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Kjeld Kjertmanns hjemmeside: Artikler
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Kjeld Kjertmanns hjemmeside
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A Real-Life Approach to Early Childhood Literacy I

Six essays by Kjeld Kjertmann Ph.D.

Learning literacy in the family

In modern society written language is all around us, and if you cannot read or write sufficiently you become socially marginalized. That is why we should reconsider the role of parents in literacy learning and make it a more active one, based on the playful integration of writing and reading in mutual every day activities, avoiding school like methods and skills training. But is that possible?

When a child is born no one will expect the parents to get a degree in language teaching to deal successfully with their child's acquisition of spoken language. For normal, loving parents it is a natural thing to communicate with their baby using the language in accordance with what are the key functions of language, i.e. as a means of personal and social contact, expression of feelings and needs, and exchange of information for practical purposes. In this way, under normal circumstances, the child will learn to understand and eventually speak the oral language by the age of two, irrespective of the parents\' educational and socio-economic background.

But when it comes to written language there is a long tradition for the need of schooling dating back to times when only a few jobs required writing and reading. Though all the adults in a family can read and write nowadays, schooling is still considered the best and only way for the child to learn literacy. So the parents\' participation in their child\'s literacy learning is reduced to a much more passive one than it should be. This situation is due to reading and writing being viewed as a matter for trained teachers only, which is based on the belief that reading and writing must be learned by introducing the abstract elements of letters and sounds to the child. This approach, called phonics, presupposes an expert knowledge of the phonetic system that most parents do not have.

In contrast to this, emergent literacy studies for more than thirty years have convincingly documented numerous cases of preschool readers who have been invited to join actively in the family\'s reading and writing. From the beginning they have been encouraged to use written words meaningfully in playful and practical activities, and in this way they have gradually learned the use of letters and sounds in real writing and reading (see essay 4) Such an introduction is quite similar to the way they learned oral language, and completely different from reading instruction based on phonics. Preschool readers in family settings use written language as language, i.e. to convey and decode meaningful visual messages, and not as a separate endeavour in which abstract pieces are put together to create meaning.

Further information and inspiration:

About early childhood literacy in families, communities and cultures, pages 51-141 in:

Hall, Nigel, Joanne Larson and Jackie Marsh (eds.). 2006/2003. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Sage Publications.

Definitions of literacy terms and articles on literacy issues written by researchers:

Harris, Theodore L. and Richard E. Hodges (eds.).1995. The Literacy Dictionary. The Vocabulary of Reading and Writing. International Reading Association.

A passionate and well argued call for inviting young children into the world of written language:

Smith, Frank. 1988. Joining the Literacy Club. Heinemann.

Two pioneer researchers about the basic principles in emergent literacy:

Sulzby, Elisabeth and William H. Teale. 1989. Emergent Literacy: New Perspectives. In Strickland, Dorothy S. and Lesley Mandel Morrow (eds.). Emerging Literacy: Young Children Learn to Read and Write. International Reading Association.

A Real-Life Approach to Early Childhood Literacy II

Six essays by Kjeld Kjertmann Ph.D.

Write to Read

Write to Read is an approach to literacy learning based on the results of several studies in early literacy. They show that writing not only improves reading skills by building decoding skills, but also that reading and writing mutually reinforce one another. Until recently this has not been acknowledged in mainstream instruction where reading is normally the dominating activity and writing viewed only as an appendage of reading.

Contrarily, in Write to Read writing is considered to be a much more active contributor to learning to read. This is so, not only because of the child\'s more active and personal engagement in writing his own text, but also because the child, by creating his/her own text in a slow process of constructing words, is afforded the opportunity to work with the relationship between letters and sounds in words whose meanings and pronunciations are familiar. This initial trial-and-error writing called invented spelling is a fruitful strategy on the way towards conventional writing because it allows the child to experiment freely and write texts without having to know the correct spelling of all the words. The spontaneous and functional expression of opinion or emotion for others to read, not only makes writing and reading a joyful and desirable activity, but also an easier way to break the alphabetical code - more easily, that is, than trying to read words of unknown meaning and pronunciation in a book. On the other hand Write to Read also shows that writing and reading will not develop satisfactorily if the child\'s sight word vocabulary and knowledge of letters are not being gradually expanded through adult initiated reading and writing activities with the child.

