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Early Childhood Education and the Science of Reading: Recipes to Last a Lifetime

by Lucy Hart Paulson on Aug 12, 2021

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  • LETRS
  • Science of Reading
Lucy Hart Paulson

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Who loves good cookies and what are your favorite kinds? As you know, cookies are a collection of ingredients put together following a sequence of steps, resulting in tasty outcomes. The best ones are made by using the right kind and quality of ingredients in the appropriate quantities, then correctly combining them by following the recipe instructions. When making cookies, you want good resources for the best recipes.

A recipe for learning to read

When we apply this cookie analogy to learning, the “ingredients” include skills and abilities that grow and develop. Just as the kind and quality of cookie ingredients can affect the final product, the type of instruction and guidance that children receive will impact the skills they learn, when they learn them, and how they learn them. Think about your recipe for teaching literacy. Do you get the outcomes you are hoping for? Do you focus on cultivating the right skills by providing the best instruction?

The body of research defining the science of reading (SoR) has established the “key ingredient” skills and the levels of development needed to learn to read. The key ingredients are eloquently described in the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990) and outlined in the Reading Rope (Scarborough, 2001). On top of identifying the skills needed to learn to read, SoR research also describes effective instructional strategies and routines, providing directions that facilitate literacy learning with good outcomes.

In addition to describing the reading process, SoR has established a direct link between early oral language development and written language achievement. Our cookie analogy also applies to language learning, with the structures of oral language—including speech sounds (phonemes), vocabulary (semantics), grammar (morphology and syntax), and use (prosody and pragmatics)—serving as the “ingredients.”

A recipe for oral language development

Increasing understanding and use of vocabulary, use of more complex sentence structures, and combining thoughts into discourse and narratives can all augment the quality and quantity of children’s oral language, which develops best in socially responsive and interactive settings. In other words, the “talk” that happens in everyday contexts matters. Dickenson (2003) emphasizes the importance of conversational turns in early childhood contexts by using the slogan “strive for five,” which sets the goal of engaging in five back-and-forth exchanges on a topic. Recent findings from a 10-year longitudinal study (Gilkerson et al., 2018) determined that the conversational turns children experienced as toddlers correlated to IQ, verbal comprehension, vocabulary, and other language skills in middle school, leading to a broadly recommended focus on conversational turns for all ages. Do you include a focus on conversational turns in your literacy learning recipe?

The social aspect of socially responsive and interactive opportunities is an important element of learning across all the five major developmental domains. Can you list them? Returning to our cookie analogy, these domains often include groupings of the following ingredients: physical/health, cognition, language/literacy, social-emotional, and attitudes toward learning. A teaching focus on the “whole child” includes attention to all the learning domains within developmental sequences and expectations in an interconnected approach. In fact, a recent empirical study has determined a causal link between and conversational turns and social-emotional development in young children (Gomez & Strasser, 2021). Simply put, the study found that talking turns facilitated social and emotional skill development. See how important your conversational turn recipe is?

A recipe for optimal learning

Building upon our previously identified developmental learning ingredients, our instructional recipe should also include the principles of learning that best support development. An important aspect of SoR is intentionally and explicitly teaching children the literacy/language and social-emotional skills they need for academic and life success. What are the principles that support optimal learning opportunities? Dehaene (2020) identified four “pillars of learning”: attention, engagement, feedback, and rehearsal with consolidation.

These learning principles support the “I Do, We Do, You Do” teaching approach. The recipe for this approach includes the following steps:

  • Creating lessons that engage students and encourage attentiveness as a learning skill is intentionally taught (I Do)
  • Providing the opportunity for students to practice the skill and receive feedback on their performance, with repeated and distributed practice as needed (We Do)
  • Providing opportunities for more practice to reinforce and consolidate students’ learning (You Do)

The adult’s role in this instructional sequence is an important component of the learning recipe. During the I Do and We Do steps, children’s learning is guided to build a foundation of understanding. At the You Do phase, students continue to construct their learning in a more implicit context.

A recipe for learning through play

How about SoR and play? Think about the important role of play in children’s learning. Play schemes, sequences, and activities contain elements that relate to things children have been exposed to and are learning about. In essence, children use play to practice, try out, explore, and combine things they know.

In high-quality early childhood classrooms, children can engage with carefully designed learning centers under adult supervision to incorporate what they have learned and deepen their understanding of the world around them. Seidenburg (2017) refers to this You Do level as “semi-supervised within an implicit experience,” and Harris (2012) guides our understanding by reporting that “there is a profound limit to the role that first-hand experience can play in cognitive development. In many domains, children cannot gather the relevant data for themselves. Children have to depend on what other people tell them.” Simply put, adult guidance is an important part of this learning recipe.

Supplementing your learning recipes

Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS®) for Early Childhood Educators is designed for teachers of young children in preschool into kindergarten. It includes the ingredients and instructional steps to deepen teachers’ understanding of the ingredients of early literacy learning and the instructional strategies they can use to intentionally help young children develop oral language, phonological processing, and print knowledge.

As for young children’s social-emotional learning, a brand-new edition of “Good Talking Words: A Social Communication Skills Program for Young Children” presents a curriculum designed to intentionally teach children the expected social communication behaviors they need to interact with peers and adults. The program includes 10 engaging and interactive lessons with distributed and repeated practice in a developmentally appropriate and playful approach.

These two resources may be important additions to your learning recipe resource bank for facilitating early literacy, oral language, and social-emotional learning. Based on the science of reading and the science of learning, these recipes are designed to make an important difference for the children in our care for the rest of their lives.

 


Dehaene, S. (2020). How we learn: Why brains learn better than any machine . . . for now. New York: Viking.

Dickinson, D. K. (2003). Why we must improve teacher-child conversations in preschools and the promise of professional development. Enhancing caregiver language facilitation in childcare settings, 4-1.

Gilkerson, J., Richards, J. A., Warren, S. F., Oller, D. K., Russo, R., & Vohr, B. (2018). Language experience in the second year of life and language outcomes in late childhood. Pediatrics, 142 (4). doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-4276

Gómez, E., & Strasser, K. (2021). Language and socioemotional development in early childhood: The role of conversational turns. Developmental Science, e13109.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6-10.

Harris, P. L. (2012). Trusting what you’re told. Harvard University Press.

Hoover, W. A., & Gough, P. B. (1990). The simple view of reading. Reading and Writing, 2(2), 127-160.

Scarborough, H. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (disabilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (eds.), Handbook for Research in Early Literacy (pp. 97-110). New York: Guilford.

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