Learning to Become Literate
“In any literate society, people constantly see the best way to teach children how to read and write so that the younger generation can become fully functioning members of that society.” (Savage 15) This is obviously an important goal of any society that wants their children to be well educated and succeed in the world. Learning to be literate is a very important developmental milestone that is recognized cross-culturally. Its social importance is shown in the fact that in school; literacy makes up 2/3 of the three “R’s”. (Savage 15)
When becoming literate the most important thing a child can learn is that they can in fact learn in the way their school wants them to. They can be part of the school society and feel like they fit in with their friends who use literacy to communicate and play. “The bond between the teacher and the taught is strengthened; exploration, discovery, ambition and achievement expand and flourish.” (Meek 1) Reading and writing opens up a new world of opportunities for children and therefore is continuous research being done in order to ensure that the best methods of teaching our children are implemented. However studies show that a large portion of this milestone occurs before formal education is ever begun. (McLane and McNamee 4)
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The fact that we wait so long to start to teach our children literacy is absurd. Teaching reading and writing should be done to all children in day care facilities, child development centers as well as head start programs and preschools. We cannot however just take the programs currently used in first grade classes and apply them to children in day cares and preschools. These would be developmentally inappropriate. (Strickland and Morrow 5) The program used for these younger learners must be based around “meaningful activities that involve reading and writing in a wide variety of ways.” The children should want to participate in the literate society that they are surrounded by everyday in their classroom, home and community. If this is accomplished there will automatically be a connection between literacy and experience, which is very beneficial to the learning process. Most importantly in the early childhood literacy curriculum that we apply the focus should always be on the child’s learning and not on the teaching. (6)
Since a large portion of learning to become literate occurs prior to formal education parents need to be aware of what they can do before their children reach school age. (McLane and McNamee 4) “Family members, caretakers and teachers play critical roles in early literacy development by serving as models, providing materials, demonstrating their use, reading to children, offering help, instruction and encouragement and communicating hopes and expectations.” (143) It is important that we as a society, and as parents or caretakers work to understand what we can do in order to give our children every advantage we can when it comes to literacy.
In order to understand the development of literacy we must study two things. First the environment in which the child will grow up and develop in. Secondly, the ways in
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which these settings will provide the opportunity for the child to be involved with things such as books, paper and writing tools. This is important because in our westernized culture literacy begins prior to formal education. This could be in the places like the home or other community settings like preschool and daycare. (McLane and McNamee 4)
Some believe literacy occurs biologically. This is entirely false. Children will not become interested in reading or writing unless they are around it and observe it. (7) This isn’t a difficult task because children are almost around it whether parents realize it or not. Parents and family members are models of literate behavior that young children will imitate and in turn learn. (90) Parents also give access to materials for reading such as packages of food, medication labels, cosmetics, junk mail and of course books. (89) Other sources include television shows like Sesame St., which highlights words, letters and sounds throughout the program. (65) Another source is nursery rhymes. A study in England showed that the children who knew more nursery rhymes at age three and a half could learn to read faster then those who knew fewer. (Bee 254) “Sight Vocabulary” is also attained around the house before formal education begins. This involves words that a child can recognize due to size, shape, color or way it is written. Examples include a stop sign, crest toothpaste, or McDonald’s. (66) The lack of these everyday items is highly associated with the lack of literacy. (89)
The first steps toward literacy can be shown between the ages of one to five where children use talking, drawing and playing as symbols to communicate meaning. These early forms of a child’s communication are said to be “bridges to literacy”. (11)
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Early writing skills are easily visible and include marks on paper, scribbling and drawing. Even these scribbles display characteristics of the writing if the child’s culture. Consequently, “the writings of four year olds from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and America will look different long before the children can write conventionally. (Strickland and Morrow 3) As time goes on children wills tart to try and attempt marks that look more and more like letters. Robert Gundlach calls this mix of writing and drawing a “mixed medium”. (Bee 5) The beginning stages of reading are less visible because it takes place internally. The child may act out the role of a reader, include books and pretend reading in dramatic play or include plots and characters from books in fantasy and pretend play. (6)
Children have a natural tendency to want to be literate. Some of the reasons for this include wanting to be able to communicate better with others, pure curiosity, a desire to be part of the family and the urge to “do it myself”. In this way children can be said to be “spontaneous apprentices” who want to learn about the written language by interacting with more competent writers and readers. (143) Since we know that children have a desire to be literate we need to better understand the methods of getting them there.

