Creating a Quality and Rich Literacy Environment

Parents and teachers should provide children with a rich literacy environment that consists of meaningful reading and written materials that will lead to literacy development. A variety of books are the most obvious types of literacy learning materials. Starting in the infant and toddler programs, preschool teachers should provide children with access to a wide variety of books and should read to individuals or small groups of children (Kupetz & Green, 1997). Christie, Enz, and Vukelich (2003) described several key elements of creating a print-rich environment:

  • A variety of reading and writing supplies. In addition to books, classrooms should have many types of print that serve real-life functions (labels on food items, restaurant menus, road signs.).
  • Reading and writing centers. A well-equipped writing center should be the focus of these activities, with materials available throughout the classroom that encourage children to record important written communications (title the artwork, label the materials around the classroom, describe a block structure, make stories to accompany flannel board figures, etc.).
  • Showcase children’s written products. Teachers help children see the importance of writing by displaying their stories, books, and letters to friends and families.
  • Make reading and writing part of the daily routines. Literacy activities can be highlighted during the routines of the school day. Labeling the attendance charts and the daily schedule, and reading the Pledge of Allegiance and the weather chart can be used for meaningful reading and writing experiences.

In addition to infants and preschoolers, kindergartners and elementary school- age children need a setting that is print-rich. Teachers should select books that are functional and provide educational messages; children’s work should be posted on bulletin boards, blackboards, and in play areas. Children’s own messages, labels, lists, and beginning writings should be part of these postings.

Writing and art centers should contain a variety of papers, pencils, crayons, paintbrushes, and magic markers. And children should be given the time and opportunity to discover what makes reading and writing work for them.

A developmentally appropriate classroom provides a safe and secure environment for all children. In addition to providing supportive opportunities for physical growth, cognitive development, and emotional well-being, this environment also needs to provide opportunities to develop language competencies. A literacy-rich environment will have these five characteristics:

  • 1. A special area of the room for book reading and sharing,
  • 2. A variety of language and literacy-related activities embedded throughout each day,
  • 3. Opportunities for collaboration and communication,
  • 4. Opportunities to explore and interact, and
  • 5. Materials that are developmentally appropriate for the age group of the classroom.

Learning Materials and Activities

A language- and literacy-rich classroom will have materials that are age- appropriate and have been chosen to fit the developmental needs of the children in the classroom. For example, in an infant and toddler classroom, the books need to be picture books with large print; they should be sturdy and heavy-duty, such as cardboard, or be laminated because young children are just learning how to manipulate objects and often will mouth or chew on the object as they explore its features. Having pictures and big print is necessary since the children will be viewing and not reading at this age. As children get older, toddler or preschool age, they will begin to show interest in drawing and writing. With this age group, they will need to have materials that fit their developmental needs. For example, toddlers will need large and thick pieces of paper for fine motor skills, which refer to the control of movement in the arms and hands, particularly in the wrists, small joints, and muscles of the fingers (Beil & Peske, 2005), for their endeavors in early writing since they are in the process of developing small-muscle coordination. Other materials such as water markers, which are washable and nontoxic, and chalk should be available to them for practicing their writing and scribbling.

Young children’s reading materials should be engaging and interesting; this will strengthen children’s curiosity and motivate them to seek these kinds of reading activities. In addition to a wide variety of appropriate books, stuffed animals and puppets that resemble storybook characters will add interest to picture-book sharing and will encourage children to participate and use their language to express their understanding from viewing the images from the book (Soundy, 1997).

A quality preschool and elementary classroom curriculum provides learning opportunities that enhance the attainment of phonetic, syntactic, semantic, morphemic, and pragmatic language understanding. After teachers have established the individual needs of their children in the classroom, a more exclusive curriculum and language goals should be developed for those children. These language goals or objectives are often guided by each state with their state standards.

Box 4.2 Common Core Standards: What is the purpose of the English Language Arts standards?

The English Language Arts (ELA) standards are guidelines that define what students should learn and understand at a specific grade level. Learning to read, write, speak, listen, and use language effectively in a variety of content areas is what the ELA standard is endorsing as literacy skills required for college and career readiness. The ELA/literacy standards are designed to prepare students with the necessary skills and knowledge in literacy for life outside the classroom. These skills consist of critical thinking and the ability to carefully and thoughtfully read texts in a way that will help students understand and enjoy complex works of literature. Students will learn and apply persuasive thinking and research skills that are essential for success in college, career, and life. The Common Core standards vision is preparing students to be literate people in the 21st century.

