Catherine Snow

(This tape starts with the last question for this speaker) CATHERINE SNOW

Well, I guess to talk about a what I would feel most passionately about in terms of learning to read. Um, I’ve already talked a lot about the a complexity of learning to read, all the different components.  Um, a, and, you know I wouldn’t want to say that any one is more important than others, but the thing that really grabs me is how important knowing letters is when children enter first grade.  When they first begin formal reading instruction.  Letter knowledge is the best single predictor of how well a child will learn to read.  And some parents spend a lot of time at home teaching letters so that children enter school already knowing all of that.  Other children get no instruction at home.  When they enter first grade they’ve got to start from zero, in terms of learning letters.  And, and the difference that that builds in terms of, of a producing good and poor readers is, is a very great.  So that the kids who enter knowing letters can just move right on in to reading.  The kids that don’t know letters um have to learn those letters first.  And when we, when I go into classes and, and work with the struggling readers and I see that they reverse, now all children reverse ‘b’ and ‘d’, so I don’t mean that that’s a, (cough) a peculiarity of poor readers, but the ones who remain poor readers are still struggling to learn letters.  And yet their teachers may be pushing them into reading and doing much more complicated processes than they’re ready to do.  And so they start a skipping letters and words and a, a I guess my, the main point I want to make is that, that it’s very important for kindergarten teachers to make sure that when children enter first grade, that’s assuming that formal reading instruction begins in first grade, that those kids enter knowing their letters.  Knowing their names, how to write the letters, a knowing about sounds of letters, using the letters to invent spellings.  Um that enables the child to make much more rapid progress in first grade.  It just (coughing) bothers me. (Interruption)

I just, I guess I just don’t think that um people appreciate the importance of having full letter knowledge.  Those are the accentual units in print that children have to process, and they have to be able to process them in a way that they can remember them.  And that means knowing those shapes, over learning the shapes.  Knowing names, sounds, you know, it’s so critical and I, I just, teachers can’t slight that part of it.  They can if children know the letters, if they come in knowing the letters, fine, the kids are ready to go.  But if they don’t those kids are, you know, gonna struggle.

(I can’t help but being struck with the thought, you know, of the second language learner who comes in who knows different letters.)

That’s right.  That’s right, in fact, in bilingual pro, I was speaking with some teachers who a were at a school where child, ESL children come in speaking Spanish.  So they’re placed in a bilingual class.  And then they move into first grade.  Well, in the bilingual class they learn, they learn, a Spanish, a focus on spoken Spanish, then they teach them the alphabet in Spanish.  So then when children enter first grade they need to learn the English alphabet, because that hasn’t always been taught in kindergarten.  So, and now granted they may be a further ahead because they know Spanish, the Spanish alphabet, and that translates into English um letter sounds, the consonants I think are similar, but, you know, there are some problems.  I, I don’t mean to say that’s good or bad, but your point is that letter learning may be more complex if you know the letter names in Spanish.  And then you’ve got to learn them in English.

Well I guess, you know my other, I talked about sight word learning, and um it’s important to me that teachers understand the concept that I, about sight word learning.  That it’s a, it’s an alphabetic process, it’s involves learning, applying your letter sound knowledge in building a sight vocabulary.  So I guess that’s important a to me to have teachers understand and, I think I said everything.  I don’t know.

My name is Catherine Snow, Catherine Snow, and I’m at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Teachers should know much more about language than, unfortunately, they are currently getting a chance to learn.  Um I’ve come to think that probably before being allowed into teacher education programs it would be a good idea that if there were prerequisites, a something like an introductory course in linguistics.  Because in order to understand the way the literacy system of English works, the orthographic system of English works, people have to be familiar with concepts like phoneme, of course, but also morpheme.  And have to understand um something about the history of English in order to know why English spelling is the way it is.  A, given the increasing numbers of speakers of other languages in classrooms I think teachers need to know something about how languages differ from one another, the topological analyses of language.  And what kinds of errors second language speakers would reasonably be expected to make when learning to speak English, or when learning to read and write in English.  I think teachers need to know something about different orthographic systems and how they a compare to the orthographic system of English, not just of their alphabetic systems which are likely to be much shallower than English, but also other kinds of orthographic systems, you know other orthographic systems that are sort of Slavic systems like the Semitic languages, although they look alphabetic, are in fact Slavic a the, the more classical um syllabary systems.  If they don’t understand these things than kids show up in their classrooms and do things which are just simply incomprehensible and a I think, for lots and lots of reasons, a it’s really important that teachers understand something about the structure of language and the structure of the spoken language and how it relates to the history of writing.