But what if you are worried that your child may have problems copying the way you write? The younger the child, the bigger the letters. So, use a black felt-tip pen and write letters 1 inch high. Word cards of 2 x 6 inches have proven practical in many day care centres and private homes in Scandinavia. Children simply love to watch an adult write and say new words, so let your child watch you! To start, choose words your child is familiar with that will elicit a positive, emotional reaction such as names of family members, pets, toys etc. Later, depending on age and interest, more and more words from the child\'s environment and activities will become part of its sight word vocabulary.

Nowadays handwriting is more or less being replaced by digital writing on computers, mobiles and other electronic gadgets. So, why not show the child how to write words on a screen? Many media products provide word processing audio-visually which enhance not only writing development in general but also phonological abilities and independent reading.

Further information and inspiration:

An interview with Swedish professor Ragnhild Söderbergh who explains how the use of word cards in early childhood, called Writing/Reading Joy, can encourage both written and spoken language:

In this recent study (2010), conducted in school settings, students\' reading was improved when they wrote about what they read: notes about the text, personal reactions, interpretations, summaries, questions asked and answered:

How digital writing and word processing media effects enhance both writing and reading development:

Labbo, Linda D. and David Reinking: Computers in Early Literacy Education. In: Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Sage Publications. 2003/2006.

About the importance of young children learning literacy through active engagement, constructing their understanding of how written language works:

Teale, William H. and Elizabeth Sulzby: Emergent Literacy: New Perspectives. In: Strickland, Dorothy S. and Lesley Mandel Morrow (eds.): Emerging Literacy: Young Children Learn to Read and Write. International Reading Association. 1989.

A Real-Life Approach to Early Childhood Literacy III

Six essays by Kjeld Kjertmann Ph.D.

Space between words - what a wonderful idea!

Imagine what it would be like to read if there was no space between words. Nonsense, you will probably say, there is always space between words. But no. There is no space between the words we speak. If you think so, it is because modern written language has become your mental model of spoken language. In reality the flow of speech is only interrupted when we hesitate or breathe! That was why the ancient Greeks and Romans wrote a letter for each sound in a coherent line from left to right (scriptura continua):


When a Roman reader looked at this row of discreet phonetic symbols, he had to manipulate them within his mind to form properly articulated and accented entities equivalent to syllables and words, sound them out from left to right, and then by listening to his own voice try to understand the meaning of the text. Does this tedious and slow job (praelectio/prereading) sound familiar to you? Then you have probably heard it in school when children are learning to read the phonics way, eight hundred years after space between words had been fully implemented in European writing to make reading easier!

Separate words helped people develop a more direct eye-to-thought approach to meaning, in what we now call silent reading. This was no less than a revolution in the history of reading. It allowed the reader to immediately spot visual entities of meaning in the text, words and groups of words, and provided the writing system with an additional code, the code of meaning:

The codes of the writing system

Code of meaning

Word - meaning

Code of pronunciation

Letter - sound

Space between words not only supports understanding the text, it also makes it possible for the child to approach written language in a more meaningful way than having to learn abstract letters and sounds before getting to know and use words and phrases. If adults at home and in day care show the preschool child how to write and read words of interest and practical use, this will gradually encourage the curious young child to notice and talk about letters visually recognised in different words. From words and meaning to letters and sounds, not the other way round.

Although today we live in a fully developed IT community, written language is still being viewed and taught in school as a foreign language and an academic subject. If this was really the only and best way to learn literacy, why does 20% of western populations not read and write sufficiently? Since, at most 5% are genuine dyslectics, there is certainly a challenge to be met. Maybe preaching the gospel of phonics in reading instruction is no longer the only answer.

Further information and inspiration:

This small and easily read book is a new, updated edition of Ken Goodman\'s famous manifesto from 1986. He and Frank Smith were the first reading researchers to oppose phonics instruction:

Goodman, Ken. 2005. What\'s Whole in Whole Language. 20th Anniversary Edition. RDR Books.

