The Acquisition of Language and Literacy

Published by Dr. Anne-Marie Fiore on

Emergent Reader

The acquisition of language and literacy is a complex process that emerges over time in each child.  From a very early age, children are able to create sounds and communicate important information.  As children age, language acquisition increases to the point of fluency.  Educators play an important role in promoting literacy and language development, especially in preschool, Kindergarten, and elementary grades.
The purpose of this paper is to outline a literacy program for preschool students.  The literacy program will include learning outcomes, specific resources including technology, as well as a description of teacher professional development.  Other considerations will be an exploration of appropriate literature, an evaluation of the program, as well as guidelines for the differentiation of instruction to promote success for all students.
Anytown is an affluent suburban town located in Massachusetts.  Anytown has an approximate population of 23,000 citizens.  The Anytown Public Schools (APS) is a preschool through grade 12 public school district with 547 staff members and 3262 students.  APS has eight schools: one preschool, four elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school.  The preschool component of APS is the Anytown Integrated Preschool (AIPS).  The early literacy philosophy at AIPS is for young children to develop linguistic and cultural skills and be able to communicate successfully in a diverse society. Teachers must provide opportunities for language and communication in the classroom, whether communication takes place in conversation, in writing, or reading across the curriculum (Saranich, 2013).  The preschool program includes students from 18 months to age four.
According to research by Irvin, Meltzer & Dukes (2007), a comprehensive literacy plan has five key areas:

  1. Strengthening literacy development across all subject
  2. Literacy interventions for struggling readers and writers
  3. School policies, structures, and culture for supporting literacy
  4. Building leadership capacity
  5. Supporting teachers to improve instruction

With these five key areas, the literacy program for AIPS will be designed to meet the needs of all students leading to a comprehensive and coordinated literacy improvement effort. The literacy plan will allow all members of the school community to understand the school’s status, goals for the future, and actions to be taken to reach the goals and how success will be measured.
Research provides evidence that specific early literacy concepts or domains can predict young students’ later reading achievement (DeBruin-Parecki, 2005).  These reading domains include: (a) communicating and listening, (b) book knowledge and appreciation, (c) comprehension, (d) sounds in spoken language – phonological and phonemic awareness, (e) print concepts and conventions, (f) alphabet knowledge, and (g) early writing.  These domains will serve as the guide to learning outcomes for the program as well as the measure by which students will be assessed. Teachers in the AIPS program create authentic assessments. As students progress to Kindergarten, APS uses the DIBELS and DAZE assessments to record literacy data.  Table 1 is an illustration of the domains and learning outcomes of the early literacy program.

Table 1
Early Literacy Domains
Domain Learning Outcome(s)
Communicating and Listening 1.   Asks and answers simple questions about self and family by using learned phrases and recalled vocabulary
2.   Develops increasing abilities to understand and use language to communicate information, experiences, ideas, feelings, opinions, needs, questions, and for other varied purposes
3.   Communicates clearly enough to be understood by familiar and unfamiliar listeners
4.   Uses an increasingly complex and varied spoken vocabulary
5.   Progresses in listening to and understanding the English language while maintaining home language, when the two are not the same
6.   Demonstrates increased proficiency in home and English languages (English Language Learner)
Book Knowledge and Appreciation 1.   Seeks out and enjoys experiences with pictures, books, and other print materials, e.g., asks for a story to be read, looks at pictures in magazines
2.   Handles and cares for books;
3.   Listens to and communicates information about favorite books
4.   Knows that books provide information about the world.
5.   Understands that a book has a title, author and illustrator


6.   Knows to view one page at a time in sequence from front to back.
7.   Incorporates some literacy activities into dramatic play, e.g., pretends to read a book, write on paper, or use written signs or labels.
Comprehension 1.   Identifies objects from books
2.   Retells information from a story
3.   Demonstrates understanding of basic plots of simple stories in a variety of ways (ex., retelling, role play, illustrating, responding to questions)
4.   Make reasonable predictions about what will happen next or how things might have turned out differently in a story
5.   Makes observations about the use of words and pictures
6.   Understands the main idea of simple information
Sounds in Spoken Language 1.   Recites simple poems or nursery rhymes
2.   Develops an awareness of word sounds and rhythms of language, e.g., rhyming, singing
3.   Knows that different words can begin with the same sound
4.   Recognizes that sounds are associated with letters of the alphabet and that they form words
5.   Recognizes characteristic sounds and rhythms of language, including the relationship between sounds and letters.