Well, certainly teachers ought to understand a some of the basic major milestones of language development.  I think it’s crucial for teachers to get a chance to learn something about how vocabulary knowledge relates to other aspects of language development.  Uh, vocabulary is, I think, the great a, sort of, everybody, it’s the theme about which everybody says I think it’s very important that I spend a lot of time on it.  But in fact, particularly in early childhood education, um teachers are not spending very much time on it.  And in first and second grade, when they’re focusing so much on teaching the alphabetic principle, they’re forgetting about the fact that a principle is going to have to be applied to lots and lots of words that kids will need to know as spoken language forms, and as meaningful forms if they’re going to be, be able to use the knowledge of the alphabetic principle effectively.  And very often when teachers do attend to teaching, to teaching vocabulary, they teach it as a list of words, and, of course, that’s not the way children acquire words normally and naturally.  Children are remarkably efficient and effective word learners, but they learn words, if you look at them as, as young natural word learners, they learn words from rich semantic contexts.  And we need to think about how, in classrooms, to create those kinds of rich semantic contexts.  How to sort of infiltrate the language in the classroom more richly with the words children will need to know.  And recognize that knowing a word is more than knowing how to spell it and knowing a dictionary definition of it.  If you know a word you know a lot about other words that could substitute for it, words that relate to it as opposites, or as hypronyms or hyprenyms or a related words, words with related meanings, words that rhyme with it, words that have similar sorts of morphological processes, words that have the same sort of etymological roots.  Um and, and of course something about the syntactic structures to which those words fall.  And that’s not the same thing you get ever from dictionary definitions.  So we really need to, teachers I think need to know much more about the structure of the lexicon and the complexity of the structure of the lexicon in order to get better ideas about how to teach vocabulary.

Actually I think science teachers are often doing a better job of teaching vocabulary than language arts teachers. Um, and they’re not doing as good a job as they could do if they were, if they were, oh if they knew a little more about language development.  But they are doing a good job because they, in fact, are teaching words that are necessary for their subject areas, in a rich semantic context.  Unlike language arts teachers who are often think, oh, here’s an interesting list of words, let’s use those as our vocabulary words for this week.  And, and the issue is that it doesn’t do any good to take all words that begin with ‘p’ and use that as your basis for your, for your vocabulary enrichment or, or even take words that are um sort of semantically related in some vague way.  I think the, it’s clear, that children, by the age of four, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, are learning a lot of the words they’re learning from encountering them in text.  And of course we can speed up that learning by making sure they encounter those words in oral discourse in classroom discourse as well.  But, I would say to the, to the classroom teacher, to the science teacher, the, the um social studies teacher, a that, I would reinforce what they know.  That a lot of the knowledge of science and social studies really is knowledge of concepts that are represented by words.  And you can’t think about those concepts very deeply unless you’ve got the right words to think about them with.  And, um, you can’t learn the words before really encountering the complexity of the concepts.  And that’s exactly the way kids learn words at the dinner table when they’re four.  So knowing about the content, the, the factors that support that kind of four-year-old word learning could help us make a sixth grade classrooms much more interesting places.

Um, I thing the connection between language development and literacy development comes most clear a to anyone who has tried to read a language a read a new lithography a for a language that they don’t speak very well.  And of course we know it’s possible to do this, I mean, kids get sent all over, all over this country and all over Europe to um to learn texts for their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.  And they learn to read a new alphabetic system.  And they can become accurate and even fluent in reading that alphabetic system.  But, they don’t actually know what they’re reading, in many cases.  That is a, a strategy which you can use when you’ve got a very shallow lithography, such as the kind that’s used for religious texts in, in Hebrew or Arabic.  That you can’t apply to learning to read English.  You actually have to know, for most of the words in English, what the target lexical item are in order to have a hope of being able to pronounce those words correctly because of the depth of the orthography.  And that, and furthermore the difficulties of remember, even remembering the graphemics, the graphemes and their mapping onto possible phonemic interpretations, without having any source of meaning to remind you of how those connections are made is very, very difficult.  So, it, I, I, it’s clear that language is the, the base system here and that literacy is a way of representing language.  And that in languages where the relationship between the phonemic and the graphemic system is very straightforward.  It’s possible to learn to read with only a very limited control over the oral language.  But it, it really is extremely difficult to do that in a system with a shall, with a, with a deep lithography.

