Early DmeZopment and Parenting, Vol. 5 (2), 117-118 (1996)
CHILDRENS EMERGENT LITERACY-FROM RESEARCH TO PRACTICE. Edited by David F. Lancy Praeger, Westport, 1995, pp 388, 58.50. ISBN 0-275-94589-8.
Emergent literacy is a term with two meanings. These are: (1) the study of childrens first encounters with literacy, which include their dawning realization that letters represent sounds and that speech can be segmented into words; (2) a method of teaching this early form of awareness to children who fall behind in reading. Those who concentrated on the first meaning produced the idea that learning to read is a cultural act and that its cultural ramifications are quite wide and involve the childs home and parents and siblings and neighbours as much as the classroom. The most famous study of childrens dawning awareness that print represents spoken language, that spoken language consists of words and eventually that words consist of sounds that are represented by those letters was done by Fereiro and Teberosky, who made a persuasive case for children forming their own hypotheses about written language long before they are taught about it in a formal sense. No one who has read their book can any longer think that all that we have to consider is what the child is taught at school. Children are more or less prepared for literacy when they go to school, and how well prepared they are depends to a large extent on the environment that they have been brought up in.
When it comes to teaching, the most important method associated with emergent literacy is the reading recovery programme devised by Marie Clay. This, of course, is based on the idea that children who are slow in reading have a poor understanding of the way that written language works and need intensive instruction to learn what other children with more propitious home environments can pick up effortlessly. Both the theory about reading and the teaching
methods that have stemmed from ideas about emergent literacy are controversial, and have as many critics as supporters. The new book on the sub~ect that is edited by David Lancy is largely written by enthusiastic supporters. David Lancy
himself is an anthropologist who has made a considerable contribution to the study of cognition; it was he, for example, who realized the potential value of the fact that some societies in Papua New Guinea have counting systems without a decade or any other base structure. Later on he turned his attention to literacy and this interest led him to the emergent literacy movement. He is happy with most of the ideas associated with emergent literacy, but not with all of them. The book which he has edited, and to which he contributes a great deal himself, is an honest and interesting attempt to portray the strengths and possible weaknesses of emergent literacy.
Although the book is largely positive about the movement that it is describing, the empirical evidence that it provides to support the theory behind emergent literacy is desperately weak. This theory is a causal one, and yet there seems no awareness among any of the authors of the difficulty of establishing causes of behaviour. So we get confident claims about the causes of literacy on the basis of simple correlations in several chapters and on the basis of a training study without a control group in one chapter (Svenson).
It hardly needs to be said that correlations, even when they are longitudinal, are not enough on their own. Here they never exclude the possibility of a third unknown factor related to both the variables in the correlation. So when Dickinson and Beale report that childrens participation in meal-time conversations at 4 years is related to their literacy at 5 years, they assume that the first factor affects the second. But there could easily be a third factor which determines these two and thus causes a spurious relationship between them: it is surely quite likely that very verbal children talk a lot at meals and later learn to read quickly in both cases just because they are very verbal. When Bergin, Lancy and Draper report a relationship between childrens reading fluency and the degree of fun exerienced by parents and children when they read together, there is much that we could conclude-but nothing definite. The authors take the view that experiences with the parents determine childrens progress in
CCC 1057-3593/96/020117-2 91996 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
118 Book Reviews
learning to read. But it could be the other way round. Parents find it more fun to have reading sessions with children who can read well than with those who hardly read at all; and, again, what about the third factor? These chapters are in the first part of the book,
which deals with the theory. The second part deals with teaching and here all attempts to provide a scientific basis for emergent literacy are abandoned. The chapters are descriptive. All of them are interesting but, since different chapters
make different suggestions, it would be nice to have some empirical evidence on what is the best way to impart emergent literacy. All in all, this book gives the impression of a movement with some interesting and even exciting ideas, but with a long way to go yet to find a good empirical basis for these ideas.
Peter Bryant Department of Experimental Psycholosy
O w d , UK