By the time children commence school, studies have shown (Hart & Risely, 1995) that there is already a huge diversity between the quantity and quality of text that children have been exposed to in their home environment. The gap of those at risk has already begun to widen. It is critical that attention should be focused on the needs of the early literacy learner, as well as effective teaching practices that can be established to support their development. The need for parent teacher partnership, a balanced literacy program (which includes new and emerging text forms) and a supportive classroom culture which fosters engagement and motivation should be explored as a pathway for literacy gains especially for those children deemed ‘at risk’. Effective literacy practices should relate to context and purpose of language, within the curriculum strands of reading and viewing, writing and representing and speaking and listening. This essay considers ways of how language, vocabulary and decoding skills, particularly for those ‘at risk’ could be enhanced by examining the research literature and highlighting examples of effective classroom practices.
In the early years, oral language experiences play a major role in developing children’s comprehension, verbal expression, vocabulary and listening skills. Children construct language according to need and purpose. So therefore, putting language into practice requires the recognition of the concept of words and recognising that words as basic elements of speech. Teachers need consider the dialogue that is used in the classroom. To enable children to learn and develop from their experiences, it is the teacher’s responsibility to ask questions about language and build upon language experiences. Cognitive questioning practices, for example, ‘How do you understand?’, ‘What does this remind you of?’, ‘How is this different?’ will help to facilitate reflective conversations about the meaning of text. However, teachers also need to be mindful that their language of instruction is kept at a level of suitable complexity and clarification, especially when teaching those children deemed ‘at risk’. Hay et al. (2007), examines four levels of instructional dialogue which support how teachers can improve children’s language development. Blank’s levels of language complexity allow children an opportunity to develop vocabulary from the lowest cognitive levels of dialogue. The research findings noted significant changes in language performance of children ‘at risk’ and supported findings that it is not phonological knowledge and book reading alone that contribute to the early development of literacy.
Early learning intervention
Hay and Fielding-Barnsely’s (2009) link between students’ language ability, social proficiency and beginning reading, verify the notion that children’s early alphabetical knowledge, their in-class behaviour and their expressive and receptive language are all highly correlated. The need for early shared reading and parent-child book reading in communities has to start early to combat some of these early learning issues and ensure development and increase of vocabulary. A comparison of reading models in the early years home literacy development (Hay and Fielding-Barnsley 2007) reveal reading achievement correlates between five home factors. Regular engagement in early pre-school literacy activities, speaking in the home (that includes language that is used in tests), access to books, the amount of time parents spend reading and attitudes (both parent and child) towards reading, influence children’s literacy development. The implications are that reading enhancement strategies have the potential to be incorporated into early childhood programs to support those children in particular who are seen as ‘at risk’. Although parents are encouraged to read to their children and use the types of oral language interactions that children can practice which improves vocabulary, syntactic and semantic knowledge, the complexities of targeting home literacy intervention is often difficult to manage and resource. However, it is pleasing that many schools recognise that establishing early intervention programs  (0 – 4) is an effective practice to help combat this dilemma and give support to learning development to children prior to commencing school.
Reading and writing as effective practice
When planning for literacy learning individual student’s needs, should be considered. What may work for one child, may not necessary work for another. Effective practice requires a balanced approach to selecting appropriate strategies, considering learning theories and explicit teaching skills. Explicit teaching of skills according to Pressley (2007), permit consolidation and elaboration of skills.
Explicit teaching of phonemic awareness has shown to be effective for early reading practices. However, whatever the type and range of interventions that teachers provide, a multidimensional focus should be considered depending on the student’s deficits. Establishing a reading and writing program that is taught simultaneously with listening and speaking is an effective practice when all components rely on underlying word knowledge. Allowing children plenty of time to read in class for is vital in all stages of literacy learning, and especially for those ‘at risk’ children who tend not to develop their reading skills away from school.
Writing competence is essential for literacy success. Troia (2009) sites Reeves (2000) examination of high-poverty schools in which literacy gains have been made when there is a strong emphasis on a quality writing program. These programs can be enhanced where a ‘whole school approach’ has encouraged and engaged those children deemed ‘at risk’. A ‘Writer’s Workshop’ is an effective practice when it can engage children in authentic purposes, meaningful composing activities and explicit teaching of writing text types. Establishing a ‘Writer’s Workshop’ in the classroom allows cognitive processes to be taught explicitly through teachers’ modelling, explanation, feedback and scaffolding of writing strategies. A meta-analysis of research (Troia, 2009) on effective writing instruction in grades 1-3 for at’ risk writers’, points to the conclusion that balanced instructional programs with explicit instruction at the sub-word, word, sentence, and text levels were more effective. Using ICT for writing, for example, word processing is an effective tool to support all aspects of the contemporary writing process. Studies have shown the impact of word processing and instruction in revising strategies having a large positive effect on low achieving students. The linking of a wide range of ICT technologies as well as creating text environments that children are more familiar with (emails, blogs, internet chat, hypertext and multimedia) helps them to engage in the writing of different text types.
Hart and Risely’s (1995) 30 million word gap study between the low-income and the professional families by aged three, demonstrates how the quantity and quality of text in children’s socio-economic backgrounds varies widely in the early years. Current research highlights (Klingner, Vaughn & Boardman, 2007; Hay et al, 2007, Chall & Jacobs, 2003) that students from lower socio-economic status communities have a less extensive range of vocabulary knowledge. Factors that may contribute to deficits include general memory and/or recall disorders, but mainly it is the limited range of vocabulary which is impacting on children’s development. The learning and understanding of vocabulary is recognised and is essential through reading comprehension. The National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) examined vocabulary instruction in relation to reading achievement. However, despite the many studies that have shown that reading ability and vocabulary size are related, the casual link between increasing vocabulary and an increase in comprehension has not been fully demonstrated.