Ultimately, the curriculum and lesson plans should have activities that are clear, coherent, and purposeful. Many sources of curriculum ideas and activities describe how to conduct specific activities but do not indicate why these activities should be used. As a result, teachers may implement activities without a full awareness of the potential of curriculum and language goals to foster language development. When teachers have a strong educational rationale for each learning activity, implementation of each activity is more focused and assessment of the learning outcome is more direct. When activities are implanted without a clear rationale or objective, the focus may simply be on keeping the children busy.

School-age learning activities and their potential for fostering language development are described in four categories of activities: read aloud, technology-based interactive educational tools, teacher-guided group activities, and daily routine.

  • 1. Read aloud. Parents and teachers should encourage school-age children to read aloud. Reading aloud encourages independent reading. This gives parents and teachers the opportunity to listen to the child’s ability to read fluently, pronounce the words, and express with emotions what they are reading. Children are building the cognitive skills that reading aloud carries. Such skills consist of listening, thinking, making comments, and asking questions.
  • 2. Technology-based interactive educational tools. The use of technology in elementary classrooms is growing in popularity. The internet and software programs are having a positive impact on children’s reading skills. The Reporter Project conducted by Kinzer and Leu (1997) found that 6th- grade students’ writing skills were better overall than those of same-age peers not using similar technology. Similarly, Moran, Ferdig, Pearson, Wardrop, and Blomeyer’s (2008) study on middle school-age students found that both reading comprehension and the development of vocabulary were typically enhanced by the use of technology. The technology used in this study included media images, video, audio, hypermedia, and websites to assist reading and literacy. When students are allowed to conduct their own online research for homework or classwork, for example, this can give the students a sense of control, ownership, and agency in their own reading and writing development. However, it is important to maintain a balance between time typing and looking at a screen and time writing by hand and developing listening skills. Something to keep in mind is that certain elements of technology have the potential to impact reading and writing literacy in negative ways. The concern has not been whether computers should be in the classroom, but how they should be used (Smith, 1988; Mambretti, 1999). As teachers, we should keep in mind that computers and other software are tools to facilitate learning.
  • 3. Teacher-guided group activities. Both large and small group activities are designed and directed by the teacher, and group size is an important factor to consider when deciding which type will be appropriate. It is easier for teachers to plan for an entire class group, but small groups are more suitable for young children because they provide greater intimacy, opportunity for conversation, and feedback. The length and frequency of whole- class activities should be limited with very young children due to the wide range of attention spans among this age group. They will vary in their listening comprehension skills and some may not be able to attend to speech that is directed to the whole group. Teachers should encourage children to participate in large group activities, but participation should be voluntary, and children should not be disciplined for choosing not to join in with the large group. Storybook reading has been shown to be crucial for emergent literacy and language acquisition. Rice felt that storybook reading “bridges the development of oral language skills and the emergence of print literacy” (Rice, 1995, p. 8). It has been reported that children who have had familiarity with early story sharing also have “greater success in learning to read and write” (Slaughter, 1993, p. 4). Morrow (1989) has noted these benefits to children from storybook sharing:
  • 1) Increased interest in reading,
  • 2) Increased familiarity with written language,
  • 3) Increased vocabulary development, and
  • 4) Awareness of story structure.

Language-related goals for storybook activities include increasing children’s listening comprehension and vocabulary, helping children become aware of the relation between speech and print, and encouraging children to learn and to recall how to sequence events.

4. Daily routine. Routine activities are those activities that happen on a normal basis and serve the institution’s needs, such as taking attendance or taking care of children’s physical needs (recess and snack time, dressing to go outside), and paying attention (listening to instructions). Routines often go unnoticed because they are not credited with any opportunity for important learning. However, routine activities provide opportunities for acquiring important language knowledge, such as conversational skills (during snack or lunchtime), and listening skills (when children listen to each other speak). Establishing specific language objectives for daily, routine activities can help to encourage developing conversational skills (pragmatic knowledge) as well as to enhance the other four forms of language knowledge: phonetic, semantic, morphemic, and syntactic.

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