Understanding Literacy Development in Early Childhood Education

Literacy as Ferreiro-Teberosky

Contact with the Written Word

Children start learning the writing system in diverse contexts long before formal schooling. Writing is an integral part of the urban landscape, and urban life constantly demands its use. Children as young as five generally understand the difference between writing and drawing. At this age, distinguishing between “letters” and “numbers” isn’t as crucial as recognizing that these marks serve specific purposes – reading and writing.

The inquiry into the nature and function of letters and numbers begins in real-world contexts. Children are cognitively engaged from an early age, absorbing information from various sources:

  • Texts in their natural environments: books, newspapers, street signs, packaging, clothing, TV, video games, computers, etc.
  • Direct instruction: adults reading stories, identifying letters and numbers, writing names, answering questions, etc.
  • Participation in social events: reading newspapers for information, understanding restaurant menus, using calendars, receiving letters, etc.

Through consistent exposure to such situations, children grasp the significance of writing in society. By the time they enter primary school, urban children possess a foundational understanding of written language, shaped by their social experiences.

The concept of “literacy maturity” relies heavily on social opportunities for engagement with written language. It’s counterproductive to isolate children from written language while “waiting for maturity.” Traditional drills, focused on perceptual and motor skills, neglect the complex cognitive processes involved in reconstructing oral language and fostering reflection.

What Can Educators Do to Support Early Literacy?

  1. Contextualize learning: Connect reading and writing to real-life situations and social purposes.
  2. Encourage experimentation: Provide a print-rich environment and opportunities for children to freely explore written marks.
  3. Model reading and writing: Read aloud to children and let them see you write for various purposes.
  4. Promote independent writing: Encourage children to write freely, without the pressure of copying models.
  5. Support early reading attempts: Encourage children to use contextual clues and recognize similarities and differences in letter strings.
  6. Play with language: Engage children in activities that highlight similarities and differences in sounds.

Classrooms should be filled with reading materials. Give children ample opportunities to interact with written language and learn. As Vygotsky stated, “learning at school always has a prehistory.” Children enter the classroom with existing knowledge and experiences that form the foundation for future learning.

Understanding the Challenges of Learning to Write

Children face conceptual difficulties when encountering the writing systems of letters and numbers. To effectively use these elements, they must comprehend their construction and rules of production. This raises fundamental questions about the relationship between reality and its representation. If writing is viewed as a transcription code, learning becomes a technical skill. However, if writing is understood as a system of representation, learning transforms into acquiring a new object of knowledge – a conceptual understanding.

The Importance of Children’s Writing

Adults often overlook or dismiss children’s early writing attempts. However, these productions offer valuable insights into their developing understanding of the writing system. When children write, they demonstrate their current hypotheses about how words should be represented. These attempts, often labeled as scribbles or “pretend writing,” should be interpreted and valued as evidence of their cognitive processes.

Analyzing Children’s Writing

Early writing, from a figural perspective, might appear as wavy lines, fragmented strokes, or repetitive elements. However, focusing solely on the figural aspects ignores the crucial constructive aspects – the child’s intention and the methods used to differentiate representations.

Figural aspects refer to the visual qualities of the writing – layout, spatial distribution, orientation of forms and individual characters.

Constructive aspects delve into the meaning children intend to convey and the strategies employed to distinguish between representations.

Research reveals a surprisingly consistent developmental progression in children’s writing across cultures, educational backgrounds, and languages.

Periods of Development

Three broad periods, with overlapping phases, characterize this evolution:

  1. Distinguishing between iconic and non-iconic representation
  2. Constructing forms of differentiation (quantitative and qualitative variations)
  3. Phonetic writing (progressing from syllabic to alphabetic)

Phases of Writing Acquisition

1. Undifferentiated Writing

  • Children begin to differentiate between figurative drawing and non-figurative writing, though not always consistently.
  • The distinction between “drawing” and “writing” is paramount. Drawing relies on iconic representation, while writing moves beyond the visual resemblance to objects.
  • Arbitrariness of form and linear ordering are early characteristics of pre-writing. Children adopt conventional letter forms early on.
  • Writing in this phase imitates the act of writing but doesn’t represent anything beyond the script itself.
  • Children differentiate writing from other graphic marks but don’t attribute meaning to it.
  • Productions might resemble scribbles, random strings of letters, or repeated patterns.
  • A transitional step involves selecting a stable group of letters, not necessarily all conventional, to represent different meanings.

