Levelling the playing field for kindergarten entry: Research implications for preschool early literacy instruction (Free full text available)

Levelling the playing field for kindergarten entry: Research implications for preschool early literacy instruction

Georgia Callaghan
Alison Madelaine
Macquarie University

The purpose of this paper is to consider the importance of intervening with early literacy instruction at the preschool level. Research has found phonological awareness skills in preschool to be one of the most robust predictors of early reading success in a child’s first few years of formal schooling. The efficacy of phonological awareness instruction at the preschool level is discussed, as well as the research implications for best practice in teaching it. Shared book reading plays an important role in facilitating oral language development in young children. Two types of shared book-reading techniques (dialogic and non-dialogic) are reviewed, and their effect on oral language outcomes is examined. A plethora of research has examined phonological awareness intervention in preschool and kindergarten, but much less research is available on shared book-reading interventions in these settings. It is concluded that both phonological awareness and shared book reading are necessary components of a preschool early literacy intervention, as they are important prerequisite skills for decoding, spelling and reading comprehension.

Introduction

Many preschoolers begin their first year of formal schooling (usually kindergarten) with varying levels of emergent literacy skills, and this variability is largely affected by prior home environments (Adams, 1990; Lonigan, Burgess, Anthony & Barker, 1998), level of oral language (Walker, Greenwood, Hart & Carta, 1994), and provision of good early intervention programs (Adams, 1990; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1993; McIntosh, Crosbie, Holm, Dodd & Thomas, 2007). For the purpose of this paper, preschool refers to early learning educational programs where children between the ages of three and five years attend in a regular setting or daycare setting before they commence formal schooling.  In 2009, 92.7 per cent of all Australian children attended non-parental care or educational programs the year before formal schooling began (CCCH & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2009). Kindergarten in this paper refers to the first year of formal schooling, typically following preschool, for children aged five to six years. It has been well-documented in the United States that children from lower socioeconomic groups and minority groups tend to be further behind their peers in early literacy skills on kindergarten entry and that this gap increases over time (Chatterji, 2006). More recently, this achievement gap has been found with four-year-old children in preschool, prior to the commencement of kindergarten (Wang, 2008).

A longitudinal study by Chatterji (2006) with a large sample of children (n = 2,296) demonstrated that the gap in reading between students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and their more affluent peers increased from the beginning of kindergarten to the end of kindergarten by about half a standard deviation (SD) and increased again by the end of first grade (to –0.608 SD units). There was also overwhelming evidence that kindergarten-entry literacy skills significantly predicted first-grade reading scores, when all other variables, including poverty, were controlled for. Regardless of race or socioeconomic status, poor literacy skills at kindergarten entry are more likely to lead to poor reading skills in first grade. This highlights the need for targeted and explicit literacy intervention at the preschool level. In 2009, 22.9 per cent of the estimated five-year-old population in Australia were considered either ‘developmentally vulnerable’ or ‘developmentally at-risk’ in the language and cognitive domain, which partially comprised a basic literacy measure including letter identification, phonological awareness, and being able to write one’s name (CCCH & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2009).

Many preschools utilise a play-based curriculum where child-initiated learning is the basis for children to learn important developmental skills. The impact of play on acquiring such skills cannot be overestimated (Hanline, 1999). A play-based approach is important in teaching the cognitive, communication and social skills essential to school success (CCCH, 2008). Of particular concern is not the play-based curriculum itself, but the fact that many preschools and childcare centres may not include more explicit emergent literacy instruction (teacher-directed) as a part of their curriculum. A focus on systematic explicit instruction in early literacy skills is likely to lead to improved literacy skills overall.

The gap present in literacy skills on school entry is particularly significant, given that early reading failure is linked to long-term reading failure (Juel, 1988) and we are able to identify students in the preschool who are ‘at-risk’ of reading failure (Missal et al., 2007). Preschool children identified as having a family risk factor for reading failure (that is one or both parents classified as reading disabled), show profiles (for example, deficits in phonological awareness and vocabulary) on preschool assessments comparable to that of older children experiencing reading failure (Hindson et al., 2005). This paper aims to inform early educators of the most effective content and instructional approaches that will help young children learn to read and write at school. It is of paramount importance to determine what skills directly impact on later literacy development, and how this information can be used to provide the best start for ‘at-risk’ children.

Phonological Awareness

What skills do preschoolers possess that are highly correlated with later literacy success?

