry out this responsibility affects children's literacy development and potential academic success. In some respects, their responsibility may be weightier because they must find that middle ground between the literacy instruction of home and that of the preschool. Educating adults for this responsibility must move them beyond spontaneous teaching, which may have served them well in their own homes and communities, and toward a professional understanding of teaching and learning literacy as constructive processes.

Even as the data point us in this direction, however, they do not lead the way. Further research on the pedagogy of early literacy teaching and its relation to adults' practice in child care settings is necessary to chart this course. That this might be a tricky process is indicated in a recent study by Young and Beach (1997), who worked shoulder to shoulder with a certified teacher to improve the literacy environment at one child care site. Over a period of four weeks, opportunities for children to participate in literacy activities were added to daily routines. These included shared book experiences, making books, and rereading and exploring favorite books in the library area. Observations following the intervention showed that children were beginning to see themselves as readers and writers--to develop their literate identities. However, Young and Beach also observed that the teachers' conceptual understanding of what it meant to develop young children's literacy remained quite narrow, confined to interact ions around books. Even with ongoing researcher assistance, the teacher did not "see" alternative ways to include literacy exchanges in everyday routines and children's play.

This observation, coupled with data from this study showing that level of education did not vary the pattern of the teachers' discourse practices, suggests the need to examine more thoroughly associate and baccalaureate degree programs for key experiences that help adults to know, practice, and become disposed to discourse patterns that foster early literacy learning. Not only the content of the professional education curriculum with respect to literacy, but also how it is taught would benefit from more inquiry and research, so that educational influences may be traced into practice and assessed. Improving and enriching the professional education literacy curriculum for teachers, in fact, may prove to be the surest route for enriching the literacy environment for children at child care.

Figure 1

Examples of Discourse Coding Scheme

Eastland Transcript Excerpt (p. 58)

Utterance # Interlocutor Object

486 Teacher chart paper


487 Teacher

Utterance # Discourse

 directing reporting
486 Ssshhhshhsh. Okay, right now we
 need all of your attention up here
 because we didn't get our list of V
 words made yesterday.

 Now remember the pictures you found
 /vvvv/ (elongating sound), and
 let's see what we've got.

 Mary? ......

487 Oh, that's right, that was such a
 good one.
 Are you vehicles all parked in a
 Vehicles, okay, yes
Figure 2

Excerpt From Coding Matrix

Utterance Who Initiated Activity Discourse Feature
Number Episode Period
 teacher child ex con elab

486 / Group

Utterance Discourse Feature Literacy Function
 cor rep dir ask i s

486 / / /

Utterance Literacy Function Literacy
Number Object
 r ed ev c

486 / Chart paper

Coding Abbreviations:

Discourse Feature
ex- explaining
con- confirming
elab- elaborating
cor- correcting
rep- reporting
dir- directing
ask- asking

Literacy Function
i- instrumental
s- social-interactional
r- recreational
ed- educational
ev- environmental
c- confirmation
Figure 3

Examples of Literacy Talk Having an Educational Function: Words That
Begin With the / v / Sound

At Eastland, the teacher conducts a lesson on the letter "V." Fourteen
children are sitting on their floor mats in front of a chart stand. The
teacher asks the children to think of words beginning with the /v/
sound. As the children name words, she writes them on the chart paper.

Teacher Now remember the pictures you
 found, /vvv/ (elongates sound), and
 let's see what we've got. Mary?

Child Vehicle.

Teacher Oh, that's right, that was such a
 good one. Are your vehicles all
 parked in a row? Vehicles. Okay,
 yes. (Nods to child who raises his

Child Van.

Teacher Van. I drove my van to San
 Francisco. Van. Yes. (nods to
 child who raises her hand)

Child Violin.

Teacher My granddaughter Sally plays the
 violin and she really truly does.
 (UT 486-488, p. 58)

Figure 4

Examples of Literacy Talk Having an Instrumental Function: Finding the Right Cubby

When a child arrives at Fairlake Center, he begins to look for his cubby in which to put his belongings.

Child (to teacher who is standing nearby): I don't know where mine is.