2. Differentiated Writing

  • The distinction between figurative and non-figurative marks solidifies, and children recognize writing as a substitute for objects (representation).
  • Children focus on creating distinctions between their written representations.
  • Intra-relational criteria emerge, dictating the properties a written text needs for interpretation (e.g., minimum number of letters, internal variations).
  • Children gradually incorporate conventional forms through observation and environmental models.
  • They understand that words “say something” and begin forming hypotheses about meaning.
  • Perceptual differences in writing are attributed to different meanings, mirroring the conventional system.
  • Children seek objective ways to differentiate between scripts to convey distinct meanings.
  • Inter-relational criteria develop, focusing on systematic ways to differentiate between one written piece and another.
  • Children explore quantitative (varying letter quantities) and qualitative (changing letter types, positions) differentiation strategies.
  • A significant shift occurs as children discover the relationship between spoken and written language.

3. Syllabic Writing

  • Children’s attention shifts to the sound properties of language, marking the entry into phonetic writing.
  • They discover that parts of the script (words) correspond to parts of spoken words (syllables).
  • The syllabic hypothesis emerges: children attempt to match the number of letters to the number of syllables in a word.
  • This hypothesis allows for regularizing letter quantities and focuses attention on sound variations between words.
  • Conflicts arise between the syllabic hypothesis and the minimum letter requirement for interpretation (e.g., monosyllabic words).
  • Contradictions emerge when comparing their writing to adult models, which consistently have more letters than the syllabic hypothesis predicts.
  • Children begin acquiring relatively stable sound-letter correspondences (syllabic values).
  • This leads to qualitative correlations, where similar-sounding parts of words are represented by similar letters.
  • The initial connection between spoken and written language is established through the segmentation of speech into syllables.
  • Children experiment with different ways to represent syllables: a single letter, a vowel, a vowel and consonant.

4. Syllabic-Alphabetic Writing

  • While often considered a distinct phase, it’s more accurately a transitional period between syllabic and alphabetic writing.
  • Children begin representing some syllables with more than one letter, particularly initial or final syllables.
  • This phase exhibits characteristics of both syllabic and alphabetic writing, with a gradual increase in the use of multiple letters per syllable.

5. Alphabetic Writing

  • Conflicts arising from the syllabic hypothesis and exposure to conventional writing lead children to re-analyze syllables into smaller units (phonemes).
  • Children discover the alphabetic principle – the systematic relationship between letters and sounds.
  • New challenges arise: inconsistent letter-sound correspondences, spelling complexities.
  • Children grapple with silent letters, multiple spellings for the same sound, and other orthographic conventions.
  • The concept of “invented spelling” emerges, where children represent pronunciation in a regular and consistent manner.

6. Orthographic Phase

  • This ongoing phase involves mastering the spelling conventions of the language.
  • Children learn about silent letters, alternative spellings, punctuation, capitalization, and other orthographic rules.

Implications for Teaching

  • Literacy development is a complex process that begins long before formal schooling.
  • Children are active learners who construct their understanding of the writing system through exploration and interaction.
  • Teachers should provide a print-rich environment, model reading and writing, and encourage children’s attempts without overemphasis on correctness.
  • Assessment should focus on understanding children’s developing strategies and providing appropriate support.

Reading: More Than Just Recognizing Letters

Literate adults often equate reading with letter recognition and sound knowledge. However, reading comprehension involves a much broader range of skills and knowledge.

Consider the experience of trying to read a text in an unfamiliar script (e.g., Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese). While initially daunting, individuals can still glean information by drawing upon their knowledge of text structure, conventions, and context.

For instance, they might identify the object as a book, newspaper, or magazine, and anticipate its organization based on genre conventions. They might recognize numbers, differentiate between uppercase and lowercase letters, and identify punctuation marks. Visual cues like photographs and diagrams provide further clues for interpretation.

This exercise highlights that reading comprehension extends far beyond decoding individual letters. It involves activating prior knowledge, making predictions, searching for confirming or disconfirming evidence, and constructing meaning from the text.

Children as Readers

Like adults facing unfamiliar scripts, young children approach reading with their existing knowledge and experiences. While they might not possess the same level of background knowledge as adults, they still engage in active problem-solving and meaning-making processes.

Children use contextual clues, visual cues, and their understanding of language to make sense of written text. They gradually develop strategies for decoding, predicting, and monitoring their comprehension.

Rethinking Methodological Practices

A. The Sequencing of Reading and Writing

The traditional approach of teaching reading before writing, prevalent in some educational systems, stems from viewing literacy as a technical skill. However, this separation overlooks the interconnected nature of reading and writing in the child’s process of understanding the writing system.

When children engage in both reading and writing, they are actively constructing their understanding of how language is represented. Writing allows them to test their hypotheses about sound-letter relationships, word boundaries, and text structure, while reading provides them with models and opportunities to apply their developing knowledge.

