Oral language and literacy : teachers’ phonological awareness knowledge and effective classroom practices.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
International research into literacy acquisition makes evident that the large inequity of literacy outcomes, even in wealthy countries, continues, despite heavy investment in raising achievement for all children (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation—UNESCO, 2009; United Nations Children’s Fund—UNICEF, 2010). There are a number of different approaches that incorporate key predictors of literacy that have been considered, and programs implemented to attempt to raise literacy levels and reduce inequality. Phonological Awareness (PA) has been recognised as one of the underlying constructs for literacy success and PA is one of the most powerful predictors of early literacy (Al Otaiba, Kosanovich, & Torgesen, 2012; Castles & Coltheart, 2004; Pressley, 2006; Yopp & Yopp, 2000). Evidence of the benefits of PA to literacy development has been well documented within controlled outside of the classroom environment research settings (Ehri et al., 2001; Gillon, 2005a; McNeill, Gillon, & Dodd, 2009b). There have been PA approaches that have been implemented into classroom literacy practices (Ball, 1997; Carson, Gillon, & Boustead, 2013) and a large number of websites that teachers can access for information on assessing PA and classroom resources. However, there is less known about practices in early childhood or education settings, and whether teachers’ underlying knowledge, and skills, can appropriately support effective integration of PA into typical literacy programs during early childhood and early school years. For this reason, five investigations of teacher knowledge and practices that may support children’s phonological awareness development are reported in this thesis. The first study (reported in Chapter 2) examined the use of a phonological awareness test to assess the phonological awareness skills of 699 education professionals and paraprofessionals working in New Zealand primary schools and early childhood centres. Performance in a phonological awareness test was compared across speech-language therapists (SLTs, n = 34), primary school teachers (n = 208), teacher aides (n = 49), Resource Teachers of Literacy (RTLits, n = 80), Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs, n = 26), early childhood teachers (ECTs, n = 51), third year College of Education students (3YRBT, n = 98), and first year College of Education students (1YRBT, n =153). The results indicated that the Phonological Awareness Test had construct validity and that there was large variability in New Zealand educators’ capacity to segment words into sounds. SLTs performed at near ceiling (98% accuracy), whereas junior school teachers performed at 74% accuracy, teacher aides at 63%, ECTs at 56%, RTLits at 89%, RTLBs at 78%, third year College of Education students at 68%, and first year College of Education students at 55%. The data suggest that professional development in phonological awareness for all the educators, as well as pre-service teachers and teacher aides, is warranted. In New Zealand, there is a national early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki: he whāriki matauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early childhood curriculum (MOE., 1996b), that is based on a social-constructionism theoretical framework and as such, is a broad but non-prescriptive curriculum. The second study (reported in Chapter 3) investigated the typical storybook reading practices of ten early childhood teachers reading to small groups of four-year-old children. Teachers’ comments and discussion as they shared the storybooks with the children were transcribed and coded to describe the types of comments teachers make and the extent to which their comments target emergent literacy skills. Two research questions were asked: (1) What are the levels of cognitive demand prompted by teachers’ questions and comments? (2) What are the foci of the questions and comments made during story reading? The results showed that the early childhood teachers predominantly focused on story content and meaning, with significantly fewer comments that drew children’s attention to the print on the page or emphasised developing early phonological awareness skills important to word reading. A child’s phonological awareness (PA) ability at school entry can reliably predict their early literacy success. Yet there is little evidence of the PA content knowledge that early childhood (EC) teachers have, and how they may use this knowledge to facilitate children’s PA development within early childhood centres. The third study (reported in Chapter 4) examined the PA knowledge of forty-three qualified early childhood teachers over time, in both verbal and written contexts and explored the effect of two professional development models on enhancing teachers' PA knowledge. At the beginning of the nine-week baseline phase, all teachers were asked to complete a questionnaire and were then assessed at four time points using two forms of a PA test (two verbal and two written test formats). At week nine, the early childhood centres and their teachers were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: professional development plus coaching (PD+C) or professional development only (PDOnly). Two centres, whose teaching staff were unable to access the PD, acted as a Control group. The PD+C and PDOnly groups participated in a 90-minute professional development session focusing on PA and enhancing emergent literacy skills during storybook reading. In addition, The PD+C group received four individualised coaching sessions to facilitate increased use of PA within their teaching context. Teachers in the PD+C and Control groups were videoed during a typical storybook session with a small group of children. The teachers’ ability to correctly define PA compared to phonics was very low. PA total scores were consistent across the baseline phase but subtest results suggest high variability when comparing the individual items. There were differences in scores between verbal and written presentations of the same test version. At post- intervention, teachers in the PA+C and PDOnly groups’ PA scores increased compared to the Control group. These results have implications for early childhood teaching. Incorporating PA into the curriculum in more explicit activities, and professional development models will be discussed. The fourth study (reported in Chapter 5) explored the PA knowledge of primary school teachers over time. At the beginning of the nine-week research phase, all teachers were asked to complete a questionnaire and were then assessed at four time points using two forms of a PA test (two verbal and two written test formats). Unlike their EC colleagues, this group of forty-four registered teachers showed no difference in scores between verbal and written presentations of the same test version and no differences over time for their total PA test scores. On the Teachers Beliefs About Literacy Questionnaire (TBALQ) (Westwood, Knight, & Redden, 1997) there was a preference shown by the teachers for a balanced literacy instructional program. The fifth study (reported in Chapter 6) explored the classroom implementation over time of two interventions. The first after a baseline-monitoring period of nine-weeks, was a professional development session with a teacher (teacher A). The children in teacher A’s class PA skills were monitored and growth trajectories plotted. After eleven-weeks there were PA classroom resources introduced into teacher A’s literacy teaching program, the lead researcher coached teacher A to implement explicit PA instruction that was linked into teacher A’s literacy program (e.g., initial and final sound sorting game of the letter that the teacher focused on in the printing lesson). Teacher A and the lead researcher further developed the resources. After the ten-week period, teacher A had completed nineteen-hours of explicit PA teaching and the children’s PA trajectories were plotted. There was a greater increase in PA learning over the ten-week period when the resources and coaching were implemented than the eleven-week period after teacher A had received PD alone. Implications for classroom teacher implementation of explicit PA instruction in the first year of school are discussed. The results from this thesis provide evidence that early childhood teachers and primary school teachers and other professionals associated with developing children’s literacy skills have wide and varying metalinguistic knowledge, understanding, and use of phonological awareness in their work with children. The level of this knowledge varies significantly with the participants’ level of specialist training; and also within subgroups of educators. However, studies within the thesis demonstrate that teachers’ knowledge can be successfully enhanced through professional development and individualised coaching. The results also demonstrate that PA implementation at early childhood through storybook reading, and whole class based implemented PA instruction, alongside increased teacher knowledge and pedagogy, can support improved literacy success for young children. Overall, the thesis findings have important implications for the preparation and professional development of teachers working to enhance children’s early literacy development.