Differentiated instruction and literacy skill development in the preschool classroom
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1. GENERAL INTRODUCTION 1 Introduction 1 Dissertation Organization 6 Literature Review 6 Methodology 18 References 36
CHAPTER 2. Differentiation of instruction in the preschool classroom 43 Abstract 43 Introduction 46 Literature Review 46 Methodology 52 Results and Discussion 59 Implications and Conclusions 71 Acknowledgements 77 References 77
CHAPTER 3. Literacy skill development in the preschool classroom 80 Abstract 80 Introduction 80 Literature Review 82 Methodology 90 Results and Discussion 97 Implications and Conclusions 107 Acknowledgements 115 References 115
CHAPTER 4. GENERAL CONCLUSIONS 119 General Discussion 119 Recommendations for Future Research 122 References 123
APPENDIX A. INTERVIEW PROTOCOLS 124
APPENDIX B. CLASSROOM OBSERVATION PROTOCOLS 131
APPENDIX C. DATA ANALYSIS MATRIX 133
APPENDIX D. IRB APPROVAL FORM 136
ABSTRACT The promotion of emergent literacy skills is a focus for Head Start classrooms. Teachers must find a way to meet the needs of all the students in their classroom when promoting literacy skills. Through principals of differentiated instruction, teachers are able to meet the diverse learning needs of students in a format that creates a respectful, safe learning environment. The current study explored Head Start teachers use of differentiated instruction when promoting literacy skill development in the preschool classroom. Although findings indicate that the teachers are providing skill development activities in print recognition, phonological awareness, writing skill development and oral language, an underlying factor in classroom implementation is tied to teacher feelings of support, professional development and pre-service training programs.
CHAPTER 1 GENERAL INTRODUCTION Introduction Whitehurst and Lonigan (1998) define emergent literacy to include the skills, knowledge and attitudes that are part of the developmental process required prior to formal reading and writing. Emergent literacy activities include reading aloud, singing, and writing or scribbling. Early childhood educators may be some of the first adults to introduce formal literacy experiences to young children. Children participate in preschool programs in childcare centers, churches, and local schools. Children may also experience literacy activities embedded in daily activities, such as discussing the days of the week, reading the helper chart, or engaging in large group reading. Children in a group are at different skill levels and progress at different rates. Teachers need to be aware of child differences and determine how best to meet the learning needs of all students. However, early childhood educators are not always aware of accommodations that can be made to assist children in their classrooms. Differentiated instruction (DI) is one approach to addressing the learning needs of all children in the classroom. Through DI, teachers are able to create classroom environments that are respectful, welcoming and safe for learning (Tomlinson, 1999). Teachers utilizing the DI approach acknowledge every child where he or she is in the learning process, accept differences and figures out how to work with each child’s needs. However, early childhood educators may not be familiar with the principles of DI. Traditionally, DI has focused on school age children, especially those in mixed ability classrooms. The literature is scarce to when looking for how DI is applied to all children rather than those children who require special education services. How do teachers gather knowledge to be able to provide differentiated instruction?
