Jan. 31, 2017

Countering Early Literacy Myths

Addressing common misconceptions about learning to write

Early literacy is a complex but important achievement for students beginning grade school. In the latter half of Grade 1 through Grade 2, students begin to make the jump to using their language, cognitive, and motor skills together to make the jump to conveying meaning through print. As an important predictor of later literacy, building foundational skills is critical at this time. However, myths surrounding early written literacy can muddy the development of effective teaching approaches. With increasing numbers of students not meeting appropriate benchmarks, unpacking and combatting these myths is necessary to promoting early literacy development in the classroom.

Unmasking Myths

In her longstanding work on early literacy, Dr. Hetty Roessingh identified four key myths and challenges that teachers can work through to better support their students.

Myth 1: Learning to print is easy and does not need much attention

  • Printing involves learning to recognize and practice letter formation, including their individual shape, size, and speed. Students require direct instruction, and opportunities for practice and feedback in order to progress effectively. Learning to print is connected to memory and its considerable impact on learning is currently emerging in research. Regularly using engaging and authentic tasks that incorporate printing as part of the literacy program could facilitate this in the classroom.

Myth 2: Children can ‘invent’ spellings and correct them later

  • Having a solid foundation in spelling can save students from the more difficult task of correcting memorized errors in later years. Habits from the early years can detract from student academic achievement and their ability to engage with content through high school and beyond. Games, pattern-seeking tasks, phonics instruction, and memory work can all play a role in teaching spelling. Dr. Roessingh encourages students to attempt to use their knowledge on rules they are not familiar with yet, but reinforces that automatizing is important for students in enhancing their writing overall.

Myth 3: Vocabulary learning occurs naturally

  • While most students learn vocabulary by being exposed to it, those in lower income families or second language learners may not have the same immersion in rich language environments. In classrooms, teachers also tend to teach subject-specific words (e.g. habitat, endangered) more than general academic vocabulary (e.g. investigate, analyze), while this second category has a higher use across curricular areas. Explanations, definitions, and texts which explicitly support vocabulary learning may be impactful, as are word studies and flash card games.

Myth 4: Students no longer need to learn to write fluently

  • With the growing presence of keyboarding and digital devices, writing instruction has largely been removed from curriculum across Canada and beyond. However, new research is highlighting the importance of the hand-brain connection and the speed of processing that comes from connected script. As students are required to produce larger and higher quality written work with each successive grade, connected script allows to write faster, and therefore produce a greater volume. This fluency and automaticity allow students to retrieve vocabulary and organize their work without having to concentrate as much on the act of writing. This does not mean that students must learn the traditional D’Nealian script, as others may offer a more approachable form for young writers.
  • In addition, there is evidence that better writers become more capable at keyboarding, since the skills involved with spelling and writing transfer to the keyboard. While the keyboard may be a necessity for students who are not developmentally able to learn to print in the early years, developing both writing and keyboarding skills is helpful for the majority of students. Explicit instruction is also important for building foundational keyboarding skills.

Connecting the Pieces

Dr. Roessingh describes the elements of printing, spelling, fluency, and vocabulary as connecting pieces in the literacy ‘puzzle.’ Students must be able to draw on each aspect in order to develop their literacy skills, and to meet language benchmarks. Navigating the needs of 21st century literacy, while recognizing the importance of early literacy domains, is an ongoing journey in Canadian education. Moving forward in ways that are research-informed and supported by classroom evidence, rather than on myths, is critical to student success and building effective practice.

Connected Citations (Select)

Roessingh, H. (Jan/Feb 2017). Early literacy learning: Unmasking the myths. Canadian Teacher Magazine. Available Online 

Roessingh, H. (2016). Language ‘By Hand’: Why printing and spelling are important to early literacy learning. Education Canada. Fall, 2016Available Online.

Roessingh, H., & Elgie, S. (2015). From thought, to words, to print: Early literacy development in Grade 2. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 60(3), 576 – 597. Available Online.

Roessingh, H. (2013). A look at Grade 2 Writing: Successes and challenges in early literacy development. Learning Landscapes, 7(1), 269-281. Available Online.