Creating Positive Literacy Learning Environments in Early Childhood

Laurie Makin. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

This chapter is based on the notion that creating positive literacy learning environments is a different proposition today than it was in previous years, since what we think of as literacy is changing, how we do it is changing, and the skills children need are changing. The print-saturated environment of the world outside of educational settings is seldom replicated within them. Nevertheless, there is a rich research literature relating to how settings can be made more effective by paying attention to the creation of print-rich environments in early childhood education and to the mediation of literacy learning within these environments.

The term ‘environment’, when applied to early childhood educational settings, is an aggregate of conditions and influences on learning, including both the physical environment (layout, range of resources, access, and use) and the psychosocial environment (interactions between staff and children, among peers, and between the setting and its wider contexts of homes and communities). The educational environment reflects underlying philosophical beliefs about how children learn, how they should be taught, what they should learn and why.

Recent sociocultural perspectives on literacy have led to a recognition that what counts as literacy is inextricably entwined with power, that texts are not neutral, and that failure to achieve success in school literacy may often result from gaps between home and school literacies. Print-rich environments may be rich for some groups and poor for those groups that do not see themselves or their social literacy practices reflected in the environment. Interactions around print may enrich some children’s knowledge and develop their predispositions to read and write, but may marginalize and disenfranchize other children.

Positive learning environments support children’s learning. The focus in this chapter is on identifying aspects of both the physical and the psychosocial environment that support literacy learning. A review of the research suggests that two aspects of the environment are of particular importance in literacy learning: availability of appropriate resources; and interactions between children and adults who mediate their literacy learning. It also suggests areas for further research.

Some Environmental Predictors of Successful Literacy

Congruence between Home and Preschool/School Literacies

Literacy begins practically from birth in a literate society. Children’s environments have changed dramatically over the last few decades (Moss, 1990; OECD, 2001a), with increasing numbers of children in educare environments, because of social changes and financial pressures. Hence children’s early literacy experiences will take place in various contexts: home, community and a range of early childhood settings.

Increasingly, literacy and life opportunities are linked. Reports from different countries (see, for example, Comber and Hill, 2000; Gregory, 1994; Snow et al., 1998; Sylva et al., 2001) confirm that ‘at-risk’ children usually come from low income, low literacy, and/or bilingual homes. Disadvantage has a cumulative nature, but the first factor, poverty, appears to be a particularly powerful predictor of problematic literacy.

Support for children at risk of low literacy can be present in their homes and communities, their early educational settings, or, ideally, in both. Research supports the belief that the home environment is an important environmental factor affecting children’s literacy learning (see, for example, Cairney, in this volume; Purcell-Gates, 1996; Saracho, 2002). A key factor appears to be the degree of congruence between the literacies of home and school (Heath, 1983; Cairney, 2002). Despite the fact that this notion is now widely accepted, acceptance does not appear to have been translated into environmental change, especially in schools. Not only do the same groups persistently experience difficulties and often do poorly on national assessments, but there are growing indications (Alloway and Gilbert, 1997; Millard, in this volume) that gender differences in literacy engagement and success are also affected by school literacy environments that are not aligned with children’s literacy interests and experiences.

High Quality Educare Environments

A well-known, widely used scale for measuring the general environment in early childhood settings prior to school entry is ECERS-R, the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale-Revised (Harms et al., 1998). In its earlier form (Harms and Clifford, 1980), ECERS has been used by researchers throughout the world (for example, Bryant et al., 1994; Dunn et al., 1994; Scarr et al., 1994) and is considered to have good predictive validity. The newer version, ECERS-R, has the same general rationale as the original and retains the earlier scale’s broad definition of ‘environment’ as including all those features that directly affect children and adults in early childhood settings. There are seven subscales reflecting what the authors consider to be the most important features of high quality early childhood environments: space and furnishings, personal care routines, language-reasoning, activities, interaction, programme structure, and parents and staff. The revised scale includes more emphasis on inclusive practices, cultural diversity and use of technology.