One way teachers share knowledge is through conversation. Teachers share resources among themselves, as well as experiences that have shaped the way they teach. Teachers, like most people, like to tell stories. Stories have been used throughout different cultures to transmit knowledge, wisdom and morals. Every person interprets his or her own life differently and therefore they present stories based on their own interpretation. “Through telling stories, people can express their identity, relationships, and emotions” (Priest, Roberts & Woods, 2002, p. 38). In the teaching profession, students’ learning is directly impacted by the lived experiences of teachers. Teachers teach what they know and in a manner consistent with what they have experienced. Narrative inquiry is about storytelling. It is taking the lived experiences of a person and making those experiences have meaning. My goal through the use of narrative inquiry methodology is to make meaning of how and why teachers teach early literacy skills the way they do. Specific components of narrative inquiry will be discussed including narrative voice and researcher/participant relationships. This paper will review the literature specific to early literacy, DI and the construction of teacher knowledge. The intended audience for this paper is early childhood educators and other professionals working with young children. Results from the project are intended to inform early childhood professionals about literacy skill development and the ways in which teachers teach literacy skills. I will provide a rationale for using narrative analysis as a method for analyzing data. Through the use of narrative analysis this study will address the following question: 1) How do teachers
differentiate instruction in preschool classrooms? 2) How do teachers implement literacy skill development in preschool classrooms? 3) How do teachers acquire knowledge? Dissertation Organization The information presented in this dissertation is intended to explore the ways in which teachers differentiate instruction and implement literacy skill development in preschool classrooms. A general introduction and literature review is provided in order to set the stage for two papers. The data from the study was synthesized in two papers that are presented in chapters two and three. The final section of the dissertation includes general conclusions and recommendations for future research. Literature Review Principles of differentiated instruction
Differentiated Instruction (DI) is an approach to teaching based on key principles outlined by Tomlinson (1999): 1. The teacher is clear about the most important pieces of the subject to be taught 2. The teacher understands student differences and is able to build on these differences 3. There is no separation between assessment and instruction 4. The teacher focuses on content, process and product and how to adjust them 5. The work students participate in is respected 6. Teachers and students are collaborative partners in learning 7. Focus of the DI classroom is on the student and the student’s growth 8. A differentiated classroom is flexible Differentiated instruction is focused on helping students learn in a manner that they can understand and in a context that is real. Blaz (2006) emphasizes five
components of DI: content, process, product, classroom and teacher. The content is the subject matter needing to be learned. The process is how the teacher goes about instruction. For example, it could be whole group instruction, collaborative learning groups or individual instruction. The product is what the students produce to demonstrate their learning. The classroom is where learning can take place, but the emphasis is on the overall environment. Finally, the teacher is the instructor. The teacher is the person who leads the students through activities to learning. O’Brien and Guiney (2001) look at the principles of DI in a more succinct manner than Tomlinson (1999). They emphasize the importance of quality education as a right for all children, that learning is about a relationship and that every child and teacher can learn. If this is the case, then DI should be seen in every classroom. However, DI is not a curriculum or assessment package. It is not about using traditional classroom instruction and making children fit their learning style to the teacher. DI is “a way of thinking about teaching and learning that can be translated into classroom practice in many different ways “(Blaz, 2006, p. 9). Classroom Environment One factor in the implementation of DI is classroom environment. Teachers need to recognize and accept that children all have something in common and that sameness is the place to start (O’Brien & Guiney, 2001). The classroom has to be a place that every child feels valued, respected and safe (Muijis et al, 2005; Tomlinson, 2006). This does not mean that teachers push children to be best friends, but it is “important to treat one another with respect” (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006, p. 46).
In addition to a classroom environment of respect and value, there also needs to be a feeling of inclusion. It is a teacher who sets the classroom atmosphere. Teachers consciously make decisions about how to arrange rooms, structure learning areas, create rules and encourage spirit. Children look to a teacher as a model for how they should act when working with others, giving feedback and sharing information. It is placed upon the teacher to build a “community of learners who care for and support one another” (Gregory & Chapman, 2006, p. 17). Is this not the intent of the preschool classroom? Early education classrooms are designed to provide children with a variety of experiences throughout the day. Although most teachers may view this classroom structure as necessary to meet rules or regulations, this structure allows for teaching different kinds of learners. For example, center time activities allow children to work in small groups or individually with the teacher for additional assistance. Areas such as large/small motor, writing, reading, role play and housekeeping provide children with multiple ways to gather knowledge in a play setting that makes it seem less like “school.” However, teachers still need to recognize that children learn differently. Some children may need assistance through the DI principle of personalized instruction. Personalized Instruction One component of DI is instruction that is personalized to students. The phrase “personalized instruction” may conjure thoughts of a teacher spending hours upon hours with individual students. This is not the case. Personalized instruction is about teachers understanding and accepting a student’s abilities, strengths, weaknesses and knowing how to help that student talk about what they need to be able to learn (Tomlinson &
McTighe, 2006). Keefe and Jenkins (2000) suggest six elements of personalized instruction: 1. Teacher as coach and advisor 2. Teacher knows students’ learning characteristics 3. Constructivist classrooms include collaborative learning 4. The learning environment is interactive 5. There is flexibility in schedule and pace 6. Assessment is authentic These are all elements that should be visible in any early childhood classroom. For example, an early childhood teacher should be flexible in scheduling so that children are able to spend more time at centers they enjoy. A teacher as coach and advisor gives support to students, but also recognizes when it is important to push a little or direct kids to different kinds of activities they may perceive as different. For students, DI also incorporates pacing, depth and complexity; learner independence; and structuring to facilitate learning (Blaz, 2006). However, in order to be able to structure learning environments, lessons and activities according to student needs, teachers have to really understand each child’s learning profile. A learning profile is about children’s preferences, their cultural influences, learning styles and even their gender (Tomlinson, 1999). How does a teacher develop this understanding of their students? Assessment is the place to start. Assessment and differentiated instruction When considering assessment in the DI classroom, a teacher has to think of assessment as an on-going process (Gregory & Chapman, 2002; Tomlinson, 1999).
