Early Childhood Education

Curriculum, Literacy


The topic of early literacy curriculum is one that recently has come to the forefront of educational policy decisions in response to concerns about literacy levels in various countries, especially the United States. Research reveals that educational responses to and expectations of young children reflect deeply held cultural values and beliefs, including assumptions about what is normative, necessary, and developmentally appropriate (New, 2001). Conceptions of the how and what of U.S. early childhood education have historically varied as a function of which children are being served and for what purposes. U.S. children of preschool age (3-5 years) continue to be the recipients of diverse and competing interpretations of curriculum and pedagogy, ranging from programs described as play based and child centered to those characterized by various forms of direct instruction and behavior modification.

While scholars in recent years have contributed a wealth of knowledge about the processes associated with the acquisition of literacy skills and knowledge within children’s “social spheres,” teachers remain unclear about the nature of developmentally appropriate literacy practices in the classroom. Disagreements over the extent to which literacy instruction is necessary or even appropriate for young children reflect theoretical, political, and cultural interpretations of the purposes of literacy and early childhood education in the lives of young children and families. This eclectic approach to early education not only represents contrasting and changing theoretical interpretations of children’s learning. Such program diversity is also directly linked to the pluralistic nature of U.S. society and associated judgments about children’s needs as a function of race, income, language, and ability.

When asked what should be taught in early childhood programs, most parents and practitioners would suggest that the early childhood curriculum should address social, emotional, and physical development as well as cognitive development. Until recently, few people would have gone much beyond mentioning reading aloud to young children as a specific literacy activity to be included in daily curricular planning. However, literacy development in early childhood has captured significant attention in recent years on the part of teachers, education researchers, families, and politicians. Learning to read and write up until about 1990 was seen as the domain of first and second grade with some preparatory work being done in kindergarten. Proper formation of letters while printing was emphasized, but not until after a child had successfully learned to read. The idea of “reading readiness” dominated the field of education and dictated that literacy learning was clearly a school subject in which instruction focused exclusively on the sequenced mastery of skills while ignoring the functional uses of reading (Teale and Sulzby, 1986).

The concept of reading readiness has been challenged by growing interest and new research conducted within the first few years of life. Studies showing the period from birth through the preschool years as an important period of development played a central role in the deepening understanding of cognitive approaches to issues of learning and development, and validated the premise that literacy understandings develop in the course of every day life (Teale and Sulzby, 1986).

At the turn of the twenty-first century the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) published a joint statement, Learning to Reading and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children (Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp, 2000), which served as a milestone in its recognition of early literacy as a developmental domain in early childhood. This joint statement summarized the research on early literacy and explicated a set of benchmarks for early literacy learning along with broad recommendations for parents, educators, and policymakers. For the most part, however, this is the point where agreement stops as literacy in early childhood has become a contested topic in politics as well as academics.

It is important within this discussion to clarify the meaning of “literacy.” Brian Street (1995) describes two divergent models of literacy learning. In the first, literacy is described as an autonomous set of skills to be mastered that lead to progress, civilization and social mobility. Literacy in this model can be studied in its technical aspects outside of social context. In the second model, literacy is described as ideological in that literacy practices are inextricably linked to cultural and power structures in any given society where any number of standard practices are used by people during literacy “events,” which are themselves “situated in broader social contexts and social relations” (Barton, 1994, p. 35). The technical skills and cognitive aspects of literacy are not denied within this model, but cannot be viewed outside of or separately from the social, political, and cultural setting in which they occur. This theoretical understanding helps to explain the successes of some children, such as those from middle-class homes, in acquiring the literacy skills, attitudes, and understandings that prepare them for success in school-base literacy practices. The recognition in recent years that some children are not entering school with the types of linguistic and literacy experiences that prepare them for school success has led to an increased demand for a formalized curriculum for early childhood classrooms that can provide the identified necessary experiences. High quality early literacy instruction for all children, but especially for those identified as being “at risk” for school failure, is currently viewed as the necessary preventative measure needed to combat reading failure. This message is prominent in the seminal book Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow et al., 1998).

The word “curriculum” can be defined in accordance with the theoretical models of literacy described above. From the autonomous view, curriculum can be described as a course of study, which includes the planned interaction of students with instructional content, materials, and resources to meet certain educational objectives. This course of study can be used by all children in any setting since it is assumed that literacy means the same thing everywhere. Thus, publishing companies are able to develop and sell early literacy curriculum in any school district in this country and assure the local school board that it will meet their needs. From the ideological viewpoint, this does not hold true. Curriculum and the surrounding decisions about what that encompasses would need to be made within a specific social/cultural setting by parents, educators, and policymakers within that setting as they define that nature of early childhood education and the meaning and importance of literacy within that setting.