The National Early Literacy Panel (NELP, 2008) was convened in 2002 in the US under the direction of the National Centre for Family Literacy. The NELP was set up to exemplify the scientific research-based report on reading and writing instruction composed by the National Reading Panel (NRP), in April 2000 (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). While the NRP was influential in informing best practice in literacy instruction and educational policy for school-age children, the NELP was set up to review instructional practices, emergent skills, characteristics and environments of younger children (birth to five years) that influence literacy development. The NELP’s (2008) meta-analysis of more than 299 studies on children between the ages of birth and five years recognised phonological awareness as one of the most important determinants of early reading success. Phonological awareness also influences whether a child is considered ‘school-ready’. A recent Australian study investigated the predictors of School Readiness (oral language, pre-literacy skills, social and behavioural attributes, parental literacy and maternal wellbeing) in 1005 five- to six-year-old children who had been assessed longitudinally between the ages of 12 and 60 months (Prior, Bavin & Ong, 2011). They found pre-literacy skills, comprising phonemic awareness and letter knowledge, to be one of the strongest predictors of school readiness, and oral language was also an influential factor (Prior et al., 2011). Also, phonological awareness skills assessed at the beginning of kindergarten compared to the end of kindergarten were found to be equally as effective in predicting end of first-grade reading outcomes (Schatschneider, Francis, Carlson, Fletcher & Foorman, 2004). This highlights the need to assess students’ phonological awareness when they start kindergarten, to identify those at risk of reading failure.

Phonological awareness (PA) is traditionally defined as a broad level of metalinguistic awareness and refers to the sensitivity to any size unit of sound within the speech stream (Yopp & Yopp, 2000). It includes the oral manipulation of larger units of sound involved in rhyming tasks, counting syllables, segmenting and blending onset and rime (e.g. /cl/ and /ock/ together make the word ‘clock’) right down to the level of the individual phoneme, which is the smallest discrete unit of sound within the speech stream (e.g. the sounds /c/ /a/ /t/ make the word ‘cat’) (Yopp & Yopp, 2000). Skills that include oral manipulation of phonemes within the spoken word (e.g. phoneme identity tasks, deleting sounds and substituting sounds within words) are referred to as phonemic awareness activities. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness (Yopp & Yopp, 2000). Skills involving larger units of sound are considered easier to master than skills involving smaller units of sound, and a hierarchical skills sequence in order of difficulty is believed to help children progress from larger units to smaller units of sound (Adams, 1990). For example, preschoolers find rhyme easier to master than identifying initial phonemes in words (Bailet, Repper, Piasta & Murphy, 2009).

Research into early literacy skills has benefited from longitudinal studies that have tracked students’ skills and attributes in preschool, and subsequent performance in reading, writing and spelling in kindergarten and later grades. The NELP (2008) investigated the predictive validity of a range of children’s attributes and skills in kindergarten, and on later conventional literacy skills. PA measured in kindergarten or earlier was found to be one of the most robust predictors of later decoding, reading comprehension and spelling skills. Regardless of when the conventional literacy outcomes were measured (kindergarten through to second grade), the size of the predictive power of PA on later literacy outcomes was not affected. This showed the relationship between PA and later conventional literacy skills to be just as strong in kindergarten as it was in second grade.

What seems to be clear from the research is that PA may be necessary to prevent reading failure but is not sufficient on its own. Stuart and Materson (1992) found that preschoolers’ poor PA test scores reliably predicted subsequent reading and spelling failure six years later, but being above average on measures of phonological tasks in preschool did not necessarily protect students against reading or spelling failure. Similarly, Byrne, Fielding-Barnsley and Ashley (2000) demonstrated that preschool children who were secure in their knowledge of a particular phonological skill (phoneme identity tasks) after training were not necessarily immune from reading failure six years later. Byrne et al. (2000) argue that the identity task was not powerful enough, nor taught for long enough, to prevent reading failure, and training in other phonemic awareness skills may have more ‘vaccination potential’ against long-term reading failure.

Converging research shows that various types of PA tasks not only differ in the level of metalinguistic complexity and cognitive operation (task) required but also in their potential to predict early reading improvement. The accumulated research indicates that measures of phonemes or smaller phonological units are more predictive of early reading skills than are larger phonological units such as syllables (Badian, 1998), onset-rime (Hulme et al., 2002) and in particular rhyme (Lundberg, Frost & Peterson, 1988; Mann & Foy, 2003; Muter, Hulme, Snowling & Taylor, 1998; NELP, 2008). The NELP (2008) meta-analysis found rhyme (considered the easiest skill within the hierarchical sequence of phonological skills) to be a poor predictor of subsequent decoding skills (0.29). Likewise, Mann and Foy (2003) found rhyme awareness in 99 preschoolers did not impact on the development of early reading skills, whereas phonemic awareness was a contributing factor.