ECERS-R focuses on the environment in general, not on literacy. There have been two recent attempts to extend or revise ECERS-R in order to focus more directly on the literacy environment in early childhood settings. Sylva and Siraj-Blatchford (2001) report on development within the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project of ECERS-E (Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale-English). ECERS-E extends ECERS-R to include desirable learning outcomes that map onto the English National Curriculum. ECERS-E appears to be a useful tool for evaluating the strengths of various types of early childhood settings. Two findings are of particular interest here. One is that high scores on ECERS-E as a whole (i.e. including non-language aspects of the environment as well as aspects relating directly to language) were significantly related to progress between the ages of three and five years in language, the foundation of literacy learning. The other is that high scores on the ECERS-E literacy subscale, which includes a focus on letter recognition and contextualized phonological awareness, were significantly related to children’s progress in pre-reading skills. This suggests that high quality learning environments in general support literacy learning in particular, and that a specific focus on key predictors of successful school literacy achieves positive results.

In Australia, Makin et al. (1999) adapted a number of ECERS-R items and added a new subscale on literacy practices to map the literacy environment in 79 early childhood settings. New and modified items were incorporated for the purposes of the project into a shortened form of the ECERS-R, renamed the Early Childhood Language and Literacy Scale (ECLLS). Many areas of the literacy environments studied were rated as in need of improvement, in particular, literacy interactions during dramatic play and in relation to children’s literacy learning experiences, encouragement of metalinguistic and phonological awareness, and inclusion of technology. ECLLS has been piloted, but is still in the process of refinement. Reliability and validation statistics are needed.

A Play-Based Approach to Literacy in Early Childhood Settings

Roskos and Christie (2001) review 20 recent studies investigating the interface between play and literacy and judge that a strong case has been made to support the importance of play in early literacy learning in the provision of scenarios that promote literacy activities, hence helping children develop skills, strategies, oral language, and an understanding of connections between oral and written expression. An environment in which guided and free play is the primary mode of teaching and learning is one in which children can act positively upon their environment and be in control of their learning. If literacy artefacts are available within their play contexts, children’s emergent reading and writing activities increase dramatically, although Roskos and Christie report some mixed findings relating to connections between such activities and various assessment measures used when children begin school.

Many early childhood educators (for example, Galda et al., 1989; Vukelich, 1994) support literacy-enriched dramatic play. Long term evaluations of the High/Scope project (Schweinhart et al., 1993) found that the greatest long term benefits were demonstrated by the children who had experienced a play-based curriculum. With increasing pressures in the UK, the USA, and Australia on more tests at ever earlier ages and more formal teaching methods, it may be time to attempt to regain the high ground for play-based literacy learning.

A play-based approach can be especially important for young children who may not be best served by a more academic approach to literacy (Nielsen and Monson, 1996). Additional support for this view comes from the PISA study, (OECD, 2001b), which found that, in Finland, high quality, play-based educare prior to school entry and delaying formal reading instruction until the age of seven or eight years does not have deleterious results—indeed, quite the contrary. These findings are of particular relevance in the first years of school in countries such as the UK and the USA, where, increasingly, literacy is seen as academic instruction. The work of insightful researchers (see, for example, Paley, 1984; Dyson, 1996; Marsh, 1999) offers situated examples of how play can be used to extend children’s literacy interests and repertoires.

From a perspective of literacy as social practice (Makin and Jones Diaz, 2002), sociodramatic play in early childhood classrooms becomes centrally important in literacy learning, as it is through sociodramatic play that children role-play being a literate adult, just as they may role-play being a parent, a shop keeper, a superhero, and so on. On one level the implication of this perspective is that the contexts of sociodramatic play need to be literacy-enriched through the provision of literacy artefacts and resources, not simply to affect children’s performance in school-based assessments, but to widen and deepen their understanding of how literacy works in society and what it means to be a literate person. However, there exists a deeper level of justification beyond simply providing a site for literacy tool usage, one which has been explored by Hall (1998) and Hall and Robinson (2003). Within a curriculum world based around decontexualized versions of literacy, sociodramatic play is the one area within which children on their own almost invariably generate a situated context for literacy, for example when the baby is ill, the doctor calls and writes a prescription. Inevitably, within complex events literacy is only a part of an event and takes its rightful place as one of a series of features (Hall and Robinson, 1998). The play is thus oriented around events in which literacy is a part, not the end in itself, and this is directly analogous to ways in which literate people engage with literacy outside of schooling. Thus in sociodramatic play and life, literacy exists as a means to an end; only in a school curriculum is literacy an end in itself.