Teachers should use pre-assessment data for planning, on-going assessment, tracking of growth, keeping student profiles, and helping parents understand their child in the learning process (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). Pre-assessment needs to be used as a tool for planning. Early childhood teachers do not always have the time or resources to gather baseline data about students’ skills. Specifically related to literacy skills, teachers may be able to gather information about a child’s literacy skill level by talking with the student and having students participate in authentic tasks. Authentic tasks are those which relate to real life. For example, children may be asked to count spoons for snack time or locate their name cards to help take attendance. Gregory and Chapman (2002) suggest use of portfolios to follow student growth. Student portfolios provide teachers with an opportunity to demonstrate growth through the use of artifacts, such as art projects, reading comprehension checks and name/letter writing. Assessment is a tool that teachers can use to change their teaching. “Assessment becomes responsive when students are given appropriate options for demonstrating knowledge, skill and understanding” (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006, p. 73). Appropriate options may be choices of activities to demonstrate a particular skill, counting out snacks or napkins, or following a multi-step instruction. It is with this ongoing assessment data that teachers can see how students learn, where they are in the process and make modifications to the content, process, or product (Tomlinson, 1999). Once pre-assessment has been completed and an on-going process is in place, teachers can look to developing active learning experiences.
Active learning Active learning engages a student in the process so that is creates meaning. Keefe and Jenkins (2000) assert that “without engagement, much schooling is meaningless and unproductive” (p. 76). One piece of teacher planning that fits into active learning is that teachers should plan activities or experiences for children just above their skill level so that the child is challenged (Gregory & Chapman, 2002). McTighe and Brown (2000) suggest that teachers choose big ideas from the curriculum as well as purposeful active learning activities to give students meaningful learning experiences. There are also curriculum approaches that can be used to provide active learning including centers and problem-based learning (Gregory & Chapman, 2002). In the preschool classroom, active learning is seen when children engage with materials in new and different ways that increase their understanding or knowledge. Children use sand/water tables to gain science concepts or work with play dough to create letters and work on fine motor skills. DI is about learning that speaks to each child by providing multiple learning activities or multiple materials and curriculum that makes sense. However, DI can only be successful if the teacher is committed to DI. Teacher knowledge Teachers are the leaders in the classroom. Teachers are responsible for students in the classroom and the learning that takes place. Tomlinson (1999) discusses teachers as leaders but also in the context that “like all effective leaders, she [teacher] attends closely to her followers and involves them thoroughly in the journey” (p. 12). In the lives of children, teachers can make a world of difference. A goal of teachers should be to promote each child’s success with the knowledge and skills they have (Tomlinson &
McTighe, 2006, p. 95). The knowledge teachers have and the desire to gather more skills and knowledge speaks to a teaching philosophy of self-reflection. Self-reflection is a part of the construction of professional knowledge. The ways in which teachers obtain and use knowledge is just as varied as the books children like to read. Teachers go through university programs and come out with a wide range of expectations and bases for instruction. When specifically looking at how teachers teach early literacy skills, Richardson (1991) discusses how teachers’ define literacy is from typical decoding to a “transactional process between a reader and a text within a social context” (p. 562). In other words, some teachers choose traditional methods or more formal methods in which to engage students in literacy activities. On the other hand, some teachers look to more of a Vygotskian approach to literacy development and see the process as a relationship that is developed through social interactions within the environment. Teachers are also given what Kennedy (2002) refers to as “prescriptions”. Prescriptions can be viewed as curriculum guides that may be seen as ever changing. School districts are constantly reviewing their curriculum materials based on state and federal initiatives. Because of the constant changes, teachers may not be committed to what they are told to use as classroom teaching tools. Spear-Swerling, Brucker, and Alfano (2005) discuss two components of effective reading instruction: being “knowledgeable about reading-related abilities and reading development” (p. 268). If teachers do not have a base of knowledge about early literacy then it is difficult to expand and encourage additional literacy experiences. Vartuli’s (1999) study of teachers’ beliefs regarding early childhood educators found that “more
