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Promoting beginning special education teachers' understanding of emergent literacy.


Teaching and learning on-line are becoming more prevalent in teacher education programs. In order to provide teachers with experience with technology, the author created one on-line lesson for preservice teachers in a Reading and Language Arts Instruction class. Many participants experienced frustration with the experience, although others enjoyed it. The author shares the class discussion of the idea that adults learning on-line instruction can be thought of as similar to children learning about print; both can be considered forms of Emergent Literacy.


Whether we like it or not, technology is now an integral part of teaching and learning. The standards for the teaching profession published by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Educators (NCATE) require that teachers must be competent in the use of computers for instruction. This "competency" means more than just using a computer for word-processing and e-mail communication. According to the NCATE standards, teachers must be able to plan for technology use, assess student learning through technology, and most importantly, utilize technology effectively for student learning, particularly to support the development of higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills (Smith, Martin, & Lloyd, 1998). "It is not sufficient for teachers to be competent at sending e-mail and finding information on the Internet. Ultimately, the teacher will need to work these techniques in to the normal course of classroom activities in as fluid and natural a manner as the teacher integrates books, lectures, and one-to-one mentoring, and a host of other established methods into presenting information and interacting with students" (Umbach, 1997, p. 10).

Obviously, teacher educators must respond by first, learning to utilize technology in their own courses, and then, by learning ways to inform teachers-in-training on the most effective uses for technology in their classrooms. However the nature of preservice teachers' experience with technology "can positively or negatively impact their future use of educational technologies in the classroom" (Reznich, 1966, p. 246). Utilizing Internet-based instruction requires the student to be adept with basic computer skills, and to have an ability to adapt to the changing environment. "Students entering distance education are often isolated from their teachers, classmates, and technical support. Feelings of isolation and difficulty overcoming the technical issues of computer-mediated instruction are common" (Granger & Benke, 1998; Eastmond, 1995). For many students this is not a problem. Either they have graduated from an undergraduate program where computer skills are learned, they have learned computer skills on the job, or they have taught themselves. Thus, when challenged with a new form of computer use, they adapt by using the skills already learned. There is a small group, however, who have had little experience with the computer until entering teacher education, and once faced with the challenge, have a great deal of difficulty.

The problem does not seem to be one of access to a computer. For teachers-in-training who are already in classrooms, there are computers available for their use. However "between one and two-thirds of all teachers do not take full advantage of the computers available to them for instruction because they do not feel confident of their own abilities to use them" (Rosen & Weil, 1995). In addition, most colleges of teacher education offer access to computer labs. The acquisition of expertise with personal computers requires more than merely ownership of a computer and the time to play with it. Researchers have found that the important factors in successful distance learning are technical support (Wineicki & Chyung, 2000) and "motivation, means, and opportunity. That is, the individual must have a compelling reason to learn (motivation) must have substantial access to the necessary tools including hardware and software (means), and must have the time and ancillary resources, such as books, classes, tutorial programs, and so on (opportunity). None of these alone is a sufficient condition" (Umbach, 1997, p. 3). Additionally, in order to advance from learning at a distance to utilizing technology for student learning, teachers-in-training must experience more than technology use modeled in their coursework. Luke, Moore, & Sawyer (1998) recommend that teacher preparation programs emphasize the development of teachers' vision of themselves as "technology using educators." Teachers-in-training must be provided with actual or scenario-based practice in developing effective ways to implement technology in their future classrooms in order to "start to develop an internal sense of how necessary the technology will be in creating a successful, exciting and active learning environment" (p. 5). As this literature review suggests, creating this vision will require the provision of technical and instructional support for teachers-in-training who are learning to use technology for instruction, modeling of technology for instruction in their coursework, and practice integrating technology into their curriculum with their own students.

In order to begin the process of introducing teachers-in-training to the utilization of technology for learning, during the Fall of 1998, a web-based activity was created by the author for a Reading and Language Arts Instruction course, using a course template provided by Blackboard, available at This company provides free access to their course templates, which are very easy for the novice on-line teacher to use. The activity consisted of a content lecture on Emergent Literacy in the form of a series of Power Point slides, a multiple-choice quiz, a link to a website (The Emergent Literacy Project), and a bulletin board on which students were to post their evaluation of this website in terms of its usefulness for teachers of young children. Students were given written directions for finding the website and maneuvering through the activity once they got there, and were told that the instructor would be available by e-mail for any problems or questions.

