10.3 Next Steps in Language and Literacy Development

Illustration of a bird in flight

As children transition from prekindergarten into kindergarten and the early elementary years, their language and literacy knowledge and skills continue to develop. Their communications become more complex, and they become increasingly more proficient at speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is important for early educators to have an understanding of what the next steps are in language, reading, and writing development as they assess children’s progress and plan instruction for young children who are beginning to use conventional language and literacy skills.

10.3a Language Development

Language development in the early years is full of big headlines. Children begin with only the barest ability to communicate their needs by way of their reflexes, unconscious responses, crying, and expressing contentment. As they move through the earliest months and years, they develop greater motor ability in holding up their head, eye gaze, articulation, and using their body to communicate. They make leaps and bounds in their capacities in the early months and years whether verbal or non-verbal. They learn that they have a voice and can use it to share their thoughts or solve their problems. They engage in storytelling, sign language, and non-verbal language. These skills and abilities create and enhance their ability to engage socially in their world.

As children move into the school-age years, they begin to further refine their language development. Each of the parts of language becomes more fluid and adult-like. Their phonology is enhanced and children begin to pronounce their words with greater ease as their motor abilities progress. Children further learn grammar rules through self-correction, direct instruction, and supportive recasting. Their understanding of semantics grows over time as they start to distinguish between a teasing tone or the different meaning of a word in a different context. Children refine their ability to understand pragmatic rules of language as their social world expands, and they learn how to communicate differently in a variety of circumstances. Sebastian, who was introduced in Chapter 7 as crying out “Cabasasa” when he sees a pumpkin, will enhance his abilities in the preschool years and beyond. He eventually learns to say “calabaza” as his articulation (an area of phonology) improves. He will also expand his vocabulary and pronunciation as he learns the meaning and pronunciation of the word, “pumpkin.” By the end of preschool, he can use calabaza and pumpkin interchangeably as his pragmatic understanding allows him to switch between languages. Moreover, he can use either word in grammatically correct sentences. Finally, Sebastian will be able to use either pumpkin or calabaza in a joke or in other ways that reflect greater maturity in his understanding of semantics.

The primary school years are focused on creating opportunities for children to practice skills they have already learned about productive and expressive language and to expand on these concepts. It is expected that children can communicate when they enter kindergarten. In their primary years, their informal conversational skills continue to grow as they interact with adults and peers (MCF, 2017). They become more adept at initiating conversations, listening to others, taking conversational turns, staying on topic, and following the rules of conversation. They become more collaborative conversationalists and talk about a variety of topics and texts as they converse and work with others. They use complete sentences as they talk and learn to use appropriate phrasing, intonation, and voice levels for the situation. They become more proficient at using direct requests to express their needs and at asking why and how questions to get and clarify information as well as to ask for help. In addition, they are better able to follow one- and two-step directions.

Educators also expect that children will possess a wider and deeper vocabulary at the end of that year. They become more fluid in expressing themselves and more adept at interpreting the messages of others. These increased understandings are fundamental to allowing children to know that they have a voice that can be shared orally or through their writing. This is also essential to helping children receive language through other people’s thoughts, whether expressed by reading or by communicating through speech or other forms of communication, such as gestures and sign language.

Throughout their early years, children have made leaps and bounds in using symbolic thinking to learn how to communicate, whether verbal or non-verbal. They have learned to express themselves as they interact with books, media, and other print materials and engage in storytelling, dramatic play, choral and echo recitation, and other forms of verbal and non-verbal expression. They have learned they have a voice and can share those thoughts and understand those thoughts via oral literacy, sign language, and non-verbal language. These skills and abilities create and enhance their ability to engage socially in their world.

10.3b Reading Development

Photo of siblings reading a book together.
Children become more confident with their reading skills as they continue to learn and practice. This is evident in informal settings with family members.

The transition from emergent reading to more conventional reading is an exciting time for young children, families, and educators. During this transition, children, like Nukilik, begin to use their knowledge of letter-sound correspondence to pronounce words more consistently. This is an important progression because being able to decode words contributes to children’s oral reading fluency and their comprehension of the text. When children read fluently, they are able to read with speed and accuracy as well as with expression. Becoming proficient at decoding and more fluent when reading orally supports children’s reading comprehension because they are able to focus their attention on constructing meaning rather than on the task of recognizing words. Children comprehend text when they construct meaning as they read and make connections to their prior knowledge. They draw upon their existing vocabulary to understand what they read and develop new vocabulary as they encounter new words and concepts. Children’s developing vocabulary, decoding skills, and oral reading fluency support their comprehension of text, which is the goal of reading (NELP, 2008).

As children read and write in prekindergarten, code-related instruction (i.e., decoding words when reading and encoding words when writing) emphasizes letter-sound relationships (Foorman et al., 2016). For example, children learn that if they see a “b,” they should use a /b/ sound when reading. Likewise, when they hear a /b/ sound, they should write a “b.” During the transition from emergent to conventional reading, educators place an increased focus on word parts and patterns in words instead of individual letters and sounds (i.e., onset/rhyme and digraphs). In other words, children learn to apply what they know about a word pattern to another word. For example, a child might think, “I know the word ‘hat’ and this word starts with a ‘c’, so that says ‘cat’.” Instruction also begins to focus on sight words (i.e., words with irregular spelling patterns) and high-frequency words that are often found in text. In addition, children begin to develop understandings of the role of punctuation as they read and get better at tracking text (i.e., following down to the second line). In this phase, fluency is slow and reading is often word-by-word. As children begin to recognize words automatically and their sight word vocabulary increases, they become more fluent readers and are able to read with increased speed, accuracy, and expression.

