I am passionate about the importance of early childhood and family literacy. When I served as an elementary school librarian and a K-5 literacy coach, I had the opportunity to take action to influence the literacy practices of the children, families, and educators in our learning community.
I wrote about this in my March 8, 2021 blog post: Literacy Partners Become Advocates and in an article that appeared in the March/April issue of the International Literacy Association’s Literacy Today magazine: “School Librarians as Literacy Partners: Take Action on the What’s Hot in Literacy Report.”
Practices in Early Childhood Literacy
Every kindergarten and first-grade classroom teacher and elementary school librarian can identify children who have been enculturated into literacy practices before coming to school. They may not know the alphabet and letter sounds, but they possess the basic building blocks of literacy. They know:
- how to hold a book;
- how to turn pages from right to left and move their eyes from left to right on a double-page spread;
- that the squiggly lines of the page are words;
- that words have meaning;
- illustrations mean something and reflect or extend the meaning of the words in the book;
- how to listen and attend to a book as it’s being read to them; and
- that stories are communication tools that people use to share their thoughts, ideas, emotions, and experiences.
They possess this knowledge because a proficient reader read to them and talked with them about books and stories. This is why books such as Read to Me/Vamos a leer (Star Bright Books 2004) are shared in so many early childhood literacy programs and are important in promoting family literacy.
Children who possess the knowledge that comes from experiences with books are ready for kindergarten or first grade. They are prepped for literacy learning while their peers who lack this foundational knowledge are not yet ready to learn the alphabet, letter sounds, and more.
Research in Early Literacy
As an academic and a grandmother, too, I follow research in early literacy learning. Two recent studies have important information for parents and educators of young children.
On May 10, 2021, The New York Times reported on a study that I may not have otherwise seen: “The Power of Pre-K” by Dave Leonhardt. The article is subtitled: “President Biden wants universal pre-K. A large new study examines its likely effects.”
The Boston pre-K study is a rare experimental study in education because the children under investigation were placed in preschool through a lottery system. (Read “The Long-term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston” by Guthrie Gray-Lobe, Parag Pathak, and Christopher Walters.)
As in previous studies of Head Start children, this study found that the participants did not do noticeably better on standardized tests in elementary school, middle school or high school than did their peers who did not attend preschool.
However, the lottery preschool students demonstrated advantages in other key social and emotional indicators that are important to success in school and in life. The outcomes for the lottery students were evident in terms of better behavior. 70% of the lottery students graduated from high school while only 64% of non-lottery students did so. Lottery students were less likely to be suspended from school or incarcerated. These positive effects crossed racial and ethnic groups and the boys who had preschool experience did a bit better than the girls.
In another study, “Predictors of Reading Ability Among Ten-Year-Olds: Poverty (negative), School Libraries (positive), Instruction (zero), Early Literacy (zero), Christy Lao, Sy-ying Lee, Jeff McQuillan, and Stephen Krashen studied students’ 2006, 2011, and 2016 reading test scores based on The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international comparative assessment that measures student learning in reading.
These researchers found that the effect of poverty was negative in all three years and the positive effect of the presence of school libraries (access to books) was significant in two studies and fell just short of significant in the third.
Their study also showed that instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, which they call early literacy, did not result in a significant positive impact on PIRLS test scores. (They did, however, suggest a positive correlation between the amount of parental reading and SES both times they were investigated.)
Research Informing Practice
Taken together, preschool programs that promote social and emotional learning and elementary schooling that includes access to school libraries in a winning combination for reading achievement and school and life success.
To those two studies that suggest best practices in childhood literacy, I would add, based on first-hand experience, preschool experiences that include books and interactive reading. I would also add school libraries led by school librarians who know how to connect students with books. School “librarians have the training needed to identify and purchase the highest quality books and resources at all reading proficiency levels, in all genres and multiple formats. A well-funded school library collection reflects a commitment by the school, school district, and community to serving all students and families at school and at home” (Moreillon 2021, 11).
And through instructional partnerships with classroom, school librarians teachers also provide students with meaningful opportunities for reading for meaning, to learn, and pursue the answers to their questions.
All together, these are important contributors to students’ success.
I believe in research informing practice AND I also believe, as Ross Todd so eloquently stated, that practice must also inform research.
“Research informing practice and practice informing research
is a fundamental cycle in any sustainable profession”
(Todd 2007, 64).
The conversation between practitioners in the field and researchers must be on-going, respectful, and impactful. Research must be enacted in practice for it to be meaningful. In order to continually improve our practice, school librarians and other educators’ work must be informed by the latest research. And practitioners who daily serve the literacy needs of young learners must hold all research up to our first-hand experience the youth.
Gray-Lobe, Guthrie, Parag Pathak, and Christopher Walters. 2021. “The Long-term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Economics Department.” https://seii.mit.edu/research/study/the-long-term-effects-of-universal-pre_school-in-boston/
Lao, Christy, Sy-ying Lee, Jeff McQuillan, and Stephen Krashen. 2021. “Predictors of Reading Ability Among Ten-Year-Olds: Poverty (negative), School Libraries (positive), Instruction (zero), Early Literacy (zero).” (in press in Language Magazine)
Leonhardt, David. 2021. “The Power of Pre-K.” The New York Times (May 10). https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/10/briefing/universal-pre-k-biden-agenda.html
Moreillon, Judi. 2021. “School Librarians as Literacy Partners: Take Action on the What’s Hot in Literacy Report.” Literacy Today (March/April): 10-11. Available at http://viewer.zmags.com/publication/b46eaa78#/b46eaa78/12
Todd, Ross. 2007. Evidence-based Practice in School Libraries: From Advocacy to Action. In School Reform and the School Library Media Specialist, eds. S. Hughes-Hassell and V.H. Harada, 57-78. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.