Teacher: Yours is over here and I gotta move your stuff, too. Here's your stuff and let's go find [your] cubby. You might have one [cubby] at the end. Let me see. I think this one might be [yours]. Yup, this one's yours [reads child's name]. I'm not gonna take that [name label of different child] off right now. Your name is underneath. I can't get it off, though. Let's see if I can try. Oh, wait (tears off top label). TA-DA! (reads name tag) (UT 66, p. 25)
Figure 5

Book Reading at Fairlake

During group time, the teacher at Fairlake reads a Sesame Street book
titled I Want To Be a Teacher, a book that a child had requested. The
teacher began by discussing the cover of the book with the children.

Teacher Look. (directing) What's
 happening here? (requesting)

Child They're at school.

Teacher Yes, they're at school (confirming).
 This is school, like
 um, the first-graders sit in
 school like this at desks. See, you have
 it fun now, you get to sit at tables
 and walk around the room. When we
 get to first grade, sometimes you have
 to sit in desks a lot. (explicating)

Child There's Bert.

Teacher Yeah, there's Bert. (confirms)
 And who's this? (requesting)

Child Um, Big Bird.

Teacher Big Bird. (confirming) And
 who's that? (requesting)

Children Cookie Monster.

Teacher Cookie Monster! (confirming) And
 then who's that? (requesting)

Children Ernie.

Teacher Ernie. And this is the teacher, Mr.
 Redman, that's their teacher. See, they
 have cubbies back here, too. (explicating
 as she points to the picture) Let's start
 our story (directing) (UT 340-345, p. 81).
Figure 6

Book Reading at Eastland

The children at Eastland Center are gathered on the floor in front of
the teacher for story time. She begins by introducing the title and
author. She asks the children to recall other books by the same author,
and to name titles of some of the books they have read previously.

Teacher (reading) "Mrs. Bear set her alarm for
 February 14th." That's Valentine's
 Day isn't it? (asking)

Teacher (reading) "Then she curled herself
 comfortably against Mr. Bear's
 back and listened to his snores.
 It was good to settle down to a
 long four month's sleep. When the
 alarm went off four months later,
 Mrs. Bear could hardly believe it.
 It seemed as if she had just gone
 to bed. 'My,' she said yawning,
 'spring already?' and then she
 remembered, it wasn't spring yet.
 She had set the alarm early for a
 special reason."

Child Are those grizzly bears or black

Teacher Ah, they're some kind of brown
 bear. They're probably grizzlies,
 that's my guess. Maybe Jan Brett
 doesn't even know, maybe she just
 made some brownish bears.

Teacher (reading) "Mrs. Bear stretched, scratched,
 kissed Mr. Bear on his nose and
 got up.... First she made a sign,
 'It's nice to share Valentine's
 Day with someone you love.' She
 tacked the sign on the wall so
 Mr. Bear would see it the instant
 he awoke."

Child What's an instant?

Teacher The very minute. (explicating)

Teacher (reading) "Leaves had blown.... How Brown
 Bear loved crispy critters."

Child What are those?

Teacher Dried beetles and bugs.

Children Eeewwww!

Teacher (reading) "She made two valentines...."
 (UT 549-553, p. 64-65)
Figure 7

Book Reading at Central

As the children sit on the floor in front of the teacher at Central, she
reads The ABC Bunny (1978) by Wanda Gag. She begins the story by
introducing the title and author.

Teacher I have a story. The name of this
 story is called The ABC Bunny, and
 the person who wrote this book is
 Wanda Gag. (explicating)

Child Who's Wanda Gag?

Teacher That's the person who wrote the
 book and she made the picture,
 too, so this is an alphabet story.
 (explicating) Okay, remember when
 I'm reading, you should be
 listening. So everyone should be
 putting their listening ears on.

Child (holding object) Miss Hall?

Teacher You know what, we'll take care of
 that after we finish the story,
 okay Michael? Shh. (directing)

Child I can't see.

Teacher I'm going to show you. (reporting)

Child It's frog and a bunny.

Teacher Yeah (confirming), a fat frog and
 he's funny. (elaborating)

Teacher (reading) "G for gale, H for hail, hippie hop
 goes bunny tail."

