The Development of Scrap's Understanding of Written Language

Article excerpt

A Piagetian perspective maintains that children continuously test hypotheses they construct about print. They first become curious about print when they see those around them using it. Eventually, either their perceived need to know about it or their spontaneous interest in it motivates them to begin experimenting.

Constructivist researchers have identified developmentally ordered levels of understanding through which children reconstruct the system of written language used by their culture. While studying Spanish-speaking children, Emilia Ferreiro (1990) identified levels of thinking about written language that advanced as new information conflicted with the current hypotheses children held. Her findings suggest three levels related to the "phonetization" of written language.

At the syllabic level, children gain control over the variations in the quantity of letters needed to make a word and establish a one-to-one correspondence between one syllable and one letter (e.g., "m.b.r" for "um.brel.la"). At the syllabic-alphabetic level, they differentiate more sounds in the word and add symbols to represent them (e.g., "m.br.la" for "um.brel.la"). At the alphabetic level, they understand a one-to-one correspondence between each sound and symbol, and they know that similarity and difference in sound suggests similarity and difference in letter (e.g., "um.bre.la" for "um.brel.la").

Others have extended or questioned Ferreiro's findings related to English-speaking children (Kamii, Long, Manning & Manning, 1990; Vernon, 1993), but few have coordinated them with Piaget's (1976) work on "becoming aware." Sinclair (1978) noted that this work on awareness has a direct relation to language learning. in the process of language acquisition the "first clear instances of awareness in language (as opposed to representation without awareness) come when a child reflects on what objects are called and how words are to be pronounced" (p. 198). In other words, the child first demonstrates a conscious awareness of both the "form" and the "function" in making language meaningful. Next, the child constructs an awareness of relational meanings and discovers language's phonological and morphosyntactic regularities. Finally, the child constructs a grammar that links meaning with form. "Such a grammar goes beyond what can be inferred from the outer form in the same way as logico-mathematical systems go beyond the induction of regularities in physical events" (Sinclair, 1978, p. 199).

Coordinating Sinclair's and Ferreiro's explanations related to language learning causes one to question if and how children use their awareness of oral language and understanding of print as they develop an understanding of the forms, functions, morphosyntactic regularities and grammars of written discourse (i.e., expository prose and narratives). This article details how one 5-year-old child, Scrap, advanced his awareness, understanding and use of written discourse in the kindergarten classroom.

The Teacher's Approach to Curriculum

Scrap's teacher approached curriculum by creating an environment that fostered students' real need to know, capitalized on children's spontaneous interests through play and experimentation, and encouraged continuous problem solving through social interaction in all curricular areas. She used only good children's literature during the shared reading period, reading and retelling renditions of classics that she knew would be highly appealing. For example, when she read Beowulf; A New Telling (Nye, 1968), one child responded, "Wow, that's scarier than Freddie Kruger!" Other classics the children repeatedly requested included Chanticleer and the Fox (Chaucer, 1958) and Jabberwocky (Carroll, 1985).

Each day, the children participated in the shared journal process (Branscombe & Taylor, 1988; Taylor & Branscombe, 1992; Taylor & Glass, 1992) that incorporated speaking, listening, writing, reading and perspective taking. …