All right.  Learning to read in a first language normally occurs a, for fortunate children at least, only after a those kids have acquired a vocabulary of say six or seven or eight thousand words.  And probably first language speakers have in their vocabularies of, let’s say, six thousand words, a the six thousand most frequent words of the language, that’s one of the sort of nice things about being a first language speaker, that you get exposed in an orderly way to the words of the language.  And six thousand words is probably enough a to get you going at a reasonable rate on the figuring out the alphabetic principle.  Um, it’s enough to provide grist for the mill that, that will give you philological awareness, for example, more or less for free.  I mean, I don’t, I don’t know what the exact estimates are, but my guess is if you know, certainly if you know then thousand words, nobody needs to be training you on philological awareness.  You’ve got enough words to compare with one another that you can figure out that there are, there are phonemes as part of the underlying structure of words.  Um, now, learning to read in a second language is, of course, much more variable set of possibilities.   A you can be learning to read in a second language for the first time, right, and you don’t know how to read at all and your initial literacy instruction is in the second language.  Or you can be learning how to read in a second language after learning how to read in a first language. And the first language and second language could share an alphabet or an orthographic system, or not.  Um, so all of those things make a huge difference.  That the, learning to read in a second language after you already know how to read in a first language is relatively easy, particularly if the alphabetic system is shared.  And, in fact, can contribute significantly and materially to speed of acquisition of the second language and it’s oral forms.  Um learning to read in a second language that doesn’t share an orthography with the first language is harder, but even then there’s a fair amount of transfer from first language literacy.  You at least understand the nature of the, of the a the literacy system.  Learning to read in second language, if you don’t know how to read yet, is a an easy thing or a hard thing depending on how much you know of the second language.  And children, who are trying to learn to read English, when they have vocabularies in English of three of four hundred words, are undertaking a very, very difficult task.  Because they don’t have enough opportunity to use meaning to support the a the, the decoding part of the process.   The, the figuring out, remembering and practicing, the mapping of a of phonemes to graphemes.  Now, I’m not saying that it is impossible to learn to read in English as a first literacy with only a few hundred words in English, I’m saying that it’s unlikely under normal classroom conditions.  Partly because the four hundred words you know as a second language speaker of English, are probably not the four hundred words that are appearing in your textbooks.  So you’re trying to learn to read forms, which don’t have any meaning to you, um, and you don’t get any of the automatic reinforcement of what you know about the phoneme graphic mappings from the practice that you engage in learning to read.  So I think that’s um not an impossible task, it’s clear that kids, some kids manage to do this.  It’s a task which is enormously riskier than the task of learning to read a language after you know several thousand words in that language.

In teaching there’s no difference between teaching an L1 or an L2 speaker to learn to read.  All right.  And we’re talking in both cases about initial literacy instruction.

Well, one could say there’s no difference between teaching an L1 speaker or an L2 speaker to read.  And, and that could be true if the L2 speaker a is equivalent to the L1 speaker in various ways.  Um, I mean, it is possible to teach two year olds to read.  Two-year-old English speakers, let’s say, to read.  It’s not nearly as easy as it is to teach seven-year-olds to read, but it’s, it’s not impossible.  But the only way to do it effectively with two-year-olds, is really to adapt the teaching methods to the language level of the children.  Um, and I would say that’s exactly the case for a seven-year-old speaker of English as a second language. I mean, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t refuse to teach a seven-year-old who’d just arrived from Mexico, say, to speak English.  But I would adapt the literacy instruction to the English that that child knew.  This would mean individualized one on one instruction.  It would mean doing a good job of figuring out what that child could say in English and what that child could understand in English.  Then using that as a basis for developing my instruction.  Now that’s not something that teachers can do in a classroom with twenty-four of these kids.  And twenty-four kids who just arrived from Mexico are not going to know the same things about English.  That’s the thing, the difference between second language learning and first language learning is that first language learning, because it progresses under fairly a similar a and predictable circumstances.  First language learners look more alike one another than second language learners do.  Second language learners, they’re older, they’re smarter, they’re learning more quickly.  But they’re picking stuff up in all kinds of different places.  So they don’t start with animal sounds and move on to ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ and move on then to a sort of ‘wanna’ and ‘gonna’.  They are very unpredictable about what they know.  So if you’re going to do, if you’re going to teach reading to a second language speaker of English, than you could do that with a very good analysis of what that child knew about English.  And it would probably work, if you were a good teacher.  On the other hand, there will be differences from teaching the native speaker, even then. And some of those differences have to do with the fact that the child who’s just learned English will not have um a complete understanding of the target phonological system, which the graphemes of English are meant to represent.  So there certainly will be um complexities associated with the fact that the child does not have lexical representations that match phonologically the lexical representations that the teacher has in his or her head.  And, furthermore, um that the child might well have acquired some, some strategies for analyzing language in the native, in the native language that map less than perfectly onto a strategies for analyzing English.  For example Spanish speakers are likely to have um a much stronger sense of syllabification of the syllable as the basic unit that’s going to be represented in literacy.  If they know something about Spanish literacy and bring that Slavic orientation to studying English, then once again, that can be a disadvantage if they’re entering a classroom that doesn’t take it into account.

