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There are many ways that children make connections with writing and reading, and many pathways into literacy. This article explores the range and diversity of early literacy experiences and suggests that there are many ways that children make connections with writing and reading, and many pathways to literacy.
By Joan Brooks McLane and Gillian Dowley McNamee, Erikson Institute. This article was edited from the Zero to Three Journal, September 1991.
Jennifer’s pretend reading makes it clear that she is interested in reading and stories. She does not yet know how to read (or write) in a conventional sense, but she pretends to know. Playing with reading is one way she learns about written language and how it can be used. This incident also shows how familiar Jennifer already is with reading—two leaves can serve as her “text” and she can invent a simple but coherent story and tell it in a voice that accurately mimics a reading intonation. And it indicates that Jennifer finds reading interesting and pleasurable—as well as a good way to capture her father’s attention.
There are many ways that children make connections with writing and reading, and many pathways into literacy. Writing and reading can enter young children’s lives in a variety of ways. Early experiences with literacy may be initiated by the child or by other people, they may be playful or work-like, and may take place at home, in the neighborhood or in community settings such as preschools, daycare centers, and churches. Early literacy experiences can include pretending to write and read stories and poems, writing a thank-you letter to a distant grandmother, receiving instruction in how to form the letters of one’ name, listening to a story being read aloud, or reading passages from the Bible. The range and diversity of early literacy experiences suggests that there are many ways that children make connections with writing and reading, and many pathways to literacy.
Bridges to Literacy
Literacy development often starts in young children’s early symbol using activities: in talking, in play and fantasy, in scribbling and drawing, in pretend reading and writing. Between the ages of 1-5 children learn to use symbols they invent for themselves and those “donated by the culture” (Gardner & Wolf, 1979, p.vii). The use of symbols—which may include words, gestures, marks on paper, objects modeled in clay, and so forth—makes it possible to represent experience, feelings and ideas. Symbols also allow children to go beyond the immediate here and now and to create imaginary worlds. This is what they do when they talk about storybook plots, when they make up stories, engage in pretend play, or draw images on paper—and later when they read books and write stories. As children begin to experiment with writing and reading, often in playful ways, they may find they can use these new symbolic modes in some of the same ways they used earlier developed symbolic forms—so that talking, drawing, and playing can serve as “bridges” to literacy, as children discover that writing and reading offer them new and interesting resources for constructing and communicating meaning (Gundlach, 1982; Dyson, 1986; Vygotsky, 1978).
Play: Making Connections with Writing and Reading
As children mature, their pretend play and the symbolic transformations they use to create and sustain it become increasingly elaborate, complex, and abstract. With development, pretend play becomes less dependent on physical props, gestures, and actions, and relies increasingly on ideas, imagination, and language. Children often employ abundant, rich language in pretend play. An increasing proportion of the time devoted to pretend play is spent in talk, as children discuss the setting, the characters or roles, and the plots they will enact in their play. Indeed, at times it seems as though “the saying is the playing (Garvey Berndt, 1975, p.9).” As pretend play becomes increasingly dependent on language to create possible worlds and to express and communicate meanings, it comes closer to the experiences of storytelling, writing, and reading.
In play the focus is on exploring rather than on accomplishing predetermined ends or goals, so there are few pressures to produce correct answers or final products. Play’s nonliteral, not-for-real, “not-for-profit” orientation allows players the freedom to manipulate materials, experiences, roles and ideas in new, creative, experimental, “as if” ways (Bruner, 1977, p.v; Garvey, 1974). Play thus creates a risk-free context in which children do not have to worry about “getting it right” or about “messing up.” This freedom may lead children to discover or invent possibilities—new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking about ideas—which may, in turn, lead them to new questions, problems, and solutions. Approaching writing and reading with such an experimental, “as if” attitude may help children realize that written language is something they can manipulate in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. “Playing at writing and reading—by scribbling, drawing, pretending to write, or pretending to read—may serve to open up the activities of writing and reading for children’s consideration and exploration (Bruner, 1976; Sutton-Smith, 1979).