knowledge in early childhood education does appear to influence beliefs, attitudes, and practice of teachers” (p. 570). Connelly and Clandinin (1988) in Phillion and Connelly (2004) discuss how professionals need to understand how they acquire and use knowledge in order to understand how they teach other people. How often do teachers stop to think about their own education in relation to their students’ needs? Many times teachers use the “whatever works method” without thought to how it is they developed the knowledge or teaching strategies they use. Connelly and Clandinin (1999) present us with a way of viewing and understanding teacher knowledge. They developed a concept that they refer to as a “landscape”. This landscape takes into consideration a teacher’s personal and professional experiences/life in hope of understanding the development of teacher knowledge. The landscape that Connelly and Clandinin discuss is one that is narrative constructed: as having a history with moral, emotional, and aesthetic dimensions. We see it as storied. To enter a professional knowledge landscape is to enter a place of story. The landscape is composed of two fundamentally different places, the in-classroom place and the out of classroom place (p. 2).
Teachers develop their knowledge in and out of the classroom environments because learning is not an isolated event. For example, as a teacher, I am able to gain knowledge of the necessity for daily living skills instruction for students with special needs by reading the latest professional journals. However, it is not until I have experienced washing clothes, cooking meals or grocery shopping that I can begin to understand the many skills needed to complete such ordinary daily tasks that I need to
teach my students. Teachers bring their incidental, or in some cases accidental, knowledge to the classroom. Literacy Skills Many skills contribute to early literacy development. One of the first skills that is present from birth is communication. Kaderavek and Rabidoux (2004) suggest that reading and writing are not just products of themselves, but are part of communication. Reading and writing are the basic skills needed if children want to be able to have opportunities, such as learning about other places and holding jobs. A goal of literacy may be “to improve quality of life, increase social interactions and relatedness and improve communication in additional functional contexts” (Kaderavek & Rabidoux, p. 242). It is important for all children to understand the concept that text can be used to interact with others (Kaderavek & Rabidoux). Adults are the people who make the first impact on children regarding language development. It is through interactions (conversations) with adults and hearing adult language that children’s language development increases (Clay, 1972). Oral language development Oral language is an integral part of children’s early literacy development. Clay (1972) suggests that children need to have multiple opportunities to try out their language skills. Children babble and make noises that are part of their oral vocabulary. Adults are able to help children by expanding upon what the child says. The interactions that a child has with adults and book reading activities contribute to overall book knowledge and language development. If we consider that language development is a part of communication and communication is a part of literacy, then literacy skills begin at birth. Morgan (2007)
