Right from the start: A sign of things to come

21st February 1997 at 00:00
My most enduring lesson on pre-school literacy happened in the Ladies on the M5. I was sorting out an errant contact lens, when a mother and daughter came in, the little girl about three-years-old. They used the facilities, washed their hands, and the little girl trotted towards the hand-drier. "Oh no," said Mum, as she followed her over. "Look - there's a sign on it!"

"Whassitsay," asked the little one.

"lt says 'out of order'," answered Mum, running her finger under the words as she read.


"It means it's broken. Someone must have written this notice and put it here so everyone would know. " The child nodded, and the pair dried their hands on their jeans as they departed.

A few minutes later another mother and child came in and acted out the same scene, but this time, as her daughter tottered to the drier, the mother just called, "Come back, darling. It's broken." In my mirror, I saw the child's wondering glance from mum to machine. Then she did as she was told and her hands were lovingly but silently dried on a tissue.

Both these children were obviously cherished, but only one was, consciously or unconsciously, being prepared to read and write. Judging by her questions, pre-schooler Number 1 already had a good grasp of what the national curriculum calls "the nature and functions of print", and her mother used every opportunity - even a trip to the loo - to teach her more about it.

But pre-schooler Number 2 seemed to be learning that grown-ups know things by magic.

Many elements of the desirable outcomes for language and literacy are fairly easily conveyed to parents: the importance of talking and listening to children to develop vocabulary and ideas; the significance of stories, songs, nursery rhymes and poems in developing phonological awareness; the need to share and value books with children and, of course, the need to learn the alphabet. But because adults take language - both spoken and written - for granted, it's much more difficult to convince non-specialists exactly how much groundwork is needed to develop the various levels of linguistic awareness underlying all literacy learning.

There is, first of all, awareness of language itself - the fact that a word can exist apart from the thing to which it refers. The Russian psychologist

Vygotsky told the story of an illiterate peasant who was deeply impressed to learn how distant the stars were but even more impressed that, despite this distance, scientists had been able to find out their names. Young children too feel that the name of something is as much a quality of the object as its shape or size: one major precursor of literacy is the discovery that words are merely symbols that can be "disembedded" from their context.

Then there's the understanding that the sound of a word is important, and that sounds can be represented by a further set of symbols which we call writing, and that there are various conventions by which writing is set down for others to read.

Above all, to give children the motivation to get to grips with this massive system, we have to help them see the many ways in which the written form of language is of vital importance to us in everyday life.

None of this awareness is made explicit, of course. Children pick it up gradually by interacting with adults in a print-rich environment. But some children get more help than others. The mother of the first pre-schooler had discovered the rich source of teaching material available in the world around us - street and shop signs, labels and notices - and was exploiting it to the full. Her child would probably arrive in the nursery class in a highly desirable state of language awareness: just about ready to learn to read.

Pre-schooler Number 2, however, would probably arrive with a very different level of awareness, and possibly with a number of undesirable misconceptions about the mystic powers of adults, which she would be only too ready to apply to teachers. She would need plenty of opportunities (and guidance) to discover the world and explore of print around her in order to catch up with her peer.

Fortunately, there are many ways in which nursery teachers can exploit the power of environmental print to ensure that all children begin primary school well aware of what print is and what it's for.

Author Sue Palmer is currently working on pre-school reading materials to be published later this year by Letts Educational.

SCAA's Literacy Targets for Children Turning Five

In small and large groups, children listen attentively and talk about their experiences. They use a growing vocabulary and increasing fluency to express thoughts and convey meaning to the listener. They listen and respond to stories, songs, nursery rhymes and poems. They make up their own stories and take part in roleplay with confidence.

Children enjoy books and handle them carefully, understanding how they are organised. They know that words and pictures carry meaning and that, in English, print is read from left to right and from top to bottom. They begin to associate sounds with patterns in rhymes, with syllables, and with words and letters. They recognise their own names and some familar words. They recognise letters of the alphabet by shape and sound. In their writing they use pictures, symbols, familiar words and letters, to communicate meaning, showing awareness of some of the different purposes of writing. They write their names with appropriate use of upper and lower case letters.

Next week: Creative development

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