An impressive study of the history and transformation of reading and writing since ancient Greece and Rome:

Saenger, Paul. 1997. Space Between Words. The Origins of Silent Reading. Stanford University Press.

Professor Frank Smith is an outstanding reading researcher, internationally known for his passionate and well argued criticism of phonics instruction and of the biased federal support of ?scientific research\', i.e. in reality only proponents of early phonics instruction:

Smith, Frank. 2004. Understanding Reading. Sixth Edition. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Swedish professor Ragnhild Söderbergh\'s many studies have convincingly shown that words and meaning rather than letters and sounds, is a successful way into literacy for young children:

A Real-Life Approach to Early Childhood Literacy IV

Six essays by Kjeld Kjertmann Ph.D.

The principles of meaningful, real life literacy learning

Many young children experience written language as only having to do with books and literature. To evoke a broader interest, they should also be involved in the everyday use of written language for practical purposes, exciting experiences and personal expression.

But is reading and writing altogether a natural thing for a young child to do? The answer is simple. What is natural and important for the members of a family to do, will be perceived as natural and important to do by the child. And what is of no interest to the adults, will be of no interest to the child. Young Mozart played the piano because everyone in the family played an instrument. So you can only expect your child to feel reading and writing a natural thing to do, if he/she grows up watching literacy practices every day, and, equally important, if you feel as comfortable about supporting your child\'s early literacy, as you did when supporting his/her first ride on bike!

To avoid tedious skills training and school like instruction, we can learn from the way written language has been used by people through ages, that is, learn what written language can do better than spoken language. These principles help us to use written language meaningfully as language in its own right, and not just as a technique to be learnt, and they provide us with real-life based reasons for early literacy and guidelines for its implementation:

1. Writing makes language visible. Thus we can keep images of written linguistic entities in our mind and talk about language as an object in itself, that is, obtain metalinguistic awareness. This goes for the young child too, and is of great importance for his/her future literacy learning.

2. Written language maintains information and helps us to remember. This can be utilized for a lot of practical purposes by inviting your child to watch and take part in writing and reading: shopping lists, notes on the refrigerator, recipes for joint cooking or baking, messages for those not at home, invitation for parties, letters or postcards for dear ones etc. Stories are maintained in books and ready to be shared with your child in bedside storytelling. Also encourage and support your child\'s own writing stories on screen or paper.

3. Written agreements are more binding than oral ones; no less for children. So write down the new plan (big and clear) for sharing domestic duties and put it in a place for all to see. Soon the young ones will recognise names of family members and weekdays by scrutinizing the poster every day!

4. Written language helps us to structure everyday life. Help the child remember where to put the different toys in his/her room by writing labels or cards: cars , dolls , books etc. and put them in the place in question. With this routine the child will get accustomed with written language as a useful tool, rather than a secret code for adults only.

These real life ways of using written language may serve as an inspiration for a meaningful early literacy practice.

Further information and inspiration:

A fascinating study of people\'s use of written language since the first symbols on clay tablets in the Middle East, and of the impact of writing and reading through history on our way of thinking:

Olson, David R. 1994/1998. The world on paper. The conceptual and cognitive implications of writing and reading. Cambridge University Press.

In her study professor Leichter found that ?informal instruction in the course of other activities (?) is essential for education within families, including the learning of literacy\' (38):

Leichter, Hope Jensen. 1984. Families as Environments for Literacy. In: Goelman, H., A. Oberg & Frank Smith (eds.). Awakening to Literacy. Heinemann.

British researcher Brian Street distinguishes between an ?autonomous\' model of literacy, that is, literacy being taught as a universal technique, independent of linguistic, social and cultural context, and an ?ideological\' model of literacy that takes local literacy practice, social, cultural, and linguistic conditions into consideration. This article is based on the latter model:

A Real-Life Approach to Early Childhood Literacy V

Six essays by Kjeld Kjertmann Ph.D.

