A later version of this paper is in press for B. Spodek & O. Saracho (Eds.), Handbook of Research on the Education of Young Children. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. This version © 2004 by Kelvin Seifert. All rights reserved.


Cognitive Development and the Education of Young Children

by Kelvin L. Seifert, University of Manitoba

This chapter is about how the cognitive development of young children can be affected by early childhood programs. It therefore does not describe "everything" that psychologists know or believe about cognitive development in young children. Others have already offered general overviews thoroughly and thoughtfully; see, for example, Volume 3 of the Handbook of Child Psychology (Mussen, Flavell, & Markman,1998), or the more British-oriented volume Childhood Cognitive Development (Goswami, 2002). Since I only have one chapter in which to work, I will necessarily be more selective about topics, focusing especially on matters central to preschool and primary education. Some readers may therefore find the chapter frustratingly unbalanced. They may wonder why I have reduced or omitted topics that get more attention in other forums. Or they may, on the other hand, wonder whether certain developments described in detail in this chapter really count as "cognitive development," since the topics sometimes get classified as non-cognitive elsewhere. As the author, I take responsibility for any such frustrations. But I will try to persuade you that selectivity both is appropriate and is the cost of relevance to early childhood education.

My guiding assumption will be that early childhood education is not about young children as such, but about how teachers and children form relationships that mutually influence each other and that especially influence children. I assume that if I am an early childhood teacher, I will not be satisfied with simply knowing and observing the behavior and capacities of children in general or of my classroom of children in particular. I will also want to do something with my knowledge, even if doing something just means exclaiming how pleased I am with my children’s accomplishments. As a teacher, I will often do more than this, of course: I may engage children in further activities that extend their interests, motives, and abilities. But to call myself a teacher of the young, I must connect with them somehow, which means interacting, relating, and touching their lives in valuable ways.

Given this perspective and given a focus on the needs of early childhood educators, certain theories and topics about human change and functioning get "promoted" in value to the exclusion of others. As a rule, theories that highlight social influence or collaborative processes are more useful to teachers of young children than viewpoints that leave human interaction out of the picture. A number of classical distinctions become more useful if integrated rather than separated: the classic differences between mind and body, for example, or between thought and feeling, the individual and the social world, or observation and intervention (Seifert, 2001). These binaries will not disappear in this chapter, but they will be more helpful to us as educators if we remember their mutual dependence, especially in the worlds of young children. Integrating the classic binaries alters how we think of "cognition," turning cognitive development into more of a project shared with others, and less of one marked by distancing from the social, emotional, or physical.

Adopting a relational perspective about cognitive development makes obvious sense for aspects of classroom life that are explicitly social, such as the formation of peer relationships or the effect of early attachments on preschoolers’ behavior. What may be harder to believe may be that a similarly social or collaborative perspective is both possible and helpful for developmental activities that seem less inherently social—including the topic of children’s thinking in particular. We tend to regard cognition as a skill expressed independently—something that is acquired and displayed alone even in the most activity-oriented, developmentally appropriate classroom. But from an adult’s perspective, the independence is illusory: seen in broader context, even a child working alone is still a partner with teachers, peers, and (as I will also argue) unseen others in learning and thinking. Teachers therefore need ways to understand and work with children that acknowledge these partnerships fully. That, at least, is what I will argue below.

I begin the chapter by clarifying key ambiguities in the concepts of development and of cognitive development in particular. The clarifications will assist in locating the research topics described in the chapter within the larger landscape of developmental theorizing. The topics themselves definitely do not cover the field of child development as an academic field, but they are arguably the two most central concerns of early childhood educators as professionals: pretend play and literacy. Pretend play is especially important to educators working with the youngest children and who seek to provide them with the most developmentally appropriate practice possible. As it turns out, pretend play also clearly supports the claim that cognitive development in early childhood is "really" social. The benefits of this people-oriented activity are very real, but definitely not confined to the social. Because of the focus of the chapter, I will not in fact focus on the social importance of pretend play, but on how pretend play connects to and stimulates particular cognitive skills in young children. As we will see, the cognitive skills are ones that early childhood teachers value, and that they can encourage deliberately.

The other area of research discussed, literacy development, is especially important to educators working with "older" young children. Because the research shows the importance of the preschool years for literacy, however, the chapter will focus on emergent literacy during both the preschool and early school-years periods. Although some readers may feel that literacy belongs in a chapter on curriculum studies than one about developmental psychology, I will argue the contrary: that literacy both influences and is influenced by cognitive development in early childhood. As these comments suggest, however, the term development can have several meanings—a problem that can cause confusion when not understood. Before going further, therefore, the various meanings of development should be clarified.