But the high school student who arrives, say, a from a history of literacy in schooling is, is obviously in a, in a privileged situation compared to the first grader who arrives with not having learned to read in the native language.  The high school student will learn English faster, orally, so within a few weeks the, the high schooler will actually have a much larger um vocabulary in the second language than the six-year-old would have.  The high schooler has much higher level of mental linguistic awareness and so understands that there are, that there’s a different phonological system here that there are going to be um difficulties of comprehension associated with, with pronunciation and, and of phoneme differentiation.  The high schooler presumably has um some knowledge structures in the native language, which can also be brought to bear on the learning that’s going on in English.  And the native, that the high schooler has literacy on a lot of the literacy skills of the native language, particularly if it’s Spanish, are going to be relevant to English.  Although, of course, there are things one has to learn about, about um the orthographic system of English that go well beyond what you need to learn in order to read Spanish effectively.  So I think the high schooler who knows how to read in the native language actually is not at, at high risk.  I think the high schooler will be miserable for some weeks or months, and will, you know, be potentially a problematic in a class where he or she doesn’t know what’s going on for a little while, but I don’t see the high schooler as being a serious academic challenge really.  Um because the, the, the basis of the native language is so strong that there’s really, there’s a lot um a lot to work with. The, the high schooler does not face the problem of, of the six-year-old who has no idea what literacy is all about.  And then is expected to figure it out without any support from meaning.  That’s the situation that’s really um most risky.

All right.  So a child arrives as a third or fourth or fifth grader, has been in and out of school and thus perhaps (clears throat) doesn’t have strong literacy skills in the native language.  A, this, this child poses a real dilemma, because one approach would, which I think would make a certain amount of sense, would be to spend six months teaching the child high level reading skills in the native language.  Um, in order to capitalize on the oral language development that’s occurred in the native language while focusing on oral language development in English, I think that would be my preferred approach for this child.  To um to take advantage of the fact, and once again I’m assuming we’re talking about a Spanish speaker here, a take, take advantage of the fact that Spanish has a shallower lithography that you can legitimately teach the basics of the alphabetic principle in Spanish in six weeks to a, to a child who’s attentive and a, a knows a little bit, you know knows the alphabet, let’s say. And can use that rapid acquisition of literacy skills in Spanish as a basis then for transfer to literacy instruction in English.  Furthermore that does give you some time, three weeks, three months, six months, to focus on oral language development for the child in English.  And um my prediction is, although I don’t have any data on this, and I certainly would like to see people try it systematically, my prediction is that you’ll ultimately not be wasting any time in English literacy instruction.  That the transfer of skills the child has acquired in Spanish to English combined with the English oral skills will put the child in the same place at the end of the year that he would be if you started with English literacy instruction.

Uh where we are.  I wish I had a strong basis for saying where I, where I  thought we were.  I, I mean I think it’s clear that many, what’s clear, it’s clear that there are some good bilingual programs.  Um there are some good two bilingual programs.  And that those programs are effective to some extent um because, maybe that’s not true.

Some of those programs which are effective are effective um implementing the systems where they actually teach literacy in the native language to those sets of kids.  And those do not seem to be less effective, at least, in promoting bilinguals and then programs that start out with bilingual literacy a instruction.  I think um bilingual programs are, are sort of a subject to many more potential, potentially disastrous instructional a pitfalls than, than programs serving English-speaking kids in English.  Um and the pitfalls include a using Spanish for initial literacy instruction and assuming that the kids will be picking up oral English without any attention to it in the classroom.  And that’s a pitfall in certain parts of the country because of the demographics of those parts of the country.  It’s not a pitfall in everywhere, because there are places where kids will pick up oral English from classmates and from the neighborhood. But in, in, you know, in cities and towns and neighborhoods where ninety percent or ninety-five percent of the so, of the communication goes on in Spanish, than the classroom teacher need to think much more, in a much more focused way about using the classroom as a context for teaching oral English.  And I think often we’ve, well, sort of neglected that in bilingual programs.  We’ve just sort of know that that’s not so important because of this idea that kids will pick up English, that English is everywhere and they will get it.  That, that used to be much more the case than it is now, but it isn’t the case anymore.  There are programs, the other pitfall is, of course, the fall of a inadequate attention to literacy instruction in Spanish.  The notion that English literacy is the literacy that is going to be tested.  A the, the in, increased emphasis on high stakes testing in lower and lower grades, which means that kids need to be tested in English, you know, not now in fourth grade, but in third grade or in second grade.  Which means that um the programs and the teachers have the time to establish a strong literacy basis in Spanish.  Um the same lack of attention to vocabulary development is the basis for ultimate success in literacy that’s happening in English language programs, but doubled because um the, if you’re really going to do a good job of bilingual education then you need to give the kids sufficient vocabulary development in Spanish to promote Spanish literacy development as a basis for English literacy development which also requires a um attention to vocabulary.  So, and of course, the practical problems that many of these programs are um teachers who are strong Spanish speakers, are responsible for teaching English when they are not necessarily good models of English. Or teachers who are strong English speakers are trying to teach kids Spanish when they are not necessarily optimally prepared to do that.  I think the ideal model for transitional bilingual programs is a model in which you actually have paired teachers.  A native English speaker who speaks a little bit of Spanish, and a native Spanish speaker who speaks perhaps a little English.  And that those teachers, on the assumption that there aren’t a lot of perfect bilinguals out there, that those teachers are responsible for instruction even in their stronger language.  And that they coordinate that instruction so the children are instructed first in, on any topic in Spanish and then that instruction is repeated in English.  I think that model is the one that makes use of what we know about second language learning.  Um but it’s a model that’s it’s hardly ever implemented.  I don’t know any place that’s doing that at the moment.