How to help the young writer develop flexible strategies

American students today are not meeting even basic literacy standards and their teachers are often at a loss for how to help them. Part of the solution to this problem could be inviting and encouraging the young child to take part in the family's writing and reading. But how can we help the child?

Factors of significance to writing development

Degree of

access ..

(0 - 5)

Access to …


.. watching literacy practices


.. being involved in literacy practices


.. being exposed to written language by ear


.. being exposed to written language by eye


.. printed material (not only fiction)


.. adult initiated writing activities


.. adult support to child's writing


.. knowledge of sight words (e.g. word cards)


.. knowledge of letter names and sounds


.. traditional writing utensils


.. electronic writing device


.. electronic word processing support

Kjeld Kjertmann 2011

0 - 60

A normal, healthy child\'s writing development depends on a number of factors. The critical ones are listed in the table above. A child\'s writing development depends on the degree and kind of stimulation he/she is exposed to.

Each factor, from A-L, is important, but the more of them are implemented, the better. A limited use of stimulation factors leads to limited strategies. If for instance child I is highly exposed to knowledge of letters and sounds (I,5), but not to sight words (H,0), this child\'s writing strategy will differ from that of child II who is exposed to knowledge of both sight words (H,5) and letters-sounds (I,5). Child I listens to the pronunciation of the target word to hear which letter to write next as this sound-out-and-listen strategy is the only one available. Child II, though, has an additional visual vocabulary from sight word knowledge and reading which he/she can draw when a target word is similar in pronunciation and spelling to one of his/her mental word images. This strategy of visually recalling-and-recognising written words or parts of words, will make the way towards conventional writing easier for child II than for child I who will have to stick to the sound-out-and-listen strategy of invented spelling for a longer time.

There is one stage most children go through irrespective of their environment that is due to the different ways in which spoken and written language are segmented. The parts of the two systems do not correspond one to one as the flow of speech is segmented in stress groups of syllables stretching across the space between words (the/flowof/speechisseg/mentedin/groupsof/syllables), and a written text is segmented in separate words. This easily leads the young child to write acoustic units as one coherent group of letters: TARWANSWASALITLGRLE ANDSHEWOTIDAFREND (?There once was a little girl, and she wanted a friend\'). Most children, at one time, write like this, both in handwriting and digital writing. However, exposure to print, sight words and adults\' writing will sooner or later get the child to understand the concept of word and that words in writing are separate.

In early handwriting young children normally write illegible signs/letters for a start. Accept this for the same reasons that you accepted your child\'s initial attempts to speak. Children whose early writing is digital, obviously do not have this problem.

To sum up: Expose the novice writer to as many of the stimulating factors A-L as possible, to provide him/her with a wide range of flexible writing strategies.

Further information and inspiration:

A review of various research studies that explore positive literacy learning environments and confirm each other, for example as to the importance of access to literacy tools and technology:

Makin, Laurie. 2003/2006. Creating Positive Literacy Learning Environments in Early Childhood. In: Hall, Nigel, Joanne Larson and Jackie Marsh (eds.). Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Sage Publications.

A longitudinal study of one child\'s writing development over the course of six years. The book sheds light on how children acquire a basic literacy concept:

Schickedanz, Judith A. 1990. Adam\'s Righting Revolutions. One Child\'s Literacy Development from Infancy Through Grade One. Heinemann.

This classic study by two pioneer researchers was a breakthrough then to new ways of viewing young children\'s developmental patterns of writing and reading:

Sulzby, Elisabeth and William H. Teale. 1985. Writing Development in Early Childhood. In: Educational Horizons. Vol. 64 (1985/86) no. 1. 8-12.

A Real-Life Approach to Early Childhood Literacy VI

Six essays by Kjeld Kjertmann Ph.D.

Early real-life literacy learning - does it work?

Some of the happiest hours I spent during my Ph.D. field work were in Sweden at The Preschool Öjaby Day Care Center (?Öjaby\') for children age 1- 5. The way written language naturally penetrated all activities was astonishing, and so was the calm, relaxed and joyful atmosphere, far from the teacher-student relationship I had expected to see. Since 1988 Öjaby has integrated written language in the daily routines in accordance with the principles of real-life literacy practice [see article 4], called Writing/Reading Joy by professor Ragnhild Söderbergh who originally suggested this practice to the teachers in Öjaby.