Multiple Meanings of Development

When we speak of child development, we usually mean some sort of change, but we are often unclear about the sort of change that we mean (Overton, 1998). At times we point to quantitative variations among individuals, or refer to simple comparisons of older and younger children. This is what we are doing when we say that "older children are taller than younger children," or "children gradually acquire larger vocabularies." At other times, we talk about transformations within individuals, usually of a qualitative nature. Transformation seems to be what is meant, for example, when we say that "during the preschool years, children become able to tell imaginary stories"—highlighting the fact that they could not do so formerly (Valsiner, 1998).

We can also be ambiguous about the purpose or function of developmental change in children. In some contexts, we seem to be concerned with the instrumental aspects of development—its impact on the rest of us. We study changes in skills, behaviors, or concepts to learn how and why a child can fits in socially or remains an outcast, becomes fair-minded or dishonest in dealing with others, or passes academic tests satisfactorily or not. Instrumental effects are what we are talking about when we say, for example, that "developing phonemic decoding skills allows a young child to succeed in first grade." Reading is framed in this sentence as a technical skill, relevant for its contribution to other purposes. In Piagetian terms, instrumental understandings of development are about accommodation to the world. In other situations, however, we seem to be concerned with how development expresses or enacts the nature of the child, regardless of effects on others. This is what we mean when we say, "four-year-olds’ need for make-believe is so strong that they will use almost anything as a prop." Here we are talking about assimilation, about children being themselves.

Such multiplicity of meanings creates both confusion and enrichment in research on child development and in the practice of early childhood education. In this chapter I will therefore try to minimize the former and enhance the latter by being as explicit as possible about the sorts of development is being discussed. As it happens, most developmental changes, including cognitive ones in young children, are developmental in more than one way. Children’s pretend play, for example, shows both individual variation and transformation at some level, and both adjustment to the world and the intrinsic nature of the child. Yet the research on developmental changes does not always remind us of this basic state of affairs, simply because agendas and purposes of individual studies and research studies tend to be relatively specific. Research on play, for example, highlights transformations and explications of the child’s nature relatively often. Research on literacy is apt to concern itself with individual variations and the child’s accommodations to the world. In this chapter I will not point out such underlying differences in emphasis every time they occur, but I will try to point them out when they are important to understanding the significance of research. Hopefully the result will be a more well-rounded picture of children’s cognitive development.


Children’s Pretend Play and Thinking

As teachers and parents know, preschool children engage in a lot of pretend play, at least in middle-class modern societies. Yet even though play often has a distinctly social flavor, it seems to build distinctly cognitive skills, and may thus constitute a bridge between the social world and the more individualistic world of cognitive skills (Lillard, 2002; Saracho & Spodek, 2003; Sutton-Smith, 1997). For this purpose, play involving pretense is especially important for cognition. Pretense affects thinking in three ways: by its effect on reading others’ intentions, by its encouragement of social referencing, and by its requirement of distinguishing between the real and the imaginary. Exactly how these rather social-looking skills evolve within a child, and how they are supported by the child’s world is not always clear from existing research. But several plausible hypotheses and interpretations exist, and they are explained later in this section. In spite of their partially speculative status, the explanations are useful for early childhood educators, because they suggest not only rationales for justifying play to parents and the public, but also ways of planning play in daily practice.

Reading Others’ Intentions

By definition, pretend play always implies absence: "cooking" happens without real food present, plastic sand toys become hats, a "pet dog" is led around a room without the real dog present, and so on. To make sense of such pretenses, a child needs to supply the missing elements cognitively. He or she must realize that a banana held to the ear is still really a banana, and that it is only a "telephone" because one or more play actors deem it to be one symbolically. Although the symbolism is usually only implied and not stated, even very young preschoolers can frequently infer them—a distinctly cognitive achievement. In a study to explore this idea, Tomasello, Striano, & Rochat (1999) showed that when preschoolers were shown a hammering motion without a hammer, for example, they often selected a real hammer in response. Even two-year-olds responded in this way at significantly more than chance rates. When the symbolism is more complex or unfamiliar than in this experiment, of course, it seems likely that the intentions of make-believe actors may be misunderstood and/or lost on younger preschoolers. It will be hard to understand what peers are doing when they "play school," for example, if a three-year-old has had no experience yet with the typical behaviors of teachers or pupils. But discerning the meaning of more complex pretend play will still be facilitated by the key motivating assumption: that players do mean something by their peculiar (in this case school-like) behaviors. Carefully observing others’ responses in such situations will help even further.