One of the most influential earlier studies, by Lundberg et al. (1988), indicated that formal instruction in rhyme and other phonological skills may not even be necessary to improve rhyme and syllable awareness. It is therefore possible that rhyming and syllable awareness may develop on their own and reflect a normal developmental pattern of phonological sensitivity. This study showed that, after eight months of training with 235 kindergarten children with a broad range of metalinguistic skills, the experimental group only marginally outperformed the control group (who had no metalinguistic training) on rhyming and syllable awareness but the gains were dramatic at the phonemic level. The effect of good phoneme segmentation skill was long-lasting, with students in the experimental group performing better on measures of reading and spelling one and two years later. There seems to be evidence that rhyming ability is independent of phonemic awareness, and therefore does little to foster reading development. Although rhyme is widely recognised in preschools as a playful language activity that appeals to a young child’s sense of fun and helps build sensitivity to the sound structure of words (Yopp & Yopp, 2000), it would be wise for preschool teachers to also include intentional phonemic awareness instruction. This makes good pedagogical sense, particularly if the outcome is to improve early reading skills. 

In terms of cognitive operation required, Adams (1990) suggests that identity tasks (e.g. What sound does snake begin with?) or oddity tasks (Which picture does not start with /m/ ?) are a good starting point for pre-readers because of their simplicity, but the NELP’s (2008) meta-analysis found identity tasks to be a weaker predictor of later decoding skills than were analysis tasks. Phonological analysis tasks (sometimes referred to as phoneme segmentation tasks) involve breaking up a word or syllable into its separate phonemes. An analysis task may require a student to break the spoken word ‘cat’ into its separate sounds, /c/ /a/ /t/. More difficult tasks at this level are referred to as phonemic manipulation tasks. Phonemic manipulation involves substituting phonemes (e.g. taking away the /c/ from ‘cat’ and replacing it with /m/ to make the word ‘mat’), or deleting phonemes from words (e.g. taking away the /c/ from ‘cat’ to make the word ‘at’). To undertake analysis tasks one needs to first be aware that words are made up of phonemes, and in order to manipulate sounds in words one has to be proficient with the phonemic structure of words (Adams, 1990). A longitudinal study by Muter et al. (1998) involving 37 preschoolers found that analysis skills as measured by phoneme identification and phoneme deletion were highly correlated with segmentation skills in their first year of school, which in turn was highly predictive of both reading and spelling performance during that same year.

Students should be placed at an appropriate level in a PA program, where they are able to move up through the hierarchical skills in a systematic way, and progress from the sub-phoneme level to the phoneme level. Lonigan, Anthony, Bloomfield, Dyer and Samwell (1998) examined phonological sensitivity in 356 preschool children between the ages of two and five years, and their results suggested that children’s skills at the sub-phoneme level (i.e. words, syllables) were precursors to being able to acquire skills at the phonemic level. Theoretically, this means a child would be unlikely to be able to perform blending skills at the phoneme level if they had not mastered this skill at the syllable level. When instructing students in PA, three distinct developmental tasks should be taken into consideration: task difficulty (e.g. identifying versus manipulation or blending versus segmenting), linguistic complexity (e.g. onset-rime versus phoneme) and phoneme position in words (Cassady, Smith & Putman, 2008). A developmental continuum of PA should always end at the phoneme because individual phonemes are not detected in the speech stream and need to be explicitly taught (Adams, 1990). The risk of teaching skills only at the word and syllable level means students’ levels of phonological awareness may remain shallow (Hempenstall, 2004), and subsequently they may be less likely to master the alphabetic code when formal reading instruction begins. 

How effective is phonological awareness instruction in preschool?

