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Research-Based Instructional Strategies for Promoting Children's Early Literacy Skills
Written by:
Christopher J. Lonigan, Ph.D., Department of Psychology/Florida Center for Reading Research and Beth M. Phillips, Ph.D., Department of Educational Psychology & Learning Systems/Florida Center for Reading Research, Florida State University
Published online:
2007-09-04 02:56:25
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Well-developed reading and writing skills are crucial to success in today’s society. Yet, national surveys of children’s reading achievement indicate that many children are failing to develop these skills. For instance, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2003) reveals that approximately 38% of 4th grade children in the United States fail to achieve basic levels of reading. The proportions rated as below basic levels are even higher for 4th grade children from lower income families, ethnic minority groups, and English-language learners. Over the past two decades, a consensus has emerged that children’s reading and writing abilities are founded on skills that begin developing long before children enter formal schooling. These early or “emergent” literacy skills are closely linked with children’s later achievement. Many children who have difficulty learning to read and write in elementary school enter kindergarten and first grade without sufficient levels of these emergent literacy skills to take maximal advantage of reading instruction. Identification and use of effective instructional strategies with preschool children may enhance children’s ability to become proficient readers.

Key Research Questions
1. What abilities constitute the domain of early literacy skills?
2. How are research-based instructional strategies defined?
3. What instructional strategies for early literacy skills are empirically supported?

Recent Research Results

Domains of Early Literacy Skills

Whitehurst and Lonigan defined emergent literacy as “… the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that are presumed to be developmental precursors to conventional forms of reading and writing” (1998, p. 849). A recent research synthesis of predictors of conventional literacy skills provided a comprehensive accounting of the abilities that fit this definition of emergent literacy. The National Early Literacy Panel1 (NELP) identified a large body of research in which some ability was measured in kindergarten or earlier and a conventional literacy outcome (i.e., decoding, reading comprehension, spelling) was measured in kindergarten or later.

Using meta-analytic methods to summarize the predictive relations between potential emergent literacy skills and later measures of conventional literacy, the NELP identified six variables that had medium to large predictive relations with one or more measures of conventional literacy skills. These six variables maintained their predictive relation with conventional literacy when other important variables like socio-economic status (SES), IQ, and other candidate skills were controlled statistically. In relative order of the strength of the relation with measures of decoding, reading comprehension, and spelling, these six variables were: Alphabet Knowledge (knowing the names and/or sounds of printed letters), Phonological Awareness (ability to detect, manipulate, or analyze component sounds in spoken language, independent of meaning), Rapid Automatized Naming of Letters/Digits (ability to name rapidly a sequence of repeating random letters, digits, or both), Rapid Automatized Naming of Objects/Colors (ability to name rapidly a sequence of repeating random pictures of familiar objects or colors), Writing/Writing Name (ability to write single letters on request or to write own name) and Phonological Memory (ability to remember spoken information for a short time).

An additional five variables had medium predictive relations with one or more measures of conventional literacy skills based on the meta-analyses, but either did not maintain their predictive ability in multivariate studies or were not included in such studies. In relative order of the strength of the relation with measures of decoding, reading comprehension, or spelling, these five variables were: Concepts About Print (knowing print conventions [e.g., left-right, front-back] and concepts [book cover, author, text]), Print Knowledge (a combination of alphabet knowledge, concepts about print, and early decoding), Reading Readiness (a combination of alphabet knowledge, concepts of print, vocabulary, memory, and phonological awareness), Oral Language (ability to produce and/or comprehend aspects of spoken language, including semantics, syntax, or both), and Visual Processing (ability to match or discriminate visually presented symbols).

