Effective early learning environments consistently provide opportunities for young children to use emerging literacy skills and understandings in personally relevant ways. To orchestrate meaningful literacy environments, educators make strategic decisions about the people, materials, and experiences available to children. Children’s interactions with the people and objects in their physical environment influence their cognitive development (Reutzel & Jones, 2010). Educators draw on ecological and sociocultural perspectives when reflecting on how specific features of the learning environment affect children’s engagement in a variety of literacy events. When combined with constructivist perspectives, ecological, and sociocultural perspectives (see Chapter 3 for more on educational theories) provide useful lenses for analyzing the instructional environments educators create to enhance children’s literacy.
Early childhood classrooms are common environmental contexts. By this we mean that most people, especially early educators, can easily describe characteristics commonly found in classrooms designed with young children in mind (e.g., colorful charts, small tables, low bookshelves, art easels, water tables, library nooks, dramatic play centers, and construction spaces). Identifying the physical areas and materials in early learning contexts is an important first step in learning how to effectively orchestrate meaningful emergent literacy contexts. When educators consider different learning spaces for young children, they also envision children using the space to engage in different activities. Understanding the ecology of a classroom challenges educators to consider how the space itself influences the types of activities children and teachers engage in because they inhabit a particular space, at a particular time, with specific people. We use the word challenge above to emphasize that learning to see how materials, classroom design, and children’s interactions shape literacy opportunities is not necessarily an easy task. This is because the “patterns, structure, and organization of activities in the classroom environments are often invisible to the mind’s eye but are essential elements of designing effective classroom learning environments’ ‘ (Reutzel & Jones, 2013, p. 83). Intentionally focusing on how educators and children use spaces and materials to engage in a variety of literacy expressions makes invisible patterns visible.
As early educators, we may take for granted the basic premise that a child’s learning environment influences their cognitive development. At the same time, we may also surmise that designing emergent literacy environments may require practice as we learn to notice the people, materials, and activities occurring in a given space with the intention of extending and enhancing children’s literacy enactments. Fortunately, we have a significant amount of research demonstrating that educators’ intentional efforts designing literacy-rich learning spaces and facilitating literacy-rich play experiences promote children’s emergent literacy practices.
5.2a Research Examining Emergent Literacy Environments
Studies exploring children’s interactions with materials and teachers inform contemporary classroom design practices and provide research evidence for the intentional structuring of centers to challenge and engage children in meaningful literacy experiences. Early research capturing human behavior in authentic contexts leads educators to wonder how classroom environments sustain children’s interests and influence their behaviors (Barker, 1968; Roskos & Neuman, 2002). Children self-select certain play areas with more frequency than others. Some children may choose blocks routinely, while others seek out dramatic play. Additionally, different play areas sustain children’s engagement longer than others. For example, research shows block centers and art stations tended to be more popular with preschool children than other center opportunities. For instance, the art center has more “holding power” for children than other centers (Weinstein, 1979). Educators repeatedly shift their attention to meet specific environmental demands (e.g. art commands more attention from educators than the reading corner). Finally, the complexity of children’s social interactions also vary by center (e.g., children’s interactions with dolls demanded more complicated exchanges to sustain play scenarios) (Weinstein, 1979).
In early childhood contexts, centers offer small learning environments for children to exercise their emerging literacy skills. Centers, also called learning stations, should be strategically redesigned and enhanced to entice children’s spontaneous literacy enactments (Roskos & Neuman, 2002). The design of centers should be intentional. For example, children interact more frequently with books when the classroom library displays books with the cover facing out instead of shelving books with only the bound spine exposed (Roskos & Neuman, 2002). As a result, early childhood classrooms frequently use front facing bookshelves or put books in bins with the covers facing forward to entice children to read. Similarly, literacy play props (e.g., note pads, writing tools, envelopes) encourage children’s explorations with print and support children’s emergent writing skills (Souto-Manning & Martell, 2016).
Early learning settings use essential design elements to organize the physical space. Roskos & Neuman (2002) encourage educators to use hard and soft boundary markers (e.g., low shelving and carpeting) to organize physical spaces and guide children’s play within each area. Defined areas organize spaces visually for children and encourage them to use easily accessible materials as a part of their play. Accordingly, educators should enrich play areas with appropriate, relevant, and authentic literacy materials. Intentional literacy materials will influence play complexity and invite children to use literacy rich materials for a variety of play purposes. Extended time engaged in purposeful play scenarios allows children “to move from exploratory play to mastery of concepts” (Roskos & Neuman, 2002, p. 285). Children’s literacy knowledge develops when they have time to experiment with the literacy props in their play environments. Children’s literacy environments have the greatest impact when educators provide time for children to engage with meaningful literacy spaces, materials, and activities.