Print Concepts and Conventions 1. Recognizes own written name
2.   Identifies some labels and signs, e.g., stop, go, exit
3.   Recognizes that letters are grouped to form words.
Early Writing 1.   Tells about experiences and discoveries, both orally and in writing, which could include the child’s own invented, emergent writing.
2.   Experiments with a growing variety of writing tools, materials, and resources, including adaptive communication and writing devices
3.   Understands that writing is a way of communicating (ex., dictates ideas or events)
4.   Uses scribbles, shapes, or pictures to represent thoughts or ideas
5.   Copies or prints own name
6.   Engages in writing using letter-like symbols to make letters or words.
United States, Maine Department of Education, and Maine Department of Health and Human Services. (2005)
Table 1 Early Literacy Domains

The professional development component of this early childhood literacy program will consist of teachers with a team leader reviewing their practice regarding language trends and literacy development in the early grades.  Using a research-based method of professional development, teachers will devise a vertically aligned curriculum for preschool through grade 3 classes.  AIPS teachers will review the research of studies that show increases in reading instruction in preschool years leading to improvements in early skills and improved social skills (Bierman & Domitrovich, 2001).  Additional research by Aileen Tobin (1989) suggested that early readers participating in greater amounts of independent reading may promote long-term benefits in early reading achievement and that differences in vocabulary development may play a mediating role. The professional development in vertical curriculum alignment will allow teachers to update their knowledge of different aspects of literacy in preschool through grade three, develop a common language and engage in conversation on topics such as developmentally appropriate practice, the importance of oral language and vocabulary development to literacy learning and inclusive practices.  The professional development goal of a vertically aligned curriculum will be designed to stop the achievement gaps before they start.  During the 2012-2013 school year, an achievement gap was identified at APS for special education students with high needs and students with disabilities.  No achievement gap has been identified for English language learners.  Educators at APS are hopeful that this vertical alignment of the preschool through grade 3 curriculum will stop the achievement gap before it starts.
Through the work in professional development, educators at APS have been examining the factors that effect early language acquisition.  According to Vukelich, Christie, and Enz (2011), some factors that could modify the rate of normal language production are: (a) gender differences, (b) socioeconomic level, (c) cultural influences, and (d) medical concerns.  Educators at APS who are participating in the vertical alignment process are assertively deliberating whether they treat boys and girls differently in terms of language acquisition.  According to Lutchmaya (2001), a sample of 18-month-olds, boys’ average vocabulary size was 41.8 words (range from 0 to 222, standard deviation 50.1), while girls’ average was 86.8 (range from 2 to 318, standard deviation 83.2).  One of the questions APS educators reflect on is if teachers are spending more time reading to or verbally interacting with girls rather than boys.
Socioeconomics may play a part in students’ acquisition of language. Socioeconomic factors such as poverty and dysfunctional family systems may be the primary reason, but biases in standardized tests and prejudiced teachers are also significant factors (Singer, Arendt, 2001, p.1057).  Socioeconomic status has been thought to explain why, on average, children from impoverished backgrounds underperform when compared to children from non-impoverished backgrounds (Howard, Dresser, & Dunklee, 2009).  With this research in mind, APS educators have become cognizant of treating all children equally regardless of their socioeconomic status.
In respecting cultural differences, AIPS teachers and librarians use a set of guidelines for choosing multicultural materials and literacy methods for the classroom or school library.  The APS guidelines (2012) include a set of questions when teachers are choosing culturally appropriate literacy materials is as follows:

  1. Does the book reflect a diversity of gender roles?
  2. Does the book reflect differing racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds
  3. Does the book reflect a range of special needs and abilities, a range of ages and a range of occupations?
  4. Do the text and illustrations present current, accurate, respectful images and
  5. Is the culture portrayed multi-dimensionally?
  6. Are cultural details integrated into the story?
  7. Does the book reflect different languages?
  8. Is the speech of the people in the book accurate and appropriate?
  9. Does the story help members of a group feel greater pride in their background?
  10. Does the book encourage children to become more socially conscious?