Children begin to read simple, predictable text that includes picture supports and words they know. They begin using initial sounds in words when reading and use cross-checking strategies to confirm or disconfirm accuracy. For example, a child reads a word as “bear” but then looks at the picture and says, “Oh wait…that says bird.” Children also begin to use their decoding skills as they read text with words they are able to decode. And they use their sight word vocabulary to further assist their reading. Initially, children may read hesitantly. However, with practice, children become more confident in their skills and begin to believe, “I can read this book!”

During their transition to conventional reading, children begin to apply a variety of comprehension strategies that support their understanding of fiction and nonfiction text (MCF, 2017). They learn to relate what they are reading to their prior knowledge and previous experiences in order to link their new learning to what they already know. Like Nukilik, they use their prior knowledge, pictures, and text to make predictions about what is going to happen. They also ask and answer questions about the text. In addition, they retell the beginning, middle, and end of familiar stories using story elements, such as the setting, characters, and events. They use the text and pictures to talk about what happens in the story, the characters’ feelings, and the problem of the story. In nonfiction text, they use text features, including pictures, the title, and headings, to get information when reading. As they read, they are able to identify information that is new to them and talk about what they read. In addition, they create mental images of what they read using words and pictures and share their visualizations with others.

The early primary years are crucial in the development of children’s reading as they transition from emergent reading to more conventional reading. During this time, they are developing important decoding, oral reading fluency, and comprehension strategies and skills. They have learned to use decoding skills and sight words to recognize words as they read. They have developed their oral reading fluency as their word recognition becomes more automatic and they learn to read with speed, accuracy, and expression. Most importantly, they are developing essential comprehension strategies that enable them to construct meaning as they read and apply the information in a variety of situations.

10.3c Writing Development

Child's writing sample has a picture of a store front and a family walking toward the store. At the bottom of the page is a handwritten sentence using some correct spelling and some invented spelling that says, "I went to the store to get some milk for my family."
Figure 10.1 Example From a Developing Writer

Children’s understanding of writing as a way to communicate continues to develop as children engage in a variety of language and literacy experiences. As they talk and listen, their vocabularies expand and they learn about the grammar and pragmatics of language. As they read, they gain greater insights into how text works and how authors communicate their ideas through printed text. Children draw upon their expanding vocabulary and their more nuanced knowledge of how print works as they write for a variety of purposes and a range of audiences. A rich vocabulary helps them find just the right words as they write to express ideas, tell stories, share information, and convey opinions. When given opportunities to make decisions about what to write and how to write, they expand their conceptions of authorship and further develop their voice as well as their identity as writers (Kidd et al., 2014).

While writing, children, like Nukilik, use their knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds to write (encode) words using invented spelling (See Figure 10.1). As their writing progresses, children use more conventional spelling, including phonetically spelled words and sight words (MCF, 2017). Eventually, they begin to spell most words correctly. At the same time, children become more adept at following the conventions of writing (i.e., capitalization, punctuation, and grammar). They begin to compose simple sentences, including statements, questions, and exclamations, that begin with a capital letter and end with a punctuation mark. They also begin to use capital letters for names. Children’s handwriting becomes more proficient as their fine motor skills develop. They print capital and lower-case letters of the alphabet. When they write in English, they write from left to right and from top to bottom. In addition, they begin to use appropriate spacing between words and sentences. Their writing becomes longer and more complex as they become more proficient writers.

Children also gain a deeper understanding of writing as a process and become more skillful at planning, drafting, revising, editing, and sharing their writing (MCF, 2017). They begin to differentiate drawing from writing and use their drawing and other planning strategies to intentionally plan their writing. For example, children often draw a picture at the top of the paper to generate ideas for their writing and then use what they drew to write words, phrases, and sentences underneath. They continue to generate ideas as they write and talk about their writing. As they become more proficient, they revise their writing by adding descriptive words or additional sentences. For example, Nukilik drew a detailed picture of the playground that included him swinging on a swing set. He wrote, “I played on the swing.” When he shared his story with Ms. Ling, she asked, “What was it like to swing on the swing?” Nukilik thought about it and said, “It was fun.” Ms. Ling encouraged him to add that detail to his writing. He revised his story by adding, “It was fun. I liked feeling the wind.” Children also begin to edit their writing to correct spelling and to conform to writing conventions. For example, a child might change a period to a question mark after remembering a question needs a question mark. At this time, sharing their writing with others is an important part of the process.

Children begin to expand their writing as they become more proficient writers. During the primary years, they continue to write about their family experiences but also begin to write more make-believe stories modeled after the books adults are reading to them or they are reading themselves. For example, a child might write about a story about a magical pony or a superhero adventure. Opportunities to write across the curriculum also increase as children write to share information in language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. For example, children might engage in recording plans for a science experiment, documenting the growth of plants in their classroom, sharing facts about animals, explaining why it is important to take turns, or convincing others to recycle. They also use writing to show their understanding of what they have read and learned across the curriculum. For instance, when children write about the difference between hot and cold, they are showing their understanding or misconceptions of what they are learning about temperature (see Figure 10.2).

 

Figure 10.2 Today is a Hot Day

As children transition to more conventional writing, writing becomes a vehicle for communicating their ideas with others. During the primary years, children gain a greater understanding of writing as a powerful tool for communicating. They develop their identity and voice as writers. Children understand that, as authors, they have ownership of their writing and can write for a range of purposes and a variety of audiences. In addition, they become more proficient at engaging in writing processes, conforming to written conventions, and using conventional spelling. Their handwriting and use of digital tools, such as touch tablets and computers, also develop considerably during this time. When given meaningful, authentic opportunities to write during the primary years, children can not only develop their writing proficiency but also their enjoyment of and motivation to write (Graham et al., 2018).

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The Early Literacy Journey: Supporting and Celebrating Young Learners Copyright © 2024 by Sandra Carrie Garvey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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