Submitted by Alesia on March 7, 2012
Are we making the most of the early years to boost literacy achievement? Though there has been a recent focus on literacy at Grade Four level, the literacy journey actually begins much earlier. It is noted that “young children, before they have had any formal literacy instruction, display many capacities and skills which can be viewed as directly relevant to their literacy development” (Snow, 2004, p. 5). From birth through the early years, children gradually develop early literacy skills, which include knowledge of how to hold books upright and turn pages, to listen when read to, to recognize books by their covers, and to distinguish between pictures and print. The opportunity to develop these skills are significant “because you cannot teach the child to read and write without his or her having experience of what literacy is” (Ravid, 1993).
However, the extent to which the home environment supports early literacy often depends on the families’ “level of engagement with the child, their own level of education and literacy practices and their socio-economic status” (Centre for Community Child Health, 2008). Ceceile Minott, Acting Head of The Caribbean Child Development Centre (CCDC), believes that early literacy is influenced by the development of language fostered through conversation. She explained in an interview that more parents need to be aware that children understand when they are spoken to and that supporting children’s language development is critical to fostering early literacy. Her message to parents is: “Let them [children] ask you questions, answer their questions, read to them … the books that you have will create the conversation that will create the language needed.” She empahsized that “conversation does not cost money” and is one of the most critical tools in early literacy development.
Unfortunately, many children come from home environments where these opportunities for stimulation are limited. As a result, many children experience difficulty with literacy in school (Centre for Community Child Health, 2008). Compared to children from high income families, those from low income families tend to have smaller vocabularies and scored 60 percent less on cognitive tests (JumpStart, 2009). Compared to their peers who begin school with early literacy skills, these children are in danger of being left behind and are at risk for having “lower self esteem, poorer educational and social outcomes, and higher rates of unemployment” as adults(Centre for Community Child Health, 2008).
According to Professor Maureen Samms – Vaughan, Chairman of the Early Childhood Commission (ECC), “early childhood development is as important to Jamaica as it is to any other country, because this is the time that children’s brains are developing maximally” (Chaplin, 2011). Therefore, high-quality early childhood education enables young children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to develop early literacy skills necessary for literacy acquisition.
Striving towards the Ideal Early Childhood Education
For Mrs. Minott, the ideal early childhood learning environment would be led by the child, while the teacher acts as a facilitator. She explained that Early Childhood Institutions (ECI) would have a reading area or library. In this space, the teacher would encourage children’s exploration of books – “‘look at that word’, ‘look at that picture’” and help them to feel comfortable as they “gravitate towards looking at books and reading books.” The ideal set-up would be “learning centres where our children would move from one centre to the next to develop the various concepts that they need at that time. So we are looking at a centre that does not have desks and chairs; we are looking at a child-friendly centre where the child leads it but is able to move with the process and learn.” She explained that because not all children learn at the same pace, the learning process would be adaptable with the teacher as facilitator.
Such an environment concurrs with Dr. Rose Davies’ position that “schools have to be child-sensitive,” and deveopmentally appropriate practice “must be integral to and characterize school settings.” She noted that at the early childhood level, developmentally appropriate curriculum practice places emphasis on the following (Davies, 2003, p. 76-77):
• Learning through hands-on, concrete experiences
• Selection of learning experiences that are challenging and stimulating, but age appropriate and individually appropriate
• Play as an important way of learning
• Building self-concept, character, personal and social skills
Mrs. Minott noted that one of the major obstacles to implementing child-centred learning environments is financing. She explained that there is a disparity in the quality of the learning environment between private schools and basic schools because the latter lacks resources. She said that “if you go into a basic school right now, you would be lucky to see crayons, you would be lucky to see books and these are things that our children need.”
To overcome this challenge, Mrs. Minott advised that early childhood teachers and parents turn ‘trashables’ into incredible ‘teachables.’ Teachers have written their own books and broken crayons in half to ensure that despite the resource constraints, early literacy is being promoted. Other sources of help are:
• Development Officers from the Early Childhood Commission
• The Saturday Gleaner, which publishes activities from the Early Childhood Curriculum
• Corporate Jamaica, which may provide financial assistance
• Crayons Count – an initiative that provides learning kits to ECI. Click here to learn more.
As Jamaica strives for full literacy, quality early childhood education facilitates optimal conditions for developing the early literacy skills needed for literacy acquisition. ECIs represent golden opportunities to counteract the achievement gap by acting as “the great equalizer” (Downey, von Hippel & Broh, 2004).
Centre for Community Child Health. (2008). Literacy in early childhood. Retrieved from www.rch.org.au/emplibrary/ccch/PB13_Literacy_EarlyChildhood.pdf
Chaplin, K. (2011, January 11). The importance of early childhood education. Jamaica Observer.
Retrieved from http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/The-importance-of-earlychildhood-education_8282635
Davies, R. (2003). Developing children in the Jamaican public schools: The experience at grade one. Caribbean Childhood: Journal of the Children’s Issues Coalition, 1, p. 74 – 92
Downey, D.B., von Hippel, P.T., & Broh, B. (2004). Are schools the great equalizer? School and non-school sources of
inequality in cognitive skills. Retrieved from http://www.sociology.ohiostate.edu/people/ptv/publications/Inequality/accepted.pdf
Jump Start. (2009). America's early childhood literacy gap. Retrieved from
Ravid, D. (1993). Acquisition of language and literacy. In UNESCO (Ed.), Emergent Literacy in Early childhood education(chapter 2). Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/education/pdf/21_33.pdf
Snow, A.E. (2004). What counts as literacy in early childhood?. Retrieved from
Zero to Three (2003). Early Literacy. Retrieved from www.zerotothree/BrainWonders
For more information on early literacy and early childhood development visit the zero to three website.
Visit the website of Early Childhood Commission to learn about its work.
Click here to see Crayons Count’s drop locations.