An examination of reading curriculum used in the primary grades in elementary school for the last few decades reveals the nature of the controversies surrounding literacy learning as it has been enacted in schools across the country. The term “reading wars” describes an educational and political battle that continues to occur between proponents of a phonics emphasis in reading and a whole language emphasis. During the 1950s, reading instruction was dominated by the Dick and Jane basal readers which emphasized a “whole word” approach to teaching reading in which stories with tightly controlled vocabularies repeated words on each page so that, according to behaviorist research, students would eventually remember them. This model for teaching reading was criticized and eventually replaced by curriculum that focused on a “bottom up” approach that emphasized students’ phonemic awareness—an understanding of the alphabetic principle that the spelling of words relates to how they sound when spoken. While knowing the rules of phonics helps children to sound out some words, an estimated one- half of the words in the English language cannot be sounded out accurately using these rules. In contrast to this method, the whole language approach to teaching reading was developed, based on the theory of constructivism. Within this methodology, emphasis is placed on students constructing meaning from text and teachers providing a literacy rich environment that combines speaking, listening, reading and writing into literacy learning. In this approach, phonics instruction becomes only one component of literacy instruction. Research has clearly established that no one method of instruction is superior for all children, and that approaches that favor some type of systematic code instruction along with meaningful connected reading report children’s superior progress in reading (Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp, 2000). An understanding of how children develop early literacy learning can put a stop to these “reading wars.”

Unfortunately, current policies in the U.S. Department of Education such as No Child Left Behind and Early Reading First are reflections of an acceptance on the part of policymakers of the autonomous model of literacy learning for young children. The current emphasis on early literacy education as an answer to later school failure problems can be seen in three current federal government initiatives. First, in 1998, the Head Start reauthorization changed Head Start’s purpose from providing comprehensive developmental services for low-income children to promoting school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of low-income children. Changes in Head Start policies reflect an increasing emphasis on language and literacy. The 2003 reauthorization describes prereading and language skills as instructional content and specifically mentions the use of scientifically based programs that support school readiness.

The second federal initiative, Good Start, Grow Smart, began in 2002 and is an early learning plan designed to address three major areas: strengthening Head Start and other child-care programs, partnering with states to improve early childhood education and providing information to teachers, caregivers, and parents in the areas of early language and literacy learning. One of the objectives of this initiative is the identification of the most effective prereading and language curricula and teaching strategies for early education through rigorous experimental methods. Good Start, Grow Smart has introduced changes in early childhood educational practices by advocating testing of young children’s early reading skills, the application of research-based methods in teaching young children, and professional development for teachers in literacy pedagogy.

Finally, Early Reading First, which was established in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, was designed as a program to prepare young children at risk of school failure to enter kindergarten with the necessary cognitive, language, and early literacy skills for success in school. This program specifically has as its goal the prevention of later reading difficulties. Preschool programs that are awarded this grant must use a research-based curriculum which includes systematic, intentional instruction in certain identified essential prereading skills—letter recognition; rhyming, blending and segmenting of sounds; complex vocabulary; and print concepts. Additionally, it requires the use of reliable, valid assessments to screen children and to monitor progress in the acquisition of these specific skills. Finally, it requires professional development for teachers in the “scientific approach” to early literacy pedagogy so that teachers are able to implement early literacy curriculum and assessments that have scientifically based reading research as their foundation. Early Reading First is designed to complement the Reading First program whose intent is to incorporate scientifically based reading research to improve and expand reading programs at the primary school level. Reading First has been the subject of ongoing controversy centering on its perceived “overprescriptiveness” as it is administered and allegations of conflicts of interest between consultants to the program and commercial reading and assessment companies. Opponents suggest that schools participating in Reading First have been all but forced to buy textbooks and related materials from a handful of large publishers, several of which have retained top federal advisers as authors, editors or consultants. This same controversy has the potential to spill into Early Reading First if grant applicants are coerced in the application process to select only certain commercially published curricula.

Curriculum decisions in early childhood literacy should include a sound understanding of up-to-date knowledge about how children learn, what the goals of that learning should be, the roles of the teacher and students within the curriculum, descriptions of the learning activities and environment, and the methods of evaluation that will be used to assess student learning. Three learning principles have been suggested in a recent report from the National Research Council (Bowman et al., 2001) which can guide curricular decisions. First, children develop ideas and concepts at very young ages that help them make sense of their world. Curricula should be evaluated on the extent to which they draw out and build on children’s existing ideas. Next, developing expertise requires both a foundation of factual knowledge and skills and a conceptual understanding that allows facts to become usable knowledge. Curricula can be judged on the extent to which they promote learning of concepts as well as information and skills. Finally, children can be taught to monitor their thinking in the form of learning strategies, and thus efforts to help children learn more deliberately should be built into curricula.

Other related research in the area of early literacy learning suggests that knowledge of certain skills correlates with success in learning to read, for example, alphabet letter recognition, phonemic awareness, oral language skills (receptive and expressive as well as vocabulary), and concepts of print (Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998). Finally, researchers suggest that experiences with storybook reading, discussions about books, listening comprehension, and writing are all crucial in early literacy development. All these factors should guide the development of early literacy curricula that respond to children’s developmental and cultural needs. Effective literacy instruction must integrate learning the code of written language with uses and purposes of literacy that are meaningful to the learner. This instructional principle relates directly back to the ideological model of literacy with its context specific definition of literacy.

