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Emergent Literacy Support in Early Childhood Education Essay

26 preschool teachers and 8 preschool administrators drawn from 8 preschools in Kasempa and Solwezi districts constituted the sample. A total 680 preschoolers were part of the classroom environments in which naturalistic observations were conducted. The data were collected through questionnaires for preschool teachers, designed to capture preschool teachers’ knowledge of emergent literacy and classroom practices. Questionnaires were also administered to preschool administrators and these were designed to capture the schools’ profile on their teachers, philosophy on literacy instruction and availability of teaching and learning materials. For the naturalistic observation of actual classroom sessions, data were gathered with the aid of a Classroom Literacy Checklist. Further data were collected using semi-structured follow-up interviews to fill in any gaps from questionnaires and observations. The findings were that all the preschools investigated had low literacy support as a result of limited language and literacy opportunities for the children and paucity of learning and play materials. Lack of the preschool teachers’ appreciation of emergent literacy rendered them unable to fully provide environments and practices that support emergent literacy.

Background: The concept emergent literacy was introduced in 1966 by a New Zealand researcher Marie Clay in her doctoral thesis entitled Emergent Reading Behaviour but the term was coined by William Teale and Elizabeth Sulzby in 1986. The term was used to describe the behaviours seen in young children whereby they imitate adults’ reading and writing activities, even though the children cannot actually read and write in the conventional sense. The development of the emergent literacy perspective can be traced from the reading readiness perspective.

In the four decades since Clay’s introduction of this term, an extensive body of research has expanded the understanding of emergent literacy. According to current research, children’s literacy development begins long before they start formal instruction in elementary school; it begins at birth and continues through the preschool years even though the activities of young children may not seem related to reading and writing. Early behaviours such as “reading” from pictures and “writing” with scribbles are examples of emergent literacy and are an important part of children’s literacy development. With the support of parents, caregivers, early childhood educators, and teachers, as well as exposure to a literacy-rich environment, children successfully progress from emergent to conventional literacy. In other words their growth from emergent to conventional literacy is influenced by their continuing literacy development, their understanding of literacy concepts, and the efforts of parents, caregivers, and teachers to promote literacy. It proceeds along a continuum, and children acquire literacy skills in a variety of ways and at different ages.

Children’s skills in reading and writing develop at the same time and are interrelated rather than sequential. Educators can promote children’s understanding of reading and writing by helping them build literacy knowledge and skills through the use of engaged learning activities. As children are moving into conventional literacy, they pass through different periods of development in their efforts to become successful readers, just as they did at the emergent level. Over the past ten years, the concept of emergent literacy has gradually replaced the notion of reading readiness. Consequently, it has a significant impact on the way the teaching of literacy in early childhood programmes is approached. The theory of emergent literacy developed from research in the fields of child development, psychology, education, linguistics, anthropology, and sociology. It has virtually redefined the field of literacy and made educators, teachers, and parents aware that the term reading readiness no longer adequately describes what is happening in the literacy development of young children (Teale, 1986).

Research conducted on emergent literacy indicates that support to children’s emergent literacy in early childhood education facilitates easy literacy development in children. Parents, caregivers, and teachers need to ensure that young children are exposed to literacy-rich environments and receive developmentally appropriate literacy instruction. Such environments and experiences have a profound effect on children’s literacy development by providing opportunities and encouragement for children to become successful readers.

Thus a preschool should be an environment that supports the continuation of emergent literacy. In order for a preschool to promote the continuous emergence of literacy, it must be an environment where there is a high variety of authentic literacy activities. It must also be an environment that affords learners opportunities to engage in purposeful literacy activities which are acknowledged as valid literacy behaviour.

In the Zambian context emergent literacy is a fairly new phenomenon. Its practice is dependent on what teachers know and believe about it and this also is dependent upon the training that preschool teachers undergo. Against the background of emergent literacy, the concern of early childhood educators should be “valuing the knowledge children have than with replacing it by highly dubious and narrow models of what literacy is and how it functions” (Hall, 1989: viii). Little is known regarding literacy teaching in preschools in Zambia. This study, therefore, attempted to find out the extent to which classroom practices in preschools in Zambia, with special reference to Kasempa and Solwezi, support the continuation of emergent literacy in children.