Whether it is a hearing loss, congenital language disorder, disfluency, or the modification due to a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), medical problems can affect a student’s ability to acquire language.  At APS, teachers are using a variety of technologies, both assistive and non-assistive to aid in helping students.  The iPad as a computing device has helped young children immeasurably.  An application (app) such as My First AAC by Injini is designed for children 18 months and older and is intended as a means for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).  My First ACC app was designed for children with delayed speech or severe speech disorders, however, it is a good software tool for all preschool students.  Learn To Talk First Words by
Thunderloop is an audio flashcard application that facilitates early language development in three-year-olds. It uses both sights and sounds to teach basic vocabulary and early language skills
As a district-wide initiative, APS teachers use the methodologies of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  Heavily integrated with technology, UDL teachers receive several classroom technology components including an interactive whiteboard, LCD projector, iPad, Apple TV, and document camera.  With these digital technologies, teachers can support the development of early literacy skills.
UDL emphasizes multiple means of representation, provides robust supports to meet the diverse needs of all students and encourages differentiated instruction.  Book Builder from the Center for Applied Technologies (CAST) offers a “scaffolded digital reading” environment (Dalton & Proctor, 2008) and is reinforced by the methodologies of UDL (Rose & Meyer, 2002). Book Builder (2006) uses multiple means of representation in audio and visual modes, and ways to build student engagement and expression.  Book Builder is an easy to use website where teachers are able to create, share, publish, and read digital books that engage and supports differentiated instruction according to student individual needs, interests, and skills.
Another way teachers can incorporate technology into early literacy instruction is with computer-assisted instruction (CAI).  CAI refers to instruction or remediation presented on a computer or other technology device.  One program used by many early childhood teachers at AIPS is Starfall.  With Starfall (2002), words are spoken aloud by the computer and the program will not allow the student to place the wrong letter in the word.  Students hear, see, and take action to learn phonics.  Recently, Starfall released a preschool curriculum component.  According to the Starfall (2002) website, the preschool curriculum is built on seven components:

  1. Motivation: Build a cooperative classroom environment to fuel motivation, with child-directed instruction, hands-on experiences, ownership of materials, and interactive online activities, and by supporting and exploring imagination.
  2. Phonological Awareness: Ensure readiness for phonics instruction with short, daily exercises
  3. Phonics: Introduce letter-sound relationships systematically, sequentially, and explicitly
  4. Vocabulary: Explore vocabulary in quality literature, during instruction, and in everyday communication
  5. Social and Emotional Development: Prepare children for new social environments presented at school by example, through direct communication, and with cooperative learning activities
  6. Science: Explore the magic of the natural world with simple scientific experiments involving plants, temperatures, textures, and more
    Math: Build a foundation for mathematical thinking through center exploration, activities, and games, using math children encounter every day.

