Handbook of Early Literacy Research
reviewed by Pamela J. Rossi - 2002
Title: Handbook of Early Literacy Research
Author(s): Susan B. Neuman and David K. Dickinson (Editors)
Publisher: Guilford Press, New York
ISBN: 157230653X, Pages: 494, Year: 2001
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The Handbook of Early Literacy Research, edited by Susan B. Neuman and David K. Dickinson, is a collection of thirty chapters from forty-five contributors, primarily university faculty, representing a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. Neuman and Dickinson are both active, nationally recognized scholars. As this volume went to press, Neuman resigned from the International Reading Association’s Board of Directors to begin an appointment as Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Elementary and Secondary Education. Together, the editors focus this complex 494-page volume on the “now-and-future phase of work in early literacy” (p. 3). They hope it “will help promote cross-fertilization of theories and practices among those who are addressing similar issues from distinct perspectives” (p. 4).
The majority of chapter authors represent two fields, education and psychology, with scholarship ranging from child and human development, special and general education, linguistics and sociology, cognitive science and psychology, communication disorders and pediatrics, to genetics and social policy. While criteria for inclusion are not given, most contributions cluster in the eastern United States, particularly the northeast, with a few international works from the Netherlands, London, and Jerusalem. Understandably, one volume, no matter how comprehensive, may not represent everyone—indigenous populations in rural Arizona and New Mexico, for example. However, ethnographic data can be generalized to other contexts. Strengths of the book are its focus on the needs of Latino and African American children in urban areas, the challenges faced by schools, child-care environments, and low-income families, and the topics currently receiving attention in literacy education today.
While preparing this review, I encountered the International Reading Association’s “What’s hot, what’s not survey for 2002” (Cassidy & Cassidy, 2001/2002). International literacy leaders chose preschool literacy instruction, early intervention, phonics, and phonemic awareness as a few of the so–called “hottest topics” in literacy education. Family literacy and literature-based instruction, were voted “not hot”, but “should be hot”. Whole language was voted “not hot” and “should not be hot,” while direct instruction and high stakes testing were voted “hot” and “should not be hot.” Interestingly, the survey closely resonates with the way these topics are treated in the Handbook. P rofessional educators will need to reconcile the theoretical and methodological shifts in temperature to make informed decisions that meet the needs of each child in their school and community. To do so, they will need to engage in and understand different kinds of research. The Handbook of Early Literacy Research is timely and should be a “hot” professional reference.
Concurrently, President George W. Bush signed the federal education bill, “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.” It reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Act and features several key provisions for early reading and literacy (birth to grade three) such as Even Start, Early Reading First, and Reading First. Each provision authorizes states to give particular attention to low-income families and to implement instructional programs and professional development based on so–called “scientifically-based reading research.”
Framed within this political context, the inclusion of high-quality quantitative and qualitative research collected in the Handbook contributes to our understanding of the complexity of early literacy learning. Young children today, unlike their industrial era ancestors, are growing up in an information age with different literacy requirements. Will existing and proposed theories and practices continue to marginalize some? Can we foster each child’s unique abilities and include everyone? I touch on highlights and concerns.
The editors open the volume by attending to problems of organization and conceptual cohesion in their introduction. They provide an overview of trends, highlight several elements that are particular to each chapter, and conclude with their analysis of the most critical challenges for future practice and research. The volume is loosely organized into six thematic sections: “Ways of Conceptualizing Early Literacy Development,” “Strands of Early Literacy Development,” “Home and Community Influences,” “Schooling Influences: The Preschool Years,” “Instructional Materials and Classroom Practices,” and “Special Intervention Efforts.”
The first section gives the reader an example of the diverse theoretical perspectives in early literacy research. Grover Whitehurst and Christopher Lonigan provide an introduction to emergent literacy from the cognitive perspective. James Gee introduces “New Literacy Studies” (NLS). From the NLS perspective, “there really is no such general thing as ‘literacy.’ Rather, people adopt different ‘ways with printed words’ within different sociocultural practices for different purposes and functions” (p. 30). Rita Watson explores the relationship between literacy practices and oral language through a sociocultural lens, providing evidence for the impact of the former on the latter. A. D. Pellegrini draws on ethological theory and enriches the discussion by focusing on theoretical and methodological issues in the study of literacy and social context. Marilyn Adams confidently reiterates the cognitive science perspective on systematic phonics instruction in her chapter on “alphabetic anxiety,” or “the academic case against phonics” (p. 68). Richard Olson and Javier Gayan close this section with a new and open area of study for the 21st century. Twins studies are the focus of their chapter on “Brains, Genes, and Environment in Reading Development.”
With the exception of Gee’s understandings of a child’s multiple literacies, what links these different perspectives is the strong verbocentric, print-based conceptualization they bring to the study of early literacy. The image on the Handbook’s cover foreshadows itsemphasis on “young children and their understandings of print” (p. 3). A black and white photo of a young child is narrowly cropped in such a way that we focus upon a child’s hands, light, in contrast to a dark sweatshirt, resting on a large, open book. The child’s finger points to words. The image evokes questions. Who does this child represent? Who has access to books (or doesn’t)? What is the context? What are the child’s understandings of print (from the child’s point of view)? And what else can these young hands do? Viewed another way, the strength of the volume comes at a cost; the Handbook’s index, for example, contains no major entries for creativity, art, drama, music, multiple intelligences, or integrated instruction.
Who, in the Handbook, interrupts the “print-based” text? Anne Dyson, a prestigious scholar and former teacher, focuses on writing, but highlights the range of children’s symbolic media. Children’s drawings, stories, and voices are valued and prominently displayed in figures and transcribed dialogues based on ethnographic data in classrooms. Kathleen Rosko and Susan Neuman’s research on activity setting in preschool environments hints at it. But, a chapter by Rebecca New on “Early Literacy and Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Rethinking the Paradigm,” is the most provocative. She looks outside American and inside Italian culture for alternate perspectives. New explores society’s purposes for schooling, expanded definitions of literacy, and the teacher-researcher’s insider role as contributor of evidence-based research on classroom practices.
Current controversies are at play in the volume, some covertly, others overtly. Several chapters allude to an ongoing “reading war” between scholars from traditional and holistic perspectives and practices, phonics and whole language, for example. The issue seems to be underplayed with the latter being underrepresented, or silenced. Overt attention is given to the highly charged issue of early literacy assessment characterized by disparate discourses of disability/deficit and ability/strength. These discourses alternate throughout the volume. An undercurrent is the politics of literacy teaching.
Taking informed action based on the issues discussed here is ultimately personal and political. The editors highlight a few future challenges, but leave readers to reconcile the polyvocality of different kinds of research and discourses. The Handbook interrupts “one size fits all” notions of education and is an important contribution to stimulating local, national, and international dialogues on the literacy needs of all children. Now, more than ever, all fields must work together.
Cassidy, J., & Cassidy, D. (2001/2002, December/January). What’s hot, what’s not for 2002. Reading Today, 19(3), pp. 1, 18, 19.