Additional meta-analytic results revealed that these predictive relations were not dependent on children’s age. Although oral language was not a large predictor of later reading and writing, the strength of the predictive relation was a function both of the type of oral language measured and the type of conventional literacy measured. Measures of simple vocabulary were generally weak predictors of later decoding and reading comprehension. In contrast, aspects of oral language, such as grammar, definitional vocabulary, and listening comprehension, had substantial predictive relations with later conventional literacy skills, particularly with measures of reading comprehension. These findings are consistent with the framework outlined by Whitehurst and Lonigan (1998). Emergent literacy skills can be grouped into two broad categories--those with significant relations with later decoding or encoding of text (“code-related skills”) and those with important relations with later comprehension of text (“comprehension-related skills”). The code-related category includes print knowledge (alphabet knowledge, print concepts) and phonological processing skills (phonological awareness, rapid automatized naming, phonological memory). The comprehension-related category includes mainly aspects of oral language required for or showing an understanding of language (e.g., syntax, narrative understanding, listening comprehension) as well as deeper vocabulary knowledge (e.g., ability to define words).

Defining Research-Based Instructional Strategies

To identify research-based instructional strategies, it is first necessary to define exactly what is meant by “research-based.” Classification of instructional strategies as research-based can be thought of as existing on a hierarchy of evidence for the particular strategy. Examples of this hierarchy range from publisher representatives at teacher conferences wearing lab coats to appear scientific to the identification of effective instructional strategies using causally interpretable research studies. In between these endpoints are other levels, including identification of an instructional strategy intended to affect an important educational outcome or research studies on an instructional strategy conducted in a way that does not allow unambiguous causal interpretation (e.g., correlational studies, poorly designed intervention studies).

The level of confidence that an instructional strategy will produce the desired outcomes depends on where the evidence for the strategy lies within this hierarchy. Obviously, the wearing of lab coats should provide no confidence in the strategy. Rigorous evaluation of an instructional strategy, typically using an experimental approach in which participants are randomly assigned to receive or not receive the strategy, provides a very high level of confidence for its effects. Only this type of evaluation can rule-out most alternative explanations for effects. Other types of research provide only suggestive evidence because they either do not show that a particular strategy actually produces effects or they do not allow exclusion of alternative explanations. Consequently, only those instructional strategies that have been supported within a rigorous evaluation can be called “empirically supported.” Arguably, instructional strategies that are empirically supported should be chosen over other forms of research-based instructional strategies because they come from the top of the research-based hierarchy.

Identifying Empirically Supported Instructional Strategies

Two recent reviews provide the type of rigorous research-based support for instructional strategies related to early literacy skills comparable to the support provided by the National Reading Panel (2000) for reading-related elementary and secondary instruction. Both reviews focused on early childhood, but each took a different approach to synthesizing the evidence. The combined results of these reviews provide compelling evidence for some literacy-related instructional strategies.

The Early Childhood Education Review of the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC; see www.whatworks.ed.gov) examined center-based practices and curricula designed to enhance children’s language, literacy, and math skills. The review involved a comprehensive search for reports of published and unpublished studies, produced between 1986 and 2007, of relevant instruction for preschool children. Using a rules-based system, each study was classified as highly interpretable, interpretable, or not interpretable based on the study’s design, implementation, and the reporting of results. Within and across studies classified as interpretable, results were systematically grouped into outcome domains (e.g., oral language, print knowledge, phonological processing) and classified as showing evidence of positive effects, not showing evidence of effects, or showing evidence of negative effects on available outcomes.

The NELP examined the research evidence for all instructional practices for children between birth and kindergarten. The review involved a comprehensive search for reports of research in peer-reviewed publications (no time limit on date of publication was used). All identified articles were subjected to a screening and review process to identify group-design studies of an instructional practice or program for children from birth to kindergarten that allowed interpretation of results (i.e., studies that classified as randomized experiments or well conducted quasi-experiments with no confounding of the instructional practice with other factors). The NELP review differed from the WWC review in that it included a broader age-range of children (i.e., children younger than preschool age and children in kindergarten), and it included only published studies of instructional practices conducted by teachers in center-based settings, by parents at home, and by other individuals working with children.

