Thoughts on early literacy

Thoughts and research from Dr Julian Grenier on early literacy

Early literacy skills of reading and writing develop in parallel and are closely interwoven. They require a slightly different sets of skills, but as the skills of reading develop and strengthen, so do the skills of writing. So we need to think of them together. The process of making sense of those black marks on the page, and beginning to make your own marks on paper starts early. It starts with talking – talk helps literacy skills develop and provides the raw material for written communication.

The literacy environment

Children start school with a vocabulary mainly learnt from their family and the literacy environment at home, as well as from their experiences with the wider world. At first, child’s spoken vocabulary is usually much larger than their reading or written vocabulary. They will use words they have heard and understand in their everyday life. They will gradually acquire the beginnings of their reading or writing vocabulary from their immediate surroundings, their family and friends. There are so many words in the world – for a young child to grasp them, they must be both useful and connected to a memorable experience.

When the daily number of words for each group of children was projected across four years, the four- year-old child from the professional family will have heard 45 million words, the working-class child 26 million, and the welfare child only 13 million. Increased vocabulary depends on good parenting, particularly before the age of 7 (Biemiller 2003). Children mainly use words their parents and other adults use with them in conversation, and develop larger vocabularies when their parents use more words (Hart and Risley, 1995).

The word gap

The fundamental instincts of good parents, whatever their social class, are usually correct. The word gap among those children has nothing to do with how much those parents love them. They all love their children and want the best for them, but some parents have a better idea of what needs to be said and done to reach that best. They know the child needs to hear words repeatedly in meaningful sentences and questions, and they know that plunking a two-year-old down in front of a television set for three hours at a time is more harmful than  meaningful.

When they start school, relatively high performing children know an average estimated vocabulary of 7100 words. In contrast, relatively poor performing pupils know 3000 words, acquiring only one word per day compared to the three words per day acquired by children with the largest vocabularies. This gap widens as children get older. And the wider the gap, the harder it is to bridge. Vocabulary is a strong indicator of reading success (Biemiller, 2003). It was established in the 1970s that children’s declining reading comprehension compared to more able peers from age 8 onwards largely resulted from a lack of vocabulary knowledge (Becker, 1977), and that this was primarily caused by a lack of learning opportunities, not a lack of natural ability. Chall et al. (1990) also found that disadvantaged students showed declining reading comprehension as their narrow vocabulary limited what they could understand from texts.

Language is related to movement. Back in the Stone Age, human beings were making flint axes. The social nature of making axes out of flint developed in parallel to language – language development still resides in an area of the brain that overlaps with the area used for more  complex cross body movements. This link is one of the reasons why we are required to place the early learning of literacy within children’s self-chosen activity, and to make sure these activities happen in real and meaningful contexts. Opportunities for early reading and writing should be “real” and available everywhere – notebooks, whiteboards and pens, shopping lists, print in the environment and so on.


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