B. The Presentation of Letters and Words

Debates about the order of introducing letters and words often revolve around notions of “easy” versus “difficult.” However, these judgments often fail to consider the child’s perspective and the information they encounter in their environment.

Children living in urban settings are constantly bombarded with written language. They see letters in various fonts and styles, arranged in different ways. Attempting to control the order and manner in which children encounter letters is unrealistic and ignores the richness of their everyday experiences.

Instead of limiting children’s exposure to letters and words, educators should leverage their natural curiosity and the abundance of print in their surroundings. Creating a print-rich classroom environment, providing opportunities for authentic reading and writing experiences, and engaging children in meaningful discussions about language are far more effective than artificial constraints.

The Role of the Teacher

and the dynamics of social relations within and outside the classroom. It is important to note that in no way follows from this that the teacher should be limited to mere spectator of a spontaneous process. Ana Teberosky was in Barcelona, ​​the first who dared to make a learning experience on the basis of what, in my opinion, there are three simple but fundamental ideas: a) let in and get out for extra-curricular information available, all the consequences that entails; b) the teacher is not the only one who can read and write in the classroom, everyone can read and write, everyone at their level; c) children who are not yet literate may contribute usefully to their own literacy and their peers, when the discussion about the written representation of language becomes a school practice (Teberosky, 1982). Conclusions From the foregoing it is clear that, from our point of view, necessary changes to meet new standards on the initial literacynot resolved with a new teaching method, or with new test of maturity or pre-screening, or with new materials (particularly new reading books.) We need to change the point where we move the focus of our discussions. We have an impoverished image of the written language: it is necessary to reintroduce the consideration of literacy writing as a system of representation of language. We have an impoverished image of the child who learns: it down to a pair of eyes, a pair of ears, a hand that takes an instrument for marking and phonatory apparatus that emits sounds. Behind that there is a knower, someone who thinks that builds interpretations, which acts on reality to make it yours. A new method does not resolve the problems. You have to reanalyze practices introduction to written language, trying to see the assumptions that underlie them, and to what extent transformation function as selective filters and distorting any innovative proposal. The intervention of the teacher: How to teach? Not only the influence of the teacher and his methodology which makes the student learn, but it gives an important role in pre-school experiences and out-of children, and their expectations and motivation towards the object of knowledge. In this context, we think that the aims and intentions of the teacher does not necessarily coincide with the assumptions, interests and motivations of the child, making it necessary to take into account that the same teaching and learning situation will lead to different interpretations and should therefore different degrees of significance in the different subjects. The essential idea is to adjust constructivist educational support through teacher-student interaction. This interaction must take into account that in terms of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” understood as what the child knows and is able to resolve by itself and that which is able to solve with the help of an adult or in collaboration with other children, which involves setting an individualized teaching from teacher-student pedagogical dialogue to adjust the quantity and quality of educational assistance to the perceived needs in carrying out learning activities. These findings lead us to the following considerations: – The teaching methods are not adequate or inadequate in themselves, but according to the teacher’s pedagogical support conform fully to the needs of the student. – With a single proposal or teaching and learning situation, the teacher should expect and accept different answers depending on the different conceptual levels and significance. – The different responses made by students should not be considered, as has been done traditionally, as “mistakes” but as approximate and progressive stages, eventually leading to the formation of the concept. – The teacher must take care that the contents of knowledge has an internal logic, ie it is well structured and is not arbitrary-logical significance, and that also takes into account students’ prior knowledge to address the acquisition of new knowledge (psychological significance). Characteristics of situations: – The reading and writing situations should be as close as possible to real situations to read and write. Children should have the opportunity to read and write different texts for different purposes. – Must allow children to make choices and participate in the selection of texts and / or group with which to perform a specific job. – Should enable all children to participate in the writing of a text according to their level of conceptualization, therefore, proposed activities must be open and allow different responses.- Should facilitate the exchange of information between the same children and between children and teacher. – In every situation of teaching and learning is important to differentiate the time of completion of a written reflection on formal aspects, leading to the correction. – The writing and reading situations can begin and end in themselves, or can be articulated in a larger project, so that different types of text are organized around a theme. – The situations can be for group activities, small group or individual. When working in small groups is necessary to note that: * We facilitate dialogue between children and between teacher-child relationship. * It is always important to gather input from children at lower levels. * The final product of the texts that occur in groups are always made from the highest levels. – You can swap and trade information between students who are within a zone of proximal development, that is, those whose level of conceptualization of writing is about. – It is important that over the course the children to participate in evaluating their own progress, and help them compare, for example, work with those who were first written. – From the earliest days children can anticipate the issue that will be written and formal or notional aspects on which to play a role.