Empirically Supported Practices

Practices affecting children’s oral language skills. Both the WWC and the NELP examined the effect of shared reading interventions on children’s skills. In the WWC review, only dialogic reading produced positive effects on children’s oral language skills. In the NELP review, whereas both dialogic reading and typical shared reading were effective and there was a trend for dialogic reading to result in larger gains in children’s oral language skills, the differences in effect sizes were not statistically reliable. Dialogic reading is an approach to shared reading in which the typical roles of adult and child are partially reversed. In contrast to typical shared reading in which the adult reads and the child listens passively, within dialogic reading the adult facilitates the child’s active role in telling the story. The adult asks questions about the story or the pictures in the book and provides feedback in the form of repetitions, expansions, and modeling of answers. The process represents a scaffolded form of language interaction that uses a picture book as the context. That is, the adult uses the child’s responses, in part, to assess the child’s verbal knowledge and skills. The adult’s responses are guided by this obtained knowledge in an assess-teach-reassess pattern (see Lonigan & Whitehurst, 1998; Whitehurst et al., 1988).

The results of the NELP included studies in which both instructors and parents did the reading. In contrast, the results of the WWC were based solely on studies of instructors in center-based settings. In the WWC reviews, there was no evidence of a positive effect on children’s oral language skills of instructors simply reading books with children or of instructors reading books in an interactive (but not dialogic) style with children. Therefore, both reviews support the use of dialogic reading to enhance children’s oral language skills. Based on the WWC reviews, this is the only form of instructor-implemented shared reading that produces a positive outcome. Based on the NELP review, dialogic reading is an effective instructional strategy when used by either teachers or parents. Overall, dialogic reading can be classified as an empirically supported instructional strategy for both teachers and parents, and this approach is preferable to other forms of shared reading. Indeed, in many studies showing positive effects of dialogic reading, children in the comparison group were read to as frequently as children in the dialogic reading group (e.g., Arnold, Lonigan, Whitehurst, & Epstein, 1994; Lonigan, Anthony, Bloomfield, Dyer, & Samwel, 1999; Whitehurst et al., 1988). In these studies, the difference between groups was the style, not the frequency of reading.
Importantly, studies showing positive effects of dialogic reading have involved parents reading one-on-one with their children or instructors reading to small-groups of three to five children at a time. These reading episodes typically last only 15- to 20-minutes, but they occur at least three times a week. Consequently, there is no evidence for the effectiveness of using dialogic reading infrequently or with large groups of children.

The WWC did not find any practice, other than dialogic reading, that resulted in positive effects on children’s oral language skills. The NELP identified a diverse set of parent/home-oriented interventions that resulted in significant positive effects, including home-visiting or clinic-based programs that taught parents general stimulation activities or more focal oral language stimulation activities, parents acting as speech-language clinicians for their children with speech-language disorders, teaching parents activities that were aligned with the activities occurring in their children’s kindergarten or preschool, or an intervention program that included both parent training and weekly “parents and children together” sessions at the children’s preschool. Other studies reviewed by the NELP revealed “incidental” effects of intervention on children’s oral language skills (i.e., some studies of code-focused literacy programs showed positive effects on children’s oral language) or direct impacts of specific language interventions.

Practices affecting children’s code-related skills. Both the WWC and the NELP reported that phonological awareness instructional activities either with or without activities designed to teach children about print (e.g., letter-names, letter-sounds, basic phonics) resulted in large, statistically significant effects on phonological awareness, alphabet and print knowledge, and both reading and spelling skills. These positive results were not dependent on children being a certain age or having already achieved a specific level of early literacy knowledge.

Most of the phonological awareness instructional activities included in these studies (e.g., Byrne, & Fielding-Barnsley, 1991; Gettinger, 1986; O’Connor, Jenkins, Leicester, & Slocum, 1993; Slocum, O’Connor, & Jenkins, 1993; Torgesen, Morgan, & Davis, 1992) involved higher level phonological awareness skills, such as actively engaging in analysis or synthesis of words at the syllable-, onset/rime-, or phoneme-level with feedback on correct and incorrect responses. Notably, these activities typically were not based on activities involving identifying or manipulating rhyme (but see Majsterek, Shorr, & Erion, 2000). In one study (Yeh, 2003), results were significantly larger for an intervention with a focus on phonemes than for an intervention with a focus on rhyme.