The efficacy of PA interventions with preschool-age (three–five years) children has been well-documented (Bailet et al., 2009; Bryne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991; Hindson et al., 2005; Korkman & Peltoma, 1993; Koutsoftas, Harmon & Gray, 2009; Maslanka & Joseph, 2002; NELP, 2008; Yeh, 2003; Yeh & Connell, 2008; Ziolkowski & Goldstein, 2008). Intensive, systematic PA training to groups and individual students over short periods (from as little as six weeks), was found to improve the phonological awareness skills of preschool-age children. Moreover, Bailet et al. (2009) found dosage effects (based on the number of sessions taught) impacted significantly on at-risk preschool students’ performance in a range of phonological and literacy outcomes (rhyming, alliteration, print, and letter knowledge skills). On average, children from preschools and daycare centres benefited from more teaching sessions over a short period, which was reflected in increased gains on rhyming, alliteration, print, and letter knowledge tests. Carmichael and Hempenstall (2006) conducted an experimental study with 69 kindergarteners, and found that children made greater gains in PA skills when they received a PA program distributed more frequently over a shorter period (30 minute sessions daily over 12 consecutive days), compared to gains made by children who received the same PA program distributed over a longer period (two x 30 minutes per week over six weeks).  

These studies provide evidence for an effective model of delivery of PA instruction in preschool (an early learning program for three- to five-year-olds before formal schooling instruction begins) and kindergarten (first year of formal schooling for five- to six-year-olds). In kindergarten, the delivery should comprise distributed practice, where lessons are delivered intensively to small groups of children over a short period (rather than spaced practice over a longer period). In preschool there would be benefits from embedding short periods of daily PA teaching (three–four times per week) for small groups within the play-based curriculum. Daily instruction would allow for a high frequency of thoughtful intentional teaching sessions, which should increase children’s learning of PA skills. Frequent (daily) instruction in preschool would also provide more opportunity for at-risk preschoolers, who typically require more teaching sessions than those not at risk, to acquire PA skills (Byrne et al., 2000; Hindson et al., 2005). 

Should we provide phonological awareness instruction in preschool?

There are many reasons for phonological awareness instruction beginning in preschool. First, phonological sensitivity originates in the preschool period and predicts it in kindergarten and first grade (Lonigan, Burgess & Anthony, 2000).

Second, research into the phonological sensitivity of this age group shows they are developmentally ready to be taught PA skills. It suggests there is a substantial increase in phonological sensitivity around ages three to four with children from middle-income backgrounds, and as children approach four they show more stability in their performance across a broad range of phonological tasks of different linguistic complexity (Lonigan et al., 1998). This steady increase continues until at least age five (Lonigan et al., 1998). The typical age range in Australian preschools is from three to five years, the critical period of growth in phonological sensitivity.

Third, socioeconomic status (SES) has been shown to influence phonological sensitivity in preschool. Both Australian and American preschool students from disadvantaged backgrounds performed significantly more poorly on phonological tasks than did students who were not disadvantaged (Bowey, 1995; Lonigan et al., 1998). And it is more than likely that reduced phonological sensitivity will impede later reading development.

Lonigan et al. (1998) also demonstrated that the ability to complete tasks at different levels of metalinguistic complexity (sub-phoneme and phoneme) was affected by social class. Furthermore, the gap between the middle-income and lower-income students increased with age. For example, the difference between the middle-income and lower-income groups in the percentage of children who scored one or higher on the blending task at the syllable level increased from 18.3 at age three to 52.7 at age four, and 75.9 at age five. These studies suggest the particular importance of phonological programs in preschools where students are from lower SES backgrounds. One should not assume, however, that children from high SES backgrounds would naturally acquire PA skills (Bowey, 1995). This pattern of increasing disparity between the performance of the low and high SES groups on phonological tasks from the age of three indicates that it may be wise to intervene with a PA skills program from as early as age three. 

McIntosh et al. (2007) demonstrated how powerful an effect early intervention in PA skills can be with children from low SES backgrounds over the short term. Preschool children from low SES backgrounds made a dramatic improvement in PA skills compared with the performance of the control group after 10 weeks of PA intervention and 10 weeks of language intervention. Progress was maintained three months later. This improvement, however, was short-lived, with children in the experimental group showing no difference in PA skills than the control group two years later (Henning, McIntosh, Arnott & Dodd, 2010). Both groups of socially disadvantaged students performed below the average for students of the same age. Although these children may have started school with an advantage as a result of the intervention, we cannot assume that they received more explicit support and teaching to further their PA skills beyond syllable segmentation, rhyme and first sound identity tasks during their school years. As mentioned above, the pattern of increasing disparity between students who are socially disadvantaged and those who are not  increases with age, so it is imperative that good teaching and advancement in PA skills takes place during the school years. Intervention at the preschool level will at least provide socially disadvantaged children with a head start in literacy skills on school entry.

The NELP’s (2008) meta-analysis results showed a trend of increased benefit in preschool from learning letter sounds/names, reading and spelling after code-based interventions that included a phonological awareness component.