Helping children create effective literacy-related social contexts in play can be facilitated by adult aid or intervention. Chang and Yawkey (1998) and Pahl (1999) explore relationships between literacy and sociodramatic play and suggest that the symbolic nature of such play offers children opportunities to engage in the literacy practices of their societies, both with each other and with adult staff members who scaffold their learning. Studies of literacy-enriched sociodramatic play environments (Neuman, 2001; Makin et al., 1999) have found that, even when a print-rich play environment is created, adult involvement and mediation are necessary for children to extend their play to include social practices of literacy with which they may be largely unfamiliar, for example, what one does in a hospital, an office or a garage (see Hall and Robinson, 2003).

Opportunities to Develop Specific Knowledge about Literacy

A number of large-scale studies identify predictors of successful literacy learning prior to school entry that are congruent both with each other and with the ECERS-related studies reported above. These predictors are directly related to children’s environmental experiences. Burgess (1997) reviews a number of research studies, concluding that most important for children are oral language ability, the ability to recognize environmental print, early knowledge of letters and the sounds they make, and early knowledge of the mechanics of print. Similarly, Snow et al. note that among those children who begin school less prepared to learn to read are those who need more knowledge ‘in certain domains, most notably letter knowledge, phonological sensitivity, familiarity with the basic purposes and mechanisms of reading, and language ability’ (1998: 137). Other researchers (for example, Jordan et al., 2000; Dickinson and Tabors, 2001) emphasize the importance of extended discourse that goes beyond the here and now.

Sylva and her colleagues (2001) identify certain experiences as key predictors of successful literacy, i.e. being read to frequently, having opportunities to play with letters and sounds, adults’ drawing children’s attention to print and later letters, learning songs and nursery rhymes, and visiting the library often. Many studies over the last two decades (see, for example, Sulzby, 1985; Wells, 1981; 1985; Snow and Ninio, 1986) confirm the importance of reading aloud to children regularly from an early age. Gambrell (1996) reports that reading aloud in school environments is also important. Shared book reading is conducive to the extended discourses that are central to oral language development.

National Emphasis on the Importance of Literacy Teaching and Learning

Large-scale research studies relating to literacy have been carried out in the United Kingdom since the late 1940s, following the end of World War II, and in the United States since the early 1970s, following Russian successes in the exploration of outer space. In Australia, basic skills tests were introduced in the last decade, with the impetus being a re-examination of Australia’s place in the Asia-Pacific. High stakes testing, as the process is often referred to, is by necessity restricted in what it can measure, especially when assessments are sought that are genuinely equivalent across countries, involving translation of texts and the reading of texts developed within particular cultural frameworks (Shiels and Cosgrove, 2002). Many educators claim that such testing exercises are of little direct benefit. However, they offer opportunities to examine a range of environmental factors impacting on reading achievement—policy support, curriculum documents, remedial support, teaching strategies—and to reflect on related factors such as gender, indigeneity and socioeconomic status.

Three recent large-scale international assessments of children’s reading are (1) the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) Reading Literacy Study (RLS) (Elley, 1992; 1994); (2) the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) (OECD, 1999; 2001b); and (3) the IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (2001). The first two focused on high school students, the third on nine-year-olds. Although none of the three focused on early childhood, defined internationally as birth to eight years, they demonstrate educational outcomes that build on earlier experiences. Findings confirm the importance of the educational environment, both physical and psychosocial, and of the wider national environment.

The results of the third study will not be available until 2003. Certain similarities have been found in the results of the first two. In both IEA/RLS and PISA, Finland had the highest ranking overall. Elley (1992) suggests that this may relate in part to the country’s relatively high socioeconomic status and a social emphasis on the importance of literacy, both aspects of the macro environment affecting literacy in educational settings. Aunola et al. (2002) confirm the high status of literacy in Finland, attributing it in part to the historical value placed on literacy since the seventeeth century, when the church insisted on basic reading ability as a precursor to marriage.

