Concepts related to emergent literacy form the basis for later reading and writing and are widely accepted in programs for young children without disabilities but are rarely evidenced in special education practice. While emergent literacy has been a research topic in programs for young children without disabilities for twenty years or more, it is only within the past half a dozen years that it has gained attention in the special education community. A recent search of ERIC documents and journal articles for emergent literacy titles dating from 1990 to the present revealed over 150 entries using 'emergent literacy' and 'early childhood' as key words. However, when the search was conducted for 'emergent literacy' and 'special education,' only nine documents were found. A search of 'emergent literacy' and 'special education' plus 'early childhood' resulted in six documents. A review of textbooks used in early childhood special education reveal few index references to 'emergent literacy,' although 'communication' is included in almost all texts.
Literacy is more than reciting the alphabet. When preschoolers point to pictures in a book or on a computer screen and pretend to "read" the story; when pseudo-letters, then recognizable letters and words, emerge from scribbles in drawings; or when a three-year-old recognizes the Hardee's logo on a hot air balloon and asks for french fries, these children demonstrate behaviors associated with the emergence of literacy. However, initial literacy concepts are seldom addressed in special education programs, a situation that highlights the need to disseminate the findings of emergent literacy research related to youngsters with disabilities to early childhood practitioners.
Research and Emergent Literacy
Literacy is a social, psychological, and linguistic process. Emergent literacy's foundation is based in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics (Gunn, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995; Hiebert & Papierz, 1990; Katims, 1994; Mason & Allen, 1986; McGee & Lomax, 1990; Sulzby & Teale, 1991). An emergent literacy approach stresses that written and oral language develop concurrently and interrelatedly from birth. Both oral and written language are best learned when used in purposeful contexts and when children have opportunities to observe and interact with others who write and read (Clay, 1975; Harste, Woodward, & Burke, 1984; Sulzby, 1990) as opposed to rote learning of letters, words, or sounds.
Literacy concepts emerge very early in life. A summary of basic emergent literacy concepts is shown in Figure 1. Since much of what is known about emergent literacy has been based on research with typically developing children (Cousin, Weekley, & Gerard, 1993), even if teachers of youngsters with disabilities know about emergent literacy practices, they may question use of such practices with their children (Patzer & Pettegrew, 1996). Many children with oral language delays and impairments have significant literacy problems before they are in first grade (Scarborough & Dobrich, 1990). Although some suggest that children with mild to moderate disabilities develop literacy in ways that are quite similar to those of children without disabilities (Brazee & Haynes, 1989; Cutler & Stone, 1988; Erickson & Koppenhaver, 1995; Goodman, 1982; Hasselriss, 1982; Katims, 1991; Pierce & Porter, 1996; Reid & Hresko, 1980; Wiederholt & Hale, 1982), typically these children do not have the opportunity to do so and as such, are the children who fall behind in kindergarten and the primary grades. Children who fail to "catch on" early keep falling further and further behind and are likely to end up repeating a grade or are assigned to transition classes (Strickland, 1990). As children who are "behind" in reading move into the upper grades, they do not "catch up." Rather they stay "behind" (Clay, 1979). The outlook for children with disabilities to experience opportunities to develop literacy is grim.
Figure 1. Summary of Basic Emergent Literacy Concepts
|1 .||We use pictures and words to communicate.|
|2.||.Pictures have meaning.|
|3.||Pictures tell stories.|
|4.||Words have meaning.|
|5.||Words are used to tell stories.|
|6.||The words tell about the pictures.|
|7||Children can make their own stories using words and pictures.|
|8.||Stories have a sequence.|
|9.||Stories have characters, actions, and settings.|
|10.||Stories have a beginning, middle, and end.|
|11.||We read words on a page from left to right.|
|12.||We read from the top of the page to the bottom.|
|13.||There is one to one correspondence between written and spoken words.|
|14.||Each word we say can be written down, using one or more letters of the alphabet.|
|15.||Written words are separated by spaces, just as spoken words are separated by brief pauses.|
Many teachers do not view children with severe disabilities as capable of learning to read and write and consequently provide them with few opportunities to learn written language (Light & McNaughton, 1993). Koppenhaver and Yoder (1993) point out that even if teachers view the child as capable, that child is more likely to receive word level skill-and-drill activities, seldom reading or listening to text and more rarely, composing text.
Individual Education Plans (IEPs) tend to emphasize fine motor tasks and self-help skills. Erickson and Koppenhaver (1995) found that when IEPs focused on academics, tasks were likely to include name recognition and rote memorization. Longitudinal case studies (Hutinger, Johanson, & Stoneburner, 1996) of fourteen children who demonstrated moderate to severe disabilities support Erickson and Koppenhaver's findings, revealing that those children, in spite of having sporadic access to technology applications as they progressed through school, rarely learned to read nor did their IEPs focus on literacy behaviors. Models of best practice providing strategies in how to provide appropriate literacy instruction to children with disabilities are scarce at best (Erickson & Koppenhaver, 1995). While the present study collected data on a group of children with mild to moderate disabilities, several children with severe disabilities were housed in study classrooms. Their positive experiences led us to believe that extending the ITLC, with necessary adaptations, should be carefully studied.