Social Referencing

Social referencing means observing someone else’s responses in order to decide how to respond to an ambiguous situation. Individuals of all ages perform this behavior; it is triggered in adult social gatherings, for example, when someone makes a remark that is not heard clearly or that is poorly understood. In order to know how to respond (laugh? look serious? ignore it?), puzzled individuals will note how others are responding. Not surprisingly, infants and young children engage in social referencing a good deal. In the classic visual cliff experiments, for example, even one-year-old infants tended not to crawl across a clear glass drop-off if their mothers showed a negative facial expression. But they were much more likely to take this "chance" if their mothers showed a positive expression (Campos, 1980; Mumme, Fernald, & Herrera, 1996).

In general it seems likely that parents and other adults may often assist pretend play in a similar way, by orchestrating play episodes indirectly with their own smiles, frowns, and directed gaze. Experienced peers may also provide similar social referencing for play, though not necessarily to the same extent or in the same ways. Whatever the source, social referencing may guide a preschooler’s efforts to identify any missing referents in pretend play. In pretending to eat a snack, for example, a mother might display more exaggerated smiles or direct their gaze at the child or at particular objects more intently than usual. The behaviors would signal that "something is not as it seems," and indirectly challenge the child to think discern precisely what objects or actions are being played out. In this way the mother’s behaviors could create a sort of zone of proximal development (ZPD), in the Vygotskian sense.

Distinguishing Reality and Appearance

Pretend play is like insanity in that the players seem to take leave of reality. But truly insane persons, pretend players also imply that they have not taken leave of reality by indicating somehow that what they are doing is "only" play—only a way of looking at reality, not reality itself. As some social observers have put it, during play, pretense is framed or "quarantined" from reality, not confused with it (Goffman, 1974). In a sense, because pretense is an exploration of what reality might be, it constitutes a narratively oriented form of hypothetical thinking or counterfactual thinking. Obviously, the hypothesizing in pretend play emerges much earlier than the more expository type of hypothesizing posited by Piaget as a marker of adolescence (Piaget, 1963). Even young children (ages 4 or 5) can reason with counter-factual syllogisms if they are recast as imaginary stories (Goswami, 2002; Harris, 2000). It is a phenomenon familiar to many early childhood teachers: a formal set of propositions ("All bananas are purple; this is a banana; therefore…") becomes surprisingly manageable if recast in imaginary terms ("Let’s pretend that all bananas are purple…"). In this way too, therefore, the social activity of pretense may lay groundwork for development of more solitary forms of cognition, such as abstract deductive reasoning.

But there are also times when social play can trigger cognitive confusion instead of increased cognitive clarity. Preschool children confuse reality and imagination in matters, for example, about which adults intentionally deceive them (Clark, 1995). Santa Claus is a benign example of intentional deception and resulting confusion, but less happy examples also exist, such as when adults mislead a child about the true severity of a parent’s illness or a parent’s misbehavior. Preschool children can also become confused when a play episode is frightening (Bourchier & Davis, 2000): as with many older children and adults, preschoolers can "talk themselves into" believing in the scary monsters, ghosts, and such like, even though the children themselves have invented the monsters. In these cases a child seems to be responding to persisting internal physiological signs of fear (the adrenal rush, etc.), and apparently forgets the original trigger for the physiological signs, which are the child’s own thinking (Harris, 2000). The forgetfulness is much like the process of negative rumination described in adults by cognitive behavior therapists (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002), in which mature individuals fail to notice that their own negative thoughts, not anything "real," create anxiety and fear. In either case—whether with child or adult—"as if" thinking remains delayed or impaired.

How Pretend Play Affects Cognitive Development

Pretend play lies at an intersection of social experience and cognitive development in early childhood. Developmental psychologists have offered a number of explanations for how the social and cognitive connect through play, most of them based on the "double consciousness" (of reality and its representation) needed for successful make-believe. In addition to the ideas mentioned in the previous section, developmental explanations have focused on how play both uses and encourages metacognition, how it depends on decentration in the Piagetian sense, and on the cognitive impact of social-role taking. Studies to assess these possibilities have been conducted and have generally provided at least partial support for each of them.

Metacognition Some developmentalists have argued that pretend play stimulates the emergence of metacognition, or the ability to think about one’s own thinking (Bateson, 1972; Taylor, 1999). The argument can be summarized as follows. First, it seems reasonable that children at play are aware of the fact that they are playing, even if they are initially aware only intuitively and cannot articulate the fact verbally. Second, it also seems reasonable that time and experience at playing would bring the early intuitive awareness into consciousness. But conscious awareness of pretense amounts to a form of metacognition—of "knowing what you are saying, doing, or thinking"—since it depends on holding both appearance and reality in mind. Perhaps, concludes the argument, the metacognition that develops from play also generalizes to other, non-playful cognitive activities (Sawyer, 1997; Taylor, 1999). Playing with manipulatives, for example, facilitates the early development of numeracy and mathematical skills (Uttal, 2003).

