Emergent literacy: why should we be concerned?

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  • This article was downloaded by: [UQ Library]On: 10 November 2014, At: 06:08Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Early Child Development and CarePublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/gecd20

    Emergent literacy: why should we beconcerned?M.W. de Witt aa Department of Teacher Education , University of South Africa ,Pretoria, South AfricaPublished online: 07 Jul 2009.

    To cite this article: M.W. de Witt (2009) Emergent literacy: why should we be concerned?, EarlyChild Development and Care, 179:5, 619-629, DOI: 10.1080/03004430701453671

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  • Early Child Development and CareVol. 179, No. 5, July 2009, 619629

    ISSN 0300-4430 print/ISSN 1476-8275 online 2009 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/03004430701453671http://www.informaworld.com

    Emergent literacy: why should we be concerned?

    M.W. de Witt

    Department of Teacher Education, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South AfricaTaylor and Francis LtdGECD_A_245247.sgm(Final version received 16 May 2007)10.1080/03004430701453671Early Child Development and Care0300-4430 (print)/1476-8275 (online)Original Article2009Taylor & Francis0000000002009Prof. Mde Wittdwittmw@unisa.ac.za

    Recent reports on the quality of education in South Africa seem to be negative,indicating a downwards trend on a yearly basis. Consequently, early literacy islacking in the majority of learners who enter the formal school environment. Aspart of the South African governments literacy campaign, Read EducationalTrust, an NGO involved in literacy programmes, launched a literacy initiative toincrease the level of reading ability of learners. To determine the extent of theproblem, a baseline study was undertaken in five provinces in South Africa. Botha qualitative and a quantitative research approaches were followed. It is clear fromthe results that the quality of preschool programmes in South Africa in general isbelow standard. The programmes offered, as well as the knowledge andunderstanding of caregivers regarding young children, need urgent attention fromthose concerned about the standard of literacy in formal schools.

    Keywords: emergent literacy; programmes; methodology; language; resources

    During the early years, children develop the dispositions and attitudes toward educationand themselves as learners that will stay with them all their lives. (Kostelnik, Soderman,& Whiren, 2004, p. 4)

    Introduction

    Recent reports on the quality of education in South Africa seem to be negative sincethey indicate a downwards trend on a yearly basis. A result of this is that early literacyis lacking in the majority of learners entering the formal school environment. Onemust admit that schools are not the only agent in the education of children since vari-ables like parents income and their socio-economic and educational status would alsohave an effect on the development of the child. This article concentrates only on theimplementation of programmes offered in preschools and day care centres (Kostelnik,Stein, Whiren, & Soderman, 1993, p. 13).

    To confirm the above statement regarding early literacy, research conducted by DeWitt, Lessing, and Lenyai (2006, p. 1) indicates that only 35% of Grade R learnersmeet the minimum criteria for early literacy development. This implies that the major-ity of learners will enter Grade 1 without the necessary skills or concepts to masterreading competency. Research findings of the Department of Education in SouthAfrica (2002, p. vii) on systemic evaluation of Grade 3 learners substantiate this view,

    *Email: dwittmw@unisa.ac.za

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    since they show that 54% of learners are below par in terms of reading competency atthis level.

    To foster early literacy skills and concepts, good quality preschool programmesseem to be the solution. In this respect, the warning of Al Otaiba and Fuchs (2002,p. 300) is most appropriate: Given the pivotal role reading plays in and out of schooland the cumulative long-term cost of literacy, early literacy intervention is critical.Research done by Love, Schochet, and Meckstroth (1996, p. iii) shows that higherlevels of preschool quality care result in enhanced social skills, reduced behaviourproblems, increased cooperation and improved language skills in children. Hendrick(2004, p. 379) says the following on acquiring literacy: Literacy doesnt just happen it depends on learning a huge repertoire of subskills usually referred to as emergentliteracy skills. Therefore, it seems in every figure that there will be a link betweenquality preschool preparation and competency in early literacy skills (Barone,Mallette, & Hong Xu, 2005, p. 81).

    Although one can presume that quality programmes will be beneficial to childrenswell-being, there is an increasing concern worldwide that young learners may notreceive the benefit of quality programmes needed to foster their developmental well-being and that these programmes are generally implemented ineffectively. Therefore,throughout the world researchers in this field fear that, early childhood care is inade-quate, mediocre and even detrimental to childrens well-being (Love et al., 1996,p. iii). The close link between the implementation of a programme and its outcome interms of quality relies on the educator as the programme implementer.

    Within the South African context, one can raise a similar concern regarding theimplementation of programmes. The questions arise: What is the quality of preschoolprogrammes in home-based and centre-based sites? Is the implementation of theseprogrammes of such a nature that early literacy is fostered to the extent that younglearners are ready to cope with the formal learning structures, reading, writing andarithmetic, when they enter school?

    This article is based on a baseline assessment of the current position ofprogrammes offered at different preschool sites that was intended to evaluate thequality of preschool programmes.

    The implementation of quality preschool programmes

    A programme is a static structure and quality can only be visible in its implementation.Gordon and Browne (2004, p. 206) believe that the single most important factor indetermining programme quality would be teachers and the way they implement theprogramme. They also state that it is necessary to assess teachers to ensure the highestquality of teaching.

