Effective Classroom Conditions Promote Emergent Literacy

What conditions are necessary for interactive software and related activities to have positive effects on children's emerging literacy skills? was one of many questions answered by Macomb Projects' recently completed 3-year research project, The Early Childhood Emergent Literacy Technology Research Study. This project developed the Interactive Technology Literacy Curriculum (ITLC) and implemented it in various phases in classrooms in west central Illinois. Some of the classroom teachers had had previous training and experience using computers, while others had not. Over the three years, the project studied eight classrooms and 255 children, ages 3 to 5, with mild to moderate disabilities.

Researchers found that the classroom environment as well as the attitudes and behaviors of teachers affected implementation of the ITLC and impacted children's emerging literacy skills.

Effective Conditions
Effective classrooms offered children a literacy-rich environment which included materials for drawing, writing, making books, and reading---in addition to a variety of software. Print was found in many places in the classroom, including commercially-printed poems hung on the walls, stories dictated by children and hand written by teachers on poster paper, children's names, and labels for centers and various objects found in the classroom.

Teachers and other adults in effective classrooms facilitated children at the computer by offering choices, modeling behaviors, and redirecting inappropriate behaviors. Adults facilitated children's play, used techniques that enabled children to manage their own behaviors, and offered activities that were child-directed. Teachers positioned the computer at child-eye level, kept two or more chairs at the computer center, encouraged more than one child to be at the computer, placed the software selections in the computer center for children to make choices, and changed software CD-ROMs when needed. They also rotated or added new center materials to match classroom themes and projects. They evaluated software and chose it not only on its quality and interactivity level, but also on the children's interests and on-going classroom themes.

One off-computer activity that effectively promoted emergent writing behaviors was use of a sign-up sheet---a strategy that offered children the opportunity to manage their own turn-taking. Children 'wrote' their own names (in the form of scribbles and mock writing) on the sign-up sheet. The sign-up sheet gave children a purpose for writing. Not only were they learning to write their own names, but they were also sequencing (who was next?), reading other children's names, understanding the concepts of print, and interacting socially as they discussed where their names were on the list in relation to others. Children began to move their names from the middle of the page up to the top and over to the left side as time went by.

The sign-up sheets also became a good problem solving tool and, as one teacher said, "The children begin to understand if they sign up twice, they can have two turns on the computer." The children's names took different forms as they move from scribbling to emergent letters to recognizable letters.

Another off-computer activity that was effective in promoting literacy was use of the hard-copy of Living Books software and books related to software themes. Children using the Living Books series would take the hard copy of the book over to the computer area where they would then sit in pairs or small groups to look at, point to the pictures, read along, and make choices and comparisons between the book and the program. When children used the books on which the Living Books software is based, they were beginning to understand the relationship that the book has to the story, that pictures and books have meaning, that pages turn from the left to the right, and the connection between turning the page on the screen and in the book to finding particular pages.

Ineffective Conditions
Conditions not effective in promoting the ITLC involved teachers' directive behaviors, such as telling children what to do, when to do it, and not allowing them to make their own choices. Sometimes adults directed children's use of the computer or interfered by offering unnecessary help. For instance, they told children what to do in the program instead of offering them the opportunity to explore and discover for themselves. This practice was especially common with student teachers and classroom aides.

A second undesirable condition was teachers' use of the computer as a reward or withholding the computer as a punishment. Often, as punishment for a negative behavior not associated with the computer, a particular child was denied use of the computer (e.g., Johnny, since you misbehaved this morning during circle time, you can't use the computer today).

Another condition that produced ineffective results was limiting children's time at the computer. Despite the fact that children are seldom limited to 5 minutes when engaged in other preschool activities such as blocks, drawing, puzzles, or playhouse activities, some teachers insisted on time limits for computer use. Children were given timed turns, from 5 to 15 minutes long; then the child was told that his or her turn was over. When questioned about this practice, one teacher said that because the technology benefited the children, she wanted all to have a turn. Her motives, while well-intentioned, resulted in children's negative behaviors since most resisted being taken away from a software activity that was interesting and fun.

Data showed that when teachers limited computer time and turns, children exhibited hostile behaviors and communicated less. Children forced to take short turns were concerned about not being able to accomplish their chosen activity. The computer area then changed from a place of social interaction and communication to an area of isolation and hostility. Children were protective of their time; did not want to share their space at the computer even with an on-looker; did not take time to communicate, share ideas with others, or call attention to an interesting picture or animation; and sometimes even pushed or shoved another child out of the way. These behaviors were in direct contrast to those observed in ITLC classrooms where children managed their own turns and times on the computer.

The use of interactive software, combined with the effective conditions encouraged children to explore, to communicate, to interact socially with each other and with adults, to make judgments and to solve problems. Data from the study shows that children in the ITLC classrooms where effective conditions were present increased their understanding of basic literacy concepts (e.g., words and pictures tell stories; stories have a sequence; stories have a beginning, middle, and end; stories have characters, actions, and settings). As a result of the ITLC implemented under the effective conditions, children also improved literacy skills in the following areas: labeling, storytelling, understanding key concepts of a story, recognizing letters and identifying or reading words, identifying environmental print, understanding that reading is done from top to bottom and from left to right; sequencing; and predicting outcomes.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Final Report: The Early Childhood Emergent Literacy Technology Research Study by Hutinger, Bell, Beard, Bond, Johanson, and Terry. For more information about the project and its results, contact Macomb Projects at 309/298-1634.

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