All classrooms at APS are outfitted with three or more student computers for individual instruction.  The three student computers enable students to access online resources throughout the school day.  The Starfall website provides teachers with sample lesson plans highlighting story time, morning meeting time, learning centers, as well as integration with the common core.  With a school or classroom membership, teachers can set up class lists to monitor student activity allowing teachers to use Starfall as an informal assessment tool. The Starfall website will be one classroom component of this literacy program.An interactive
An interactive whiteboard in the classroom has many potential benefits of using technology in early literacy instruction.  Interactive whiteboards can be an organizational tool for lesson preparation, an effective way to follow up on instruction as well as providing opportunities for scaffolded learning and providing support to model and guide reading efforts (Tompkins, 2003).  For example, in one preschool class at AIPS, students interact with word games by clicking and dragging objects into the correct word family, and objects bounce out if they do not belong.  The interactive whiteboard engages students through a kinesthetic experience as they use fingers to respond to the words.  While using the interactive whiteboard is not only fun but also increases classroom productivity because student work is saved to the classroom computer.  Work can be revisited, revised, printed, and shared either electronically or in hard copy and used for student portfolio assessment. It is one of the goals of this literacy program to increase interactive whiteboards in the classroom at AIPS.
By the age of 3, a preschooler’s vocabulary consists of approximately 2,000-4,000 words and by age 5 approximately 5,000-8,000 words (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997). Since a child’s first experience with literacy occurs in the home before they enter preschool, parents should continue to be a part of children’s literacy learning after children enter preschool.  One component of the AIPS literacy program is to provide a natural link to the literacy learning that occurs in the home before children enter the preschool years. Teachers and school leaders will work with parents to adopt literacy as a common goal so that they can be mutually supportive of children as emergent learners. Parents can reinforce reading and writing activities that occur in school at home. In this literacy program, parents will be educated through “literacy nights” about emergent readers and writers and encouraged to provide their children with the following literacy supports at home:

  1. Visit the public library.  Have children check out books while parents model checking out books.
  2. Keep many types of reading materials (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) in the home.
  3. Ask children questions about what they have read in school, such as: What story was read in school today?  What happened in the story?  What was the best part of the story?  Asking these questions can help children become excited about reading when they see that parents or caregivers are interested, as well.
  4. Use iPads or other computer tablets with reading apps and books read in class, if possible.
  5. Discuss things that happen in school every day.  Engage children in conversation about their favorite subjects and teachers, and any special events that go on. Listen closely to what they say in response.
  6. Designate a quiet place in the home for reading.

An evaluation of this literacy program will be conducted in the form of a self- study.   Self-studies produce effective results when they are locally driven. Research shows that change is much more likely to occur when local ownership is present (Fullan & Stiegelbauer, 1991).  AIPS educators will have ownership of defining the program concerns or successes and will be best able to devote the time and attention to conduct a quality self-study. Although the teachers at AIPS will be involved in the creation of the literacy program self-study, some of the questions they may want to consider are the following:

  1. Has the literacy program strengthened parent involvement
  2. Has the literacy program helped teachers to become familiar with and use best practices
  3. Has the literacy program included sufficient professional development
  4. Has the literacy program supported school and curriculum leadership
  5. Has the literacy program supported research and evaluation related to emergent readers and writers?

In summation, the new AIPS literacy program will include the following components, as outlined in Table 2.

Table 2
Literacy Program Components
Components Action Items
Early Literacy Domains Use of the literacy domains for learning outcomes of the literacy program
Student Assessment Create assessments based on the literacy domains
Current Literacy Research Review the factors that could affect the language and literacy acquisition
Professional Development Design a vertically aligned curriculum for preschool through grade 3
Technology and Literacy Explore new ways to incorporate technology into literacy instruction


Parent Involvement Host literacy nights and send home literacy newsletters
Program Evaluation Create a self-study to evaluate literacy program
Table 2 – Literacy Program

Curriculum or school leaders need to develop, implement, and monitor school-wide literacy plans to ensure that students have the early literacy skills necessary to be successful in school.  Equally important, by generating a culture of continuous learning on the part of educators in which individuals ask questions, assess students, take actions, educators become fluent in the strategies needed for student success in early childhood literacy. Focusing on a school-wide literacy program allows the principal and other curriculum leaders to be in the driver’s seat and improve literacy support and development for all students.
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Dr. Anne-Marie Fiore

I am a learning experience design consultant focused on developing engaging learning experiences. Although my career has always been related to education in some way, I have worked as a technology director, curriculum specialist, college professor, and now an online instructional designer.