Effect sizes were larger for preschool children than for kindergarten-age children. Similarly, Ehri et al. (2001) reported larger effects of PA intervention at the preschool level on PA and reading outcomes than at the kindergarten level. Preschoolers appear to gain more from PA intervention compared to students already attending kindergarten or school.

Some educators are concerned that only children who have limited literacy skills would benefit from PA instruction. Yet the NELP (2008) showed quite the contrary. Regardless of whether you are a reader or a non-reader with little letter knowledge, the benefits of code-based interventions that include some form of PA training are the same across a range of outcomes (PA, oral language, reading, spelling). Effect sizes were particularly large for PA (0.99 for a little letter knowledge, 0.87 for letter knowledge but non-reader, and 1.36 for readers). According to Cohen (1988), an effect size of 0.80 is considered high. Thus there is evidence to support early literacy instruction that includes a PA/code-based intervention in preschool rather than waiting until kindergarten.

What is the role of print in phonological awareness instruction at the preschool level?

While there is evidence to support the positive effects of systematic, intensive PA instruction on the PA skills of preschool students, the NELP’s (2008) meta-analysis found PA instruction on its own to have minimal effect in improving the reading and alphabet knowledge of preschool and kindergarten-age children. Performance on these outcomes was increased when PA instruction was combined with a print component. Furthermore, Castles and Coltheart (2004), after their extensive literature review on PA and its relationship to early reading skills, found no clear evidence that establishes a causal link between pure PA and early reading acquisition. Many studies reviewed did not completely disentangle PA from phonics. To further scrutinise, they hypothesise that in-depth PA at the phoneme level may not exist without knowledge of graphemes (a written letter or a group of letters that represent a phoneme). Alcock, Ngorosho, Deus and Jukes (2010) provide support for this theory in their study of older children in rural Africa. They found that, while a basic level of PA is present before children learn to read (such as word, syllable awareness and more implicit phoneme awareness), a certain level of literacy skills (letter-naming) had to be acquired for students to have a more explicit awareness of PA at the phoneme level. In fact, letter naming was much more closely related with PA than age, word reading, or schooling. This suggests that, for young children, teaching some letter sounds and/or names and their corresponding graphemes would be an essential component of a preschool program to increase phonemic awareness. To engage children in learning written letters and their sounds/names, as well as retaining this knowledge, one could provide visual cues (e.g. picture of a snake and the letter ‘s’) or chants or actions that go with a particular letter. For example, when children see the grapheme ‘w’, they may have been taught to say ‘wiggly worm /w/’ and/or wriggle their finger like a worm and say /w/.

Teaching some letter–sound correspondences or letter names would enable students to more readily transfer PA skills to decoding text when formal reading instruction begins, given that there is a strong interaction effect between PA skills and letter–sound knowledge in predicting later decoding skills.

Students identified as at-risk of reading failure show that transferring phonological skills to print is not an easy skill to master. Hindson et al. (2005) demonstrated that, while at-risk preschool students were able to transfer phonemic awareness skills to untaught phonemes as efficiently as not-at-risk students, this same level of generalisation did not transfer to print. There may be some advantage, however, in making the link between phonemic awareness instruction and letter sounds, both explicit and integrated, to assist in transfer to print (Oudeans, 2003). This would involve making the link between the letter sound (phoneme) and its corresponding grapheme (written letter) explicit. For example, during phonemic awareness instruction (e.g. blending skills) the teacher might say the letter sound
/mmm/ and point to its corresponding written letter ‘m’ or write the letter ‘m’ to make an explicit connection between the two. By comparison, a non-integrated, non-explicit connection between letter sounds and phonemic awareness instruction would be to simply teach the letter sound /m/ and make no connections to its written form, the letter ‘m’.  

How important are blending and segmenting skills in phonological awareness?

Research shows that interventions inclusive of both blending and segmenting training, and of letter knowledge, are more readily transferred to reading skills than is blending training on its own (Fox & Routh, 1984; Moore, Evans & Dowson, 2005; Torgesen, Morgan & Davis, 1992). The NELP (2008) meta-analysis yielded larger effect sizes for reading and spelling outcomes when both synthesis (blending) and analysis (segmenting) tasks were taught together rather than treated separately, although this difference was not statistically significant.

O’Connor, Jenkins and Slocum (1995) showed blending and segmenting skills, first sound identity task, and letter knowledge were the most important phonological variables contributing to reading analog test scores. The researchers suggest that in terms of the phonological instruction required, blending and segmenting skills may be sufficient on their own to help the transfer to reading tasks. It was also noted that making the connection between blending and segmenting explicit by using the same core of words may have helped transfer this knowledge to print.