Pretend play often involves reversals of everyday, real-life roles and power relationships. When they pretend, children can enact powerful roles such as mother, father, doctor, fireman, witch, monster, writer, and reader and take on the competencies that come with these roles, as Joshua did when he “wrote” and “read” the “ABC News”. In doing this, Joshua assumed the confidence and power of someone who can write and read, and engaged in writing and reading on his own terms, defining them as he was able to carry them out at the moment.
Play thus encourages children to act as if they are already competent in and about to control the activity under consideration: they can act as if they know how to cook, put out fires, kill monsters, read books, or write stories. Playing with the roles of writer and reader can give children a sense of ownership of these roles. Through play, children may come to feel that they are writers and readers long before they actually have the necessary skills and knowledge to write and read. The feelings of competence and control that can be seen in children such as Jennifer and Joshua are likely to nourish assumptions and expectations about becoming literate, and to give children the motivation to work at learning to write and read.
Literacy and Relationships
In other words, early literacy development does not simply happen; rather, it is part of a social process, embedded in children’s relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, caretakers, and teachers. To understand the beginnings of literacy, one must study the environments in which young children develop, and the ways in which these settings provide opportunities for children to become involved with books, paper, and writing materials. Early experiences with literacy are part of the relationships, activities, and settings of young children’s everyday lives. It is people who make writing and reading interesting and meaningful to young children. Family members, caretakers, and teachers play critical roles in early literacy development by serving as models, providing materials, demonstrating their use, offering help, instruction, and encouragement, and communicating hopes and expectations. To their interactions with young children, these people bring their own attitudes and expectations, both conscious and unconscious, about writing and reading, and about the child’s eventual development as a writer and reader (Gundlach, McLane, Stott & McNamee, 1985).
The Beginning of Writing
The Beginning of Reading
As children are read to they acquire an enormous amount of information about reading and the world of books. They learn what books are, what you do with them, and how you talk about them (Snow & Ninio, 1986; Teale, 1982). They learn that written words can create imaginary worlds beyond the immediate here and now. They learn that written language has its own rhythms and conventions. They learn about specific features of written languages: for example, that the black marks on the page are letters and words, and that print goes from left to right and from top to bottom on the page. Gradually, children learn that the reader is reconstructing the story through the words written on the page—that print has a precise and unchanging meaning. And, perhaps most important, they come to expect that books will be interesting, challenging, exciting, and comforting, developing, in Holdaway’s words, “high expectations of print” (1979).
One way that children show us they are learning from being read to is through pretending to read storybooks by themselves. Don Holdaway was probably the first to point out that very young children who are read to frequently spend a great deal of time on their own with favorite storybooks, pretending to read them and reenacting the behaviors they observed while they were being read to. In observing a number of children between the ages of 2 and 5 “reading” favorite storybooks, Holdaway was struck by how hard the children worked to recapture the meaning of the stories: “They have remembered very little of the surface verbal level: what they have remembered most firmly is the meanings (Holdaway, l979, p. 44).” The children were not giving a memorized rendition of a story, but were, instead, working to construct the message of the story using the rhythms and sounds of language in which they first heard the message.
Elizabeth Sulzby (l985) describes a progression of changes in children’s pretend reading as they gradually approach independent reading. Preschoolers’ reading of favorite books is, for the most part, guided by “reading” the pictures in the book. Young children hold the book and turn the page quite deliberately, while naming or commenting on what they see in the pictures. In time, and as they become more familiar with the story, they “read” the book by making up a story, creating a rough story line that follows the sequence of pictures. Gradually the language they use in “reading” (while still looking at the pictures), sounds more like real reading–the child’s voice and intonation come to sound like written language read aloud.
It is clear that over the months and years of being read to, children learn many of the subtle details of behavior and speaking that go with reading a book. Pretend reading allows children to role-play, to reenact and try out the behaviors, skills and thinking processes that are part of reading. This long period of play brings children very close to actual reading.
What is the relationship between early experiences with literacy and later, long-term literacy development? There are as yet no definitive answers to this question, but as in other aspects of psychological development, we assume that there is a relationship between early literacy experience and later mature literacy. How this relationship unfolds for a particular child will depend on several factors which interact with one another in complex ways. These include the child’s interests, temperament and personality, opportunities at home and in the neighborhood for writing and reading, as well as the nature and quality of the instruction the child encounters in school.