In early real-life literacy practice all ideas of phonics instruction and skills training are replaced by the adults\' generous writing of word cards whenever a word or a phrase has caught the children\'s interest during an activity or conversation. The children quite literally absorb the language through sight and hearing. The first time I noticed this was when I introduced myself to the children at lunch hour. I held up a card for everybody to see, and then began writing and pronouncing my name. The children\'s reaction was most surprising: they stared intensely at the card while the letters emerged from left to right, as if they visually sucked in my name. That moment became a turning point in my life as a reading researcher. It did not come close to anything I had heard of or seen before, and yet it seemed so natural.

When Swedish children age 6 start school they enter preschool class and proceed to grade one. In 2005 a review in the day care center of six years\' observations showed that out of 187 children 60 % had been able to read and write competently before entering the preschool class in the local school. At first the school teachers completely disregarded the Öjaby children\'s level of reading and writing. But when the head of the day care centre one day visited the school and witnessed how children who read fluently when they left Öjaby, were told to sound out in strange ways and practice letters, he invited the teachers to the day care center to see how they worked and what they had achieved. Naturally, at first the teachers were sceptical, but soon they became more interested and allowed the Öjaby children to bring their boxes of word cards to school and write and read the way they used to do. This collaboration has developed over the years, and today school and kindergarten even cooperate in joint projects.

According to the teachers in the school, what first of all characterises the Öjaby children, apart from their apparent lead in both reading and writing, is their extraordinary linguistic alertness. They comment and talk about language whenever seen or heard. A survey in 2005 concluded that out of six years\' of students, not one from Öjaby had been in need of special education or other kinds of individual assistance! And the Öjaby children as a group scored ?a bit higher\' than the other children in a national spelling test.

If we think of the present situation in western countries with 20 % of the population struggling with reading and spelling problems, what has been achieved in Öjaby seems remarkable So, instead of waiting for the educational system to change approach, why not give your child a real-life literacy start in life?

Further information and inspiration:

(Unfortunately the literature on Öjaby is in Swedish only, and my own dissertations, articles and book in Danish only, whereas some of Ragnhild Söderbergh\'s books and articles are in English):

Margaret Clark found that the young children\'s reading flourished irrespective of the parents\' socio-economic background if there was a warm communicative relationship between mother and child and a love for reading in the home:

Clark, Margaret M. 1970. Young Fluent Readers. London: Heinemann.

This pioneer study has laid the ground for the growing interest in early reading and writing over subsequent decades:

Söderbergh, Ragnhild. 1977. Reading in Early Childhood: A Linguistic Study of a Preschool Child\'s Gradual Acquisition of Reading Ability. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

In this article Ragnhild Söderbergh argues that written and spoken language mutually reinforce each other in both monolingual and bilingual language acquisition:

Söderbergh, Ragnhild.1986. Aquisition of spoken and written language in early childhood. In:

Ida Kurcz, Grace W. Shugar & Joseph H. Danks (eds.). Knowledge and Language. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

In this written version of an interview in English researcher Ragnhild Söderbergh tells about young children\'s responses to word cards based on her studies in homes and day care centres:

Members of the staff at Öjaby have written this book entitled ?The Joy of Writing and Reading in Day Care. About young children\'s natural wish to join the literacy club.\'

Öjaby förskola. 2004. Skriv- och Läsglädje! I förskolan. Om små barns naturliga vilja at bli medlemmer i skriv- och läsklubben. Växjö: Öjaby förskola.

Kjeld Kjertmann, Ph.D

Associate professor (retired)

Department of Curriculum Research

The Danish University of Education.

Redigeret af Jeppe Bundsgaard
Kommentarer modtages gerne: Kjeld Kjertmann
Webmaster: Kjeld Kjertmann
Sidst opdateret: 30-11-2021
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