An effort has been made to analyze literacy from the perspective of a child. (Strickland and Morrow 2) From these efforts a “Portrait of Young Children as Literacy Learners” was put together. The first recognition that this perspective makes is that for most children in literate societies reading and writing starts very early in their life. Even as early as a few months of age parents are placing “soft alphabet books” in their child’s cribs and reading them stories. Things as simple as the aforementioned can be said to be,
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“the beginning of a lifelong process of learning to read and write”. The second characteristic of this perspective is that the functions of literacy are a large and important part of the learning process taking place. The reason literacy is developed is so that it can be used in real life settings where reading and writing are used to accomplish a goal. Studies by Heath, Taylor, Dorsey-Gaines and Teale ran observational studies in which it was shown that most literacy experience by children is literacy embedded in another activity with another goal besides literacy itself. Examples include using a recipe to make cookies or using the TV Guide to find a show they wish to watch. Teaching literacy as goal-oriented is important because it shows that literacy is functional instead of a set of “abstract, isolated skills” that need to be learned. The third part to this perspective is that when young child are first learning to become literate, the skills of both reading and writing are developing “concurrently and interrelatedly”. (3) When children develop their reading abilities it is very clear that this influences their writing abilities and vise-versa. It is also apparent that reading experiences will influences a child’s oral language. The last characteristic is that they learn best when actively engaged in the process of building their understanding of the written language. If they are in an environment where they are constantly exposed to literacy they will start trying to understand it and this will give them the tools they need to figure out language in the future.
“All children grow at different rates, have varying needs for emotional response and security, and have different levels of maturity in the mastery of language as a communication process.” (Zintz 4) Due to the fact that almost all children learn at different speeds teachers need to attempt to instruct them in different ways. (Bee 255)
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Research has been done recently to see if computers can help with this situation. They have found that computers can be flexible enough to give every student an appropriate learning environment. (Meyer and Rose 8) “Computers can play an important role in literacy development, but considerable care must be taken to identify what that role is.” (1) Reasons for using different methods include; children find some methods more suited to their abilities then others, no one method is best for all children and children should be given opportunities to use all methods in attempt to keep their reading abilities well rounded. (Baer 1) Two examples of these different methods are phonics and whole word. (Bee 255)
Teaching a child to read must begin with the basics and one of the most basic parts of reading is learning the vocabulary. There are numerous ways to do this and the first is “Building Word Meaning”. This starts with teaching a student the difference between content words, which are words that can be pictured in your mind such as a balloon and function words, which are used to signal grammatical functions. Examples of functions words include the, into, from and is. The emphasis in building word meaning is to learn a large amount of content words to store and use later. (Duffy 57)
Another way to explain vocabulary is “Categories of Word Meaning”. This can be used as a child gets older and in turn his or her classes get more difficult. At this point it is hard for the child to experience words all first hand. A lot of the learning is contingent on vicarious experiences, such as things they read about. Categorizing and subcategorizing is also a very important part of learning vocabulary. Good readers can do this naturally but some children have difficulty. Semantic mapping would be a good way
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to help those students having difficulty visualizing the different categories and subcategories. (63) The last way to explain vocabulary is to use “Context” to figure out the word meanings. This is said to be the most functional way to learn the meaning of a new word. This technique uses problem solving to use the words surrounding the unknown word in order to figure out its meaning. Once learned children will be able to increase their vocabulary independently and quickly. (71)
Another fundamental that needs to be taught are comprehension strategies. There are a large number of them and the first is “Predicting”. This means that the reader thinks about what is going to happen and then as they continue to read they keep updating their prediction. This strategy is universal in that any child listening to a story would predict what is going to happen at the end. (81) The next strategy is, “Monitoring, Questioning, and Repredicting”. The first strategy of predicting is the first step in this strategy. Then the reader moves on to enter a cycle, of monitoring, questioning and finally making a new prediction from the new information. This strategy emphasizes the point that, “good readers do not sit back and passively wait for meaning to come to them. They talk to themselves about the meaning they are building.” (87) Imaging is another strategy that good readers do “naturally”. By creating images a reading is like watching TV or a movie. However there are students who have difficulty using descriptive language to “create pictures in their minds” which means they do not create these images. (95) Another strategy is “Inferring”. This is when the reader “reads between the lines”. The author will not always state everything directly and it is up to the reader to infer what the author leaves out. Primarily this would include the mood or the traits of the characters.
