Tuesday, August 12, 2014

More Thoughts from Camp ALEC - Language Based Literacy Skills

I was introduced to the "Whole to Part" literacy framework during the first course that I took from Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver a couple of years ago. When things have time to stew and you have a variety of experiences with what yo have learned, a different level of understanding starts to emerge. I think that part of this is because some of this process involves unlearning some of the things you already "know". 

We have traditionally associated early literacy success with alphabetic and sight word knowledge and as children enter school we look to support their reading development through phonics, spelling and decoding instruction. Many of us remember doing endless workbook pages that reflect this. 

The role that oral language plays in literacy development is often given less explicit focus in early literacy learning. We expect children to master "the basics" before we tackle oral language, vocabulary, sentence structure or comprehension. 

We are more aware now that for students to develop literacy skills, we need to pay explicit attention to both print-based literacy skills (alphabet, phonics, spelling, decoding...etc.) and language-based literacy skills. 

Print-based literacy skills include alphabetic letter-sound knowledge, phonological awareness (the ability to sound out words), sight word knowledge, and phonics knowledge.  Developing these skills leads to a student who will be able to spell and decode single words. These are obviously important skills to develop in the journey to literacy but they are only a very small piece of the literacy puzzle. 

Language-based literacy skills include vocabulary, semantics, sentence structure, grammar, oral language (narrative skills), sequencing, organizing, and comprehension. The development of these skills lead to being able to express oneself in writing and read a variety of text with comprehension.

Print-based and language-based literacy skills fit in the areas of Word Identification and Listening Comprehension respectively in Cunningham's Whole to Part Model of Reading Comprehension (graphic above). Having low language skills does not prevent a student from learning how to do the mechanical act of reading. It will, however, impact one's ability to interpret, predict, reason or infer information from text. 

I've heard the statement made by many teachers that up to grade 2 or 3 students "learn to read" and then after that they "read to learn". This statement implies that the definitions of "reading" and "decoding" are not all that different. It also implies that one must be able to read to a certain level before one begins to work on literacy.  It also means that when a child is struggling to read in the early grades, we simply assume that it is as a result of lagging print-based literacy skills. A quick search of reading programs for struggling readers reveals the steps that we can take to get a child reading...

I'm not arguing that a student's struggle to learn to read might be a result of lagging print based literacy skills but working with students who have language and communication delays or impairments has made it even more clear that the reason a student is not making gains in reading skills may be related to something other than these print-based literacy skills that we so often globally fall back on with struggling readers. 

For students with complex communication needs, we need to pay particular attention to language based literacy skills and we can't wait until they have acquired the ability "to read" before we start focusing our efforts on developing these skills. We need to embed and connect communication with text through shared reading experiences very early on. We need to ensure that in the process of reading books with a student we are connecting what is in the book to their world and possibly even to their way of processing the world.  We need to find ways to naturally embed pointing out the text structures that will be needed as a student moves from emergent to conventional literacy. We need to speak to the student about the text using the mode of communication we expect them to speak to us with about the text so that some day they can follow our model and be able to actively engage with text.  We need to ensure that "reading" is far more than memorizing meaningless, disconnected words and completing endless workbook pages.  Reading connected text with a student offers us many opportunities to work on reading, language, and communication skills. We need to pay attention to words in all three frames - in text, connected to meaning, and used for social purposes - to move along the literacy continuum. Social interaction (communication) and text are the sources that we can draw language from to make connection and meaning (which leads to comprehension). 

I have not ignored the bottom part of the Whole to Part visual.  Print Processing (what we loosely refer to as "fluency") is another obvious potential area of struggle for a student who has complex communication needs. Developing inner speech and projecting prosody are skills that must be learned through modeling and interaction.

The bottom line is simply that rather than starting by breaking apart and teaching each part one by one in sequence, we need to take a comprehensive approach to literacy and communication learning.  These skills sit along a continuum and what we are aiming for is movement along that continuum.  Starting by knowing the whole and working on the whole then positions us to look at the parts and figure out which part might need more attention at any given time to ensure that students keep moving along that continuum.

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