Statement of the problem: Although the theory of emergent literacy has been in use for over four decades, it is not known to what extent emergent literacy is appreciated and supported in early childhood education in Zambia. While research has been conducted in other parts of the world, there has been no investigation into its practice in Zambia’s preschools. Thus the problem that was being investigated was that we do not know the extent to which classroom practices in Zambian preschools, and with particular reference to Kasempa and Solwezi, support the continuation of emergent literacy in children.

Objectives: This study sought to achieve the following objectives: (i)

To ascertain preschool teachers’ knowledge of emergent literacy in children.


To establish the extent to which the classroom environment supports the continuation of emergent literacy.


To establish what literacy instruction programme is in place and the extent to which it supports emergent literacy.


To find out teaching and learning materials that are available in preschools and the extent to which they support emergent literacy.


To establish classroom literacy practices that obtain in preschools and the extent to which they support emergent literacy.

Significance of the study: The significance of this study was premised on the fact that it focused on one critical area of education namely early childhood education. While a lot of research has been done on the basic and high school sectors of education in Zambia, very little has been done on preschool education. It is indisputable that good early childhood education is a precursor to the other levels of education. This study sought to investigate the extent to which classroom literacy practices in early childhood education in Zambia support the continuation of emergent literacy. Such a study has not been explored before in Zambia. This study, therefore, is significant in that it might provide valuable data on early childhood teachers’ knowledge of emergent literacy and the extent to which classroom practices support the continuation of emergent literacy. It is hoped that such data might be useful to policy makers such as the Ministry of Education and preschool curriculum designers. In this way, it might provide data on which future curricula for early childhood educators’ training can be based. It is also hoped that the study will stimulate further research into emergent literacy practices in Zambian preschools, which is currently lacking.


Research design: This study was qualitative as the researcher sought to interpret his observations and the respondents’ views to establish the extent to which practices in the target preschools support the continuation of emergent literacy. However, the study also employed some quantitative elements in the design. The study was also naturalistic because there was no systematic manipulation of any process during observation. Rather the researcher observed live classroom practices in the preschools as the teachers and learners went about with their activities.

Sample size: The sample for the study was drawn from eight preschools in the two study areas, namely Kasempa and Solwezi Districts in North-western Province. The sample size comprised 26 preschool teachers and 8 preschool administrators. 680 preschoolers were part of the classroom environments where the naturalistic observations took place. The sample structure for the preschool teachers is presented below as Table 1: Highest Qualification









(Table 1): Sample Structure for Preschool Teachers in the Study Areas 5

Sampling techniques: Samples were chosen on a non-probability basis on the understanding that respondents would be available, easy to access and ready to participate in the study. As such and convenient and purposive samplings were used. This is because the researcher selected samples according to what was logistically convenient and feasible. Bearing in mind the period in which the study was to be undertaken, the preschools that were selected were those that were not in hard-to-reach areas. This was in line with Ghosh (2006) who says convenience sampling is used when the universe is not defined and when administrative limitations make it difficult for the researcher to randomly select samples. Since purposive sampling is used to target a group of subjects a researcher believes to be reliable for a study (Kombo and Tromp, 2006), in this study it was used to select the eight schools in the study area. The use of this sampling technique was aimed at ensuring that only well-established preschools were targeted. Data
collection: Three instruments were used to collect data. The Classroom Literacy Checklist was used as a classroom observation instrument. It was used to check for classroom practices in terms of literacy-richness of the environment, reading practices, variety of literacy activities, authenticity of literacy activities and teachers’ usage of children’s knowledge of literacy. It was adapted from other literacy observation checklists such as the KS1 Format and the National Centre for Learning Disabilities 2004 Literacy Environment Checklist developed by Groover J. Whitehurst (Ph.D.).