In fact, there is support for only teaching blending and segmenting skills as opposed to a broad range of PA skills. O’Connor et al. (1995) demonstrated that kindergarten children with low PA skills who were taught a broad array of phonological tasks did not perform any better on a broad measure of PA skills than did students who were taught blending and segmenting skills only, and both transferred phonological skills to untaught phonemic manipulation tasks equally as well. Similarly, Yeh and Connell (2008) showed that disadvantaged preschool students who were taught blending and segmenting skills performed just as well on vocabulary and rhyming tasks as did students who were taught either a vocabulary or a rhyming approach. O’Connor et al. (1995) speculates that ‘learning to blend and segment provides a sufficient knowledge base (crossing sources of individual differences) to permit transfer to broader phonological awareness’ (p. 214).

An important finding from the research into preschool literacy is that a combination of blending and segmenting training, where grapheme–phoneme links were made explicit, was more effective than vocabulary training or rhyming and alliteration training in improving overall combined phonemic awareness skills and letter–sound knowledge in disadvantaged four- to five-year-olds attending the Head Start Program (Yeh, 2003; Yeh & Connell, 2008). 

Phoneme segmenting skills in particular are difficult to teach to preschool children (Yeh, 2003). Studies that were successful in teaching phoneme segmentation skills to young children over a relatively short period (maximum of 14 weeks), included methods that made the link between graphemes and phonemes explicit during blending and segmentation training (Oudeans, 2003; Torgesen et al., 1992; Yeh & Connell, 2008). They used pictures to aid blending and segmenting of words into onset-rime and consonant clusters, as well as letter sound training and consonant-vowel-consonant word learning tasks (Fox & Routh, 1984).They also used letter–sound training, stretched blending and sound boxes to segment words into onset-rime and phonemes (O’Connor et al., 1995). 

Sound boxes are a technique to teach blending and segmenting skills. Students or teachers point to boxes that represent the phonemes in a word. Malanska and Joseph (2002) compared preschoolers’ performance on phonological awareness measures after training in sound sort boxes or sound sorting with picture cards. Students who were trained in sound box techniques significantly outperformed students trained in sound sorting with picture cards. The study was limited, however, by the small sample size and students representing middle- to high-income SES groups only. Bearing in mind that segmentation skills are critical for learning to read, further studies are needed with a larger and  more representative sample of the population.

Shared book reading

While the simple view of reading anticipates that students who are deficient in decoding need to be taught strategies such as PA and phonics that support decoding, it also assumes that students deficient in linguistic (or listening) comprehension skills need to learn skills that improve listening comprehension, such as oral language skills (Tan, Wheldall, Madelaine & Lee, 2007). The NELP (2008) found teaching PA skills to young children through code-based interventions had only a small impact on oral language skills, but had a moderate to large impact on measures of conventional literacy skills (reading and spelling). It is evident that phonological awareness instruction is insufficient in improving oral language skills in young children, and that other teaching methods are required.

A rich language environment helps young children acquire vocabulary in the preschool years. During the school years, reading text becomes progressively more complex as students encounter more difficult words. A good oral vocabulary is necessary for students to make the transition to understanding written vocabulary (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). If students have a limited vocabulary on school entry but develop good decoding skills, they may be able to read easier decodable text or vocabulary-controlled text in the early years but a limited vocabulary will eventually impede reading comprehension as text becomes more sophisticated. This was demonstrated by Walker et al. (1994). They found children with poor language and vocabulary skills during the early years were the lowest achievers in reading and related literacy skills, and in language and vocabulary skills seven years later.

Picture-book reading or shared book reading is the cornerstone of most preschool literacy programs. It simply involves reading a book through from beginning to end, briefly stopping to comment on pictures and to answer any questions (Lonigan , Anthony, Bloomfield, Dyer & Samwell (1999).

Dialogic reading is a type of shared book -reading that encourages children to be active participants as opposed to passive listeners (NELP, 2008). Through direct questions and feedback the child is encouraged to expand on their answers instead of giving simple yes/no responses. The NELP’s (2008) meta-analysis across 16 studies showed shared book reading to have a moderate impact on young children’s oral language. The average effect size across 15 studies was 0.57. The effects of shared reading in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten were equally as powerful on oral language outcomes, and equally effective for children at risk/not at risk of academic failure. 