This emphasis on the larger social environment reminds us that education does not function in a vacuum and that pedagogical practices and curriculum documents are influenced by forces within the wider external environment, including the availability of high quality early childhood education. A recent OECD review (2001a) of early childhood education and care found high quality, play-based programmes in Finland, with excellent staff-child ratios, aesthetically pleasing environments, and supported educare for all children under school age, with no formal reading instruction until school entry at the age of seven years.

Positive Literacy Environments: Some Resource Issues

Provision of Literacy Resources

An early learning environment that provides high quality early childhood education in general, and access to literacy resources in particular, appears to be crucial in laying firm foundations for school literacy in the years prior to school entry. Considerations of what sorts of resources are (and should be) offered in early childhood settings and how they should be used raise issues relating to access and use. At the preschool or school level, provision of and access to literacy resources are influenced in part by teacher philosophy. In some studies of early childhood settings prior to school entry, even the most basic features of a print-rich environment have been found to be lacking. Dunn et al. (1994), for example, in a snapshot study of 30 community-based day care classrooms in the US, found the classrooms were lacking even in terms of conventional literacy practices, with only nine even having books. To some extent, this may be the result of earlier maturationist and developmental approaches to literacy, which tended to see literacy as school-related and inappropriate for preschool settings. It is relatively recently, since the 1980s, that educators have become aware of the importance of literacy prior to school entry, and even more recently, that studies such as those referred to earlier (Sylva et al., 2001; Snow et al., 1998; Burgess, 1997) have identified what is most needed in this period.

Dowhower and Beagle (1998) compared ‘holistic’ teachers, who take a top-down approach to literacy, starting with texts, and ‘conventional’ teachers, who take a bottom-up approach, starting with individual letters and sounds. They found that holistic teachers placed a strong emphasis upon literature, on learning in context and on reading for meaning. They provided more writing tools, more literacy centres, less commercial print and more child-and teacher-created print. They also had more books in their classroom libraries.

Even when environments are print-rich in terms of the quantity of resources available, they may offer children access that is restricted to a narrow range of books, paper and writing implements. Recent researchers have explored ways in which the educational environment can be adapted to reflect more closely the wider external environment in general, offering relevant ways of engaging children who may not otherwise choose to engage with more traditional school literacy practices. Gender is one area of increasing interest to researchers. Young and Brozo (2001) review American studies indicating that there are societal pressures acting to deter boys from success in literacy and refer to similar findings by Australian researchers. Millard and Marsh (2001) report a preference among boys for comics and magazines in reading. Yet Dowhower and Beagle (1998) found no magazines or newspapers in any of the classroom library collections they studied, and Worthy et al. (1999) found an ever-increasing gap between student reading preferences and school reading resources. There is research suggesting that different text types appeal to different children (see Millard, in this volume) and influence interaction patterns (Neuman, 1996; Reese and Harris, 1997), as well as facilitating children’s ability to develop as literate members of society. The same appears to hold for opportunities to write as well as read different text types (see, for example, Zecker, 1999, who questions the overemphasis on narratives in the first years of school).

Access to Literacy Resources

Access to resources can depend upon socio-economic, linguistic and geographical factors. Often, these intersect with one another to produce formidable barriers for children. Duke, in a study of 20 first-grade classrooms, suggests that, ‘Literacy is another domain through which schools may contribute to lower levels of achievement among low-SES children’ (2000: 441). Duke uses the term ‘semiotic capital’, to refer to an important currency in many institutions and settings in largely literate societies. Analysis of literacy practices in classrooms with children from very different socio-economic backgrounds indicated that low-SES children had access in their classrooms to less semiotic capital than children from high-SES backgrounds. They encountered less print, were exposed to less extended forms of text, were less likely to experience print integrated throughout the curriculum, had fewer opportunities for choice, lower degrees of authorship, smaller classroom libraries, and less time to use them. They spent at least as much, and sometimes more, time on print activities, but the nature of the activities was different. The children were read to less often, could choose what they read less often, and spent more time on copying and completing worksheets rather than in more authentic literacy learning activities. Children need experience in reading and writing a wide range of genres from the earliest years: shopping lists, letters, stories, procedures, reports, notices and so on. Dickinson and DeGisi (1998) cite frequency, variety, relevance, and authenticity as the key factors.

