Literacy in early childhood education: the importance of undertaking a critical reading of practice and research

Volume 2, Number 3 - August 2010

Editoral

This is the second special edition He Kupu. The first considered arts education and in this edition literacy has been identified as a focus in early childhood education. The scope of this collection of papers is broad and reflects a wide variety of research perspectives within this field of inquiry. All six papers reveal a community of interest in literacy issues for early childhood educators and either implicitly or explicitly makes suggestions for the nature and character of practice and pedagogy in both teacher education and professional development for teachers. All papers have an interest in transforming praxis in some way; exhibit criticality, question approaches to pedagogy, and all have a democratic impulse for education at heart. Interestingly, none of the papers have emerged clearly from the philosophy of education, a way of knowing and thinking sadly marginalized in OECD countries worldwide, including New Zealand. Four of the essays have emerged from an ‘evidence-based’ paradigm, while three of the papers suggest implicitly a philosophical interest and a possible future research trajectory.

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Peer-reviewed Papers

Internationally, much recent research and writing has focused on the role of the early childhood teacher in supporting children’s literacy prior to school entry and formal instruction. Within the New Zealand context, literacy is included in the early childhood curriculum, ‘Te Whāriki’ (Ministry of Education, 1996), but how teachers should go about supporting children to gain literacy abilities remains implicit and open to interpretation. In addition, there is considerable diversity in content and philosophy of early childhood teacher education programmes within New Zealand. The knowledge that teachers need is explored in this paper, along with the research evidence concerning the most effective pedagogies for supporting literacy acquisition in young children.

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This paper examines what critical literacy is and how a sociocultural approach to literacy may provide a basis for the inclusion of critical literacy practices in early childhood education in New Zealand. What critical literacy in early childhood education might look like is then examined, along with some of the tensions that may arise when considering the implementation of critical literacy with very young children. Finally, the extent to which critical literacy has a place in early childhood education within New Zealand is explored. This includes an assessment of the potential of the early childhood curriculum - Te Whāriki - to accommodate a critical literacy component, what critical literacy in early childhood may look like and whether the early childhood profession is ready for critical literacy and the implications for the sector.

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Literacy is seen as an important indicator for success in school and work environments. However a significant number of children are still underachieving in this area of learning. A lack of reading comprehension has been identified as one of the contributors to poor literacy levels (Adams & Ryan, 2002) and research shows that literacy experiences in the early years, are a means for improving children’s later achievement (McNaughton, 2002; Nuttall & Edwards, 2007; Roskos & Christie, 2007). This improvement in performance implies that early childhood education can create more equitable opportunities for children. The difficulty however arises when teacher initiated goals for literacy can be seen to be in conflict with the principles of the child initiating their own learning, as in the New Zealand curriculum Te Whāriki. This paper suggests that with a better understanding of reading comprehension and early learning, early childhood teachers can incorporate experiences that are both teacher directed as well as being relevant to the child’s interests. Improved partnerships between teachers, parents and primary school, are also considered in promoting equal opportunities at school entry.

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Young children’s proficiency in English and their vocabulary development are predictors of their early school achievement. This paper reviews general guidelines and activities that can facilitate young children’s receptive and expressive vocabulary and language development. While vocabulary development is an essential element in children using language to enhance their reasoning, it is only one element of a set of elements that connect children’s language and reasoning together. From this perspective, Marion Blank (2002) has theorized four levels of language and reasoning that are hierarchical and that can be progressed using child and adult dialogue and talk. Examples are presented on how these four levels can be incorporated into early childhood learning settings.

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Language is of utmost importance to preserve and maintain people’s cultures and identities. When people move from their home lands to other, especially western, countries they struggle to preserve their minority languages within English speaking societies. This article briefly explores the connection between language and culture and the need to preserve and maintain languages. It then considers how children from diverse backgrounds use home language experiences to extend their learning within English speaking early childhood environments, and the benefits of being bilingual. Finally, it addresses how teachers and parents can draw on children’s rich literacy skills in their home language and build new knowledge.

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A concern in literacy education in New Zealand is the gap between good and poor achievers (Tunmer et al., 2009). While there is a large body of research on how children learn how to read and write, there is much less research on the development of emergent literacy skills that are necessary precursors to conventional literacy. This article describes research into the alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, and vocabulary of 110 four-and-a-half to five-year-old children attending Auckland kindergartens using the early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki (1996). Children exhibited a wide range of knowledge across the three cognitive emergent literacy skills, with children who could read or spell one or more words exhibiting higher levels of alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness than children who could not read or spell. The findings are discussed in terms of realising children’s literacy abilities and how literacy skills can be included within a curriculum that encourages holistic socially, and culturally mediated learning contexts.

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Educational research has complex and intrinsic obligations not only to itself as a multi-disciplinary field but to those who make decisions in education – from early childhood teachers to ministers of education (see Saunders, 2008). This edition of He Kupu is being written at a time when policymakers and researchers are asking for educational policy and practice to be informed by high quality research. However, interpretations of ‘high quality’ often excludes from the frame of consideration much research based upon individual case studies or narratives, as well as philosophical research work or critical theory (see Bridges, Smeyers & Smith, 2008). In this paper we attempt to place educational research generally within a broad, critical and ethical context in relation to literacy and early childhood education, which is the focus of this edition.

Before examining these ideas in turn we propose: 1) a brief discussion/critique of instrumental rationality which is at the centre of a psychologically-based curriculum discourse, (the claims for ‘evidence-based’ practice), and some thoughts on the politics of methodology; 2) a questionning of the notions of ‘evidence-based’ knowledge and practice and assumptions about epistemology, and 3) to lay claim to the democratization of research frameworks for education, with a brief discussion of an alternative methodology for both teacher practice and academic research. This would include narrative methodology and its offerings to early childhood education research in the context of one particular example the ‘learning’ story.

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Contributors

Janet Mansfield, Claire McLachlan, Judy Hamer, Marjolein Whyte, Professor Ian Hay, Ruth Fielding–Barnsley, Therese Taylor, Navpreet Kaur, Alison Arrow

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