5.2b Linking Theory to Research and Practice
Ecological and sociocultural theories provide rich theoretical perspectives for educators to use when designing effective literacy play-spaces for children. In fact, when educators pause to consider the physical and human factors influencing a particular environment, they begin to notice children’s patterns of behavior and anticipate opportunities for scaffolding children’s attention and engagement. The Ecology of an Early Childhood Literacy Classroom, presented in Figure 5.1, illustrates how educators might think about the contextual factors influencing their emergent literacy environments. Based on a study conducted by Cambourne (2002), the model situates people, materials, and routines as the interrelated and interdependent characteristics shaping literacy environments. The round dots that permeate the environmental characteristics represent the intentional literacy experiences educators create to scaffold children’s literacy acts.
The Ecology of an Early Childhood Literacy Classroom model invites educators to ask intentional questions about the classroom environment. When educators pause to consider when, where, with what, and with whom literacy experiences might occur, they can intentionally change the environment to make the literacy experiences more powerful. Educators exercise the greatest power in the classroom and this allows them to orchestrate the environment “to create the kind of learning culture they desire” (Cambourne, 2002, p. 359). As decision makers, educators determine how the people, materials, and routines will interact to support children’s emerging literacies. In fact, many of the literacy experiences educators create become part of children’s regular routines. This helps children engage in literacy practices in predictable ways (e.g., finding their name card and putting it under their picture as the attendance routine).
The Ecology of an Early Childhood Literacy Classroom model invites educators to consider how they might manipulate the materials, people, and routines to work together in a variety of ways to enrich children’s literacy experiences. Educators frequently use a circle time, or group time, as an opportunity to bring children together for a whole group activity. For example, it is common to do the daily calendar, weather, and a welcome song in a circle time as part of the morning meeting. As such, circle time is a common routine for preschool children, books are prevalent materials, and several children (people) usually participate in circle time together. Consider how children’s language and literacy interactions might shift if the educator ended every circle time with a paired buddy “reading.” In this example, we can predict the regular opportunity to share a book with a friend allows children frequent and predictable opportunities to practice actions associated with reading. In this shared literacy space, children will practice a number of reading strategies and skills including talking about books, turning pages, examining illustrations, making predictions, making personal connections, expressing opinions, and learning new vocabulary. Introducing the “buddy reading” routine to the children will require some scaffolding on the part of the educator and will be determined by the children’s needs, ages, and previous experiences sharing books. Once the routine is established, the educator can begin to strategically enhance children’s “buddy reading” time by introducing new reading concepts and skills in-circle and challenging them to find or do something similar with their buddy.
The following box provides another example of how the ecology of the early childhood literacy classroom may be used to enhance children’s literacy opportunities in diverse spaces.
Lunch Time: A Time for Intentional Literacy Routines
Lunch time is arguably a hectic period of the day for educators and children. Educators are concerned with supporting children throughout the community experience and need to attend to the hand-washing, eating, milk pouring, and clean-up routines. Within this context, opportunities for enhancing children’s literacy may become invisible as educators strive to stay on schedule. However, an analysis of the lunch time routine reveals opportunities for embedding simple environmental prompts to guide children’s intentional use of language, writing, and reading.
|Choosing Lunch Items
|Provide laminated menus with frequent lunch choices
|Educators and children can use the menu to talk about the lunch selections. The visual cue of the menu prompts the literacy experience and encourages children to “read” their choices and communicate their preferences.
|Lunchtime Helper Routines
|Velcro charts with picture symbols and labels for the lunchtime helper jobs children (i.e., napkin helper, sweeper, menu collector, etc.)
Children’s name cards with photos as needed
|Children work with educators to select a helper job for the day. The routine encourages children to identify their own name card and place it under the helper job for the day. As children’s writing develops they are invited to write their name next to a job instead.
Using the Ecology of an Early Childhood Literacy Classroom model, the people influencing the literacy opportunity include the children and the educator, the illustrated menus and helper charts are the materials extending children’s literacy engagement, and the children’s selection of specific lunch items and jobs become the enacted literacy routines.
Finally, it is important for educators to value their capacities for flexibly responding to shifting classroom contexts. We know an early childhood classroom is anything but static; it changes constantly. Roskos and Neuman (2011) remind us, “At one point or another (and at every turn), teachers confront what is and is not possible in the classroom environment they inhabit with their students” (p. 110). Learning to identify, evaluate, and modify classroom learning spaces will enhance the early childhood literacy classroom environments you create and increase opportunities for you to intentionally nurture young children’s literacy understandings.
- Nest icon © Lucy La Croix is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license
- Toddler and flap book © Naperville Community TV is licensed under a Public Domain license
- Ecology childhood literacy classroom © Leslie La Croix and Kalyca Schultz is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Scribble writing © Unsplash is licensed under a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license