The NELP (2008) found that effect sizes for oral language skills were higher for dialogic reading than for non-dialogic reading, although not statistically reliable owing to the limited number of studies available. Most studies in the meta-analysis were biased in that they used parents from middle- to high-income families to deliver the dialogic reading to their child. A good example of this was a study by Arnold, Lonigan, Whitehurst & Epstein (1994). They showed children of higher SES groups, who were read to by mothers using the dialogic reading technique and had been trained through videotapes, performed significantly better on measures of expressive language (not receptive language) compared to children of mothers who were read to in a typical shared book-reading style.

There appears to be few studies that have looked at comparing the effects of dialogic reading and typical shared book-reading techniques on groups of preschool students (NELP, 2008). This is surprising considering that shared book reading is common practice in most preschool settings. Studies that have examined the effects on small groups of young preschool-age children of dialogic reading techniques compared to typical shared book reading found larger gains for children in the dialogic group on measures of expressive vocabulary (Hargrave & Senechal, 2000) and descriptive/definitional vocabulary (Lonigan et al., 1999; Opel, Ameer & Aboud, 2009). It seems that dialogic reading may be an effective technique in developing expressive language skills. Expressive language vocabulary, particularly definitional vocabulary, was found to be a stronger predictor of later reading comprehension skills than was receptive vocabulary. The NELP (2008) found receptive vocabulary to have a weak relationship with later reading comprehension skills (r = 0.25), but at the same time found expressive vocabulary to have a low moderate relationship
(r = 0.34), and definitional vocabulary to have a stronger moderate relationship (r = 0.45) with later reading comprehension skills.

Listening comprehension was also found to be a moderate to strong predictor (r = 0.43) of later reading comprehension skills (NELP, 2008). The Lonigan and colleagues (1999) study demonstrated that young children’s listening comprehension skills were significantly higher after shared reading in a small group as opposed to dialogic reading in a small group.

These studies suggest the importance of both types of shared reading interventions—dialogic and non-dialogic—on improving language outcomes (listening comprehension and expressive descriptive vocabulary) that provide a foundation for later reading comprehension. Therefore it would make pedagogical sense for teachers involved in shared reading with small groups of young children to initially read a book straight through from beginning to end, and briefly comment on pictures and answer any questions. Once a book has been read through in this fashion, at the next shared-reading session teachers should engage in dialogic reading techniques with children. While dialogic reading is an effective intervention, teachers and parents are not used to fostering language development in this way (Scher, 1998). This underlies the importance of training teachers and parents in dialogic techniques.

Syntactic ability, which refers to the ability to model and understand the correct order and usage of words in a sentence, is also an important prerequisite skill that young children need to learn in order to comprehend text when formal reading instruction begins. The NELP found grammar to be a strong predictor of later reading comprehension skills (r = 0.64). Shared book reading provides a good opportunity to teach grammatical skills. First, a book provides a good model of the syntactical structure of the language. Second, a book provides an insight to the more complex grammatical structure of the language that constructs written sentences and paragraphs. Most children would not necessarily encounter this type of syntactic structure in everyday oral language, especially those children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Third, if teachers are engaged in dialogic techniques with young children, there are many opportunities to give feedback and elicit correct syntax from children’s open dialogue about the book. This highlights the importance of shared book reading to communicate the grammatical and syntactical structure of oral language to young children.

More complex components of young children’s oral language skills, such as listening comprehension, definitional vocabulary and grammar, were found to be more highly correlated with later reading comprehension skills than were simple vocabulary measures (NELP, 2008). The NELP (2008) surmised that vocabulary instruction on its own would be unlikely to lead to improvements in reading comprehension; in order for children to attain complex oral language skills (e.g. listening comprehension, definitional vocabulary and grammar) they would need to have already acquired basic vocabulary skills. For many children with poor vocabularies, however, teaching simple vocabulary would provide the foundation for learning more complex oral language skills. Perhaps one of the most startling findings here is that there seems to be no deliberate attempt to build children’s vocabularies in the preschool curriculum in a structured or systematic way (Neuman & Dwyer, 2009). Neuman and Dwyer (2009) reviewed 10 preschool curriculum programs that targeted literacy instruction. The programs were funded by the federal government for use in preschools as part of the Early Reading First initiative, and the researchers estimate that these programs would have reached more than 41,000 children. The analysis revealed that, while new vocabulary was introduced in all the curricula, most programs provided little opportunity for vocabulary to be practised, reviewed, or monitored in a systematic way. 

We know that without frequent practice, multiple exposures to words, and systematic opportunities to use words, children are not likely to acquire the vocabulary and the conceptual linkages to knowledge at the pace that will be needed to narrow the achievement gap.

