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Creating a Literacy-Rich Environment
By John Funk

Once a year I teach an Early Literacy class for a group of college students who are preparing to begin student teaching.  These students are seeking an Elementary Education license, which usually certifies their teaching skills for grades 1-6.  One thing that I insist that this group do is visit a preschool classroom for at least one hour.  During this hour they are to look for classroom indicators that reinforce a literacy-rich environment for children.  One purpose for this assignment is to make sure the students are tuned in to what a literacy-rich environment should include.  The second purpose is to help these elementary education students understand emergent literacy, the beginning stages of literacy development.  I believe that a teacher cannot be effective in any elementary grade unless she understands how literacy begins.  Many teachers will have students of all ages that are still functioning in that stage.

When the students report on the assignment above, the following indicators are things that I hope they observe during their preschool classroom visit.

A Print Rich Environment
In a well-established and well-organized classroom, there should be print everywhere!  This does not negate the fact that visual picture reminders of classroom schedules, rules, etc., are critical to the social and emotional development of the children.  However, words should be placed next to any visual clue to help the children understand about print.  Here are ways that a teacher can create a print-rich environment:
• Posted Alphabet.  There should be at least two alphabet charts posted in every classroom.  These charts should be at the eye level of the children.  I know that it is a bit challenging for classrooms with limited space.  However, keep in mind that items posted at eye-level or below are great learning tools for children.  Items posted above the child’s line of sight are decorations.
• Name Labels:  A child’s name is one of the best ways to teach about print.  A child’s name should appear at least 4-5 times throughout the classroom.  Attendance cards, cubby labels, helper boards, apron hooks, center tags and name puzzles are just a few possible ways to display each child’s name.
• Item Labels: A wise teacher will label every part of the classroom from the doors to the sink.  Block shelves, listening centers, writing tables and group areas should all have written labels indicating the word that best describes that area.  Each word should be accompanied by a picture of the item as a visual reminder about the word.
• Teacher Writing:  Teachers should look for every opportunity to model print for the children in the group.  This would usually occur during a rug or circle time activity.  The children should be able to observe the teacher writing simple words and short sentences about something related to the topic of the day.  The teacher should say the words and talk the children through the writing during these modeling sessions.

Classroom Libraries
It is recommended that each classroom plan to have at least 4 books per child available at all times.  Because of limited funding, most classrooms do not own that many books.  For situations like this, the teacher must visit the school or local public library on a regular basis.  Books should be rotated so that the children are continually exposed to different stories and forms of print.  It is also critical that children have access to stories that have been read to the group.  I have known teachers who have their ‘own set’ of books that they read each year.  They keep them in a closet, not allowing the children to personally look at the books, so that they can use them year after year without damage.  Sometimes the teacher personally owns these books and wants to protect them.  In this case I would recommend that the teacher find a copy of the book at the library so the children can handle it and retell the story to friends.  Stories being read to children do not always accomplish literacy support unless there is a discussion about the story and the children can revisit the story whenever they would like.  This will maximize the literacy experience.

Although a library center is critical, there are other ways to provide books for children.  Here are some suggestions for placement of books throughout the classroom:
• Provide at least 2-3 books at each learning center that support the activity at that center.  For example, when working on numbers in the math center, have several books about counting in the center with the mathematical attributes being used for the activity.
• Create “book tubs.”  Book tubs are small tubs or boxes that contain a book and several props to help retell the story.  Book tubs are more effective if the story has already been read to the group of children. Allow the children to choose from the book tubs during choice activities.
• Make sure the library center contains “predictable books.”  These are books that have repetitive text throughout the book.  These types of books are very engaging for children as they can instantly participate in the reading of the story.  Check the end of this article for a short list of suggested predictable books.
• Set up a listening center in the room on a regular basis.  Most libraries carry many books on tape or CD with the accompanying book.  These are especially effective if the center includes several copies of the same book so children can participate together.

