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Child and Adolescent Development for Educators, 2/e
Judith Meece, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill
Student Study Guide by Nancy Defrates-Densch

Language and Literacy Development

Chapter Overview

Language Development and Teaching

  • In everyday terms, literacy is the ability to read and write. More broadly considered, literacy means being able to communicate clearly and to think analytically when speaking, listening, reading, and writing. In our complex culture, individuals will develop a variety of technological literacies, such as computer and video literacy. Literate thinking may occur after viewing a film as well as after reading a book. In short, literacy includes communicative competence with print as well as nonprint sources.
  • Children acquire spoken language without direct instruction and within a relatively short time. Around the age of 2, children begin saying individual words, then combining two words, and moving on to multiple word phrases and sentences. By the age of 7, a native speaker will know about 90 percent of the grammatical structures of English. Being social creatures, children have a natural urge to learn language in order to communicate their thoughts and desires to others.
  • Language acquisition is a process that researchers cannot completely explain. Several theories have been proposed, including the behaviorist, the maturationist, and the interactionist. Although each theory has limitations, the interactionist, which combines elements of the other two, provides the most comprehensive and flexible account of how children acquire language. Interactional theory proposes that language structures evolve as a result of the interplay between a child’s internal mental structures and the external social world, where interaction with others is primary.
  • Children intuitively construct the rules and patterns of their language by actively testing hypothesis about the language system. The most general rules, such as word order, are the ones children generate first. Later, they experiment with more complicated elements of the language, such as tense forms, questions, and negatives.
  • The critical period hypothesis suggests that if certain internal or external conditions related to language development are missing then a child will never learn language. Only weak versions of this hypothesis are supported by research. However, it is true that depriving children of human interaction and language at an early age will impair their language development. The extent of the damage varies depending on the length of time and the child’s age at the time of deprivation.
  • If children grow up in a family or community in which two languages are spoken, then they will likely grow up bilingual. Young children are capable of learning several languages simultaneously without confusion. It may take longer for a child to construct grammars for several languages at once, but the method of acquisition and pattern of development are exactly the same for a child learning only one language. Older children and adults learning second languages experience different patterns of acquisition.

What Is Emergent Literacy?

  • Most children learn to read and write in school, usually through intentional teaching in a print-rich environment. Children are motivated to develop print literacy when they are given many opportunities to engage purposefully with texts in authentic situations. A child picks up a story to read in order to discover what happens, not because there are comprehension questions to be answered at the end.
  • In a literate culture, children learn about the characteristics and processes of reading and writing from birth, a developmental process called emergent literacy. Through experience with books, preschoolers learn that print carries meaning, recognize letters and words, and can mimic true reading by reciting memorized stories.
  • Children make progress with writing and reading when they develop phonemic awareness, and understanding that words contain distinctive phonemes (sounds) represented by letters. They develop self-conscious knowledge about how the print represents spoken language. Besides matching sounds to letters, children must recognize, distinguish, and produce the letters of the alphabet. Focusing on distinctive features and spatial orientation are two strategies that help children accomplish this task.
  • Social context has the greatest effect on whether a person becomes a proficient reader and writer. A literate environment, whether it is in a child care facility, a nursery school, or the home, is one in which children’s experiences with print are for authentic purposes and in which adults value and participate in reading and writing themselves.

Learning to Read

  • Reading is a complex process during which the reader translates print into words, comprehends and predicts meaning, and interacts emotionally with the characters or events of the story. Decoding is the process of determining equivalence with written words. Comprehension is the active process of ascribing meaning to a message. Comprehension depends on the reader’s ability to use syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic information in order to make sense of what is written on the page.
  • Three theories of reading instruction are current. In the specific-skills approach, a teacher teaches directly various decoding and comprehension skills using an explicit, often deductive, method of instruction. These skills are often taught in isolation, separated from the actual reading of stories or articles. The holistic language approach purports that children inductively learn and develop specific reading abilities based on extensive and varied experiences with print. Children read complete texts or stories for authentic purposes. Third, the integrated approach assumes that children must be engaged in authentic (meaningful) literacy activities but also must learn specific skills. Using an integrated approach, teachers give children many authentic experiences with reading and writing, but direct instruction in reading skills is provided when necessary.

Learning to Write

  • When learning to spell, children experiment with sounds and letters. Their unconventional patterns are called invented spelling and should not be regarded as errors. Invented spelling increases children’s fluency, makes it easier for them to compose and does not interfere with reading or conventional spelling development.
  • The essence of becoming a writer is learning to compose. Composing is a complex process that includes planning, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Although the writing process can be described as having discrete parts, many writers do not experience them separately or in any set order. Children normally work on the mechanical aspects of writing before focusing on perfecting the writing process. Since revision entails considering the needs of the audience as being distanced from the text, it is the most difficult part of the process to learn. In the upper grades and high school, children become proficient with expository writing and use writing as a way of learning in the academic disciplines.

Culture and Literacy

  • A person’s language, dialect, or manner of speaking reflects the features of their social, economic, and cultural background. A dialect is a variation of a single language spoken by members of a speech community. The language of instruction in schools, sometimes called standard American English (SAE), is often not the dialect of English spoken in children’s speech communities. Instead of rejecting a child’s home dialect, a teacher can help children acquire a new dialect. Being bidialectal helps individuals to function effectively in different social settings.
  • Multicultural education refers to teaching that relies on culturally relevant materials, and school curriculums that reflect the beliefs, traditions, and contributions of all people in an ethnically diverse society.
  • Children who are able to speak, read, or write some English in addition to their native language are considered bilingual learners. Many bilingual children have limited English proficiency (LEP). Some bilingual programs are designed to move children into English-dominant classrooms, whereas other programs attempt to teach English and to maintain a home language such as Spanish. Bilingual education programs reflect multicultural awareness.