    In evaluating preschool programmes and the implementation thereof, our conclu-sions may be limited and may even underestimate the importance of quality. Severalauthors have described what quality programmes really entail, and what would beconsidered a high-quality programme for young learners.

    Theoretical framework

    Researchers agree that to determine the quality of preschool programmes, theprogrammes should be developmentally appropriate. Moreover, educators shouldencourage children to be actively engaged in a variety of activities, and have frequent,

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    positive interactions with the educators (Hendrick, 2004, pp. 379384). They alsoagree that caregivers in high-quality settings listen attentively, ask open-ended ques-tions and extend childrens actions and verbalisation with complex ideas or materials,interact with children individually, use positive guidance techniques and encourageappropriate independence (Love et al., 1996, p. 5).

    From these criteria, it is clear that the participation and involvement of the care-giver contributes to the quality of the implementation of the programme. In planningquality programmes for young learners caregivers need to know what the children cando and how the task is performed (Hendrick, 2003, p. 90; Mindes, 2003, p. 242). Inthe evaluation of programmes, different aspects are of relevance. In this regard,Decker and Decker (1997, p. 50) are of the opinion that the quality of a programmerelates directly to the development and fulfilment of programme goals.

    Love et al. (1996) define quality in terms of three sets of classroom processes:

    the pattern and content of activities and group activities during the day; behaviour and interactions of teaching staff (cf. Decker & Decker, 1997, p. 51); behaviour and interaction of children.

    Love et al. (1996, p. 10) see the training of caregivers as another indication of qualityofferings.

    This survey, which was done in different provinces in South Africa, reflected onthe eventual readiness of young childrens emergent literacy skills. Therefore, thefocus within programmes should be on skills to enhance emergent literacy.Emergence of literacy, and the so-called natural reading should go hand-in-handwith many stimulating activities in the environment (Best Practices, 2001, p. 1), andshould include informal interactions that use literacy concepts, involvement in readingand writing and the exploration of literacy material where the caregiver acts as a medi-ator (Bank Street, S.a., p. 2). According to Mason and Sinha (1993, p. 141), literacyis the product of various literacy-related activities in the preschool years. Activitiesinitiated and mediated by caregivers provide opportunities to develop language, readyknowledge and memory skills necessary for emergent literacy.

    However, although one can identify different criteria for quality programmes, onlythe one criterion, namely implementation of the programme was at stake in thissurvey. Drawing on the existing literature, some statements were formulated withembracing questions to verify the different statements on the implementation ofquality preschool programmes.

    Aim of the baseline assessment

    It is fundamental to know the quality of teaching before the training programme starts.The assessment of the current position of programmes offered at the different sitesintend to evaluate the quality of programmes before starting with the training andintervention programme at these sites.

    As part of the governments literacy campaign, Read Educational Trust, an NGOinvolved in literacy programmes, launched a literacy initiative to increase the level oflearners reading ability. As this specific initiative is aimed at emergent literacy, theywanted to start with a baseline study to be able to address the specific needs and short-comings of young children. At the end, altogether 243 learning sites will be involvedin the envisaged intervention programme planned by Read Educational Trust. For the

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    purpose of this baseline assessment, only five of the nine provinces of South Africawere included. Because of the financial implications, as well as the time restriction tovisit all these sites, only 70 sites were included in the baseline assessment. Theprovinces are Gauteng, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and LimpopoProvince.

    As most of the sites are in the deep rural areas as well as in informal settlementsnear urban areas, the one common attribute is the poverty level of the communities.For the purpose of the baseline assessment, the following residential areas wereincluded in the survey:

    Gauteng: Protea Park informal settlement, Katlehong and Greater Soweto Western Cape: Guguletu, Langa and Nyanga KwaZulu-Natal: Umbumbulu and Illovo, Bhekulwandle and Umlazi Limpopo Province: Lonsdale Juno, Bakone, Moletjie, Dzaniani, Nzhelele,

    Fondwe, Makhado and Mungomani Mpumalanga: Moretele area

    In preparation of the implementation of a training programme by the differenttrainers of Read Educational Trust, the researcher visited the different sites betweenMay and September 2006. The eventual intervention programme will include 364classes and affect 9470 learners. For the training to follow this baseline study, 542practitioners will participate in the training.

    Objectives

    With the envisaged training in mind, objectives were set that could also guide thetraining of the practitioners to enable them to implement quality preschoolprogrammes, following the baseline assessment. These objectives are linked veryclosely with the established criteria for the implementation of a quality programme,and these were used as a basis to compile the research instrument for the baselineassessment. The objectives were:

    to establish whether practitioners had improved their methodological approachto teaching young children;

    to assess whether the benefits of home language education for small childrenhad become evident and were being implemented in the classroom;

    to assess whether classrooms had appropriate books and equipment to enhanceyoung childrens early literacy skills;

    to establish whether outreach actions aimed at the families of the learners hadgiven them support mechanisms for raising and educating their children;

    to see to the implementation of a quality early child development (ECD)programme at the different sites.

    Research design and methods

    The researcher decided to conduct a survey to determine the quality of preschoolprogrammes offered at the different selected sites. A multi-method mode of inquiry,involving a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods (De Vos, 2003,p. 363; Neuman, 2000, p. 121) was used. The questionnaire sought answers to ques-

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