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The transition to school and early literacy development.

In the past year, hundreds of articles have been written about young children's transition to school and/ or literacy development. In fact, several professional organizations have devoted entire issues to these two related topics. Examples include the March 2003 issue of Young Children, which focused on early literacy, and the April 2003 issue of Educational Leadership, which highlighted the first years of school.

The following articles were selected from hundreds used in collecting background research information for the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Ready to Learn in School Project, funded by the Mayer Electric Foundation. I would like to thank my colleagues Kay Emfinger, Assistant Professor of early childhood education at UAB, Ching-lan Yin, graduate assistant in elementary and early childhood at UAB, and Charles Collat, Chairman of the Mayer Electric Foundation, for their assistance in choosing these articles for review. --J.A.

KINDERGARTEN CHILDREN'S INVOLVEMENT IN EARLY LITERACY ACTIVITIES. Shiel, G., The Reading Teacher, 2002, 56(3), 282-284. This article focuses on early literacy studies from several countries, including Ireland and Norway, that were presented at the 12th European Conference on Reading in 2001. The study in Ireland was conducted by Maire Mhic Mhathuna (2001), who used stories to examine pre-kindergarten children's bilingual conversations. Mhic Mhathuna studied English-speaking children who were attending Irish-language kindergarten classes. She sought to determine if "listening to stories in a second language permits children to understand and enjoy stories as they might in their first language and make connections between story events and their own lives" (p. 283). To facilitate children's understanding and connections, she identified four factors that are salient for presenting and discussing stories in a child's second language. These include modifications to adult speech, the use of contextual clues, the regularity of child input, and a supportive atmosphere. Children made connections to their own lives and were even able to predict later parts of the stories when these modifications were used. The stories that Mhathuna used were chosen because they were considered to be simple and rich with experiences to which the children could relate. The author "found numerous examples of children making connections between the events in stories and their own lives" (p. 284). This study should be of interest to teachers of young children who are second language learners.

The Norwegian study was conducted by Hagtvet (2001), who researched an ego-based literacy stimulation program for at-risk preschoolers. This program was used with 6-year-olds in kindergarten. A key feature of this study was a strong focus on children's emotional engagement in literacy activities, which was accomplished by "grounding activities in the children's own experiences, interests, needs, and feelings" (p. 283). Three critical elements in ego-based literacy stimulation included the reduction of emotional pressure, the ability of teachers to create successful experiences, and instruction that was dictated by each individual child's progress. Hagtvet found that "all children were successful in breaking the alphabetic code and retained an interest in writing by the end of first grade" (p. 283). When designing future studies, researchers in early literacy should take note of the emotional aspects of learning to read and write.

EARLY LITERACY PRACTICES AS PREDICTORS OF READING RELATED OUTCOMES: Test Scores, Test Passing Rates, Retention, and Special Education Referral. Manset-Williamson, G., St. John, E., Hu, S., & Gordon, D., Exceptionality, 10(1), 11-28. Early literacy practices in grades 1 through 3 were considered in terms of "mean language arts scores and passing rates on a 3rd-grade state examination, grade level retention, and referral for special education assessment" (p. 11). Explicit skills instruction was associated with higher passing rates on a 3rd-grade state examination and higher rates of grade retention, but with lower referral rates for special education. "Holistic focus was associated with higher rates of referral for special education assessment, as well as lower retention rates" (p. 12). One of the most important findings of this study related to parents reading to their children, a practice associated with lower rates of grade retention and special education referrals.

The study was limited in that it was based on principals' reports on practices across a school program. Direct observation of literacy instruction and reports of actual practices by teachers were not used. Nevertheless, some interesting findings merit further study. This is particularly true for the "unexpected contradiction between what predicts referral and retention rates" (p. 25).

CHARACTERISTICS OF CHILDREN WHO ARE UNRESPONSIVE TO EARLY LITERACY INTERVENTION: A Review of the Literature. Al Otaiba, S., & Fuchs, D., Remedial and Special Education, 2002, 23(5), 300-316. A1 Otaiba and Fuchs reviewed the research on children, ranging in ages from 3 to 9, considered to be at risk for reading disabilities. In all, they reviewed 23 studies; 8 of the studies dealt with identification and characteristics of unresponsive students, while 15 studies focused on both treatment effectiveness and unresponsive learners. A majority of children who appeared to be unresponsive had problems in several areas, including phonological awareness deficits, difficulties with phonological retrieval, encoding difficulties, deficits in verbal ability, and developmental delays and behavior problems.