There are also factors outside the classroom that impact upon access to resources, for example, the socioeconomic status of the community, whether it is rural or urban, and the extent to which it is culturally diverse. Dowhower and Beagle (1998), in a study of 18 urban, suburban, and rural classrooms, found that suburban children tended to be better resourced. Eleven of the classrooms in their study had no environmental or functional print on show, and 14 had no or very little student-generated print. Rural children had fewest writing tools and (presumably as a consequence) generated least print.

Within urban and suburban environments, there are also differences. Neuman and Celano (2001) suggest that unequal provision of community literacy resources may impact on children’s literacy. Examples they give include disfigured, difficult to read public signage, food outlets designed to encourage quick turnover as opposed to encouraging patrons to linger and read newspapers or magazines, and libraries with fewer books in worse condition.

Provision of a print-rich environment in culturally diverse classrooms may need particular attention in settings whose programmes are developmentally based. A focus on individuals can mean that the setting itself, its staff and its programmes may be shielded from observation and reflection. Alloway states that, ‘by its very nature, an individualist framework does not invite challenge to curricular and pedagogical practices that enfranchise particular groups of students while disenfranchising others’ (1999: 2). This warning is particularly relevant in the current climate of high stakes testing. Both child knowledge and adult scaffolding within the educare environment must be taken into account if all children are to experience a positive literacy environment.

When a print-rich environment is restricted to the dominant language, children whose home language is a language or dialect other than the standard language or dialect of power within a society face many difficulties in literacy learning, especially when, as is the case in the majority of early childhood settings in Australia, Canada (with the exception of immersion classes), the US, and the UK, they share classes with children who are already fluent in the language of power. Research studies confirm that cultural as well as linguistic differences are often overlooked in such cases and that children often learn the new language or dialect at the expense of their community languages or dialects (see, for example, Gregory, 1994; Siraj-Blatchford and Clarke, 2000; Hohepa and McNaughton, 2002). The subtractive nature of a dominant-language-only environment is currently of increasing concern to many researchers (see, for example, Gutiérrez et al., 2002) in the wake of increasing emphasis on English-only teaching and testing in countries whose official language is English.

All children need access to the literacy practices and discourses of society’s dominant groups. However, this need not come at the expense of other literacies and should be an additive rather than a subtractive process (Cairney, 2002). Walters writes that, ‘The language of a literate classroom is in the identities of the language user’ (1998: 8). These identities include socioeconomic status, indigeneity, gender, and language.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT)

The paradigm of literacy in Western societies has been shifting since the 1970s to one in which literacy is seen as social practices done differently by different people in different contexts (Gee, 1990; Luke, 1993; Makin and Jones Diaz, 2002; Knobel and Lankshear, in this volume). The literate behaviours of people in Western societies have changed enormously within the space of a few years, with the explosion of home computers, mobile telephones, short messaging systems (SMS), multimedia texts, faxes, digital videos, and so on. This shift has broadened our definition of literacy to include areas such as technoliteracy, and increased emphasis on areas such as visual literacy (Anstey and Bull, 2000) and critical literacy (Bradshaw, 1998). However, these areas are not yet commonly reflected in early childhood settings.

Integration of technology into literacy learning environments is still in the process of development in many early childhood settings. Its absence is often particularly evident in sociodramatic play. For example, while many settings have a shop, few extend this to include, for example, a real or make-believe computer-based inventory or cash-out machine. Few home corners contain a real or make-believe computer for e-mail, information searches, or online shopping. Yet, competency in ICT-related negotiations increasingly comprises a centrally important part of what it means to be a literate person, as one uses automatic tellers, the Internet, online banking, and so on. In early childhood settings, computers are often used only for skill and drill games, or digital worksheets. Reports of classroom-based action research which aims to improve practice (see, for example, Walker and Yekovich, 1999; Hill with Broadhurst, 2002) show exceptions to this situation and offer examples of the type of innovative, authentic literacy experiences children can take part in when teachers provide appropriate resources and mediate children’s experiences with technology.