      (Neuman & Dwyer (2009), p. 391)

A study by Wasik and Bond (2001) assessed an interactive book-reading technique and its effects on vocabulary development with 127 four-year-olds from low-income families. Children were randomly assigned either to a treatment group or a control group. Children in the treatment group were given explicit instruction in building vocabulary knowledge. There was an emphasis on previewing vocabulary, using props linked to target vocabulary, interactive discussions about vocabulary in the stories, and reviewing vocabulary words in centre activities. Control group children had the same amount of reading time but received typical shared book-reading instruction. Children in the first  group learned significantly more vocabulary than did those in the second group. They also performed significantly better on a standardised measure of vocabulary skills (PPVT-III). The researchers attribute the superior performance of the first group in vocabulary skills to the multiple opportunities that allowed children to have repeated exposure to vocabulary words and the opportunity to use them in various contexts. A recent meta-analysis reviewed 31 studies on interactive storybook reading with preschool, kindergarten and first-grade children. The results showed that, when teachers used extra activities before or after interactive storybook-reading sessions, children had superior oral language and print knowledge than those who were not provided with extra activities (Mol, Bus  & Jong, 2009).

A necessary component of a preschool literacy program would include dialogic or interactive shared book reading with opportunities to practise vocabulary learned from books. Without repeated exposure to words in other contexts, it is unlikely that young children’s oral language would improve or vocabulary words be retained.

Conclusion

Unless effective early literacy intervention takes place at the preschool level, children will be likely to enter their formal years of schooling with highly variable levels of early literacy skills. Furthermore, it is evident that a higher level of variability exists between children from lower SES backgrounds compared to those from middle- to high-SES backgrounds (Chatterji, 2006). We also know that the pattern of reading failure may be well entrenched before formal reading instruction takes place (Wang, 2008).

In actuality, children who have good phonological awareness skills in preschool are more than likely to become good readers in the early grades. Poor phonological awareness skills in preschool are linked to early reading failure.

An effective preschool PA program would help children progress from larger units of sound to smaller units of sound, and students should be placed in a PA program according to their developmental level, as it is unlikely that children would be able to complete more complex metalinguistic skills at the phoneme level, without first mastering easier skills at the sub-phoneme level. The goal of such a program should be to move children quickly to the phoneme level, where they are better placed to learn to read in the early years than those students who can only perform skills with larger linguistic units.

Rhyme has been found to have little benefit in facilitating early reading and therefore is not a necessary part of a PA program. Features of a successful PA program would include making the link between letters and their sounds explicit and an emphasis on blending (analysis) and segmenting (synthesis) tasks. 

Scaffolding instruction in a structured and systematic way is a very useful technique to employ with preschoolers and kindergarteners considered socially disadvantaged (McGee & Ukrainetz, 2009). It enables teachers to provide the necessary amount of feedback and prompts to guide children. 

It can be argued that PA intervention is a necessity in preschools with children of lower SES, who typically have reduced phonological sensitivity than do children of higher SES, although ultimately PA instruction in preschool benefits all children.

With regard to the recommendations being made after a review of the literature, an important distinction needs to be made. Formal reading instruction in preschool is not being advocated here. It is not the intention that preschools begin ‘hothousing’ children to read. Instead, PA instruction at the preschool level should include activities that are engaging, fun, and appropriate for young children (Yopp & Yopp, 2000). Further consideration needs to be given to teacher training for early childhood educators, as ‘considerable confusion remains about what phonemic awareness is, the role it plays in reading development, and how it should be addressed in the classroom’ (Yopp & Yopp, 2000, p. 130).

While good PA skills are a precursor to decoding skills, good oral language skills are a precursor to understanding what one reads. Shared book reading provides a good framework for teaching oral language skills to young children. However, dialogic reading, a more interactive reading style, was found to be more effective in improving expressive language skills. It also provides a good opportunity to communicate the grammatical and syntactical structure of oral language to young children.

A good preschool literacy program would include traditional shared book reading as well as dialogic reading. Teachers would need to be trained in dialogic reading techniques because they are not used to fostering language development in this way (Scher, 1998 p. 292). While acknowledging that there is still much research to be done in the area of early childhood literacy, there is currently good information about what preschool settings can do to facilitate literacy development in the school years. To minimise academic failure early on, and better prepare young children for early success in reading, is a worthy educational goal.

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Australasian Journal of Early Childhood – Volume 37 No 1 March 2012

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