A major strength of this article is the implications for future research and practice, particularly the recommendation that "researchers should try to agree on a common definition of the construct treatment unresponsiveness [as] none emerged from this review" (p. 313). Recommendations for practice had more to do with how treatment is conducted (process) than with the specifics of what is taught (content). The researchers recommended a primary intervention, or phase 1, that would be implemented by the regular classroom teacher. Phase 2 would target only those children who were not responsive to the instruction given in the regular classroom. Furthermore, phase 2 would involve greater frequency and duration and be delivered by someone other than the classroom teacher. This recommendation reminded me of the Reading Recovery model of early intervention.

EARLY LITERACY INSTRUCTION FOR FIRST-GRADE STUDENTS AT-RISK FOR ANTISOCIAL BEHAVIOR. Lane, K., Wehby, J., Menzies, H., Gregg, R., Doukas, G., & Munton, S., Education and Treatment of Children, 2002, 25(4), 438-458. This study was designed to "examine the effectiveness of a supplementary early literacy program for 1st-grade students identified by their teachers as at-risk for antisocial behavior who were unresponsive to a comprehensive school-wide intervention" (p. 438). Seven students (3 females and 4 males) participated in the study. Although the sample size was small, there was still diversity among the participants, who included one Hispanic American child, two African American students, and four Euro-American children. These students were identified as having been non-responsive to a school-wide program in literacy and behavior intervention. The Student Risk Screening Scale (SRSS) was used to identify nonresponsive students.

The intervention in this study was the Shefelbine Phonics Chapter Books (Shefelbine, 1998). This is a systematic phonics instruction program that includes lessons on phonemic awareness, high frequency words, chapter reading, and dictation and writing.

Three students were assigned to one treatment group and four to another. It appeared, however, that both groups received the same intervention; each intervention group participated in 30 lessons. The four phases of treatment included baseline, during intervention, post intervention, and follow-up. Children in both groups were assessed during each phase on the Nonsense Words Fluency of the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, Oral Reading Fluency, Total Disruptive Behavior, and Negative Social Interaction.

Results of this study included improved literacy skills and a decrease in disruptive behavior. However, the study had numerous limitations, one of the most important of which was the sample size. In addition, "of the 7 participants who started the intervention, 2 students did not complete the intervention" (p. 454). It is interesting to note that "Ted's teacher removed him from the project during the third week of intervention" (p. 455). It would be interesting to find out why Ted's teacher removed him. The authors concluded that "we are less clear about the extent to which the early literacy skills generalized to the classroom" (p. 455). This is understandable, given the type of literacy intervention that occurred.

The authors seem to have an impressive knowledge concerning standardized tests, research design, and traditional skills-based literacy programs. However, the limited number of authentic literacy tasks they used in this study indicates a less impressive knowledge of early literacy.

PHONEMIC AWARENESS IN KINDERGARTEN AND FIRST GRADE. Abbott, M., Walton, C., & Greenwood, C., Teaching Exceptional Children, 2002, 34(4), 20-26. Phonemic awareness, the authors state, is "an understanding of how spoken language is linked to written language. Specifically, it is the ability to first distinguish and then manipulate the individual sound units, or phonemes, in words" (p. 25). This study was based on the assumption that "phonemic awareness was a strong predictor of subsequent reading achievement" (p. 20). This study described three phonemic-awareness interventions, divided into the following three mini-reports: Year 1: Kindergarten Intervention; Year 2: 1st-grade Intervention; and Year 3: Expanded 1st-grade Intervention. Only the kindergarten intervention is reviewed here.

