The power of letters : inducing understanding of the alphabetic principle in pre-literate children
This thesis attempts to draw together two distinct perspectives on literacy acquisition, an educational perspective and a psychological perspective. Written English has a complex orthography that has motivated academics since the 15th century to devise 'definitive' teaching methods. Throughout much of the 20th century two influential and mutually exclusive teaching approaches dominated literacy acquisition, i.e. ~whole language' and 'phonics'. Recently, empirical psychological investigation has opened a new debate into the cognitive underpinning required for successful literacy acquisition. A developmental psychological approach argues that literacy development should capitalise on children's naturally developing phonological awareness that generally progresses from large units of sound such as rhyme and syllables to small units of sound, such as phonemes. Conversely, an instructional psychological approach proposes that, irrespective of children's naturally developing ability, it is the phoneme and its correspondence with its visual counterpart, the grapheme, that needs to be brought to children's attention from the earliest stages of learning about written language. It will be argued from an educational perspective, that the whole language approach is sub-optimal for induction into an alphabetic script and most phonics approaches take too long to be effective, are too decontextualised, or require too much apparatus. In line with the small unit approach in psychology, it is proposed that the starting point for literacy acquisition is to focus pre-literate children's attention on the 44 English grapheme-phoneme correspondences that can be blended and segmented into phonetically pronounceable words. This proposal was investigated in an intervention study over a period of 8 weeks for 10 minutes a day, in a whole early-years class setting and an error free entertaining environment. Results showed that this significantly improved initial literacy acquisition for less advantaged children, suggesting that an early induction into the alphabetic principle provides children with "a framework for setting up a written language recognition and production system sufficient to drive the development of a self-teaching mechanism" (Share, 1995; Stuart, 2000). The practical implications of this finding have particular significance for the NLS, which proposes a later start and a two-year structured programme of phonics teaching.