As described in Chapter 2, Bronfenbrenner’s model demonstrates the strong influence and implications of a child’s family and home environment. This is especially true when considering literacy development for young children. Early childhood educators have the opportunity to build relationships with families, support families, and engage families in their child’s early childhood experience.
Building trusting relationships with families happens over time and through a series of positive interactions. Trust, empathy, and time are necessary components of building positive relationships. When educators work to get to know families personally, culturally relevant and powerful funds of knowledge are revealed and can be used to enhance children’s literacy experiences. For example, an educator may discover in conversations with the family that a child frequently cooks with her grandmother and enjoys measuring ingredients and following the recipe. The grandmother reads the recipe and asks guiding prompts like, “Okay, let’s see what’s next.” This small insight into the child’s literacy experience allows the educator to draw the child into meaningful conversations, play experiences, and cooking experiences that build on the procedural literacy knowledge the child already knows about- how recipes “work.”
4.4a Addressing Vulnerability
Some children from vulnerable communities are less prepared for the academic language tasks of school (Rivalland, 2004). Research often associates low socio-economic status with poor school achievement, including literacy abilities (Garrett-Peters et al., 2016).
Children from vulnerable communities might need additional scaffolding to bridge their home literacy experiences to expected school literacy outcomes. Poverty can create stress for young children and their families. Conditions such as food insecurity, unemployment, community violence, and inconsistent access to healthcare can impact one’s capacity for attentive parenting (Manz et al., 2010). These variables potentially affect the health and well-being of the family and (the or a) parent’s ability to consistently provide enriching language opportunities. However, it is negligent to say that living in poverty equates to poorer academic outcomes. Parents who interact sensitively with their children positively impact language development (Raviv et al., 2004). Additionally, access to high-quality early learning experiences with strong family/educator relationships supports literacy development for this vulnerable population. Adults in early care settings nurture a child’s language development by engaging in verbally stimulating interactions (NICHD Early Care Network, 2000).
When a child’s early experiences with language are limited, educators may need to develop intentional interventions to mitigate literacy gaps that, if left unattended, might result in negative academic outcomes for the child in the future. Success in educational environments is connected to strong language and literacy in the early years (Hirsch-Pasek et al., 2015; Hoff, 2013; Huntsinger, Jose, & Luo, 2016).
For children who have not participated in rich language experiences, there are long-term implications related to language competency and overall school readiness (Merritt & Klein, 2015). For example, parents who are engaging in abusive or neglectful behaviors tend to speak less frequently to their children and do not draw out conversations (Christopholous et al., 1988; Eigsti & Ciccheti, 2004). This might result in a longer lead time for children to feel comfortable or competent in expressing themselves. Linguistic deprivation may also occur with children who are hearing-impaired and do not have adequate supports and who lack access to methods of communication (Humphries et al., 2012). Deprivation of language creates other learning problems as children might not follow typical developmental trajectories in other areas, such as mathematical reasoning (Humphries et al., 2012) and memory tasks (Newport, 1990). Any hindrance to a child’s ability to communicate impacts the child’s literacy development.
More recently, the influence of technology has broadened the definition of the literacy environment and further diversified children’s literacy experiences. During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, this diversification became keenly apparent. The 2020 pandemic demonstrated how access to technology and use of technology influences the ability of children to acquire literacy concepts within virtual settings. Some teachers held synchronous video-conference sessions, reading a story to the students in their classroom. Certainly, a familiar face reading a story fosters a social connection, provides a forum for discussing books, and creates an opportunity for developing children’s literacy. However, accessibility to the literacy experience for children was not equitable. Some children may not have had the opportunity to participate in the synchronous sessions with their classmates and viewed recordings of the read aloud experience. Other students might not have access to an appropriate device or wifi. A family’s economic capacity to mitigate and successfully utilize technology varied greatly and resulted in uneven access to educational opportunities throughout the pandemic. For example, some students may have access to a device but might be sharing this access with siblings or other family members who also need them. Parents might be able to allow a child to use their cell phone for a portion of the day, but few adults can navigate a whole day without access to their own cell phone. The younger the age of the child, the less likely they might be to have access to their own device.
Even when children had full access to technological resources, the impact of Covid-19 greatly diminished children’s opportunities to develop their literacy understandings in collaboration with their peers in play-based spaces. While read-alouds can be done via video-conference, hands-on literacy activities cannot. In-person school contexts allow early educators to extend read-alouds with sensory rich literacy activities to support literacy development; these same experiences are not readily transferable to online platforms. In attempts to replicate the sensory experience at home, educators sent families recipes to make playdough at home. However, a solitary literacy activity is not the same as a social literacy activity. In this particular example, educators’ efforts were further thwarted, as there was a flour shortage during the pandemic, making a key ingredient for playdough inaccessible. This brief discussion of some of the inequities experienced by families living through the pandemic provides an example of how the use of technology can certainly be a contributor to literacy development. However, it also provides an important illustration of how context is individual and connected to the people and materials a child has access to.
As early childhood educators interact with families, they have the opportunity to make profound impacts. Children and families might have past experiences or current situations that complicate development; the educator has the opportunity to partner with the family and work towards a successful future. In order for the child to reach their optimal development, they need strong social relationships and interactions that enhance their emotional well-being. This in turn, prepares the child to grow cognitively, and enhances language development. Families benefit from community support as they engage in these tasks. Positive and consistent interactions with their child’s teacher provide an avenue of support for families. In this way, early learning settings play a vital role as community assets and resources to the family. They also have a direct impact on children. As a greater goal, early childhood programs should work to build adult capabilities and strengthen families as they support the needs of their children.
4.4b Strategies for Promoting Diversity and Equity in Language Learners
Working with families is an integral part of being a quality early childhood educator. The profession requires us to approach families in an unbiased manner. It is important to understand what a bias is and what is our own “lens” or perspective from which we make decisions and draw conclusions. Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes, reactions, stereotypes, and categories that affect behavior and understanding (Chin, 2020). Some examples of implicit bias that might be relevant to language and literacy are the teacher discounting the language used in the home environment or the expectation to make eye contact when speaking. Both of these examples are a result of cultural bias and are sometimes prevalent in early childhood classrooms. No one is immune from a bias; however, as a professional, there are many resources available for exploring possible bias.
Being aware of our own biases can ensure that we approach all families from a strengths-based posture and restrain from judging situations and environments that are different from our own experiences. This is an important first step in creating a climate that promotes equity and diversity. Further work should always center on continually seeking to understand how others are different and valuing differences as they relate to supporting language and literacy development. The key to promoting equity and diversity in early childhood spaces is to appreciate and respect children’s home languages, cultures, and traditions. See the figure ?table? below for additional strategies to support families.