Twenty-seven students qualified for the kindergarten study, based on" (a) having parental permission, (b) not receiving English-as-a-second language (ESL) instruction, and (c) being long-term residents and likely to remain at the school during the course of the study" (p. 21). Six of these 27 students were chosen for the study, but one child left the school during the study. During the kindergarten phase of the study, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) was used to measure progress. The students participated in shared book activities for 30 minutes, two times per week. Then, based on the DIBELS measurements, students were assigned to a high, medium, or low group to receive 20 minutes of instruction each day at a learning center. Interestingly, the principal of the school intervened and said that "phonemic segmentation skills were beyond the ability of kindergarten students" (p. 22), and so implementation strategies were changed to exclude segmentation. At the end of the year, the students' skills in letter naming and onset fluency improved, but actually decreased in the phonemic segmentation skill.

Perhaps unintentionally, the authors have provided an example of the continuing debate on early literacy instruction. As they reported, "The research staff discussed current research on phonemic awareness with the principal, but she remained adamant" about excluding segmentation (p. 22). I understand the administrator's concerns. While children's phonemic awareness abilities may be a predictor of later success in literacy, early reading is not limited to phonemic awareness. Two additional valuable readings on this subject are Debbie Miller's (2002) Reading With Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades and Frank Smith's (2003) Unspeakable Acts/Unnatural Practices: Flaws and Fallacies in "Scientific" Reading Instruction.

READY TO LEARN: Teaching Kindergarten Students School Success Skills. Brigman, G., & Webb, L., Journal of Educational Research, 2003, 96(5), 286-292. Attention, listening comprehension, and social skills are considered three of the most important requisites for success in school. Brigman and Webb looked at the Reading to Learn (RTL) curriculum and its effectiveness in "improving the prerequisite learning skills in 12 kindergarten classes (260 students) in 3 demographically similar elementary schools" (p. 286). Teachers in this study were taught to use the RTL curriculum and then used rive teaching strategies from this curriculum every day.

Students in the intervention group scored significantly higher on measures of listening comprehension and on a behavior rating scale. The authors concluded that "entire classrooms of students can be taught the prerequisite learning skills associated with school success and that students can transfer these new behaviors to increase achievement (listening comprehension)" (p. 291).

While this study was conducted with a predominantly white, suburban middle class population in the southern United States, other studies using the curriculum have been conducted with urban African American preschoolers and with an ethnically diverse group of rural 1st-graders. Because the curriculum is based on strategies that are the best "predictors of long-term school success" (p. 287), more studies using this curriculum should be pursued.

IMPROVING EARLY SCHOOL SUCCESS. Pianta, R., & La Paro, K., Educational Leadership, 2003, 60(7), 24-29. Pianta and La Paro describe their research in the areas of school readiness, classroom quality, and teaching practices over the past several years. They found there is "little support for the usefulness of pre-school assessments as predictors of later functioning" (p. 26). Consequently, Pianta and La Paro suggest that "approaches to enhancing early school success may be more effective if they focus on the broader issues of school transition rather than the readiness of individual children" (p. 27),

In examining teaching practices in pre-kindergarten through 1st grade, the authors round that"early childhood classrooms vary widely in the activities in which children participate and in the quality of the classroom environment" (p. 27). For example, they found that some kindergarten classrooms offered no literacy experiences during a half-day observation, while others offered only literacy activities. They described early childhood classrooms as socially supportive but academically passive. Although the early childhood classrooms were "well-organized, busy places, these classrooms appeared low in intentionality--directed, designed interactions between children and teachers in which teachers purposefully challenged, scaffolded, and extended children's skills" (p. 28).

Pianta and La Paro conclude that "we need to define an appropriate instructional curriculum and provide professional development to teachers in how to deliver that curriculum through rich, active, feedback-producing interactions that offer children opportunities to think, solve problems, and actively practice skills" (p. 28).


Hagtvet, B.E. (2001, July). Early literacy stimulation in a preventative perspective. Paper presented at the 12th European Conference on Reading, Dublin, Ireland.

Mhic Mhathuna, M. (2001, July). Bilingual narrative: Young children's response to stories in Irish. Paper presented at the 12th European Conference on Reading, Dublin, Ireland.

Miller, D. (2002). Reading with meaning: Teaching comprehension in the the primary grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Shefelbine, J. (1998). Phonics chapters books 1-6: Teachers guide. New York: Scholastic.

Smith, F. (2003). Unspeakable acts/unnatural practices: Flaws and fallacies in "scientific" reading instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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Title Annotation:Among The Periodicals
Author:Aldridge, Jerry
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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