Like other early learning initiatives Bookstart is informed by recent developments in developmental psychology that stress the importance of the pre-school early years. Bookstart’s focus on babies and toddlers reflects growing recognition that exposure to books can help establish a vital foundation for later learning and emotional development. A child who grows up in a home in which reading and the use of books is commonplace and actively supported is an environment that is likely to nurture a lifelong aptitude toward learning.
The last two decades have witnessed a transformation in thinking about the development of children during their pre-school early years. Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s developmental psychologists began to investigate the impact of the early years on overall developmental competence. These studies challenged the conventional belief that learning capabilities arose only at school age. Rather than identify the onset of literacy acquisition at school age as previous researchers had done, these psychologists claimed that it arose at birth (Teale & Sulzby, 1986, Snow, 1977, Ninio & Bruner, 1978, Hall, 1987). The early years learning programmes that accompanied these studies provided dramatic evidence of what became known as the ‘emergent literacy’ paradigm; children that went through pre-school learning programmes consistently demonstrated improvements in academic achievement in their subsequent schooling (Schweinhart &Weikart, 1980, McKey et al., 1985) .
The rise of ‘early learning’
These early studies sparked widespread interest in the pedagogy of pre-school education; if children can enhance their learning abilities at an early age, it was asked, what are the best techniques to nurture these competences and skills? The burgeoning field of ‘early learning’ that has since emerged encompasses a diverse range of perspectives. One area of widespread agreement in this literature, however, is that interventions that offer structured learning have a positive impact on children’s achievement through school and into adulthood. Research indicates that children who engage in purposeful play and structured activities acquire a range of competencies that provide a strong foundation for later learning and development. A well designed early learning programme can, for example, nurture social and emotional development by helping children to develop a positive sense of themselves, a respect for others, and a positive disposition to learn. Story telling and reading activities can help develop language and literacy skills by supporting competence in communicating, speaking and listening, being read to and beginning to read and write. And problem solving activities can help children develop their confidence and competence in reasoning and numeracy (Bissex, 1980, Campell, 1999, Meier, 2000). With the successful grounding of these competencies, children demonstrate a strong aptitude for learning upon school entry and go on to long term achievement in their later childhood and adulthood.
Skill acquisition in early years
The acquisition of language and literacy skills is a key component of the behavioural development. These skills provide a foundation for emotional and social development as well as supplying competencies specific to intellectual development and learning. Language and communication skills are vital to a child’s emotional and personal development as they develop a sense of self and their relationship to others. Exposure to stories helps to enrich the imagination and provide knowledge of a range of experiences that a child can draw on to give them confidence in their daily encounters with the world. Gordon Wells’s influential research, for example, suggests that stories provide children with a framework within which “behaviours can be interpreted” and given meaning (Wells, 1987).
Literacy skills provide a child with the building blocks necessary for reading and writing and learning more generally. Through exposure to books and stories, babies and toddlers acquire the vital preliminary tools for learning to read and write. First, they equip themselves with a sizeable spoken vocabulary which helps them to develop a listening comprehension. This means that they come to understand and re member what has been said (or read) to them. Second, children at a very young age start to become aware of the existence of books. Toddlers and even small babies will turn the pages of storybooks, and look at the pictures in them. Soon afterwards, parents can begin to read to their children so pre-schoolers become aware of books and begin to enjoy stories. Third, children become aware of what a book is and how to handle it, i.e. that print looks different to pictures, that we read from top to bottom of a page and from left to right, and spoken vocabulary is linked to print. Fourth, children develop specific skills for learning to read: phonological awareness and knowledge of alphabet letters. Phonological awareness refers to a child’s awareness that the spoken words they hear are made up of sequences of sounds, for example, syllables and phonemes. Letter knowledge refers to children learning the names and sounds of the individual letters of the alphabet, ‘a’ through to ‘z’ (Bissex, 1980, Adams, 1990, Likierman & Muter, 2006).
Early learning and adult basic skills
Literacy and language skills are obviously a key foundation for learning and intellectual development. They provide the essential resource by which knowledge can be assimilated and reproduced. The more these skills are developed by children the more children develop a capacity to learn. By embedding these skills in the formative early years the hope is that children will acquire an enduring aptitude for learning.
Recent research therefore strongly suggests that early development of literacy and language skills gives a vital boost to an individual’s acquisition of basic skills for adult life. Children equipped with this foundation are likely to go on to be capable and eager learners through later life.
Bookstart and the early learning agenda
As a programme that aims at encouraging pre-school literacy, Bookstart is closely related to the revolution in early years learning. Bookstart was conceived in 1992 by children’s book expert, Wendy Cooling, in response to the ‘emergent literacy’ focus on the benefits of reading with very young children. In its pedagogic approach Bookstart closely follows the insights of this literature. By encouraging parents to actively engage with the reading practices of their babies and toddlers, Bookstart aims to nurture literacy skills and developmental competencies in a user-friendly and effective way. Bookstart’s pedagogy has been reinforced by studies that identify the value of joint storybook reading between parent and child (Baker et al, 1997, Justice & Ezell, 2000, Wade and Moore, 2000, Weinberger, 1996). Bookstart puts into practice the insight made by these studies that storybook reading in the home enhances children’s basic literacy skills.
The diverse experiences conveyed by the stories in the packs help young children to develop confidence in themselves and their relationships with others. The book sharing between parent and child encouraged by Bookstart facilitates the acquisition of a spoken vocabulary, develops an awareness and enjoyment of books and narratives and encourages phonological and letter knowledge. Studies of Bookstart have highlighted the effectiveness of the programme in improving these basic literacy skills for pre-school children and shown how these competences translate into improved academic performance at school. By providing individuals with the tools that help them maximise their potential and live fulfilling and productive lives, Bookstart is a programme that has proven its relevance to the early learning and basic skills agenda.
Working towards a culture of learning
Bookstart also makes an important contribution to establishing a culture supportive of learning. A child who grows up in a home in which reading and the use of books is commonplace and actively supported is an environment that is likely to nurture a lifelong aptitude toward learning. A home in which books inspire wonder about the world and provide an essential source of knowledge and understanding is also a home that motivates individuals to pursue their ambitions. In these various ways Bookstart can act as an important building block towards the creation of a literate society. By playing its part in fostering a culture of learning Bookstart helps to equip individuals to respond in an informed and creative way to the demands of a technologically-driven and increasingly global society.
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