Scaffolding of Emergent Literacy Skills

Scaffolding of Emergent Literacy Skills in the Home Environment,” Neumann, Neumann and Hood sought to discover the effect that home learning, through a child’s parents, could have on emergent literacy skills. The researchers were particularly interested in the effect of the scaffolding strategy, which consists of the teacher (in this case, the parent) modeling the task that they are trying to teach and then gradually transferring the task to the child in the hopes that he or she will follow the model the teacher or parent has demonstrated. Another factor that interested the researchers was the use of “environmental print” as opposed to typical reading materials. Environmental print is described by the researchers as print on everyday items such as “product labels, clothing, road signs and advertisements” (p. 314).

Learning the shapes and sounds of letters from environmental print was the primary educational task. The main reasons that the researchers chose to use environmental print over traditional reading materials was that they are more informal and less expensive. However it has also been known to help a child’s conceptual development in terms of associating meaning with certain objects that contain printed material, which are encountered on a routine basis.

The article is based on a single subject case study; namely a six-year-old child named Harry, whose mother had been recording the nature of important verbal exchanges and “literary interactions” that had occurred since he was two years old. Specific efforts were made by Harry’s mother to raise his “print awareness” through repetition and scaffolding techniques. For example, the mother would trace and repeat the letters on a food package, encouraging Harry to do the same. He would then respond by imitating his mother’s tracing motions until he learned the shape and feel of the letter. He would then repeat the sound of the letter out loud with her until he learned the sound of the letter. This type of technique was used on Harry every day from the age of two.

As he got older, Harry was able to distinguish print from pictures more easily and also began to spontaneously point out environmental print. According to the article, “The mother used a multisensory approach to scaffold the learning of letter shapes. Such an approach can lead a child to process and retain language knowledge more efficiently” (p. 315).

Over time, Harry began to initiate letter tracing all on his own — he no longer needed his mother to cue him to trace and sound out letters on environmental print, on plastic letter magnets or in books. He became increasingly adept at identifying letters in different contexts, while his mother recorded his progress regularly. He was enthusiastic and seemed to enjoy identifying the letters in environmental print. This is consistent with the researchers’ understanding that young children tend to enjoy working with in the context of environmental print.

Similar techniques were used to enhance Harry’s writing skills. The article includes visual examples of how Harry’s writing and drawing progressed at ages two, three, four, five and six. While it was determined that for the most part his progression was “normal,” there were occasions when he reached certain benchmarks prior to the average timeline. This advancement was attributed in great part to the scaffolding techniques employed by Harry’s mother. As the article states, “Observations indicated that Harry’s print motivation during the parent-child interactions with environmental print and joint-writing activities was high” (p. 317).

This high enthusiasm and ability are assumed to be in direct relation to the scaffolding techniques employed by the mother throughout Harry’s early development. Therefore the researchers achieved their goal of providing parents with techniques that they can use to enhance their child’s emergent literacy in the home, without great expense. This is supposed to help the child be better prepared for entering the first grade and make the task of teaching him to read and write much easier once he is in school. This is of course only a single-subject case study and although it occurred over a long period of time with very meticulous note taking on the part of the mother, as the authors admit, more research is needed on a larger population to truly confirm the findings.

Nonetheless, there are numerous ways in which this research can have applications to classroom practice for English Language Learners. For example, it demonstrates that it is extremely important for children to start learning to read and write early. This is true for all children, but especially for ELL and special education students. There can be difficulties however even if the process is started early. For example dyslexia can cause children to reverse the letters, which can cause serious delays in learning to read and write properly. There could also be sight or hearing problems that make reading and writing difficult, and there can be attention deficit disorder problems that make it difficult to concentrate. I would need to adjust the scaffolding technique to meet these special needs by adjusting the lesson to fit the student’s unique visual, spatial, auditory and cognitive functions. For example, the use of “private speech” could be incorporated for auditory learners who have trouble concentrating. According to Neuman et al. (2009):

“Private speech refers to a child providing their own audible instructions during a challenging task. In a study of 5-year-old kindergarten children, Bodrova and Leong used materialization by drawing lines to represent units of speech in written form. Private speech was also used by encouraging the child to reread aloud what had been written so that it prompted the next word the child had planned to write. Both techniques helped the children to move within their zone of proximal development.”

Of course, healthy children with no impairments can experience difficulties in the learning process also, especially if they are learning English as a second language. For all of these children, it is important to be consistent, to reward them for doing well and to make reading and writing as fun an activity as possible.

Additionally, engagement with environmental media is an area of reading development that is becoming increasingly popular due to its ability to connect contextual elements with the developmental process. Therefore, after reading about the experiences of Harry, I feel confident that combining the use of environmental media with the strategy of scaffolding in my classroom could definitely produce the type of positive results that are described in the article.


Neumann, M.M., Hood, M. & Neumann, D.L. (2009) the scaffolding of emergent literacy skills in the home environment: A case study. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36, 313-319.

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