Oh, I think it’s, it’s, just amazing how little we know about second language reading.  It’s just remarkable we’ve been, we’ve been doing bilingual education for thirty years and people have focused so much on the irrelevancies of bilingual education and so little on the real core of what it should all be about, which is optimum reading instruction.  I still, I’m constantly amazed at the fact that we’re still publishing ethnography’s of bilingual
classrooms as if that’s going to tell us any more at this point.  When what we want to know is, instructional practices that work with these kids.  So, I mean, basic questions like:  um what’s the, if you’re going to implement a standard English literacy instruction, you know sort of some standard Basil reader, of standard instructional practices.  How do, how do kids fair under that treatment if they arrive knowing three hundred words of English, a two thousand words of English, or four thousand words of English.  How do they fair under those conditions um if they arrive not yet having sorted out some of the phonological distinctions that are, that are represented in, in the English orthography?  Um, if children know how to read in Spanish do, how automatically do they transfer what they know in, in taking on the task of learning to read in English.  Are there ways of teaching for specific forms of transfer, does it help to say “hey guys, look, these consonants are pronounced exactly the same in English as they are in Spanish.  These consonants are pronounced differently in English.  These vowels are pronounced the same way only under the following circumstances.” Nobody, as far as I know, is actually even tried to teach for transfer under laboratory conditions, let alone trying to use um, to build on possibilities for transferring ordinary classroom instruction.  So I, I mean I think the domains of ignorance are, are vast and really appalling, when you think about how much, um how much we’ve engaged in sort of blind application of practice.

I should say though, that of course, there is now funding available for studies of transfer from Spanish to English in the literacy domain.  And I, while it’s, you know, it’s probably a would have been useful to start funding research like that ten years ago, a the fact that there’s now some concerted effort to do it is a good sign.


What does second language acquisition research contribute to what we know about literacy development?  Gee, I don’t know.

I think certainly it’s useful, and once again I guess we’re sort of getting back here I guess to questions about what will teacher need to know.  It’s useful for teachers to understand something about second language acquisition and research findings about second language acquisition.  Um when confronting second language learners and literacy acquisition, in part because there are some um predictability’s in language acquisition that have to do with speed and have to do with a unwillingness, particularly if you have young learners, to talk um that have to do with a pointing out markers for knowing something the teachers might know and otherwise, otherwise notice.  So I think understanding the research literature about second language learning a and in particular um one finding in that literature which I which is widely a not only not know about, but disbelieved, namely that younger children are slower language learners than older children.  It is very important to teachers because it gives them some benchmarks, expectations, reasonable expectations.  Um and once again if, if we’re assuming that literacy instruction should be built on oral language knowledge than teachers clearly need to know what kinds of oral language performances, what kinds of oral language competencies um second language learners can be expected to have three months after arrival, six months after arrival, nine months after arrival.  And that’s going to be very different depending on the age of the children.  Um so, sort of a basic understanding of those truths, I think, is very important.


