Bankstreet's Approach to Early Acquisition Literacy

Bank Street views reading and writing development as intimately linked to spoken language development, and mutually reinforcing. Young children acquire language to express their thoughts, feelings and desires, and to understand the world around them. (Halliday, 1973) Language develops through interactions with adults and other children, and through a continuous exchange of information between the child and his or her surroundings.

In keeping with Bank Street's focus on the "whole" child, as well as its recognition of the individual needs of each child, no one approach to teaching reading and writing is considered best for everyone. Rather, it is understood that reading and writing are complex processes involving the integration of a variety of strategies and skills (Clay, 1979, 1991). Effective readers are in control of the graphophonic (letter/sound), syntactic (structural or grammatic) and semantic (meaning) aspects of language. (see Cuing). They take risks, make predictions, and connect their own experiences with the information in the print.

Beginning readers and writers need to learn to use many sources of information including memory, experience, pictures and their knowledge of language including sound/symbol connections (phonics). "Phonics and other word identification skills are tools that children need to read for information, enjoyment and development of insight..." (Pikulski, 1997) The question is not whether to teach these and other skills, such as handwriting, spelling and punctuation, but how and when.

Our belief is that children learn best when they understand the need for learning, and when they are engaged in experiences that build on what they know. Thus teaching of phonics and other skills is most effective when incorporated in or combined with meaningful reading and writing of whole texts. At the same time, it is understood that some children need more direct teaching or reinforcement of strategies and skills, than others. Thus it is best to adapt teaching to the needs of individual learners, through a variety of modeling, direct instruction and opportunities for guided practice and problem solving.

Whatever the approach, the goal remains constant: to develop readers who read for pleasure and information, and writers who write to communicate meaning and make sense of their world.

Some Basic Understandings About Literacy Development

In the last 20 years, research has highlighted the interrelationship and mutual reinforcement of reading, writing, and language development. Research has also shown that reading is an interactive process between the person and the text. Successful readers bring to the reading task a wealth of background experience and knowledge such as: 

  • a sense of the purpose of print,
  • an understanding of some basic concepts about print such as reading text from left to right and top to bottom, turning pages from right to left, punctuation, etc.
  • awareness of the structure and sounds of language.

Even beginning readers use their growing background knowledge together with print as they try to construct meaning and make sense of text (Smith, 1982, 1985). Young children's experiences of the world and their evolving language awareness (playing with sounds, noticing print in the environment and attributing meaning to these signs and letters) are crucial elements in their developing understanding of the function and use of reading and writing (Goodman, 1984, IRA, 1987).

Other important understandings about literacy development include recognition that:

  • The purpose of reading and writing is to gain or convey meaning
  • Reading and writing involve the use and integration of multiple strategies (see During Reading Strategies
  • Children need to see pleasurable and purposeful reading and writing modeled in and out of school (people reading newspapers, signs, package labels, books, writing lists, notes, bills)
  • Literacy learning is most successful when it connects with the learner's experiences and interests
  • Children need to see themselves as readers and writers and be encouraged to take risks
  • Children internalize learning when they are supported in constructing their own understandings of how written language works, and when they are encouraged to be problem solvers

Expectations Children Bring to Reading

Children Expect:

  • what they read to make sense
  • to use knowledge of the ways books are organized to predict likely events and outcomes (for example, knowing how sentences "work" -- they have a capital letter at the beginning, a period at the end, etc.)
  • to use their understanding of syntax and meaning to predict sentence patterns and words
  • to use their knowledge of letters and sounds to pronounce words

Activities and books that are supportive of what children expect:

  • make sense, have logical connections, unity of meaning
  • relate to children's experiences and interests
  • use natural or predictable language or interesting repeating patterns use pictures to support or extend the text