Karchmer (2001), in a study of the reaction of 13 teachers to the Internet, reminds readers that the nature of literacy has always been dependent upon, and a product of, communication technology, affecting what is read and written, by whom, and in what media. Digital communication, animation, graphics, hyperlinks and so on affect the current nature of literacy and the skills children need. Goldstone (2002) suggests that opportunities offered by interactive multimedia texts to create substories, fill in gaps, and connect to other texts are changing children’s books themselves to become less linear and more self-referential and ironic in tone. Smith’s (2001) study of her son’s exploration of three types of storybook media, including CD-ROM storybooks, between the ages of 2.5 and 3.5 years, suggests that current reconcep-tualizations of literacy must include recognition of the unique contributions to literacy development that can be made through ICT resources. Her study demonstrates clearly the literacy learning opportunities offered by a print-rich environment that includes multiple media.

Not only is technology reflective of the literacy which children will encounter in their everyday lives within society. It also has the potential to positively affect the social environment of the classroom, for example, increasing on-task communication when computer use is integral and involves software that is both developmentally appropriate and appropriate to the classroom’s learning outcomes (Richards, 2000). Use of the Internet widens this social learning environment beyond individual settings to include international communication (Offman-Gersh, 2001; Hill with Broadhurst, 2002).

Positive Literacy Environments: Some Mediation Issues

Teacher Expectations

Research supports the notion that the psychosocial environment is as important as the physical environment in terms of children’s literacy. Literacy environments that work not only provide children with access to resources, but also provide them with motivation to engage with these resources. McMahon et al. (1998) remind us that teachers who believe children learn through social interaction and exploration in meaningful activities will have classrooms that are very different from those in which teachers believe children learn through drill and practice. Bouas et al. (1997) report that if teachers believe that kindergarten children can write, they will write, supported by a print-rich environment, a regular, scheduled time for writing, teacher modelling, short individualized conferences, and opportunities to share writing with their peers.

A literate environment provides children with appropriate physical surroundings and supportive interpersonal relationships (Neuman and Roskos, 1997). Group as well as individual characteristics should be familiar to the teacher and reflected in the environment. This is more easily said than done. Expectations of teacher-child-family interactions, home and community literacy practices, and what is deemed to constitute ‘appropriate’ physical surroundings are all culturally determined. Many researchers (for example, Heath, 1983; Purcell-Gates, 1996; Freebody et al., 1995) warn of the dangers of adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach to literacy learning.

Snow et al. (1998) warn of the dangers of low teacher and school expectations, which can result in an undemanding curriculum. The increasingly formal teaching methods seen in some responses to the perceived need to raise national literacy levels may, paradoxically, reinforce low expectations by teachers of children who do not respond to these methods. Purcell-Gates and Dahl (1991) emphasize the importance of print-rich environments that provide varied, meaningful and functional opportunities for literacy engagement, and teacher expectations that children will be active co-constructors of literacy knowledge, not the passive recipients of teacher-led direct instruction.

Interactions in Educare Settings

Dickinson and Tabors (2002), in a longitudinal study of 74 children, compared different home and preschool environments and found that kindergarten language ability was highly predictive of literacy and vocabulary at later ages. However, several studies (see, for example, Wells and Nichols, 1985; Dunn, 1993; Rolfe, 1999) support views of restricted teacher-child talk in early childhood settings.

The source of such restricted interactions may arise from an intersection of several factors, including initial teacher preparation, staff qualifications, and staff-child ratios. Rosemary and Roskos (2002) suggest that it may be the first of these that needs particular attention. In their study of three childcare centres, literacy interactions (defined as talk related to reading and writing) represented only 10% of the total, and tended to be instrumental with brief exchanges getting information about print and checking understanding, i.e. transmission teaching—telling about literacy rather than scaffolding children’s understanding of literacy. Higher teacher qualifications affected the amount of literacy interaction, but not the overall interaction pattern. Rolfe (1999) reports similar findings in her naturalistic study of infant educare. Most interactions between the children and staff were very brief, often made from a distance, and overwhelmingly functional in nature, although the subjective impression of the staff was that the interactions were both more frequent and longer than they were in fact. She interprets this to reflect the hurried environment of infant/toddler rooms with inadequate staff-child ratios, which do not allow for individual, child-centred responsiveness.

