California Standards for the Teaching Profession: Standard One
1.1 Connecting students’ prior knowledge, life experience, and interests with learning goals
1.2 Using a variety of instructional strategies and resources to respond to students’ diverse needs
1.3 Facilitating learning experiences that promote autonomy, interaction, and choice
1.4 Engaging students in problem solving, critical thinking, and other activities that make subject matter meaningful
1.5 Promoting self-directed, reflective learning for all students


Theory and Practice of Emergent Literacy

Yesterday, while sitting in a waiting room at the doctor’s office, I saw emergent literacy in progress. A little girl walked over to the exit, pointed at the writing on the door and said, “Pull.” She shook her head and spoke again, “No. Push. P-U-S-H. Push.” I smiled at her, and said, “Good job!” She spelled it out a few more times, then began to tell me about her school and her teacher who was nice and teaches her to read. She looked at the word on the door again, so I asked her what it meant. She answered, “It means when go out you lean on it,” and demonstrated the process. This little girl is on her way to being a proficient reader.

Young learners are immersed daily in the process of learning language. This learning is hardly confined to the classroom. As Goodman describes in On Reading, reading is only one facet of language. Listening, speaking, and writing are all included in the language that children spend their first years developing. The cumulation of these is literacy, the ability to hear and be heard in the wide world of letters and words. So how does this learning happen? What things can help its process? What things detract from it? What is the teacher’s role in each child’s literacy? This paper will explore the process by which emergent readers become fluent readers.

Reading as a Transaction

In the girl from the story in the waiting room knew something important about reading. She knew when she saw letters on the door that it was information that she could use. If she read those letters, she would know how to respond better to the situation. This is a simple way of seeing that reading is a transaction. In transacting with the text, the reader constructs it meaning (85). How does the transaction of reading take place?  Three main concepts are involved: semantics, syntax, and graphophonics (46).

Semantic cues are the pieces of meaning that the reader brings with them into the story. This could be in the form of context, as with the girl in the waiting room. Chances are that she knew the door would say either “push” or “pull;” she brought prior knowledge of meaning into the transaction. Another form of semantic cues are the pictures included with the writing. By looking at the picture, clues are given as to what will be said in the text. For example, when I pick up a National Geographic and start looking at an article on a shipwreck, I connect my prior knowledge of shipwrecks to the pictures, and then to the new text I will read.

Cues from grammar are called syntactic cues. Grammar is developed with oral language, so even emergent readers have knowledge of it in a basic form. It is the word order and format of language. Each word in a sentence serves a grammatical purpose, and, though the reader may not be able to give its formal name, most readers know what “sounds right” in any given slot.

Lastly are the graphophonic cues. These are the marks on the paper, the orthography, spelling, and punctuation. It also includes the system of phonics, the way that phonology, the pieces of sound that make up spoken language, and written language fit together. Now, put the semantic, graphophonic, and syntactic cues together in a social context, and you have all the components for the transaction of reading. What happens as language learners begin to piece these things together? How do readers learn to use these tools? What happens if a learner is missing part of the puzzle?

In one of my meetings with an emergent reader, an interesting example of this piecing together occurred. I asked Anna to pick out a book she liked to read; she picked Carl’s Birthday, a picture book with a few sentences on the first and last pages. She pointed out the title and author, and then told me a story about how her family used to have dogs like Carl but they died. After finishing her personal story, the girl open to the first page. She asked for help, so we read the words together. Then Anna launched into telling me the story of each picture as she pointed at them and turned the pages. When we reached the last page, she saw the words on the page and gasped and said, “We forgot to read the words!” She flipped back to the beginning and began paging through, looking for the words.

In this case, the learner was almost completely focused on semantics. She connected herself to the story, and saw the meaning in the pictures, but forgot the element of graphophonics. However, Anna did catch on to her possible mistake, and reviewed what she had “read.” She is at the stage of reading in which reading strategies begin to have great importance.

Reading Strategies

Language learners go through a process of inquiry while encountering new language events. They begin by predicting what the event will yield, testing for confirmation or correction of the prediction, and integration of the new concepts learned (Remick 9/29). As the learner develops a larger set of tools for testing and correcting, their language process becomes more efficient and effective (Goodman 52). How can teachers help promote strategic behavior?