Child (pointing to picture) What is that, Miss Hall?

Teacher What? (requesting)

Child (pointing to picture) That, in the story.

Teacher This is hail, you know sometimes in
 the winter time we get these, when
 it snows, sometimes it hails and
 it's real hard and it looks like
 snow balls, little tiny snowalls,
 and it makes a loud noise on our
 window. Sometimes you can hear it,
 and that's hail coming down.

Teacher (reading) "I for insects, here and there. J
 for jay with jaunty air." (UT 719-
 725, pp. 64-65)
Table 1

Participant Levels of Experience and Education

Site Years of Experience Highest Level of Education


 Teacher 12.5 Associate Degree
 Teacher Assistant 7.5 High School


 Teacher 20.0 Bachelor Degree
 Teacher Assistant 6.0 Associate Degree


 Teacher 11.0 Bachelor Degree
 Teacher Assistant 11.0 Associate Degree
Table 2

Discourse Analysis Codes

Discourse Features Descriptions

Explicating Respond to child with information
Confirming Verify, praise, or restate what
 child says
Elaborating Extend information by making
 connections or adding new
Correcting Provide correct information
Reporting Provide an account of own or
 child's actions
Directing Tell or prompt child to act
Asking Ask the child for information
Table 3

Literacy Functions, Definitions, and Examples

Function Definitions

Instrumental Reading and writing to gain
 information for meeting practical
 needs and scheduling daily

Social- Reading and writing for
Interactional developing social relationships

Recreational Reading during leisure time or to
 pass time

Educational Reading and writing specifically
 to develop word knowledge and
 phonological awareness

Environmental Reading print in the environment

Confirmational Reading to check or confirm facts
 in material used occasionally

Function Examples

Instrumental Direct child to check the
 choice chart to see what play
 centers are open; read name tags

Social- Read/discuss storybooks;
Interactional read valentines

Recreational Direct child to look through
 a book during quiet time

Educational Tell a child what print
 says; rehearse poems

Environmental Talk with child about
 labels on objects in the

Confirmational Use an encyclopedia to
 find information for child
Table 4

Incidence of Literacy Talk

Site Total Total Adult-Child Total Adult-Child
 Utterances Utterances Literacy
 Utterances (%)


 Teacher 840 581 153 (26%)
 Teacher Assist. 523 389 21 (5%)


 Teacher 796 649 115 (18%)
 Teacher Assist. 609 482 15 (3%)


 Teacher 973 952 103 (11%)
 Teacher Assist. 582 501 50 (10%)
Table 5

Comparison of Literacy Function, Scheduled Activity Period, and Literacy
Episode by Child Care Center

Function Scheduled Period


Educational Free Play, Group
Environmental Free Play
 Basic Needs
Instrumental Free Play

Recreational Group

Educational Group

Instrumental Transition
Social Interactional Activity
 Free Play, Activity,

Educational Activity

Instrumental Transition
 After Lunch

Function Type of Literacy Episode


Educational Read Book
Environmental Read Label on Toy
 Read Label on Cereal Box
Instrumental Identify Name on Cubby
 Write Name on Personal Toy
 Write Name/Caption on Picture
 Deliver Written Message to Teacher
 Read Name on Choice Chart
Recreational Read Book

Educational Discuss /v/ and Artist Van Gogh
 Child Reads Book
 Read Calendar
 Brainstorm and Record /v/ Words
 Child Reads Poem to Others
 Teacher Reads Book
 Read Label on Toy
Instrumental Read Name on Valentine Bag
 Read Name on Chart
Social Interactional Read Valentine
 Child Shares Poem
 Read Note from Mom

Educational Write Name/Label Pictures
 Read Name on Chart
 Solve Alphabet Puzzle
 Read Book
Instrumental Read Name to Line Up
 Read Name on Toothbrush


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Authors' Note: The authors are listed alphabetically, indicating their mutual contributions to the study. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Catherine A. Rosemary, Department of Education and Allied Studies, John Carroll University, 20700 North Park Boulevard, University Heights, Ohio 44118. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to
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Author:Roskos, Kathleen A.
Publication:Journal of Research in Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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