Writing Centers
Early childhood classrooms should always contain a writing center.  While these centers will eventually help in the development of handwriting, for younger children they are critical for the development of fine motor skills and learning about print.  Keep in mind these suggestions:
• For preschool and kindergarten children there should be a wide variety of tools to develop fine motor skills and handwriting skills.  These tools would include large pencils, large crayons, large brushes, markers, finger paints, chalk, etc.  Allowing children to experiment with different types of tools will assist in the development of fine motor skills.
• With over 25 years of working with preschool and kindergarten children, I found that the most effective method of motor development occurred when I began writing experiences using large size pencils and crayons.  Some teachers insist that children adapt to standard size writing instruments too early.  I found that when I began the year with large pencils and crayons and then shifted to standard sizes (depending on the age of the child) later, fine motor development was much more solid and controlled.
• Provide different types of writing materials for experimentation.  Newsprint, construction paper, tagboard, colored and white paper are all part a long list of different types of paper that will be fun for the beginning writer.

Systematic Explicit Instruction
Recent reading research insists that even in preschool teachers should be systematic and explicit in their support of literacy skills.  What this means is that a teacher should have a plan (organized developmental guidelines in a developmental order) and systematically introduce literacy skills during classroom activities.  Skills should not be left to chance or for the teacher to take care of the next year.  The following three literacy skills are the top three predictors of first grade reading success (Adams, 1990).  They should be evident in every preschool and kindergarten classroom.

• Knowledge of Letter Names: It is critical that children know the names of the letters of the alphabet.  Prior to school this is much more critical than knowing what sounds each letter makes in reading.  It is also critical that the child knows the letter with automaticity, meaning that the child should be able to name the letter immediately andwithout hesitation.
• Phonemic Awareness:  Phonemic Awareness is being able to hear the sounds of speech in our oral language.  Nursery rhymes, rhyming stories and songs are excellent ways to teach children to listen to how speech is the same and how it is different.  A preschool child with good phonemic awareness should be able to pick out the sound at the beginning of a word, such as “cat.”  The child should be able to identify the /c/ sound.  It is not necessary for the child to know it is the letter “c.”  Identifying the sound is the critical issue for phonemic awareness.  When children have good phonemic awareness and good knowledge of letter names, combining the two will be very easy and natural.
• Print Awareness:  Print Awareness is the knowledge of how books and print work.  A good teacher will model how to read and draw attention to print whenever possible.  Writing words in front of the children will help them develop print awareness.
These three predictors will give children a great foundation for learning to read.

Supporting literacy in the classroom is critical in the early years in helping children become literate individuals.  Good teachers continually ask themselves what more they can do to create a literacy-rich environment for their students. 

Suggested Predictable Books for Early Childhood Classrooms

Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
The Little Red Hen Traditional
The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson
Click, Clack, Moo-Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin
Mrs. Wishy Washy by Joy Cowley
Millions of Cats by Wanda G’ag
The Fat Cat by Jack Kent
There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly - any version
The Three Little Pigs Traditional (any version that has repetitive text)
Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, Blair Lent
What Was I Scared Of? Dr. Seuss (story within the compilation of “Yertle the Turtle”) 

References

 
Adams, Marilyn Jager, 1990. Beginning to Read. MIT.

Copple, C. & S. Bredekamp, 2006. Basics of Developmentally Appropriate Practice. NAEYC, Washington DC.

National Association for the Education of Young Children,  NAEYC Early Childhood Program Standards and Accreditation Criteria. NAEYC, 2005. Washington DC.

National Research Council, 1998. Preventing Reading Difficulties. Washington DC.

POCET, Preschool Outcomes Checklist and Evaluation Tool, 2005. Excelligence Learning Corporation. Monterey, CA.

John Funk has worked in the early childhood field since 1979. He has taught preschool, first and second grades, and he spent the largest part of his teaching career in kindergarten. Mr. Funk was named "Utah Teacher of the Year" in 1996. He has worked as an early childhood specialist for a large school district and has managed early childhood services for Salt Lake CAP Head Start. He is past president of the Utah AEYC. As an early childhood, reading, and literacy consultant for the last decade, he has written on early childhood subjects and products for McGraw Hill and Leap Frog. He serves on the editorial panel for Young Children magazine published by NAEYC. Currently, Mr. Funk is the Manager of Educational Programs for Excelligence Learning Corporation, and he teaches courses in children's literature and early reading at the University of Utah.