Writing development has recently been considered a part of early literacy curriculum, a significant change from past policies that limited writing activities to a focus on proper letter formation and spelling after a child had begun to read. Many educators now encourage young children’s interest in writing because it serves to foster development of various print concepts such as left-to-right directionality, phonemic awareness as children use invented spellings based on sounding words out, and alphabet letter knowledge even among three-year-olds who endeavor to write their names. Additionally, when young children write, they experience first hand the connections between reading, writing, and oral language as they come to understand the various purposes for these activities. Literacy environments that promote writing development in young children are those that set aside time, space, and materials for children to use. Also important are adults in the classroom who model writing for young children and who plan meaningful ways for children to engage in writing events. From a developmental standpoint, educators currently understand that young children begin to write when they scribble on paper, use gestures to symbolize meaning, and name objects that they have drawn. As with all other literacy activities, it is a socially and culturally situated event.

When planning early literacy curriculum, one aspect of early learning that must be considered is the influence of the environment of the child on this learning. For example, research suggests that families differ in the extent to which the literacy activities provided in the home prepare young children for school-based practices (Heath, 1982; Snow, Hamphil, and Barnes, 1991). The literacy styles found in families from mainstream culture complement the practices used in preschool and primary grades and therefore, children from these homes begin school with the advantage of similarity between life experiences and interactional styles in school and at home (Vernon-Feagans et al., 2001). Since literacy is viewed as activities that are embedded in a social and cultural context, it is obvious that literacy experiences will vary between cultures as parents provide children with opportunities to acquire literacy abilities that are pertinent to their lives. These activities often do not match those found in schools, and this mismatch may lead to difficulties for specific groups of children. An understanding of this issue leads to a realization that a “one size fits all” literacy curriculum will not meet the needs of all children in a diverse society like ours. Instead, by designing literacy curriculum at a local level, teachers can learn about the literacy practices and beliefs of the families they serve and the community in which the children live, and then incorporate these into the classroom to help bridge the children’s experiences at home and school. Courtney Cazden’s several decades of research (2001), for example, points out the misunderstandings that teachers can have about narrative styles from different cultures, while Anne Dyson’s work (1993) suggests the importance of pop culture and peer relations in primary school children’s writing development.

Finally, in the consideration of what can be described and included in early literacy curricula, other forms of literacy must be incorporated. For example, various types of video technology as well as computer technology cannot be left out in a time when children begin to use such forms of literacy beginning in infancy. When literacy is viewed through an ideological lens, new forms of literacy can continuously be added to the curricula in response to changes in societies and cultures.



Literacy learning begins long before children enter school and is a complex and multifaceted process that is strongly influenced by the social and cultural contexts in which it occurs. Curricula that address the needs of early literacy learners must be developed with an understanding of the global developmental learning framework that supports children’s growth and the unique cultural settings in which this growth takes place. Additionally, the unique needs of the individual child must be considered. Research has provided broad understandings of the importance of early language interactions and the significance of reading aloud with young children, but these understandings and principles must be interpreted on a local level. Curricular frameworks can be developed to guide well-trained education professionals in planning literacy learning for young children, but a “one size fits all” curriculum cannot successfully meet the learning needs of children in a diverse society. See also Curriculum, Physical Development; Development, Emotional; Development, Language; Development, Social; Pedagogy, Activity-Based/Experiential; Pedagogy, Child-Centered; Peers and Friends; Curriculum, Technology.

Further Readings: Barton, D. (1994). Literacy: An introduction to the ecology of written language. Oxford: Blackwell; Bowman, B. T., M. S. Donovan, and M. S. Burns (2001). Eager to learn: educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Research Council; Cazden, C. B. (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann; Dyson, A. H. (1993). Social worlds of children learning to write in an urban primary school. New York: Teachers College Press; Heath, S. B. (1982). What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and at school. Language and Society 11, 49-76; Neuman, S. B., C. Copple, and S. Bredekamp (2000). Learning to read and write: Developmentally appropriate practices for young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; New, R. (2001). Early literacy and developmentally appropriate practice: Rethinking the paradigm. In S. B. Neuman and D. K. Dickinson, eds., Handbook of early literacy research. Vol. 1. New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 245-262; Snow, C. E., M. S. Burns, and P. Griffin (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; Snow, C. E., L. Hamphill, and W. S. Barnes (1991). Unfulfilled expectations: Home and school influences on literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Street, B. (1995). Social literacies: Critical approaches to literacy in development, ethnography and education. London: Longman; Teale, W. H., and E. Sulzby (1986). Emergent literacy as a perspective for examining how young children become writers and readers. In W. H. Teale and E. Sulzby, eds., Emergent literacy: Writing and reading. Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Vernon-Feagans, L., C. S. Hammer, A. Miccio, and E. Manlove (2001). Early language and literacy skills in low-income African American and Hispanic children. In S. B. Neuman and D. K. Dickinson, eds., Handbook of early literacy research. New York: Guilford Press, pp. 192-210.

Kathy Conezio