Old and new

Reflecting on the enduring key issues in early literacy

Authored by: Catherine McBride , Catherine E. Snow , Natalia Kucirkova , Vibeke Grøver

The Routledge International Handbook of early Literacy Education

Print publication date:  March  2017
Online publication date:  March  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138787889
eBook ISBN: 9781315766027
Adobe ISBN: 9781317659204


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In this chapter, we highlight what we consider to be some of the major issues in early literacy development and education worldwide. These issues have been touched upon in previous chapters, and here we summarize our ‘take’ on some of the most consistent debates related to literacy learning. One is the tension between a focus in early instruction on learning to read versus learning to write. A second is the issue of skill-focused versus comprehension-/communication-focused reading. Some scholars in the United States might refer to this as phonics versus whole language, though this label does not necessarily do full justice to the issue when considered across cultures (e.g. McBride, 2016). A third is the question of how useful or problematic digital devices are as an aid to early literacy development. The affordances of and limitations on digital media use are greatly influenced by local conditions, so this conversation needs input from many national contexts. Our fourth question is the right degree of focus on oral language in literacy instruction. We know that oral language skills predict literacy outcomes, a fact that creates a challenge when a majority of children in the world attend schools that use what is for them a second language. While we acknowledge the inevitability, and indeed the benefits, of multilingualism for all, we think there are serious questions to be raised about how best to build and exploit children’s oral language skills in early years literacy instruction, taking into account both what we know about child development and the constraints of practicality in multilingual settings. Given the robust evidence that children’s oral language skills predict their literacy development, a fifth question is related to the forms of oral language instruction in early childhood that may support children’s literacy achievements in a long-term perspective. The sixth issue is the nature of literacy across cultures. For example, should we continue to consider early literacy development primarily in the context of book reading, even in cultures where children’s books are rare and reading to children uncommon? Or should our thinking about promoting early literacy be broadened to include other literacy-related activities, engaged in both for learning and for pleasure? The seventh and final question is also a definitional one: how are the tasks of learning to read and to write influenced by the specifics of the language and the script in which the child is learning? Given limitations of space, we can only touch on each of these issues briefly. We begin with the first issue, among several, related to definitional aspects of literacy.

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