states that “before they are able to say their first words, children build on non-verbal communication they initiate with their caregiver” (p. 106). This is why book reading, singing and playing with children are important. There are many important aspects of language and book reading. Whitehead (1997) discusses how book reading activities “introduce children to the consciously patterned forms of literature” (p. 108). This includes the patterns of reading left to right, inflection in voice/tone and turning pages. Stahl (2005) states “when children learn to read, they use what they know about oral language to comprehend written language. The skills that children ordinarily use in oral language need minimal instruction to transfer to written language” (p. 55). This is reiterated in Honig’s (2001) work in which he describes the tools that children need to understand written English. The basic tools that children need include the being able to use language to make different words and sounds, visually recognize letters, and knowing how to take the information they know about language (written and oral) and apply it to decoding and learning new words children find when reading. Children’s use of oral language contributes to phonological awareness. Phonological awareness Phonological awareness is an area of skills that children need to have for successful development of emergent literacy skills (Morris et al, 2003; McGhee, 2003). Phonological awareness is children’s knowledge of letter sounds. Children may engage in such activities as rhyming and singing to help practice/produce letter sounds. Phonological activities may include blending, segmenting, word games, and word play (Morrow, Gambrell & Pressley, 2003). Hawken, Johnston and McDowell’s (2005) study
of early literacy practices among Head Start teachers found that teachers implemented phonological awareness activities less than other activities, such as alphabet knowledge. In addition, Head Start teachers used few syllable and segmenting activities in the classroom to develop children’s literacy skills. This would indicate that teachers should be conscious of the activities they are providing to children in the classroom. For example, when engaging in a shared reading activity with a child, the teacher may need to focus on sounding out unknown words and helping a child blend sounds together in order to develop new vocabulary. When a child is able to produce letter sounds, they may be more interested in “reading” the print that is around them in their environment. This awareness of print in turn leads to increased recognition of letters and words. Print recognition Print/letter recognition is tied to a child’s language development. Morris et al. (2003) suggest that language print relationships (understanding of) are important in word recognition. Again, there is a connection between language and print. Teachers need to be aware of this connection in order to help promote children’s relationships with print. Once children begin to develop an understanding that print tells a story, they can begin to understand that written language can be used in many different ways (Owocki, 1999). Teachers can help children find the various ways that print can be used. For example, children become aware of print in their environments through looking at billboards, signage on store fronts, and words on doors (in/out/exit). McGhee (2003) suggests that children need to have a conscious awareness that print is different than other things in the environment.
When considering print concepts, Clay (1972) suggests that children learn the following concepts: print can be turned into speech, there is a message recorded with the letters in a print statement, and when there are pictures with words, the picture is a rough guide to the message. Children begin with pictures and from the pictures they begin to understand that a story develops. This skill is part of beginning reading comprehension. Reading comprehension Reading comprehension is part of an emergent literacy program. Reading comprehension is part of a balanced reading program, in addition to other emergent literacy skill activities, such as print awareness, phonological awareness, and letter recognition (Morrow, Gambrell & Pressley, 2003). When considering emergent literacy skill development for children under age five, reading comprehension instruction is not a formalized activity. Adults can introduce young children to reading comprehension by “reflecting on the story, asking open-ended questions, inviting discussions of the meanings of words and supporting children’s curiosity about print” (Wolfe & Nevills, 2004, p. 56). Teachers can utilize discussion about stories to encourage young children to think about characters, what the story means, make predictions about what will happen and make links to the child’s personal experiences (Honig, 2001). Much of reading comprehension instruction can be accomplished through reading aloud activities in the classroom. Through reading aloud activities, children begin developing an understanding of the parts of a story. Children learn that a story has a beginning, middle and end which is a “key skill for future reading and comprehension of text” (Wolfe & Nevills, 2004, p. 55).
