Addressing literacy in early childhood education

Addressing literacy in early childhood education

Malva Villalón, Professor of Educational Psychology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, offers her thoughts on recent initiatives in Latin America to address literacy in early childhood education. She also discusses how new approaches to teaching can reach and engage students from traditionally marginalised communities.

Addressing literacy in early childhood education

Malva Villalón, Professor of Educational Psychology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

Literacy has been recognised as the most important goal of schooling. Children learn to read and write, in order to read and write for learning. It is well documented that literacy learning begins very early in life and that family literacy environments play a crucial role. Shared book reading has been recognised as the most important activity for building these skills. Children who read with their parents regularly and frequently at home, enter school better prepared to acquire reading comprehension and productive writing. Children in Latin America, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, enter school without the skills, knowledge and attitudes that are the basis for conventional literacy learning. Most parents living in poverty, and more tenuous socio-economic conditions, tend to hold the view that these skills are learned only in schools, as a result of formal teaching. Family literacy environments are very poor, and day-to-day activities do not include shared book reading, extended conversations or teaching of literacy skills. This situation can be related to what has been called chronic underachievement in Latin American education results, compared to developed countries. But several innovative initiatives to address literacy in early childhood education have been implemented in the region, yielding encouraging results. 

In Argentina, a programme was implemented with the aim of addressing early literacy learning in the Qom indigenous community from an intracultural perspective, considering the complexities of their cultural context. After having observed and witnessed the different cultural and social contexts of these indigenous communities, it allowed the initiative-takers to acknowledge the complexities of bilingualism, and to address the cultural-linguistic differences of the population – both those who live in rural areas and use Qom tongue, and those living in the periphery of the capital Buenos Aires, who mostly speak Spanish. The academic team that designed this programme developed storybooks in Qom and Spanish, by observing the behaviour and the cultural specificities of the respective communities. This included taking part in their day-to-day routines so as to truly understand, from their own perspective, how learning took place as part of the cultural practices shared in the families and the community. It likewise enabled enhancing cultural awareness and children’s access to high-quality storybooks with narratives that were part of their lives and traditions, while also introducing them to other cultures. And, most importantly, creating integrated and contextualized resources to facilitate inclusive learning. Using language to tell a narrative, in a way that is interesting and appealing for children, helps them not only to learn the language, but as Paulo Freire once said: “to learn about the world, to read the world.

Another innovative approach is the ALMA programme that is being implemented in Chile. In 2013, two engineers launched this initiative to address the early childhood literacy gap among children from a lower socio-economic status, compared to those of a more privileged background. They raised a fundamental question: How come their own children have learned to read at the age of four, whereas impoverished children are unable to read at the age of seven, or eight? To get to the bottom of this issue, the they collaborated with the professional team they hired to develop ALMA (Aprendo a Leer Mama, Aprendo a Leer el Mundo Alrededor) in selecting high-quality storybooks for 4-to-6-year-olds. The stories and the related illustrations offer a context for understanding different perspectives, reflecting and discussing from the explicit and implicit information presented. The programme aims to work directly with parents, at schools, through the holding of workshops that enable them to support early literacy and socioemotional learning, through shared reading and related games. It allows parents living in poverty to read and play with their children in ways known to foster language and literacy learning, as well as socio-emotional development.

This perspective acknowledges the importance of the family literacy environment and the crucial role of parents in promoting learning experiences at home. At the outset, this initiative was implemented in subsidised schools located in disadvantaged communities from the Metropolitan Region. Owing to its successful achievements, the initiative was subsequently extended, to be implemented at 22 schools from two municipalities from the BioBío Region, as a public policy supported by the Ministry of Education. Participants report an impact on their current practices – mainly, more time devoted to interacting with their children, reading the storybooks received, and playing together. Early childhood teachers report that children whose parents participate in ALMA show more interest in books and learning, participate more and have better interpersonal skills and emotional expression compared to their peers.

These cases acknowledge the relevance of the four pillars of Balanced and Inclusive Education: intra-culturalism, transdisciplinarity, dialecticism, and contextuality, set forth in the Global Guide on Balanced and Inclusive Education. These can make a fundamental difference for children from traditionally marginalised communities as it offers a framework, establishing the means to construct innovative education responding to the needs of children and local communities. The lessons learned from Latin America are telling examples in this regard.

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