This was the author's first year as a college professor. Doctoral work provided many years of computer experience, including two courses on-line in graduate school including one covering on-line course design. One benefit to these on-line classes was the ability to "go to class" at any hour of the day, especially with young children at home, and not having to drive to class in the snow! Therefore the author naively assumed teachers-in-training would appreciate a beginning-level experience with on-line instruction as well. All members of this class were full-time teachers with emergency credentials who were attending classes at night toward a credential to teach at the elementary through high school levels. It was quite a surprise to learn that the assumption that on-line instruction would be well-received turned out to be very wrong!

During the week that the first lecture was on-line, numerous e-mail messages were received about the frustrations students were experiencing. Many had to do with their internet connection at home "not working right." One woman wrote that she did not own a computer and had to buy one, an unexpected expense. After purchasing a semester's worth of books, she was not at all happy with the instructor! Another called to say that she could not finish the assignments on time because although she had a computer, she did not own a modem, and had to buy one. Later in the year, a woman who was returning to get her credential at an advanced age admitted that when faced with this experience, she had cried for hours, until finally, she had called her adult son for help. He told her, "This is silly, mom! It's about time you learned to use a computer!" and showed her how to do it. (Then she was quite proud of her computer abilities!) Other difficulties concerned the student's inability to understand how to navigate through the required activities, to go from lecture to quiz, for example, or to download copies of the lecture so they didn't have to "read it on the computer." The responses were not all negative. At the end of the week, some students were furious, demanding that we "never do this again!" yet others were actually enjoying the experience, and requesting that ALL lectures be placed on-line!

With the knowledge that the next face-to-face class meeting would be a difficult one, the author had to develop a "battle plan." The content topic that week had been Emergent Literacy, which deals with children's' experiences as they learn the beginnings skills necessary for reading. As every kindergarten teacher knows, some children learn to read quickly and easily, and others take more time and require more instruction. It became apparent that the experiences these teachers-in-training had with on-line learning could be related to those experienced by typical emergent readers. Perhaps it would be beneficial for the entire class to discuss this idea, thus giving teachers-in-training an opportunity to apply their learning.

Once the students assembled for the next class, they were asked them to hold all questions and comments until after the activity planned for the evening. A Concept Comparison Chart (Bulgren, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1988) was placed on the overhead. This device is a template designed for teachers to introduce concepts to students so that they can delineate the similarities and differences between a familiar concept and a new concept. This process requires all students to participate in a discussion of the concept attributes. The discussion was introduced with the comment that their instructor understood from the messages received that many in the class had experienced difficulties with the on-line activity, and that these needed to be shared. The idea was introduced that possibly the topics of Emergent Literacy and their own experiences could be compared, if the class was willing to explore this idea. They agreed, and the chart was filled out with their input (Figure 1). Because the atmosphere in the room was crackling with tension, no parameters were set as to how comments would be heard. These teachers-in-training needed to vent, so even if the instructor did not agree with some comments, all were listened to, clarified, paraphrased if necessary, and if the group agreed, incorporated into the chart.

First, the Bigger Concept, Emergent Literacy, was separated into two categories, or Smaller Concepts. These were, "For children learning about print" and "For adults' experience with on-line instruction." Beginning with the first category, students were asked to consider the characteristics of Emergent Literacy for children in terms of their experiences, and to voice anything that came to mind. In response, it was suggested that young children did not feel self-conscious about their learning, and thus, had no fear about learning something new. Young children were curious, soaking up the new learning like "sponges." They were enthusiastic, having fun with the experiences of playing rhyming games and listening to stories being read to them by a loving, supportive adult. Moving on to the second category, and relating their own experiences, it was proposed that adult learning of something new and difficult was ego-deflating, full of fear, causing feelings of resistance. There was a sense of a lack of time to explore and learn. Most importantly, there was a lack of support from another adult interested in their small steps toward success, resulting in a sense of isolation and frustration. There were, however, a significant number of students who did not share these feelings. These students felt the experience was exciting, allowing them to apply computer knowledge they already had in a unique way. These teachers-in-training felt the experience was convenient, and enjoyable.

