You know the old saying, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it….” Well, similarly, we have to wonder, “If something is good for children but can’t be measured, is it still good for children?”
Authors of a November 2011 article in Young Children examined the ways that research from the National Early Literacy Panel has been interpreted in literature and applied in classrooms. Part of the article offers great news on how research has informed and improved practice. But there were concerns and caveats as well.
One critique that stood out to me, was their concern that oral language skills are difficult to authentically measure. As a result, in research the link between oral language and literacy skills appears to be weaker than the relationship between alphabet knowledge and literacy skills.
In application, the authors fear that more emphasis is put on alphabet knowledge, and little attention is paid to things like oral language skills. But literacy experts would agree that oral language is very much a critical part of building literacy skills. The skill is complex and fluid and thereby much more difficult to measure than is drilling through a sheet full of letters to test alphabet knowledge. But the ease of testing doesn’t have anything to do with how children learn to read. Oral language skills do. As do phonological awareness and print concepts. Unfortunately, for some teachers, the focus remains almost entirely on alphabet awareness as a literacy foundation.
When components of emergent literacy are dissected and examined some teachers forget that in this case, the combined whole is much greater than the individual parts. Alphabet awareness is a component of literacy, not literacy itself. Unfortunately when research isolates literacy skills to better understand them, some begin focusing on those individual aspects in dangerously disproportionate and disconnected ways.
In addition to overemphasizing alphabet awareness at the expense of other literacy components, the authors point out that in some cases literacy instruction has begun to replace other necessary learning experiences in areas like math, science, and social skills as well as valuable opportunities for play. They also note that narrow interpretations have led to drilling skills and other methods that are not developmentally appropriate for preschoolers.
I am quite in favor of being aware of research and using it to influence curriculum decisions, but when we forget to use our own good sense in applying it, the attempt may be counter-productive.
Reference: “The National Early Literacy Panel and Preschool Literacy Instruction: Green Lights, Caution Lights, and Red Lights” Young Children. November, 2011. By Kathleen A. Paciga, Jessica L. Hoffman, & William H. Teale.