What Does “Transforming the Workforce” Say About Developing Young Children’s Language and Literacy Skills? Part 1

Blog Post
June 22, 2016
This is part one of a two-part post. The first part focuses on teachers of children in pre-K through third grade and the second focuses on teachers of infants and toddlers.

Imagine a pre-K classroom full of three- and four-year-olds. The children sit cross-legged on the rug as their teacher reads Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It’s one that the teacher has read aloud a few times before and it is quickly becoming a class favorite. After the caterpillar eats through two pears, the teachers asks the children what they think he will eat next. A few different answers are shouted out, including the correct answer: three plums. The teacher thanks the children for sharing their ideas and and turns the page to reveal the plums. She points to each plum and asks the class to count them aloud with her: one, two, three!

In the story, the caterpillar feasts on five oranges on Friday. The teacher reminds the class that today is in fact Friday and asks the children what day of the week comes next. Many of them announce that tomorrow will be Saturday. She asks them to raise their hands and share what they think the caterpillar will do on Saturday and calls on two students, one who is usually quieter, to share their thoughts. She asks both students to explain why they made their predictions. She then asks the children to tell their neighbor why they think the caterpillar is still so hungry after he’s already had so much to eat.

Once the story is finished, the teacher breaks the children up into small groups to do activities related to the book. One group checks whether there have been any developments with the cocoons in their classroom that they are anxiously waiting to become butterflies and records what they see in their journals. Another group heads to the craft table to create caterpillars and  butterflies using colored pasta and pipe cleaners, referencing real life images. They are encouraged to use their finished products to act out the story. The last group works with the teacher to come up with a list of other living things that grow and change. One child explains how her little sister is learning to walk and another child shares how tadpoles grow into frogs.

What might seem like a simple lesson plan is chock full of engagement and learning. The National Academy of Medicine’s Transforming the Workforce report, released last year, lays out the significant body of research explaining how teachers’ intentional actions help children develop their language and literacy skills. New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy team has been making its way through the report and will be sharing our takeaways over the next several months. Chapter Four of the report covers how children’s language and literacy skills develop from birth through the early grades of elementary school, and Chapter Six explains what role teachers can and should play in fostering those skills. The key takeaway? It’s all about exposing children to high-quality language interactions.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s happening in the classroom described above. By reading aloud to her students, the teacher is modeling fluent reading, introducing them to new concepts, and building their vocabulary. She’s also reading a book that she’s read before because she knows that reading the same book multiple times can build children’s comprehension. And notice that during this third read of the story she isn’t just reading the story aloud, she’s interacting with the children as she reads. She asks her students questions related to the story and encourages them to think beyond what is happening in the book, which can build their ability to represent ideas out of context and discuss past, future, and fictional events.

Throughout the lesson, the children engage in back-and-forth interactions with the teacher and each other. Talking one-on-one, in small groups, and as a class allow for different types of conversation. When placing the children into small groups after the story, the teacher strategically places students with differing levels of language skills together so that peers can learn from one another. The teacher knows that her students are ready to learn complex new vocabulary words like “cocoon” and chooses lessons based on topics that children express interest in. Through various activities she encourages them to engage in conversation around a related topic.

Most of the children in this class are not likely to be reading words on their own yet, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t strengthening their reading skills. Language and literacy development go hand in hand. Conversation builds children’s vocabulary and background knowledge and teaches them how words work together to form phrases and sentences. Children understand more words by listening and speaking, which eventually translates to reading.

Unfortunately, what’s happening in this fictional pre-K classroom is not necessarily the norm. Many pre-K programs and elementary schools do not engage children in the high-quality interactions they need to develop their language and literacy skills. According to Transforming the Workforce, early grade teachers do not focus enough on vocabulary, reading comprehension, or conceptual and content knowledge. Many pre-K, kindergarten, and early grade teachers do not receive the education and training they need to develop these skills.

This can be especially true for those teachers who hold elementary teaching licenses as opposed to more tailored early childhood licenses, as elementary licenses tend to focus on subject-area content and strategies more appropriate for older children. Our recent report, From Crawling to Walking, finds that ten states do not even offer an early childhood license for kindergarten and early grade teachers.

But having an early childhood license doesn’t guarantee pre-K through 3rd grade teachers have the preparation they need to build strong readers. A new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) finds that only 59 percent of programs preparing pre-K teachers require candidates to take courses on developing children’s language skills. And, while it’s known that read alouds are highly important for building children’s language and literacy, only 20 percent expect prospective pre-K teachers to practice reading aloud to children.

While the specific education and training that kindergarten through third grade teachers receive does vary, teachers in elementary schools are almost always required to have a bachelor’s degree. In pre-K, the baseline requirements vary significantly between states, districts, and programs. For instance, the NCTQ report explains that some states require pre-K teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, while others require an associate’s degree, and others just a high school diploma. And as NCTQ points out, just because a pre-K teacher earns a bachelor’s degree, it does not guarantee that she received the information she needs to work with young children.

Clearly there is much work to do on ensuring teachers of young children, age three to eight, have the strong pre-service training as well as ongoing professional development opportunities. Creating an environment that supports young children’s language and literacy skills is crucial to children’s success and it is not easy. Teachers need the knowledge, skills, and supports necessary to do so.

Part 2 of this post will look at what Transforming the Workforce says about developing language in literacy skills in infants and toddlers.


Correction June 23, 2016: This post originally stated, "Another group heads to the craft table to create caterpillars and  butterflies using colored pasta and pipe cleaners, referencing real images and a model made by the teacher." This sentence was changed to reflect developmentally-appropriate practice.