These observation instruments are designed to assess whether literacy environments in preschools provide a range of quality literacy experiences and a print-rich environment which are important factors in the facilitation and support of literacy learning. Two types of questionnaire were used, one for teachers and the other for administrators. The questionnaires for the teachers sought to elicit information on their training and knowledge of emergent literacy. The questionnaires for the administrators sought to elicit information on the school profile, instructional materials and the school’s ethos on literacy development. Questionnaires were given on the first day of research at each preschool. The idea was to give respondents three to five days of answering the questionnaire, based on findings from the pilot test. Interviews were conducted with teachers and administrators as follow-ups to help fill in gaps or clarify any matters from 6 questionnaires and observations. For the teachers these were done soon after each observation. For administrators these were conducted at least twice in each school, one of which was on the last day of the research at each particular preschool. Data analysis: Since this study was mainly qualitative, data analysis (particularly preprocessing) began during the data collection stage. During lesson observations the researcher made class profiles by recording the children’s level, age range and enrolment. The researcher was also doing a dairy on each lesson observed. Another thing the researcher did at this stage was to ensure that the data were internally consistent. For example, the researcher would make follow-ups with informants to clarify any contradictions and gaps in the questionnaires or interviews. Data preparation then followed and this included summarizing and organizing the data according to categories. At the final stage the researcher sought to make interpretations of the questionnaire responses, observations and interview responses.

This study sought to find out the extent to which classroom practices in preschools support emergent literacy. The study relied mainly on naturalistic observations of live classroom sessions but this was complemented by questionnaires and follow-up interviews. Below is a discussion of the specific findings, divided into five sections, each discussing the findings in relation to each of the five objectives of the study. Preschool Teachers’ Knowledge of Emergent Literacy: The study has revealed that none of respondents had ever heard of the term ‘emergent literacy’. In spite of this, the findings have also revealed that all the respondents have noticed elements of emergent literacy in children when they just enter preschool. The study has further shown that respondents have high awareness levels of children’s emergent literacy behaviours. However, the study has also revealed that generally, the respondents’ appreciation of the children’s emergent literacy was very poor. One area major area where this was evident was with regard to knowing how to reinforce children’s display of emergent literacy (for 7  example if a child got a book and began to turn pages or if a child stood up and began to ‘read’ around the room).
This apparent disparity between the respondents’ high awareness of emergent literacy behaviours and their low appreciation of emergent literacy can be attributed to the respondents’ training. It was clear that preschool teachers are not taught about emergent literacy, hence the respondents did not regard emergent literacy behaviours as a developmental stage in literacy learning. Generally all the respondents tended to subscribe to the reading readiness perspective.

In relation to the purpose of the study, these findings suggest that preschool teachers in the study areas cannot provide the necessary support to children’s emergent literacy if they are ignorant of emergent literacy as a developmental stage in children’s literacy learning.

Preschool Classroom Environment: This study has revealed that the classroom environments in the study areas have low literacy support. It has also established that the most common aspects of literacy support were the alphabet frieze and month and day names. This effectively means that the environments were not print-rich. The study has further revealed that the preschool teachers had low knowledge levels of how a preschool environment ought to be. In cases where the respondents revealed high knowledge levels, there was a gap between this knowledge and what was obtaining in the classrooms. The findings established that this was due to paucity of resources and having proprietors/managers who were ignorant of preschool education. These findings suggest serious implications on children’s literacy development. First because preschool teachers and proprietors/managers tended to have low appreciation of what a preschool environment ought to be, they cannot provide the requisite environment that fully supports the continuation of emergent literacy. Secondly, because preschool children in the study areas have little exposure to a literacy-rich environment, they may not easily progress from emergent to conventional literacy.

Preschool Curriculum: This study has revealed that the study areas do not seem to have any clear philosophy regarding literacy instruction. As such the preschools did not have clear literacy instruction programmes. The study has also established that there is no common syllabus for preschools in Zambia. Preschools were using whatever they could lay their hands on. These findings show that it is difficult to measure the schools literacy instruction success when issues of syllabi are vague.

Literacy Instruction Materials: This study has revealed a paucity of teaching and learning materials in the study areas. The most commonly available instructional materials are flashcards, charts and building blocks. The study has established that there is a lack of a variety of reading books, workbooks, literacy objects for pretend play, and generally playthings.

