3.2 Constructivist Theories

Illustration of a bird in flight

Constructivism emphasizes the individual child and defines indicators of development as the child continues to grow. Children actively construct knowledge based on their stage of development and previous knowledge. As children engage with their environment, they create internal mental structures to comprehend their experiences (Piaget, 1962). Constructivism may also present children’s growth and development as a series of progressive stages. Stage theories help educators recognize children’s accomplishments, anticipate areas of growth, and provide intentional literacy experiences. Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory examines a child’s developmental stage and how they acquire and categorize information internally (Piaget, 1962). Pertaining to emergent literacy progressions, Frith’s theory of reading acquisition presents stages of development as young readers acquire an awareness of alphabetic systems (Frith, 1985).

3.2a Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory

Jean Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory is a form of constructivism. According to cognitive developmental theory, children construct their own learning through interactions and experiences in the environment. Piaget (1962) argued that we are constantly organizing our world by categorizing information and determining ways of applying this information. In the vignette above, Ms. Tori has created an opportunity for children to access the categories of information they have already acquired (e.g., apples are red, green, and yellow) and use this knowledge to engage in discovery play in the apple orchard center.

Several key concepts are important for understanding Piaget’s theory. The units we use to organize our understandings are called schemas. Schemas include not only a concept like “birds fly,” but all of the associations used to develop the concept through past experiences. Piaget believed that we form our schemas through a process called adaptation, which allows us to create categories and subcategories for emerging schemas. There are two types of adaptation: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation means that we take new information and squeeze it into an existing schema. This can happen whether it makes sense or not, such as trying to fit a peg into a hole, whether it is square or round. Accommodation literally means to make room for something. For example, when most people have houseguests, they accommodate them by altering their sleeping and eating arrangements and their schedules. Assimilation would suggest that hosts told the guests to forage in the fridge for themselves, find a sleeping bag, and figure out where to sleep. Assimilation makes no room—the schema does not change. But accommodation means that there is now room to create or understand something in a new or different way. The process takes place as a result of disequilibrium, which reflects the state a child is thrown into when they receive information that is new. Humans generally experience disequilibrium as uncomfortable, so we generally try to stay in a state of equilibrium, a comfortable cognitive state, until or unless we are exposed to new information that does not fit into our existing schema (Piaget, 1962).

Vignette: Broken Birds

Three-year-old Li has developed a schema that birds fly. This is a reasonable schema based on Li’s experience seeing birds fly in her neighborhood and places she has visited. Today she visited the zoo with her classmates and saw ostriches for the first time. After observing the ostriches, Li turned to her classmates and said, “The birds are broken.” She had noticed that they do not fly. Because Li already has a schema “birds fly” and the non-flying birds have thrown her into disequilibrium, Li has decided that the birds are broken. She has NOT decided that the schema is incorrect. Thus, she has assimilated the ostriches in the “birds fly” schema, with a bit of a footnote that these birds are broken. This allows Li to return to a state of equilibrium as she has assimilated the new information. It takes multiple exposures to a violation of our expectation, or multiple instances of disequilibrium, in order for us to choose to accommodate new information and create new schema. Later that day, Li visited chickens who cannot fly high in the air. Perhaps that second time, she labeled them broken birds or she might have started to consider that some birds do not fly. The third time, Li visits the penguin house and sees definitive evidence that some animals, who are clearly birds, do not fly. At the point where Li creates a new structure that divides birds into “birds that fly” and “birds that do not fly,” she has engaged in accommodation. This is crucial for all forms of cognitive development and has numerous applications to literacy learning when children must decide on the rules and usage of language in all its forms and when they engage in communication to express themselves about the world around them.

Piaget also developed a set of four stages, with individual substages, to map out a range of expected, observable behaviors for children (1962). The sensorimotor stage closely corresponds with infancy and toddlerhood. The preoperational stage is associated with preschool years. The concrete operational stage covers the elementary years, and the formal operational stage applies to adolescence and adulthood. These constructs are outlined in the chart “Piaget’s Stages” (see Table 3.1) and help us to formulate ideas about what would be expected for children at particular ages. Understanding the ages and stages delineated by Piaget (see Table 3.1) helps us to consider the importance of sensory experiences for infants and toddlers.

Stage Approximate Age Range Characteristics Example
Sensorimotor Birth to about 2 years The child experiences the world through the fundamental senses of seeing, hearing, touching, and tasting. Children may put new objects in their mouths (e.g., the parent’s cellphone).
Preoperational 2 to 7 years Children acquire the ability to internally represent the world through language and mental imagery. They also start to see the world from other people’s perspectives. Children start using words and phrases to communicate their desires (e.g., “cookie”).
Concrete Operational 7 to 11 years Children become able to think logically. They can increasingly perform operations on objects that are only imagined. Children can tell the difference between their own perspective and another person (e.g., “I can see out of the window, but you cannot.”).
Formal Operational 11 years to adulthood Adolescents can think systematically, can reason about abstract concepts, and can understand ethics and scientific reasoning. Children can consider hypothetical situations (e.g., What if I need something in an emergency and there is no adult to ask?).