The article with a Stefka Oranovitad (?) and Brad Marshal talks about three beliefs, widely held beliefs in; in the field of second language learning, which we argue, are all a mistakes.  And one is, is um the misinterpretation of the findings a that, on average, adult second language learners don’t achieve native a competence.  Um as evidence that adult learners can’t achieve native competence.  Uh, and a the problem with that misinterpretation is that it, it suggests to people, it reinforces the mistaken belief in this sort of critical period for second language learning, and it suggests to people that if we’re going to do a good job of second language learning, or foreign language learning for that matter, we’ve got to start early and speed it up.  And a that has lead to all sorts of mistaken a educational policies trying to teach French in kindergarten, for example.  I’m not against teaching French in kindergarten it they, if we’re taking care of everything else that needs to be taken care of in kindergarten.  But the notion that teaching French in kindergarten is going to produce French/English bilinguals all over a Iowa a when kids never encounter a native French speaker in their lives, um is, is just wrong.  Um, the second mistake is this notion that young children are, are um fast learners and older children and adults are slow learners, and that is just simply wrong.  I mean the data to, to combat that have been published for forty years, and people still refuse to believe it, um oddly enough.  And then, then the final um misconception is the notion that this has all something to do with the brain.  That um that, and people are inclined to believe that neuroscientists have proven that the brain is incapable of a language learning in adulthood, or that language is learned in adulthood on localizing a different place, or subserved by different systems.  In fact neuroscientists haven’t shown that at all.  What they have shown is that poorly learned languages are located in a different place then well learned languages.  But not that it has anything to do with the age of acquisition.  So um, I, you know I think it’s very important that educators understand these things because educators often have to be the people who go and argue against a sort of folk, folk beliefs, when it comes down to deciding how education dollars are going to be spent.  And there are a lot of foreign language teachers out there who understand somewhere deep in their souls that it’s not a good idea, necessarily, to introduce foreign languages in first grade and second grade.  But  they don’t have the data and the, the credibility to argue it. ( very light sound of a cell phone)  So part of the reason we wrote that article was just to give the, the document in their hands to take and beat people over the head with.  The other reason we wrote it, actually I should say, both Stefka and Brad are counter examples of both adult second language learners who have achieved native like competency in their second languages.  So they’re always annoyed when people say it’s impossible to do it.   


Well, preventing reading difficulties in young children was a, a project that was undertaken in, in 1995 maybe, probably fifteen or twenty years after it was first suggested at the National Academy of Sciences as a desirable thing to do.  And it wasn’t undertaken before, a because people felt that the animosities and the conflicts around reading were so great that it would be impossible to get a consensus report in the National Academy.  Report process is such  that they really hate to have um minority reports.  Um so the, in, in ’95 it was decided that it might be possible a to undertake a report that could achieve consensus among a reasonably a diverse and heterogeneous group of, of a committee members, in part because of the, of the enormous emergent consensus by then about emergent literacy and the importance of the preschool period in building a good foundation for, for literacy development.  In part because the, sort of , more  psycho-
linguistic cognitive members of research had achieved a reasonable consensus about the, the nature of skilled reading.  But even so, you’ll note that the report is not called ‘Reading Instruction’ or anything like that.  A, the focus of the report was precisely not on instruction, but rather on prevention of difficulties.  And that was explicitly designed to enable us to talk about a some domains in which there was a higher level of agreement before we got to the domains, namely, what should happen if first grade, um about which there still is, still is some conflict.  I think perhaps the most interesting think about the process of producing that report was that when the group first got together they, members of that group just expected to disagree with one another much than it turned out they did.  In fact there was, there was, there was very little explicit disagreement about recommendations or interpretations of the, of the research literature.  I, there were disagreements about what to emphasis, but not disagreements about the facts and not disagreements about conclusions.  Um so that report pointed out what, something that I think the new standards, reading and writing, um book also discovered that people who, who think they, they disagree with one another deeply, in fact are talking about the same phenomenon and the same research findings in slightly different terms.  But if you can actually get them to talk to one another they, they do agree.  I think um preventing reading difficulties um made a couple of important points, not, not novel points, though these were things that people who could have, who read the literature knew, who had followed these fields knew.  But I guess it made a, it had some impact that seventy people got together and all agreed a to sign their names to the recommendations.  Certainly one was the importance of the preschool period, the fact that we really need to think about um language development as well as attention rich literacy contexts in, in preschool and um particularly for children from demographic groups like, that put them at risk for, for school problems.  Secondly, um the notion of really rapid response to, to a reading difficulties that kids shouldn’t be allowed to, to drop six months behind their, their classmates, or two years behind their classmates as Special Ed would, would require but that they, that um constant observation of assessment of progress and reasonable expectations for progress um should enable teachers to give kids extra help when they’re a few weeks behind, rather than letting them fall further and further behind.  Thirdly the focus on the importance of having reading specialists at the school that, that the recognition, that the, this is a very large, complex area and they need to know a lot to do a good of this.  And that the average first grade, second grade, third grade teacher doesn’t have a chance to know about everything that he or she needs to know to do a good job for a hundred percent of the kids in the class, although probably should at least be well prepared to work with seventy-five percent of those kids effectively.  Um but that for the other twenty-five of twenty or fifteen percent, the presence of a reading specialist in the school, who is working as a coach and a mentor with the classroom teacher, is absolutely crucial.  And that having that sort of expertise available is part of the responsibility of, of school systems.  And then finally the recommendation that children not be taught to read in a language they don’t speak.  I think that was a, that was pretty important, that was not the, the most um, it was not the first consensual point that the committee achieved.  I will have to say it took a lot of discussion to get that in there, but it really did flow out of the definition that we developed of what reading is.  And if you think that reading has anything to do with meaning then it’s clear that it doesn’t make much sense to be teaching children to read in a language where they, they can’t access meaning.  And they can’t construct meaning unless they’ve figured out the alphabetic principle.


