Thoughts about the NELP report from Laura Westberg

I am pleased that the report of the National Early Literacy Panel, Developing Early Literacy, has finally been released! Integrating early literacy skills such as phonological awareness, oral language, alphabet knowledge, early writing and print awareness meaningfully into the daily schedule and preschool environment will create opportunities for young children to build a strong foundation for reading success. Along with a preschool or kindergarten program that is literacy-focused, the NELP found that professional development of staff can have a big impact on children’s reading readiness, so preparing teachers to provide the best instruction will be essential.

There are two things from the NELP report that should affect significantly the kinds of things that educators and parents are doing with young children. The first is related to the broad impact of programs and approaches that provide “code-focused” instruction. This instruction is targeted to helping children learn the sounds of our language and how those sounds are related to the letters of our language and eventually supports their ability to read words. When children are engaged in this kind of instruction, it improves not only a broad range of early literacy skills, but more conventional literacy skills such as reading and spelling. It will be critical that children have educational experiences that provide this kind of instruction — learning the letters of the alphabet and the sounds of those letters.

It was surprising to the NELP that oral language was found to be a weak predictor of later reading success. However, once the panel examined oral language more fully, it determined that more complex oral language skills like listening comprehension, grammar and learning what words mean are more strongly related to higher reading achievement. This means that a focus on vocabulary alone will not be sufficient for helping children to become good readers. We will need to ensure that children have opportunities to learn the more complex oral language skills, as well as new vocabulary, during the preschool years.

I know that the NELP report does not provide all the answers to what we want to know about young children’s early literacy development, but it certainly gives us much to think about and implement for improving literacy.  It is now our responsibility to take the findings, translate them into good literacy practices and implement those practices in early childhood programs. We must also support parents in learning how best to help their children learn language and how to read. The NELP took the work it did and what it would mean for all young children very seriously!

I encourage you to visit NCFL’s website to check out the NELP Executive Summary and read the full technical report. Also, NCFL developed the Verizon Literacy Program-Self Assessment Tool (VLP-SAT) to help programs assess their early literacy instructional and assessment practices. This tool is aligned with the findings of the NELP and can assist programs in identifying strengths and areas for growth. Another great resource for early childhood practitioners and parents is the Cultivating Readers magazine, which is available from NCFL’s website.

I, along with the NELP, am passing the torch on to you to take what the panel learned and use it to make a difference in children’s lives!

— Laura Westberg