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July 25, 2010

Language vs. Literacy

One thing that my position as a child development specialist has given me is a deep respect for different styles of educating young children. Each day when I walk into a classroom, I observe the strengths, weaknesses and distinct individuality of various teaching approaches – especially when it came to building children’s language development and literacy skills.


Over time, I became aware of how the state-certified teachers I supervised in public school settings had certain strengths that made them extremely effective in their surroundings. Most notably, they had excellent behavior management skills and a strong understanding of the literacy curriculum. Their instruction styles differed, but they all implemented systematic, meaningful, and explicit literacy instruction to hone their emergent literacy teaching. The outcome was that the scores on their students’ emergent literacy screenings were generally high. The two areas of weakness that seemed to crop up in their students’ testing were vocabulary development and social-emotional development.


I also observed that in the child care partner sites, where teachers have a bachelor’s degree or a child development associate’s degree, they spend lots of time talking with their students. The students primary language was often the same language that their teachers taught in. These teachers had fully embraced the idea of developmentally appropriate practice and child-directed learning.  It was really inspiring to see them in action developing the language skills of their students. However, their literacy screening scores were not where they could have been yet they had the same materials, and for at least one year, the same training as the school-based teachers.


Recently, in my research I came across an article that explained the discrepancies I was noticing in the classroom. In the study, Quality of Language and Literacy Instruction in Preschool Classrooms Serving At-risk Pupils (Justice, Mashburn, Hamre, and Pianta, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 2008), the researchers compared the effectiveness of teachers using both scripted curriculum and child-directed teaching.


The study found that the quality of instruction received was more important than fidelity to a procedural literacy curriculum. This has huge implications for a teacher or director trying to help kids become successful readers. It suggests that what those child care partners were doing, in supporting their students and honoring their social emotional development, is just as important as what the school-based teachers did – implementing a scientifically based reading curriculum.


If we are to support language development and emergent literacy, both linked to student achievement in later grades (PDF), we have to support both, even though this means subscribing to more than one best way to teach.


Thank-you, great info! This is especially important to acknowledge in light of the increase in autism spectrum diagnosis our children are experiencing these days. Helping all children experience genuine positive interactions is particularly crucial for supporting development. A great deal of creativity, flexibility, and sensitivity is often required from the adults who work with children who are experiencing significant challenges processing "typical" social exchanges and settings.

Thank you! As early childhood educators we are always finding a way to balance our daily classroom lives. After reading this post, for me, it reinforces that we can take our cues from the students and turn it into meaningful learning for them.

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