Literacy in the early years encompasses much more than reading, drawing and writing.
Leonie Arthur explores early childhood educators’ critical role in supporting and extending children’s literacy learning.
Contemporary definitions of literacy encompass viewing and creating visual and multimodal texts as well as the more traditional skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. In an increasingly globalised and technological world, the ability to think critically about what is being read, heard and viewed and creating alternate texts is also important.
This view is reflected in The Early Years Learning Framework, which states that “Literacy incorporates a range of modes of communication including music, movement, dance, story telling, visual arts, media and drama, as well as talking, listening, viewing, reading and writing.”
Children develop understandings of literacy as they participate in everyday events with their families, in their local communities and at the early childhood setting. They create their own texts by drawing on paper and on screens, they investigate their worlds through reading, viewing and listening, and begin to understand how symbols are used to express meaning. These ideas are reflected in Learning Outcome 5 of the EYLF and also in the Australian Curriculum: English for Kindergarten to Year 10.
Early childhood educators have a critical role in supporting and extending children’s literacy learning. This starts with finding out about children’s family and community literacy experiences. These experiences may be with technologies and popular culture and in languages other than English, as well as or instead of experiences with bedtime stories and other more traditional literacies. It is crucial that educators value the diversity of literacy experiences and strengths that children bring to the early childhood setting and investigate ways of including resources and experiences that link to these strengths and interests in the program.
Educators also need to document and assess children’s literacy learning and use this information, plus the information gathered from families, to plan for literacy learning. Literacy documentation should not just focus on reading, drawing and writing. It should also include other modes of communication, such as speaking, constructing, dancing, composing and performing music, photography and the creation of multimodal texts on paper and with digital resources.
Educators can use a range of methods of documentation to capture the breadth and depth of literacy learning, including:
- transcripts of conversations
- drawing and writing samples
- reading transcripts
- learning stories
- photographs (of children’s constructions, for example)
- videos (of dancing, for example).
Children can be involved in documenting their own and each other’s literacy learning (for example, recording each other using a digital recorder or making videos on an iPad) and this in turn becomes a literacy experience.
When analysing documentation of children’s literacy learning, educators can ask questions such as:
- How do children use verbal and non-verbal language to express ideas and feelings?
- How do children respond to and use the rhythms and sounds of language, such as clapping games, rhyming words, alliteration?
- What do children understand about concepts of print—for example, directionality of print in their home language and English, concepts of letters and words, concepts of books, screens and technological devices?
- How are children exploring drawing and writing?
- How are children responding to symbols—for example, recognising familiar symbols, creating symbols, composing words and texts using symbols?
Make it meaningful
Educators can also support and extend literacy learning by integrating meaningful literacy resources and experiences throughout the day, thus providing multiple opportunities for children to engage in literacy.
Effective integration means taking the literacy to where the children are playing and tapping in to their interests and purposes, rather than expecting children to engage in literacy at set times, such as group time, or in specified areas, such as the writing area.
The addition of signs and posters in learning centres, both indoors and outdoors, creates many opportunities for children to engage with print. Children can also create their own signs for use in play or routines and are generally highly motivated to make meaning from these texts. (See the book Diverse literacies in early childhood: A social justice approach for examples.)
Literacy-enriched play environments, such as a dramatic play restaurant with menus, a cash register and notebooks or digital devices to take orders, provide many opportunities for children to explore a range of texts and to create their own texts.
It is important that the play environments and texts reflect children’s everyday experiences so that they are meaningful for children. Providing an extended period of time for children to explore literacy resources also enables them to practice and consolidate their literacy understandings. Research shows that this type of environment increases the frequency, length and complexity of children’s literacy play and extends their learning about print and narrative structure (for example, the way stories have a beginning, middle and end).
While it is important to acknowledge that children learn through exploration and experimentation and frequently scaffold each other’s learning, there is a critical role for the educator in talking with children about images and print, modelling literacy and playing alongside children to co-construct resources. As educators engage in these experiences with children they are able to talk about print and print concepts and support children’s emerging understandings. They can also demonstrate writing and reading in meaningful contexts, such as reading food labels and recipes and writing shopping lists.
Shared book experiences, songs and rhymes, literacy-enriched dramatic play and the integration of literacy throughout the day are the most effective ways to support children’s understandings of the core components of literacy.
Make it intentional
One of the key pedagogical practices in the EYLF is intentional teaching, which encourages educators to join in children’s play and take an active role in guiding learning. Research suggests that this guidance is particularly important when children are developing understandings of literacy concepts. For guidance to be effective, educators need to have a strong knowledge of literacy and of each child’s current literacy understandings. This enables educators to weave literacy into play experiences in meaningful ways, to model literacy practices and to use explicit language to talk about literacy. These sustained shared conversations are critical for literacy learning.
Extensive research has identified the core components of literacy as oral language, alphabet knowledge, phonemic awareness and concepts of print. It is important that each of these components is taught in an integrated and meaningful way, such as talking about rhyme when sharing books with children to develop phonemic awareness or discussing letters when working with children to create signs for their play environments to develop alphabet knowledge, rather than in isolated skill and drill.
Easy access to a range of paper and digital resources encourages children to create their own texts and provides many opportunities for educators to talk with children about concepts of print such as letters, words and punctuation and to extend their oral language, alphabet knowledge and phonemic awareness.
It is important to remind families that shared book experiences, songs and rhymes, literacy-enriched dramatic play and the integration of literacy throughout the day are the most effective ways to support children’s understandings of the core components of literacy.
Dr Leonie Arthur is senior lecturer in Early Childhood Education, Western Sydney University.