How does literacy develop in children’s early years, and what programs or practices promote adequate literacy for all children? These are the questions Catherine Snow and Timothy Matthews tackle in this article.

Fundamental literacy skills can be grouped into two categories, Snow and Matthews write. The first category is constrained skills, which are readily teachable because they’re finite: for example, the 26 letters of the alphabet, or a set of 20 to 30 common spelling rules. These skills have a ceiling; young children can and do achieve perfect performance.

As they grow older, though, children need to understand words rarely encountered in spoken language and to integrate new information they encounter with relevant background information. Vocabulary and background knowledge are examples of unconstrained skills—large domains of knowledge acquired gradually through experience. Unconstrained skills are particularly important for children’s long-term literacy success (that is, success in outcomes measured after third grade). Compared to constrained skills, they’re also more strongly predicted by children’s social class or their parents’ education, and more difficult to teach in the classroom. And because of their open-ended nature, unconstrained skills are also much harder to test for. Snow and Matthews write that a drop in literacy scores we see as US children move from elementary to middle school suggests that our schools may be focusing too much on constrained skills—and too little on unconstrained ones—in the early grades.

The authors review promising programs and practices for enhancing both constrained and unconstrained skills, ranging from comprehensive school-improvement programs to efforts to improve curricula and teachers’ professional development—although they note that vast differences in programs’ scope, cost, targets, and theories of change make comparing them difficult. Another challenge is that it’s hard to maintain quality and consistency when implementing complex programs over time. Snow and Matthews suggest that to improve young children’s success with literacy, it might be better to introduce and evaluate promising practices that can be mixed and matched, rather than complex programs that are implemented as a package.


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pp. 57-74
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