Um, it’s true that lots of school districts, even school districts that have Spanish speaking teachers, or have bilingual programs, are not optimally prepared to teach reading initially in the native language.  What the report recommends is that those capacities should be developed in cases where it’s feasible to do that.  Um and we were obviously thinking primarily of Spanish, or of heavily a concentrated populations of speakers of other languages. But, um we also interpret the research literature as saying there’s actually no evidence of a disastrous consequence from postponing initial literacy instruction a little bit.  So um it, it would be possible to think about, in situations where you cannot teach children to read in their native language, and where you can’t perhaps recruit their parents to teach them to read in their native language, um postponing formal literacy instruction a certainly beyond kindergarten, where it shouldn’t be anyway, but is, unfortunately, creeping in, and perhaps to the second half or, of first grade, perhaps even until second grade.  Um until children achieve, have achieved some reasonable level of oral competence in English.  Now this is where the research literature is very a inadequate in giving us guidance.  We don’t know what a reasonable level of oral competence in English means.  We don’t know whether that means five hundred words or two thousand words.  We don’t know whether that means a hearing all of the philological contrasts in English, um without being confused by the fact that some of them were not philological contrasts that they made in Spanish.  But, a, and so we do need a lot more research, but at least not before children have a basis of, in oral comprehension of English, for being able to guess at the meaning of the materials they’re being taught to read from.  That’s the bare minimum from my perspective.


Decontextualized language is a somewhat a controversial term, but let’s, let’s take it to mean language that goes beyond the here and now, that, language that’s displaced temporally or spacialy or um a discusses abstract concepts.  Um and it’s clear that decontextualized language is likely to include more extended discourse forms, a discourse forms that have sort of a grammar at the level of the connections among, among the utterances, or the sentences and the paragraphs.  And um my contention is that oral exposure to these extended discourse forms and to decontextualized  oral language forms a gives children facility with comprehending and with producing those forms that stands them in very good stead when they start to encounter more a extended discourse and decontextualized language in the text they’re going, they are reading in fourth grade.  It also, of course though, is just important for being able to participate in classroom discussions, at least in good classrooms where there is a this kind of extended discourse going on.  A, I’m, I’m not saying that, you used to think that that’s not going on in all classrooms, but um ideally, social studies, science, math gets taught through discussion and the discussion is not um always connected to here and now events and objects.  So children need to come to understand um forms of language that only get modeled and used in these more um abstract discussions.  And forms of language that, that range from the, the more complex and abstract vocabulary items that they might encounter to a sort of discourse markers, forms like: however, thus, and moreover, and nonetheless. Um to contrasts, um grammatical contrasts like you know, subjunctive versus conditional, a to complex syntax, you know, center imbedded a relative clauses and things like that.  Um, the fact of the matter is that, even under relatively a formal conditions oral language is not very complex.  The vast majority of utterances begin with pronouns.  They tend to be like branching structures.  We don’t make use of all of the capacities of the English language when we’re talking because the online processing a demands are too high.  We don’t make use of most of the vocabulary we know when we’re talking for this very same reason, I mean we, presumably as educated adults, know seventy-five thousand words or something like that, but we probably only ever use ten thousand when we’re engaged in normal conversation. So, children will encounter these more complex language forms, the more complex syntax, the discourse markers, the structures of extended discourse, and this complex vocabulary when they start to read.  Um and that will be very hard for them, particularly if they’re not extremely good readers.  Um and ensuring that kids have access to some opportunities for developing familiar, any one of those sorts of language forms, orally before they have to confront it in reading, I think, a represents a kind of an insurance policy for them.  A, once again it’s not something that happens without specific attention to it.  People have to think about how to talk this way.  They have to organize topics so that this kind of language emerges in the classroom, and it doesn’t um it doesn’t happen automatically from adults, it doesn’t happen automatically from teachers, a it really needs to, and it certainly doesn’t come automatically from children, kids need to be helped to learn how to talk in more planned and extended ways.