Most of the code-focused interventions that resulted in the large and positive effects on emergent and conventional literacy skills involved instructors in center-based settings working with individual children or small groups of children. Therefore, there is limited evidence that whole class or large-group code-focused interventions produce similarly large effects. There was no evidence of effective code-focused interventions conducted by parents.

At present, there is limited evidence concerning the effect of teaching alphabet knowledge by itself. No study reviewed by the WWC and only one study reviewed by the NELP evaluated the effects of teaching solely alphabet knowledge to children (Schneider, Roth, & Ennemoser, 2000). Several studies of shared book reading with a focus on the print in the book indicate that this approach can be an effective strategy for teaching children print knowledge, concepts about print, and early decoding skills (Justice & Ezell, 2002; McCormick & Mason, 1989).

Conclusions & Future Directions

Results of these two recent reviews provide clear guidance to early childhood educators concerning the skills that underlie successful acquisition of reading and writing as well as instructional strategies that can be used to enhance these skills. There is one well-established intervention that can be used by teachers to enhance children’s comprehension-related skills, namely dialogic reading. The majority of code-focused interventions included in these reviews were designed and implemented by researchers, with significant variability in the specifics of the intervention activities. This suggests that there are many variations in the nature of instructional activities that will yield positive outcomes. It is important to distill the specific components of these interventions to enable articulation of what types of intervention activities have been demonstrated to produce positive effects on children’s code-related skills.

Ultimately, studies of these interventions delivered by traditional early childhood educators in typical early childhood settings will be needed to ensure that the effects translate to typical early childhood practice. Some of this work has already been conducted (e.g., see WWC reviews of early childhood curricula). Additional focus on identification, development, and validation of effective strategies for promoting children’s oral language, particularly more complex aspects of oral language is needed. Whereas current effect sizes are large, they may not be sufficiently large to overcome the myriad delays often observed in children at-risk of later academic difficulties.


1 The National Early Literacy Panel was funded by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), and it carried out its work under the auspices of the National Center for Family Literacy and in consultation with the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Head Start Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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Byrne, B. & Fielding-Barnsley, R. F. (1991). Evaluation of a program to teach phonemic awareness to young children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 805-812.

Gettinger, M. (1986). Prereading skills and achievement under three approaches to teaching word recognition. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 19, 1–9.

Justice, L. M., & Ezell, H. K. (2002). Use of storybook reading to increase print awareness in at-risk children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 11, 17–29.

Lonigan, C. J., Anthony, J. L., Bloomfield, B., Dyer, S. M., & Samwel, C. (1999). Effects of two preschool shared reading interventions on the emergent literacy skills of children from low-income families. Journal of Early Intervention, 22, 306-322.

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National Center for Education Statistics (2003). The nation’s report card: Fourth-grade reading 2003. Retrieved Jan. 12, 2005 from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/results2003/

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O’Connor, R. E., Jenkins, J. R., Leicester, N., & Slocum, T. A. (1993). Teaching phonological awareness to young children with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 59, 532–546.

Schneider, W., Roth, E., & Ennemoser, M. (2000). Training phonological skills and letter knowledge in children at risk for dyslexia: A comparison of three kindergarten intervention strategies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 284-295.

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Whitehurst, G. J., Falco, F. L., Lonigan, C. J., Fischel, J. E., DeBaryshe, B. D., Valdez-Menchaca, M. C., & Caulfield, M. (1988). Accelerating language development through picture book reading. Developmental Psychology, 24, 552-559.

Yeh, S. S. (2003). An evaluation of two approaches for teaching phonemic awareness to children in Head Start. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 18, 513–529.
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