Next, teachers were asked to look over the lists and to choose Characteristics that are Alike and Characteristics that are Different, then to summarize these into Categories. The opinion of this group of teachers-in-training was that emergent literacy for both children and adults involves first-time learning, so little background information required. (It is interesting to note that the group with background information on computer use had a much better time than those without, but as the former group did not point this out, the instructor accepted comments as they were offered without judgement). Both learning about print and about computers requires scaffolding of small steps, as they put it, "small successes." When asked to summarize these statements under "Like Categories" the teachers chose "New learning." Under Characteristics that were Different, the class agreed that emergent literacy for adults does not allow for the support that children receive from a caring adult, and they are expected to "catch on" at a much faster pace. This was summarized under "Different Categories" as "Faster, less-supported learning."

Finally, teachers were asked to "tell how the concepts are alike and different" with an overall statement about the comparison between emergent literacy for children and adults. After discussion, the class agreed that their experience with on-line learning was like that of children at the emergent literacy stage in that it involves learning about new concepts toward becoming a "literate' computer user. However, it is very different in that there was no individualized support while learning, and the student was expected to learn the skills at a much faster rate than that expected of children. Prior knowledge of computer use and level of scaffolding, or how quickly skills needed to be learned, seemed to be key to success or failure.

Only after the chart was complete did the instructor address the comments provided by the teachers. At that time, the instructor agreed that the class had proposed some positive solutions to the dilemma of on-line learning. The class as a whole seemed much more positive toward the idea of on-line learning. They were receptive to the proposal that they try another on-line experience later on in the semester if they were provided with their "keys to success": support in the form of hands-on training in a computer lab, and more time to complete the assignments.

The author has since incorporated on-line learning into all reading classes, but many changes have been made in the way it is offered. First, all teachers are provided support in the form of open computer lab time for the first four weeks of class, and by request after that. Since the time of this class, the University had expanded the number of available labs and its technical support as well, so faculty and students have greater access to assistance as needed. In addition, more sophisticated resources have become available for faculty interested in on-line learning. One of the best is in the area of reading is available from the Online Academy (2000) developed at the University of Kansas. The Academy is the result of a federally funded initiative to develop instructional modules in reading, technology, and positive behavioral support for use by teacher education programs across the nation.

Each semester, there is much to learn from the teachers-in training, and their suggestions for improvement are as often as possible incorporated into future courses. The most surprising result of this first-year teaching experience was that teachers-in_ training expressed a need for caring support as they learned to use the computer as a tool for teaching and for learning. Because it had been nearly eight years, the author forgot that she, too, was once at the emergent literacy stage, forced by her husband to learn word-processing on his new computer "because everyone will need to be able to do this!" Completely forgotten were the feelings of resistance and frustrations, of isolation and failure. Despite their problems with the computer, these teachers-in-training had learned the content! They knew that early learners needed scaffolding or small steps, support with care, and encouragement. As on-line learning becomes more and more prevalent in college coursework, faculty in schools of education would do well to heed the advice of these novices.


Bulgren, J. A., Schumaker, J. B., & Deshler, D. D. (1988). Effectiveness of a concept teaching routine in enhancing the performance of LD students in secondary level mainstream classes. Learning Disability Quarterly, 11, 3 17.

Eastmond, D. (1995). Alone but together: Adult distance study through computer conferencing. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

The Emergent Literacy Project (2001). Available at:

Granger, D., Benke, M. (1998). Supporting the distance learner. In C. Gibson (Ed.). Distance learners in higher education: Institutional responses for quality outcomes. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Luke, N., Moore, J., & Sawyer, S. (1998). Authentic approaches to encourage technology-using teachers. In SITE 98: Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (9th, Washington, DC, March 10-14, 1998). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED421083).

Morrison, J (1999). An Interview with Diana Oblinger. Available at: http//

Online Academy (2000). Available at:

Reznich, C. (1996). Applying minimalist design principles to the problem of computer anxiety. Computers in Human Behavior, 12, 245-261.

Rosen, L., & Weil, M. (1995). Computer availability, computer experience, and technophobia among public school teachers. Computers in Human Behavior, 11. 9-31.

Smith, S., Martin, K., Lloyd, J. (1998) Preparing prospective teachers on the web. Available at: http/ Prospectives/pp01.htm

Umbach, K. W. (1997). Computer fluency: Teachers and the new technology. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED421986).

Winiecki, D., & Chyung, Y (2000). Preparing students for asynchronous, computer-mediated coursework: Design & delivery of a "distance education bootcamp." Paper presented ant the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, April, 2000.

Dr. Glaeser teaches reading methods and collaboration/co-teaching seminar to preservice and inservice teachers. Her research interests include co-teaching and cognitive strategy instruction.
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Author:Calcagni, Barbara J.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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