Wiencek, Cipielewski, Vazzano, and Sturken, (1998) investigated the literacy activities and teaching methods that prepared low income students for success in first grade. A morning and an afternoon group of kindergarteners were included in the study. The two classes were taught by two different teachers who shared the same classroom in a Midwestern school district. The morning class had 23 students and was mostly Caucasian, with 1 African American student, and had 1 special education student who was mainstreamed into the class. The afternoon class was attended by 21 children, and consisted of mostly Caucasian students with 2 African American students. The morning class had a majority of children who came from middle class income level families. The afternoon class was considered more low income. This socioeconomic status division was caused by bussing and children attending school with children from their own neighborhoods. No information on the gender of the students was given.
The researchers (Wiencek et al.,1998) observed the types of literacy activities going on in each class. They described these activities, the social context in which they were enacted, the presence or absence of scaffolding, and teacher and student roles. Data was collected one day a week by observations and its resulting field notes. Teacher assignments and student work were also collected. This data was collected by one of the researchers and two graduate research assistants. The study states that in several instances, the researcher and student assistant collected data at the same time to validate their observations. The report only says on several occasions data was collected simultaneously and does not give data for how often that happened or if the notes were similar when it did. This information is important for the reader to assess the validity of the observations, and it is omitted here. Quantitative research was collected by assessments of alphabet recognition, concepts of print, phonological awareness, and ability to read. The names of the assessments were not included. This information was collected by all the researchers in October and in April, at the beginning and the end of the study.
The literacy activities that occurred were often not those that emergent literacy research suggests are essential to early learning in this area (Wiencek et al.,1998). The study found that many of the literacy activities in the two classrooms were more appropriate for upper class students who had more experiences with literacy at home. Children who came from low income homes often needed more time to explore books and concepts about print, as well as work with phonemic awareness and phoneme grapheme correspondence. They found that many children had limited small group or one on one teacher interaction, and had little chance for teacher scaffolding. In this method, the teachers found that the students who demonstrated higher levels of ability at the beginning of the study (who were often children of middle income families) kept their high ability, but the students who had came in low did not catch up to these students.
They compared this to a rich get richer and poor get poorer situation, where those who can read get better at it and those who cannot find it difficult to ever catch up.
The district and teachers supported a developmentally appropriate view on early education, wherein students will learn literacy when they are ready (Wiencek et al.,1998). This approach leaves out literacy activities which are equally important in other views of literacy acquisition. For example, emergent literacy research shows it is important to do a variety of literacy activities, including active engagement, development of phonological awareness and alphabetic awareness, and encouraging an interest in reading and books. “Developmental appropriateness is often a [sic] like a trap for lower socioeconomic children who need opportunities to explore and develop knowledge of literary concepts and written language” (Wiencek et al., 1998, p 11). Since the teachers planned together and their teaching styles were not analyzed in the results, there was little chance for comparison between the 2 classes. The design makes the ability to transfer study to other classrooms possible. Perhaps comparing one of these classrooms with one that did incorporate the Emergent Literacy principles might have been more illuminating as to strategies that work for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
The study (Wiencek et al.,1998) also does not address the possibility that because kindergarten is optional in this district, some of the emergent literacy skills that are taught in kindergarten in most districts may indeed be covered in first grade in this district. If children do not have to go to kindergarten, the first grade teachers probably will not expect them to know all that teachers in a district that requires kindergarten would.
To summarize, Craig et al. (2003) showed that with proper intervention, such as state funded preschools for low income students, social class should not make a difference in reading achievement. Wiencek et al. (1998) showed that many literacy activities in the kindergarten classrooms studied were more beneficial to middle income students than low income students, who need more support in exploring books and concepts about print that they might not receive at home.
Effective Methods for Teaching Hispanic Students
Carlisle and Beeman (2000) studied the effect of the language of instruction on the literacy acquisition of students for whom English was a second language. The researchers studied two first grade classrooms during successive years at the same school. Because the school was shifting its bilingual language policy from teaching mostly in English (eighty percent English and twenty percent Spanish), to mostly in Spanish(eighty percent Spanish and twenty percent English), the researchers were able to study 2 successive years of first graders, one in the predominantly English program and the next year in the predominantly Spanish program. The English Instruction (EI) group consisted of 17 children, 9 boys and 8 girls. The Spanish Instruction (SI) group had 17 children, 9 boys and 8 girls. Most of the families in both groups spoke predominantly Spanish at home, and 80% qualified for the free lunch program for low SES children.
After receiving instruction in Spanish or English, the students were evaluated on Spanish listening, Spanish reading, English listening, and English reading using subtests of the Woodcock Johnson Psycho Educational Battery in Spanish and English and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (Carlisle & Beeman, 2000). There were also nonstandard measures to assess listening and reading comprehension and writing skills. The researchers also used literature in Spanish and in English by the same author, then used a short multiple choice and fill in the blank test to assess comprehension.
For the EI class, English listening was significantly correlated with Spanish listening (r=.53, p<.05), but English and Spanish reading were not significantly related (r=.26) (Carlisle & Beeman, 2000). For the SI class, the correlations were not significant (p=.35 for English and Spanish listening, p=.16 for English and Spanish reading). The SI class was as strong as the EI class on measures of English reading and writing but was significantly stronger for measures of Spanish reading and writing. The researchers found that instruction in Spanish made a significant contribution to the development of Spanish reading comprehension (Carlisle & Beeman, 2000, p.346).
The EI students performed better in the oral language of their language of instruction, but this did not transfer to written language (Carlisle & Beeman, 2000). The hypothesis was that the children taught in English did not develop strong reading skills. The study did not share a reason for the differences in reading skills, simply stating that if they could not decode the words, comprehension strategies were useless. The study did not address the possibility that if children did not know English well, decoding words would not make a difference if the child did not know them in the first place, or that when learning a new language, oral language comprehension comes before writing.
Since the children did not get writing instruction in the language they already knew, their development in this area may have been suspended until they gained proficiency in English enough to comprehend the written part. Children who learned to read in Spanish did not have this hurdle to overcome in their reading development, and were able to start decoding familiar words earlier. There was no significant difference between SI and EI for English writing, but in Spanish writing, the SI group performed better than the EI group.
The study lacks reliability in that there were different teachers teaching the SI and EI groups. This may have impacted students’ abilities, even more than the language of instruction. A teacher’s approach, expectations, abilities, and influence could have been enough to affect the results given the small sample. Perhaps if the study was expanded to have many teachers for Spanish and English instruction, that would be less of a factor.
But with only two classrooms, a lot of the difference could be attributed to the effect of the teacher. There was more than one variable in this case, not just the language of instruction, but also the purveyor of instruction.