How do children learn to read and write?

iStock_000006625549XSmallBasic assumptions concerning how children become literate need to be reconsidered, claims Denny Taylor, a senior research fellow with the Institute of Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Taylor believes that instead of arguing about existing methods of reading instruction, we need first to document the pattern young children’s literacy takes so that we can work to develop an educational system to enhance these learning patterns.

Taylor states that the phonics versus whole-language debate is unproductive. She is convinced that our understanding of this complex behavior has become oversimplified and that we should move away from the discussion over current instructional methods and concentrate instead on building a sound model of literacy learning.

Variety in patterns of literacy development

Some researchers insist that literacy learning can be reduced to a predictable, sequential set of skills which can be easily measured and taught. Taylor maintains that while eschewing the complex nature of literacy learning and relying instead on a simplified theory can yield statistical results that show predictable patterns of learning, these patterns cannot predict the behavior of individual children.

In Taylor’s opinion, we have been using statistical procedures to artificially simplify a complex human activity to fit our research models. And she believes these results will not help us when we attempt to teach individual children to read or write.

A few research studies have provided evidence that there is great variety in the patterns of literacy development in young children and that reading and writing do not develop in isolation from each other, nor in predefined stages. For this reason, Taylor insists that our task is to try to recognize the multiplicity of literacy behaviors in young children.

Only in this way will we be able to help individual children acquire literacy in ways best suited to them. Only in this way can we reduce the risk of diagnosing and labelling as “at risk” or “learning disabled” those children whose behaviors do not match the instructional program. Currently, Taylor states, individual learning behaviors are frequently denied and children are prescribed intensive remediation using the same method they found so difficult in the first place.

Systematic observation of children

Taylor calls for disciplined, systematic observation of children as they work at reading and writing in and out of classroom settings. Observing the natural literacy behaviors of children will give researchers and teachers the opportunity to reconstruct the way written language is acquired without prepared instructional programs.

Taylor believes that if we try to alter the ways in which children naturally learn, then we impede the development of their literacy and problem-solving skills. We must become aware of the complexity of individual differences while, at the same time, identifying the patterns and principles of learning that transcend individual differences.

“Toward a Unified Theory of Literacy Learning and Instructional Practices” Phi Delta Kappan November 1989, pp. 185-194.

Published in ERN May/June 1990 Volume 3 Number 3

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