Effective practice to enhance vocabulary
Effective practice to enhance vocabulary is outlined by Kintsch (1998) who offers a constructivism approach where word meanings are activated, propositions are formed, and inferences and elaborations are produced building a situation model (including facts, imagery and knowledge) where processes are paralleled with the development of language comprehension. This approach can be supported through guided reading activities where understanding words can be examined in all their complexity as an essential part of comprehending the text. Reading aloud and giving explanations, word discussion, using appropriate terminology. Developing word consciousness is an important goal in the vocabulary program.
Encountering words repeatedly, until children have a vague notion of what it means allows more information and children are able to define the word. McKeown, Beck, Omanson, and Pople (1985) found that while four encounters with a word did not reliably improve reading comprehension, twelve encounters did. Contextual knowledge may be enhanced by offering students ‘at risk’ exposure with words in multiple contexts and different perspectives so that connections may gradually strengthen to a full and flexible knowledge. The more successful readers will become if they are able to recognise words and letters and blending sound patterns of known words in their spoken vocabulary.
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The ‘fourth-grade slump’ often reported by teachers of disadvantaged children, saw the first slip being attributed to word meaning (Chall & Jacobs, 2003). They had the greatest difficulty defining more abstract, academic, literary, and less common words as compared by the normative population. Teachers should be strategic about introducing new vocabulary to students repeatedly, and providing a rich discussion and analysis of the words to enhance understanding. Students should learn to construct word meanings from context, experience and inferential thinking. Helping students to develop a deeper understanding of words through direct instruction involves talking about the definitional and contextual meanings as well as actively being able to use them in their writing and speech.
To become good readers and writers children initially need to be able to decode words. The decoding of words is a prerequisite for comprehension. As children’s vocabulary and knowledge of language structures increase, they become more familiar with linguistic structures (Konza, 2003). Generally when simple text can be read and the alphabetical principle is acquired (the concept that letters represent speech sounds), readers are able to decode words they do not immediately identify. They become fluent, especially when the text uses language that is familiar to them and is already within their experience and ability. Children must be fluent in recognising and decoding words otherwise their progress becomes challenged. The automaticity of word recognition, allows children to concentrate on understanding the text and acquiring new concepts. Wray’s et al. (2002) analysis of what children need to develop literacy competencies focuses on three strands, word level work, i.e. phonics, spelling and vocabulary, sentence-level work, i.e., grammar and punctuation and text-level work, i.e., comprehension and composition. Each of these levels should be employed in a strategic way with high interest text, games and activities that have clear purpose which is both systematic with the interrelationship of reading and writing between them. The continuous monitoring of children’s progress through the tasks, observations and informal assessment give a basis for teaching and reporting on this progress.
Effective practice to enhance decoding skills
Phonemic awareness is a perquisite for both learning to read and write, therefore, teachers need to be mindful of the importance of explicit instruction when decoding words. Effective practice for word-recognition skill involves phonic analysis and students to learn effective phonic strategies. Although children should learn letter names early, letter sounds is more useful when decoding words. The auditory sense is important with the association of visual symbols, turning them into sounds (phonic analysis) and spoken language. Teachers need to master this approach to word recognition. Research on exemplary teachers reveals that they use both direct and embedded and that phonemic and phonological awareness is an important component of a balanced literacy program (Roe, Smith & Burns, 2009).
Effective practice should begin with visual perception and discrimination, basic procedures, for example, left-to-right progression, identification and interpretation of size, shape, and relative position of letters and words (Roe, Smith & Burns, 2009) as well as the ability to see likenesses and differences in visual forms. Increasing a developing a bank of high frequency common sight words assist children to read and write words instantly without analysing them (for example, Fry’s or Dolch’s word list). Spencer and Hay (2008) outline the advantages of core lists representing an efficiency in the teaching and learning process by assisting teachers monitoring children’s progress and allowing children to better able to develop their fluency, confidence and comprehension when reading familiar words and texts. Graphomotor coordination is necessary for letter formation and fluent production of letter sequences. Teachers of students with spelling problems should ensure that the student can form letters and write them with sufficient fluency and automaticity. Poor spellers need dozens of opportunities to write problematic words before they can remember them. Phonological awareness – students need to be able to detect the phonemes in words and hold their sequence in memory. Poor spellers have trouble understanding and using orthographic knowledge. Useful activities for developing phonemic awareness includes, read-a-loud books that have rhyme, alliteration, assonance and other features which allow children to play with the sounds of language.
Research studies, as well as examples of effective literacy practices, have given a small window of evidence to support this essay to highlight language learning to aid those children considered ‘at risk’. Teachers need to be knowledgeable of the principles that underpin their practice, mindful of a balanced classroom literacy program that suits the needs of all students, especially of those unique needs of students who are deemed ‘at risk’ of reaching literacy benchmarks. Teachers need to employ a range of teaching methods, with tasks that are matched to the specific needs of each learner and must have an extensive background knowledge of the learner’s needs. Collecting assessment evidences should be ongoing to inform progress and practices should be strategic so they provide students with scaffolds that are meaningful and purposeful and allow children to understand the functions of literacy. It is crucial that students get the opportunity to regularly practise and gain praise and constructive feedback to consolidate success and promote literacy growth. The regular classroom teacher plays a central role with students with learning difficulties the continuing development and implementation of appropriate intervention programmes should be based on a range of continuous information of assessment and collected evidences.
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