With regard to language development, parents and educators are encouraged to sing, talk, and tell stories to children; we couple that with cradling a child or clapping our hands together. We know that children in the sensorimotor stage are learning about their world by touching and being touched, sniffing items, putting everything in their mouths, looking around, and listening with avid interest. Children use these experiences to create schema to apply to the world around them and this fosters their ability to communicate orally and start to perceive symbols. For example, when a child builds a tower of blocks, they start to learn how many blocks can be stacked along with efficient strategies for stacking them. At that point, they can then add blocks to their mental schema for items that can be stacked on top of each other. This knowledge then creates space for a child to use language to express their zeal (or disappointment) in how the block-stacking is going and to beckon others to join in.

Photo of a young boy playing with wooden blocks

Upon entering the preoperational phase, children use symbolic thinking—including language—to communicate their thoughts and ideas. They were able to do so during the sensorimotor phase by indicating and pointing and using some language, but in the preoperational phase, they do so with complexity. Additionally, in the preoperational phase, they can use language to express thoughts about objects or people that are not immediately present. An older infant may point at the elephant while at the zoo, but a preschooler may talk about the elephant they saw at the zoo on a previous day. This greater sophistication reflects children’s ability to engage in symbolic thinking. Children in the preoperational phase need opportunities to develop their increasingly complex language. Providing opportunities for children to engage in pretend-play, participate in social conversations, and use language to solve tasks promotes children’s use of complex language.

Pause and Connect: Piaget

This video is a visual representation of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. Following the viewing of the video, summarize the stages and the examples given here. This will serve as a review and reinforcement of the concepts. A picture is worth a thousand words!

3.2b Frith Theory of Reading Acquisition

Literacy experts also use a stage model to describe children’s literacy progressions.  Although the various stage models of reading have some distinctions and focus on different elements of reading processes, they all share an approach which focuses on children moving from one stage to another with increasing complexity and include features that build on the previous stage. One literacy model is Uta Frith’s theory of reading acquisition. In Frith’s theory, children acquire literacy by moving through particular stages that are developmental and associated with both age and experience. Frith includes three stages of reading acquisition in her model (see Figure 3.2). The first stage, the logographic stage, is characterized by instant recognition of symbols, images, or words. Children demonstrate emerging logographic understandings when they read out familiar logos like Target’s bullseye or McDonald’s golden arches. In the second stage, the alphabetic stage, children begin to use letter symbols to represent the sounds they hear in individual words. Children in this stage demonstrate an emerging understanding of sound and symbol relationships, such as writing /kt/ for cat. The child may hear the beginning sound and ending sound of cat, but the internal vowel sound is not yet recognized. These early approximations demonstrate that they can hear sounds and represent them, but not always completely or correctly. The third stage, the orthographic stage, involves the internalization of spelling patterns and children begin to recognize and reproduce words with increasing automaticity. In this stage, readers do not need to sound out familiar words, though they pause when confronting new words or letter combinations. For example, a child may quickly read the word “kick” but pause to consider how to read the more complex word “knife” because the /k/ is silent. In each of these stages, children master greater complexities of thought and language and teachers must adjust their approaches in order to best foster the child’s growth (Frith, 1985).


Three images from left to right. First image: A STOP sign is in the road. Second image: Child's writing has a drawing of a flower and a butterfly above capital letters BEA and BETF on one line and DADE and BEA on the next line. Third image: Child's writing with three sentences using correct spelling.
Figure 3.2 Frith Theory of Reading Acquisition

Constructivist stage models have many iterations that metaphorically look like stair steps, a spiral, or an increasing sloped line. But, in every case, the image implies that the child is acquiring new and unique skills that capitalize on the previous point and move the child to the next point. The stages are successive and developmental, beginning in infancy. As children master each successive stage, they still retain the skills they attained in previous stages. Literacy stage theories acknowledge that before children can read the list of what is for sale at the orchard, they benefit from repeated exposure to environmental print, letters, letter sounds, and other literacy experiences. This is why intentional educators (like Ms. Tori) use picture cues next to the words on the list of what is available for purchase in the orchard shop. Deliberate actions like this support children’s emergent literacy and honor the developmental nature of the process.

Piaget’s and Frith’s stage theories place an emphasis on seeing the child move forward from one set of capacities to the next more complex set of capacities. Both Piaget and Frith emphasize the process of observing what the child’s behaviors and skills reflect about their thinking. This approach is helpful for educators because it fosters an understanding about where the child is and gives a map for where the child needs to progress next.

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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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