Even more basic, very young children make use of pictures to develop story meanings. Children will re-tell stories based on what they see. Makin and Whitehead (2004) suggest that adults encourage this story developing activity by asking the child questions about the story and discussing what is taking place in the pictures. However, when implementing such activities and discussion with young children, adults need to keep in mind the child’s vocabulary level. Children need to know the meaning of words if they are to comprehend what is going on in a story (Wolfe & Nevills, 2004). This would tell us that children need multiple experiences to hear words being read aloud and to be able to ask questions about what is meant. Although reading aloud is a factor in building a child’s vocabulary base which may lead to better comprehension skills, Pressley and Hilden (2006) remind us that “massive reading is an essential part of elementary comprehension development, even though it is not sufficient to develop skilled comprehension” (p. 61). Teachers need to recognize reading aloud and shared book experiences as important pieces in early comprehension skill development. Children need to be given opportunities to discuss and retell stories, as well as practice new words. Children play with print and letters/letter sounds which transfers to experimentation with writing. Engaging in activities such as drawing and scribbling are a part of emergent literacy (Kaderavek & Rabidoux, 2004). Writing skill development Writing of any kind should be encouraged for young children (Morris et al., 2003). Children engage in scribbling with crayons or anything that looks like a writing utensil. Teachers/adults need to model writing for children. Children observe adults
writing and begin to mimic writing (Wolfe & Nevills, 2004). Children will watch a parent write and try to grab the pen/pencil and write by themselves. Writing is another activity that comes naturally and is seen by children in different environments. Children see writing take place at home, school, and during daily tasks, such as going to the bank or paying for groceries. “Children’s scribbles are important. They are the children’s first attempts at using writing tools to make marks” (Makin and Whitehead, 2004, p. 9). Throughout the literature there are three main areas reported as important skills to develop for emergent literacy: alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, and print awareness (McGhee, 2003; Morris, Bloodgood, Lomax & Perney, 2003; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 2002). Reading comprehension is another skill area that needs to be developed through thoughtfully planned activities, including story discussion, asking questions and giving children opportunities to re-tell stories. But how do we know if a preschool program is providing the appropriate kinds of early literacy experiences for children? There are indicators of quality early literacy programs that may be observed in classrooms. Indicators of quality early literacy programs What does effective teaching in early literacy look like? Honig (2001) suggests that “effective teachers provide direct instruction in alphabet recognition, phonemic awareness, alphabet principle, phonics, decoding and word attack skills” (p. 9). Teachers need to incorporate these skills throughout a child’s daily activities in the classroom. Language and literacy should not be taught as isolated skill areas, but taught in play and
daily activities (Wolfe & Nevills, 2004). Makin and Whitehead (2004) also emphasize the importance of play as informal opportunities for literacy instruction. They state Children between 4 and 6 learn through play, especially role play, which offers many opportunities to talk and listen, sing and chant, take on different roles, tell stories, and generally explore the functions and tools of literacy (p. 67).
There need to be multiple and varied opportunities for children to engage in literacy activities including teachers/adults reading to children frequently, opportunities for play with letters and sounds and times to explore using language (Makin & Whitehead, 2004). In addition to traditional literacy activities, Wolfe and Nevills (2004) suggest activities such as going to the library and washing clothes as contributors to concept development as these activities give children more experiences to be able to relate to stories they read. However, as these activities are integrated into classroom learning time, there has to be a balance between formal and informal teacher instruction. Meier and Sullivan’s (2004) study of high risk kindergartners found that schools that were successful in helping children with literacy skills shared similar characteristics. These characteristics included: specific instruction in letter recognition, rhyming, and word sounds; strong connections between home and school; opportunities for professional development; and a shared responsibility for student success. Although many classrooms in schools and childcare centers may provide varied activities, Walpole, Justice, and Invernizzi (2004) emphasize the importance of the activities needing to be high quality. Activities need to be well planned according to developmentally appropriate practice and the needs of the children in the classroom. Teachers need to have specialized training in literacy skill development in order to maximize opportunities for child learning. How does a teacher determine their own
definition of high quality? How do teachers construct the professional knowledge they use in teaching? Methodology Narrative analysis Narrative inquiry is a qualitative research method used to study the intricacies of narrative and the variations that take place within narratives (Brodkey, 1987). It is within qualitative studies that researchers examine “process, meaning and understanding gained through words or pictures” (Creswell, 1994, p. 143). Within this methodology it is important for the researcher to give thought to and discuss the aspects of his/her personal life that affect how and what they research (Creswell). This self-reflection, prior to undertaking a project is necessary in order to understand the possible biases that a researcher brings to any study. When considering a narrative study, this is of particular importance. People trust the researcher with stories about themselves; their families; and the past, present and future experiences they have had and will have in their lifetime. I feel it is necessary as a researcher to discuss my personal beliefs that may affect the outcome and/or data interpretation of a narrative study. My background as a white, middle class, educated female from the Midwest has led me to believe in the importance of one’s life experiences in the development of the individual life. As researchers, we need to find alternate ways of viewing the world so that we can enter into discussions about how we understand what we base our research on, such as theories (Brodkey, 1987). Through narrative inquiry I feel this is something I can do. I can develop an understanding of how teachers choose what they teach and how they teach by listening to what others have to say.