Staff interactions as well as adult-child interactions are an important part of educare environments. Munns’ (1995) study of eight preschools in the UK found that, in environments that supported children’s literacy and numeracy development, staff treated one another as equals, despite different levels of qualifications, and hence were able to engage in exploratory and reflective discussions of the environment and their own role in supporting children’s literacy and numeracy development.

Positive Literacy Environments as a ‘Productive Pedagogy’

All learning environments teach children—either consciously or unconsciously. Early childhood practitioners support children’s literacy when they provide positive, supportive, and respectful literacy learning environments in which young children view themselves as increasingly competent, literate members of society.

Snow et al. (1998) identify provision of a positive language and literacy environment as one of the most important conditions contributing to successful reading, and an important preventive effort for children at risk of low school literacy. A positive environment is defined as one that is rich in oral language, interactive reading, and language play, with opportunities for children to both observe and participate in the functions of literacy. In Australia, provision of a supportive classroom environment has been identified as one of four categories of ‘productive pedagogies’ (Education Queensland, 1999), i.e. strategies that can focus instruction and improve student outcomes, thus placing the environment firmly in the foreground of factors to be considered in planning for literacy. Within this category of productive pedagogies, relationships are seen to be of crucial importance in developing people who not only are able to engage as literate members of society in a range of ways, but choose to do so.

When literacy environments are boring or dis-empowering, they are an unproductive pedagogy. Some researchers argue that this is often the case for boys. Barrs (2001), in a study of seven-to nine-year-olds, found that there were more boys than girls in the categories of children who were able to read but chose not to, and children who neither could nor did read. See Millard (in this volume) for further discussion of the intersections between gender and literacy in school literacy learning environments.

There are additional issues for children at risk of low school-based literacy assessments. One of these is the gap that may exist between home and community literacy proficiency and school-assessed literacy proficiency (Heath, 1983; Gregory, 1994; Hanlen, 2002; Rogers, 2002). The ideology associated with different discourse contexts can have negative effects on the less powerful because they may internalize too well, from early literacy learning environments, the constructions by the more powerful of what counts as literacy and what it means to be a literate person.

Directions for Future Research

In this chapter, I have reviewed many areas in which various research studies that explore positive literacy learning environments support and confirm each other, for example: the importance of access to and experience with literacy tools and technologies; frequent reading aloud accompanied by extended discourse; modelling by adults; opportunities to engage in everyday literacy experiences; opportunities to explore environmental print and to play with sounds; and a play-based curriculum for young children.

In some areas, it seems less a matter of needing more research than a matter of translating research into practice. An example of this is the need for schools to widen their view of literacy to be more inclusive of the wide range of home and community literacy practices in which children engage. Since the 1980s, with seminal research such as that of Heath (1983), research has confirmed the need to address this area seriously. However, there has been little far-reaching change in the literacy learning environments in early childhood settings. On the contrary, it can be argued that, over the last decade in particular, school literacy environments are increasingly constrained and restricted, reflecting a set of values and strategies that excludes many children.

In other areas, there is a need for future research into the provision of positive literacy environments, in terms of both their physical and their psychosocial aspects. We need, for example, more studies identifying ways in which technology can be appropriately integrated into early childhood education; studies of the long term impact on children’s literacy dispositions of an environment that accepts and works with popular culture; more research into mediation strategies and the effects of changing the discourse in classrooms; a deeper understanding of the environmental predictors of literacy learning in infants and toddlers; thick descriptions of transitions in literacy learning environments between preschool and school settings; and fine-grained linguistic analyses of literacy interactions between children and between adults and children to identify key features of peer and teacher mediation.

This latter area is of particular importance in the current climate of external, decontextualized testing of children’s literacy. Learning outcomes are a product of interaction and mediation as well as cognitive ability, and assessment must include an understanding of what children experience. We need to hear the voices and ideas of children as well as adults. Such understanding might assist in identification of ways to provide physical and psychosocial environments that offer educational advantage to children of poverty, support indigenous literacy, and develop true partnerships between teachers and families in promoting children’s literacy learning.

Our collective report card seems to indicate a judgement of ‘can do better’, in terms of providing resource-rich, mediation-rich environments that support the early literacy of all children, so that they not only are able to function as literate people in society, but see themselves as competent, confident, literate members of society, disposed to engage in an ever widening repertoire of literacy practices.