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(102) “Look-Backs as Fix-It Strategies” are also very important. This is when the reader has a blockage and somehow does not pick up the information they need and therefore need to use problem-solving strategies to fix it. Also the strategy says “look-back” the reader can also read ahead to remove the meaning blockage. (109) These are some but not all of the strategies that should be presented when teaching someone to learn to read.
When learning to be literate, children bring with them their background knowledge. This includes all the learning they acquired from their background knowledge. They are also said to have a “rich” schemata, which is defined as the way which humans organize and store information. Besides these, children also bring three cueing systems; semantic, syntactic, and phonographic.

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Semantics is the study of meaning in language. This includes all words that the child knows. Since children’s vocabulary growth is rapid in the early years they can have an acquired listening/speaking vocabulary of 5,000 or more words before there are even introduced to formal reading. Using semantics children can sound out words and then draw from their background to attach meaning to the words hey read. (Savage 14)
Syntax is the basic structure of language or the way that words are arranged to convey a larger meaning. This includes grammatical rules. Although a child at first can’t tell the difference in the subject or object they understand the correct order to put words in a sentence. For example they know to say, “I want a cookie” and not, “Cookie want I a”. This basic knowledge of grammar allows a child to get meaning from reading.
The last cue a child has when learning to read is phonographic. This refers to the sound-symbol system of our language. Children can already pronounce most if not all of
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the phonemes (the basic indivisible unit of sound) in their sound system. Phonics then involves learning the corresponding symbols that represent these sounds so they can engage in reading meaningful text. (15) “Normal reading seems to begin, proceed, and end in meaning, and the source of meaningfulness must be the prior knowledge in the readers head. Nothing is comprehended is it does not reflect or elaborate on what the reader already knows.” (Weaver 14)
When thinking about learning to read a common question is how reading associates with the brain. Findings on brain activity during reading has shown that there is no “reading center”, but in fact several different parts of the brain are involved each having its own job. For example, the temporal lobe is responsible for hearing words whereas the occipital lobes are involved with seeing words. Even though each part has its own job they work together as a “network” to perform even the simplest task. There are three main systems in the brain. (Meyer and Rose 3) The first are the “Recognition Systems”. This includes most of the posterior or back half of the brain’s cortex. This section is focused on recognizing patterns. This helps us with “knowing that” the letters c-a-t make a pattern that spells the word cat. The next systems are the “Strategic Systems”. These are responsible for “knowing how” to do things. Such things include saying a word or reading a book. (4-5) The Last of the systems are the “Affective Systems”. This is the network that is responsible for “feeling”. Feeling such things as fear, sadness, loneliness, and happiness. They perceive whether the patterns we recognize matter to us. In reading these systems focus on letting the reader direct their attention to the text event though there are millions of competing stimuli. (6)
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When asked the question “What is reading anyway?” children responded with such things as; “Filling out workbooks”, “Pronouncing the letters” and “It’s when you find out things”. (1) The point is that children don’t think about how important it is to be literate. They don’t understand that this milestone of learning to read and write is something that they will use everyday for the rest of their lives once they achieve it. Since they cannot yet comprehend this we as a society must convey to them that it is a necessity. Although the most important part isn’t proving that it is important to learn to read and write, it is just that they learn to. “Literacy is a goal in any civilized society and an increasingly important competency in today’s complex world”. (Savage 15)
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