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Becoming literate: An ethnographic study of young children coming to literacy

Ann M Courtney, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study reconstructed the world of five children, aged 19 months to 24 months at the beginning of the study, coming to literacy in a day care center over a three and a half year period. This study utilized the ethnographic methods of participant observation, in-depth interviewing, informal casual interviewing and conversations, audiotaping and videotaping. The respective parents, teachers and the Center Director were formally and informally interviewed.^ Addressing the questions how do children become literate and how do significant others directly and indirectly socialize children to literacy this study suggests several points. First, teachers were culture bearers who consciously and unconsciously organized a supportive literacy environment that developed out of their particular cultural orientation in which literacy was taken for granted. Second, meaning making occurred in an interactive collaboration between the children and the teacher. Third, teachers modeled literacy behaviors for the children and in turn the children learned these behaviors and demonstrated them for their peers. Fourth, as children learned more literacy knowledge they became more capable in the meaning making process by themselves. Fifth, the events of literacy learning were most influenced by the mutual social relationships among the children. Children served as models, supports and partners for their peers in the meaning making process. Children learned literacy from interacting with adults and other children, talking and writing with adults and other children, from books that were read to them and that they read, and from the demonstrations and support of their teachers and peers. Sixth, much learning went on in the crevices of classroom life and this learning was not directed by the teachers. Seventh, group circle reading was initially used to socialize the children to the extra-literate rules for group participation.^ This study identified key dimensions that this particular social group provided for their children. The findings in this ethnography cannot be approached as universal, but instead are culture specific. This ethnography offers ways of looking, thinking, and talking about early socialization to literacy. ^

Subject Area

Reading instruction

Recommended Citation

Courtney, Ann M, "Becoming literate: An ethnographic study of young children coming to literacy" (1987). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI8805904.