Regie Routman discusses this in her book, Conversations. Modeling behavior and verbalizing skills are two of her most prominent strategies. We need to model “reading as an inquiry process in which the reader self-questions, monitors, reflects, and revises in order to make sense of text” (131). In this way, the process of prediction, confirmation, and integration becomes natural.

For emergent readers, this process includes much positive response from the teacher, as there is not as much confirmation to be found in the context of the reading. An example of this is with early emergent readers learning the alphabet or just beginning to recognize printed words. They are achieving steps towards the goal of reading, whereas an older reader might derive confirmation and satisfaction from knowing that an entire sentence made sense to them.

Within the idea of teaching strategies are several concepts. First, word-solving strategies are important, as they help the reader make sense of the basic written sentence. This includes using the semantic and syntactic cue systems discussed earlier. Some important prompts for word solving include sounding words out, comparison to words in the reader’s vocabulary, or reading the rest of the sentence with just the first sound of the word. Encouragement when a reader tries any strategy on their own is extremely important.

There are many ways to create a forum for discussion on individual strategies in the classroom. Routman suggests that there are five basic ways to develop reading in the classroom: reading aloud, writing aloud, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading. In reading aloud, learners have a chance it sit back and watch as reading takes place. The teacher can model strategies in a natural way, and enjoyment is had by hearing a story. In writing aloud, students can see how a writer puts the words together that they, in turn, read. With shared reading, the learners have a chance to test their theories in a low-stress, fun situation by reading along with the teacher and the group. Guided reading allows for a more instructional format where coaching on the various strategies is displayed and practiced. Independent reading allows for personal exploration of the strategies in chosen text (26-45).

Let’s look at this in context of teaching. If I had wanted to make a strategy lesson with Anna, I might have chosen to talk about where to look for the words on the page. I also would have praised her for her effective self-check of looking for the words where she thought she might have missed them. With the girl in the waiting room, what might I have done? I could have capitalized on her self-correction, and talked with her about how she knew “pull” was the wrong word, but “push” what right. The type of strategy discussion you have with a reader is based on the difficulties they are encountering. Both examples I used include miscues, and in both cases, the miscue gave great insight into what the reader was thinking as well as how I might help them.

One might ask the question of whether the girl in the waiting room what just sounding the word out using her knowledge of phonics. I do not disagree. She may have just used phonics, which is fine, since she understood in the end what the message written on the door meant. We each use our phonemic awareness of words every day as we speak and read. It is so much a part of our personal strategy system that we hardly realize that we do it. But how does a child learn this system? How does it compare to other language cues?

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the understanding that speech is composed of a series of individual sounds, as well as the ability to manipulate those sounds to make oral language (Remick 10/6). Children develop phonemic awareness in much the same way they develop knowledge of grammar. As they are exposed to oral language, they develop a set of ideas about how the patterns and rhythms of speech occur. By hearing and repeating rhymes, and engaging in word play, children will develop the understanding that words are made of sounds. This translates over to the use of decoding written words back into text in order to read. Most children know this technique of “sounding words out.” Since this technique has obvious power, many teachers and parents overemphasize its value. I saw this in my early meetings with Anna. She was resistant to any help, saying that she needed to sound it out because that was what her mother told her to do. It seemed to hold her back, as she rejected all other strategies in the name of this one.

Goodman and Routman both stress that, though it is important to provide activities for children to develop phonemic awareness, it is also important not to overemphasize it for fear of handicapping the child (Goodman 73, Routman 102-106).  Goodman also expresses that readers do not need to translate everything the read back into oral language to understand it. Texts and phonics are ambiguous, but the mind is still able to decipher meaning. He then comes back to the initial statement of this paper about reading: “meaning is constructed by the reader in transacting with the text” (85). Through reading and exposure to reading, children will develop phonemic understanding, most of those without specific instruction (Routman 101).
 I tend to agree with Routman and Goodman on the issue of phonics. If a child struggles with not having enough phonemic awareness, it should be approached similarly as one would teach any other reading strategy: look at miscues, ask questions, and help the child verbalize their thoughts.

In Conclusion

Much work goes into creating a situation in which children can learn to read. Both Goodman and Routman provide rich resources toward this goal. It is certain that I will use the ideas and concepts they suggest in my teaching.

 Back to Standard One
 On to Standard Two