Monique SÚnÚchal, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Carleton University
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To assess young children’s literacy knowledge accurately, it is useful, if not necessary, to have a clear definition of the behaviors to be assessed. Examination of the early and emergent literacy research shows that there are both broad and narrow definitions of early literacy. Broad definitions are useful because they help us keep sight of long-term goals, as well as view the child as a whole. Narrow definitions are also useful because they allow us to understand pathways of development, as well as the relations among different child behaviors and child knowledge. Herein, a narrow definition of early literacy is proposed and the advantages of such a definition for assessing child behaviors are discussed (1Sénéchal, LeFevre, Smith-Colton, & Colton, 2001).
What child behaviors should be included when defining and assessing early literacy? The research literature on emergent literacy and early literacy has focused on a variety of overlapping child behaviors. These behaviors include: (a) children’s conceptual knowledge about literacy, that is, knowing why we read and write; (b) children’s procedural knowledge about reading and writing, that is, knowing how we read and write; (c) children's metalinguistic skills, that is, their awareness of the structure of their language, such as its phonology, syntax, and morphology; and (d) many aspects of children’s oral language, for example, vocabulary, narrative knowledge, and listening comprehension.
It is proposed that researchers and practitioners will be better able to assess and understand early literacy if they define early literacy as a separate, but related, construct to metalinguistic skills and oral language. The reasons for doing so are both theoretical and empirical. Snow (1983; 1991) provided sound theoretical arguments for differentiating between language and literacy (see also Hemphill & Snow, 1996; Jordan, Snow, & Porche, 2000). She noted that all children acquire oral language skills to various degrees before formal schooling, whereas literacy skills are not necessarily acquired before formal schooling and are specific to the use of print. In addition, a review of the research provided converging evidence that was consistent with the notion that print knowledge may be distinct from oral language and metalinguistic skills. The review revealed that: (a) many researchers are already analyzing these behaviors separately (for example, Chaney, 1994; Reese, 1995; Reese & Cox, 1999; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2001); (b) statistical models that separated oral language, phonological awareness, and print knowledge capture young children’s performance better than models that do not (for example, Lonigan, Burgess, & Anthony, 2000; Whitehurst, Epstein, Angell, Payne, Crone, & Fischel,1994); and (c) print knowledge, language, and phonological awareness are related to different types of parent-child activities (for example, Evans, Shaw, & Bell, 2000; Frijters, Barron, & Brunello, 2000; Sénéchal, 2006; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002; Whitehurst et al., 1994).
In addition, differentiating print knowledge, oral language, and metalinguistic skills has two important advantages. First, it encourages researchers and practitioners to describe the nature of the relations among these different behaviors. Such descriptions will lead to a better understanding of the links among print knowledge, language, and metalinguistic skills. Second, understanding how different experiences that occur at home, day care, or school affect the development of different child behaviors is crucial to the design of appropriate interventions targeting children at risk for reading difficulties. For example, there is robust evidence that the variety and frequency of shared reading can promote vocabulary growth in young children, but there is no strong evidence that shared reading per se enhances print knowledge and phonological awareness.
Conceptual and procedural knowledge in early literacy
In the field of early literacy, the distinction between procedural (knowing how) and conceptual knowledge (knowing why) has not been made explicit but it is important to do so. Conceptual knowledge includes children’s knowledge of the functions of print, their perception of themselves as readers, knowing that it is the printed text that is being read and not the illustrations, and so on. Procedural knowledge includes children’s knowledge about the mechanics of reading and writing such as letter-name and letter-sound knowledge as well as children’s early attempts to spell the sounds they hear in spoken words. Some researchers have distinguished between conceptual and procedural knowledge (Hiebert, Croffi & Antonak, 1984), whereas many have not done so consistently.
There is some evidence that the distinction between conceptual and procedural emergent literacy would be helpful in understanding children’s acquisition of literacy. Lonigan et al. (2000) showed that procedural and conceptual emergent literacy had different links to reading at the end of Grade 1. In addition, Purcell-Gates (1996) found that children who had greater conceptual knowledge about literacy at school entry made more rapid progress in the acquisition of procedural knowledge than did children with poor conceptual knowledge. Finally, two empirical tests of whether conceptual and procedural knowledge formed distinct components of emergent literacy were found in the research literature. In the first test, Lomax and McGee (1987) found that a model differentiating between conceptual and procedural knowledge (as well as graphic and phoneme awareness) was superior to a model that did not. In the second test, Whitehurst et al. (1994) found that conceptual and procedural knowledge loaded on different factors. Taken together, these findings suggest that a distinction between the conceptual and procedural components of emergent literacy might be very fruitful in advancing our understanding of literacy acquisition. In time, a better understanding of the role played by each component would lead to effective interventions designed to facilitate the acquisition of literacy.