In view of the paucity of literacy instructional materials in the study areas, there is less support to children’s emergent literacy as children do not have sufficient interaction with a variety of literacy objects. The other implication is that with the paucity of play things, the children spend less time on play related activities and do more of formal learning. Classroom Literacy Practices: This study has revealed that using music is a practice widely employed in all the eight preschools. However, the study has also established that preschool children in the study areas have limited reading experiences. In almost all cases children seldom handle reading books as this is reserved for Reception or Grade 1 levels. This is because teachers do not see this as necessary since the children cannot read in the conventional sense. Further children are rarely read to and hardly engage in shared book reading. It has also been found that there are hardly any independent activities for children not working with an adult.

More formal learning as opposed play-related learning has been found to be a common practice. The implication of these findings is that preschool teachers in the study areas are not using developmentally appropriate activities to teach literacy to the preschoolers.

By analysing the classroom practices, preschool teachers’ knowledge of emergent literacy and the environments in the study areas, this study has established that the practices in the eight preschools do not provide sufficient support for the continuation of emergent literacy. A number of factors have militated against high support for emergent literacy. The first factor is the preschool teachers’ lack of knowledge/appreciation of emergent literacy. This has arisen from the nature of training that preschool teachers undergo in Zambia. Coupled with this is the fact that some of the preschool teachers currently serving in schools have not undergone formal training. In this study almost a third of them were untrained. The other factor is lack of resources to construct appropriate structures for preschools and furnish them with requisite materials. This has been compounded by the fact that preschool education in Zambia is privately run and as such the Government has had no stake in it.

The third fact is the very fact that

Government has had no stake in preschool education. This has led to lapses in the registration of preschools and lack of serious and constant monitoring of preschools. As such there is no quality assurance in the provision of preschool education. The results of this study are significant in two main ways: the results have indicated the need for capacity-building preschool teachers in the area of emergent literacy. The results have also demonstrated the need for Government’s keen participation in preschool education.

As regards the need for capacity-building preschool teachers, the study has demonstrated that while preschool teachers may notice emergent literacy behaviours among preschool children, they cannot unwittingly provide the necessary scaffolding to emergent literacy if they do not have sound knowledge of the phenomenon. This, therefore, means that emergent literacy must be part of preschool teachers’ curriculum. The need for government’s keen participation in preschool education arises from the fact that most of the inadequacies noted are a result of lack of stringent regulation and monitoring of preschool education. Stringent regulation will ensure that only individuals/institutions meeting the minimum standards are allowed to run preschools.

On the other hand, constant monitoring will ensure that high standards are maintained in preschools. Another key way Government needs to participate in preschool education is through provision of grants or instructional materials. It is commendable that preschools are now falling under the Ministry of Education which has expert personnel to oversee the running of education provision in general and preschool education in particular. There is, however, need to come up with a directorate responsible for preschool education.

I wish to acknowledge the valuable contribution of the many people without whom the demands of this research would not have been met. First I pay tribute to my academic supervisor Dr John Simwinga who provided the much needed counsel, guidance and criticisms from the proposal stage right through the completion of this thesis. Thank you for your confidence in me and giving me latitude throughout this academic journey. May God continue to lift you in your academic pursuits.

I also wish to thank Mr D.C. Nkosha for having inspired my interest in emergent literacy which led to my pursuing this study. I thank lecturers Mr G Tambulukani and Mr S.B. Hirst for making useful comments at various stages of the study; all lecturers on the NOMA (Norwegian Masters) Literacy Programme for sharpening my academic faculties. Special thanks go to all the participants in Kasempa and Solwezi districts who made it possible for me to undertake the study at no cost. I extend my thanks to all my colleagues on the course with whom I worked well. Notable among them are Ms Mary-Grace Musonda, Ms Georgina Njapau and Mr Benson Kamangala.

My gratitude will be incomplete without expressing my indebtedness to my wife for tolerating my academic appetite and for her continued understanding, support and perseverance and remaining a pillar in our home during my long periods of absence. I remain grateful to the girls Tionge and Peggy for enduring my absence and remaining good children while I was away.

I am grateful to my employers for granting me paid study leave yet again, without which it would have been impossible to pursue my master’s programme. I shall remain forever grateful for the NOMA scholarship granted to me through the University of Zambia.

To God be the glory for the great and many things He has done for me.

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