Caretaker speech is um is a term coined to replace baby talk, which was a slightly a, a misleading term, a term that that emerged from the old anthropological literature.  A and um and to replace Motherese, which was a of course a politically incorrect form.  Um, and it refers to the fact that when adults are speaking with young children, with language learning children,  their language takes on certain characteristics, a the most striking of which, a is grammatical correctness and a simplicity compared to speech used among adults, or with older children.  Um, and this caretaker talk was presupposed, was thought at the time that is was first described, a to provide children with, with a better a basis for entry into the language system then they would have if, if the speech addressed to them was not adopted to their language levels. Now, I think it’s become clear, in the thirty years of research since I wrote my theses on this topic, that um that descriptively caretaker talk is indeed simple and correct and redundant, but those characteristics are, a perhaps not universal, although relatively universal, very wide spread, but that, that really what’s characteristic and most important about caretaker speech is, is, is not the grammatical complexity, or the semantic complexity even, but really the pragmatics of caretaker speech, the fact that um caretaker speech is, is very limited in terms of the communicative intents that get expressed in speech with very young children.  Um and those communicative intents are, once again, not universal, they’re quite, they’re quite um culturally specific, some of them are, or the proportion of different communicative intents used is somewhat um culturally specific.  But that, nonetheless, it’s a limited set of the, the repertoire  of communicative intents that’s in use, that’s in use among adults or, or with older children.  And a lot of what happens certainly in mother-child interaction in middle class North America, let’s say, is discussion of a joint focus of attention. A and is the context of which Mike Tomisello has shown promotes language acquisition.  The more that very young children are engaged in talk about a joint focus of attention, the more rapid their early language acquisition.  Um the directing, directing attention um talk that occurs in certain kinds of exchange, games, taking turns in games, which plays, picks up a lot of, of talk with very young children.  A, these are sort of communicative intents that get very heavily exploited and in and in give their character, in a sense, to what we call, used to call,  caretaker talk, and, and account, I think, for the, the nature of caretaker talk to a large extent.  Um because they’re intents that get expressed simply and redundantly and a  within which it’s very hard to produce complex grammatical structures.  However, let me say that caretaker talk, I mean it’s I think it’s become clear that um while there’s never been any strong demonstration of fine tuning in caretaker speech, that a after children get beyond maybe the first, the first couple of stages of early language acquisition, that caretaker speech then can take off in a number of different directions.  And that you see big social class differences and cultural differences in the way parents are talking to children who are age three to four, and this is the point where you start to see social class differences in vocabulary acquisition absolutely mushroom.  And that reflects the fact that the, the limited caretaker talk that’s characteristic of speech to two-year-olds, um is transcended in middle class households where, where conversation has become more extended, more elaborated, and they start to touch on lots of topics that generate um the use of, of more complex vocabulary, more sophisticated vocabulary.  And that is part of what accounts for the vocabulary differences um associated with social class and school entry.


Um, well, I guess, I guess my most one, one theme is that we’ve had, we’ve spent a lot of, we’ve attended a lot, as a nation, to early literacy development.  And, if you think about what’s going on in the, the changes in a the standards for professional preparation of Head Start classroom teachers, for example. The, the impact of preventing reading difficulties, the professional development efforts that are going on all around the country a in upgrading literacy instruction.  It’s still a is very largely focused on a preschool and, and, late preschool through primary grades.  And um that’s fine, we need to get that stuff much better than,than it is, but I don’t think we should kid ourselves that once we’ve solved that problem that we will have solved the problem of literacy.  Because um there, there are numerous literacy challenges for, for children in fourth grade, and fifth grade and seventh grade and ninth grade.  And, to some extent, we’re blinding ourselves to the existence of these challenges by letting kids fail as second graders so they don’t display how they’re going to fail as first graders.  If we get all of these kids reading a, you know, exiting third grade, reading a third grade level, um some of them will then go and do OK, I suppose, but I don’t think we should be too sanguine about the fact that all of them are going to do fine and that we don’t need to focus on ongoing literacy instruction in the middle elementary grades.  And we really need to think about how literacy instruction gets integrated with content area instruction in those grades, a if we wanted to do a really good job of ensuring the children know how to read.  So, I, I guess my soapbox is that we can make things a lot better without, in any sense, really solving the, the societal issues of ensuring um that this gap between the, the a classes and the races and the ethnic groups a gets eliminated.  Because a lot of that has to do with the, the language skills and then world knowledge that contribute to successful literacy in, in the, the middle school and high school grades.