2. Context for the Study of Effective Literacy Teaching Practices in the Early School Years
Literacy teaching in the early years of school continues to be a contentious and intensively-researched subject, at least since the publication of Learning to Read: The Great Debate (Chall, 1967). Opinion on teaching methods has been highly polarised, particularly in terms of whether and how to teach children to 'crack' the alphabetic code of written English. Despite the plethora of early literacy teaching programs that have appeared over the years, the goal of success for all literacy learners remains elusive.
The political and social significance of early literacy teaching is shown by the high levels of government and school system intervention in the area. Phonetically explicit reading programs, for example, are mandated for beginning readers in some parts of the United States of America. In the United Kingdom, the widely implemented National Literacy Strategy contains explicit guidelines for beginning (as well as more advanced) literacy learners. Within the Australian context, there is also intense activity in terms of the development and implementation of particular methods of teaching literacy in the early years of school, as evidenced for example by the Victorian Early Years Literacy Program and the New South Wales State Literacy Strategy.
Against this background of intense activity, there continues to be a diversity of opinion--sometimes characterised as the 'reading wars'-between advocates of a whole language meaning-oriented approach to teaching beginning reading and advocates of a phonics or word level approach. In addition to the controversy surrounding the teaching of early literacy, the definition of literacy itself is also open to debate. In some contexts it is seen as being confined to reading, in some as confined to reading and writing and in other contexts it has a much broader definition. The Australian Government has defined literacy broadly as:
the ability to read and use written information, to write appropriately, in a wide range of contexts, for many different purposes, and to communicate with a variety of audiences. Literacy is integrally related to learning in all areas of the curriculum, and enables all individuals to develop knowledge and understanding. Reading and writing, when integrated with speaking, listening, viewing and critical thinking, constitute valued aspects of literacy in modern life. (DEETYA, 1998, p. 7)
This is the definition that we adopted for the study, although as became apparent in the course of the project, in most of our early years classrooms it was defined operationally in somewhat narrower terms.
The literature on literacy teaching is well-travelled territory, characterised by a multitude of empirical studies and a series of recent and comprehensive reviews (Farstrup & Samuels, 2002; Morrow, Gambrell & Pressley, 2003; National Reading Panel, 2000; Neuman & Dickinson, 2001; Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998). …