Recent Research Results
Specifying the links among conceptual and procedural early literacy with metalinguistic and language skills is one of the most important goals of the proposed narrow view. To illustrate this point, Sénéchal, LeFevre, Smith-Chant, and Colton (2001) analyzed the data from 84 children who were emergent readers in kindergarten and who were assessed on word reading at the end of grades 1 and 3. In the study, children’s conceptual knowledge about literacy was measured with a short version of the Concepts about Print Test (CAP; Clay, 1972). The short version included questions that could be answered by children who did not know how to read, for example, children were asked to identify the front of the book and to point to the location where the experimenter should start to read (for a critical evaluation of the CAP, see Hartley & Quine, 1982). Children’s procedural knowledge was measured by asking children to name the letters of the alphabet. Finally, oral language was assessed with a standardized vocabulary test where children were to select a picture representing a word spoken by the tester from a set of four pictures. Finally, metalinguistic skills were measured with a phonological awareness task in which children were asked to select from a set of three pictures the one that started or ended with the same sounds as the picture that the tester labeled. For example, the tester labeled the picture cookie and the child selected from a set representing ball, shoe, and cat, the one that started with the same sound as cookie. The tester labeled all pictures before the child made a selection. A complete description of these measures can be found in Sénéchal and LeFevre (2002). Figure 1 (see below) captures the relations among variables that remained statistically significant once the other variables were controlled.
As shown in Figure 1, having a precise and focused definition of early literacy allows one to document and understand the developmental patterns of relations among early literacy, meta-linguistic abilities, and oral language. The relations shown in Figure 1 are presented next as a series of hypotheses to be confirmed in future research. First, it appears that the two proposed components of early literacy play different roles in the acquisition of literacy and have different relations with oral language and metalinguistic skills. Children’s conceptual knowledge about literacy may play a role in the acquisition of emergent procedural knowledge about literacy. Moreover, conceptual knowledge may be closely related to children’s oral language (that is, vocabulary). In contrast, emergent procedural knowledge may play a role in the acquisition of conventional reading as well as in the development of phonological awareness. In addition, specific relations are proposed among oral language, metalinguistic skills, and reading. Young children’s vocabulary and phonological awareness seem to be closely linked in development; however, these factors seem to hold different relations with reading. Phonological awareness is associated with the acquisition of reading as well as more fluent reading ability. Vocabulary, however, seems to have a long-term relation with children’s more fluent reading in grade 3.
The previous discussion showed the importance of having a clear, measurable, and differentiated view of early literacy. It is proposed that precise advice on specific tests to assess young children can only be given once practitioners and researchers have made decisions about their view of early literacy. The view of early literacy captured in Figure 1 can be a useful tool to guide practitioners when they assess young children. For example, assessing conceptual knowledge about literacy might be more relevant in early kindergarten, whereas assessing procedural knowledge about literacy seems essential given its short- and long-term relation to phonological awareness and early reading. Certainly, practitioners should also assess children’s phonological awareness and vocabulary keeping in mind that the pattern of association among these behaviors, early literacy, and reading differs.
The recent findings captured in Figure 1, however, need to be replicated with other samples and different measures. Most importantly, there is a need for intervention research designed to test whether enhancing children’s emergent conceptual knowledge about literacy is beneficial or necessary with children who have limited procedural knowledge about literacy. Further, there is also a need for intervention research designed to test whether targeting children’s procedural knowledge about literacy (for example, their invented spelling) is optimal to enhancing children’s phonological awareness and subsequent reading acquisition.
The narrow approach adopted herein is distinct from a holistic view of early literacy such as the one often proposed by some educators. At first glance, the focused view described herein may appear to reduce the construct of early literacy and, consequently, limit an accurate portrayal of the dynamic nature of its development. To the contrary, a thorough consideration of the findings in recent research highlights the complexity, richness, and dynamic nature of the relations among the constructs of early literacy, metalinguistic skills, and oral language.
1 I thank my co-authors and the publisher of the Journal of School Psychology for granting permission to use sections and the figure that first appeared in the article by Sénéchal, LeFevre, Smith-Chant, and Colton (2001).
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