As it happens, research about children’s "theory of mind" (for example, false-belief tasks) does find a correlation between certain kinds of pretend play and skill at understanding the mental states of other people (Wellman, 2002). In this sense it gives support to the idea that play promotes metacognitive awareness even beyond the arena of play itself. The kind of pretense that supports awareness of others’ mental states, however, is socially oriented—make-believe play with other children or adults, as opposed to make-believe play engaged in by the child when alone. The metacognitive benefits of solitary play, if any, remain ambiguous. If they do exist, they will be revealed outside the realm of false-belief and theory-of-mind tasks.

Decentration Another way of describing the cognitive skills needed for pretense is to view it as a type of Piagetian decentration (Piaget, 1962), or shift from a single perspective or point to view to a coordinated, multiple points of view. The classic Piagetian example of decentration involves showing a child a table with a model of three mountains on it, and observing whether the child can imagine how the mountains would look from the other side of the table. Decentration of this basic type is correlated with skills in pretend play, but only if the play involves other persons (Rubin, et al., 1983; Lillard, 2002). Solitary pretense is not related—a finding with implications for early childhood teachers, and therefore one that deserves discussion later in this chapter.

The connection between decentration and social play is not surprising, however, given the nature of pretend play and of the concept of decentration. Successful pretense involves imagining how play behaviors look or feel not only to the actor, but also to viewers and fellow actors (Sawyer, 1997). At the simplest level, coordination of viewpoints may involve matters as simple as remembering to face interlocutors or audience members, or remembering to speak lines explicitly (and not just to imagine speaking them). At more complex levels, the coordination with other perspectives becomes a matter of playing your make-believe part in a way that others will understand and recognize. It therefore shades into the social role-taking described in the next section.

Social Role-Taking Developmental psychologists have also suggested that pretend play promotes cognition by requiring children to "get into" or empathize as fully as possible with the roles that they enact. This state of mind both requires and encourages sensitivity to human psychology and feelings, and hence also encourages general reflectiveness, self-awareness, and metacognition about social matters. Research observations on children at play are consistent with this explanation. Studies find, for example, that children engaged in pretend play use more internal state words than usual ("I feel X," "My doll feels Y"), and also find that the internal state words are transferred to situations outside play episodes themselves (Hughes & Dunn, 1997; Howe, et al., 1998). The transfer should not be surprising since pretend play, almost by definition, emphasizes human relationships, the expression of feelings, and the management of conflict. And these topics, by nature, depend on metacognition and decentration of various sorts: a child must know both that he is enacting a role and what he or she is enacting in order to engage in make-believe successfully. Outside the episodes themselves, furthermore, players may discuss, and even dispute, the proper allocation or enactment of dramatic roles. The disagreements and ensuing negotiations may themselves stimulate decentration and self-awareness both about the social roles in general and about many of the specific non-social elements of the roles. Put in the constructivist language of Piaget, the disagreements and negotiations stimulate disequilibrium about socially related concepts, and consequent rebalancing of assimilation and accommodation about these socially related concepts.

Using Play To Foster Cognitive Development

In general, then, it seems that pretend play does bridge the divide between social and cognitive development, and that it does so primarily when and if it provides social experiences. In this sense the research on pretend play confirms Vygotsky more directly than Piaget: children begin by thinking with others, or at the prompting of others, before they can think in the same ways alone (Vygotsky, 1978). Piaget’s more individualistic perspective calls attention to the converse possibility: that cognitive skills may also be reflected in or expressed in social arenas, such as in pretend play. While there is research evidence for this sort of influence (Piaget, 1945/1951), it is a less useful perspective for teachers, who deal with children primarily in social groups. In the typical classroom of young children, early childhood teachers assume the presence of many children and seek ways of working with individuals given the reality of groups, rather than the other way around. As a teacher, therefore, it seems especially pertinent to know how groups affect areas of individual development, including cognitive development.

The effects of children’s play are both variational and transformational, in the sense described at the start of this chapter. Obviously, play contributes to certain kinds of individual variations or differences in cognitive skills: some children become more metacognitive, decentred, etc. than others. But play also transforms each child individually: gradually a child at play becomes self-aware or "metacognitive" in a way that is truly new to that child. The novelty of the change and its cognitive basis may sometimes be overlooked because the developmental transformation may not at first seem like conventional, non-social expressions of cognition (e.g. classifying objects). Instead they may at first seem simply like stories or re-enactments carried out with increasing self-control and finesse.

All of which suggests that both the developmental variations and the developmental transformations present special challenges to teachers. The variations among children suggest a need give special assistance to those who are "behind," perhaps by offering greater opportunities to play or by scaffolding and supporting initial play for children unused to sustaining it on their own. At the same time, the personal transformations stimulated by play challenge teachers to see play for what it is and where it leads, and to explain this knowledge convincingly to others, such as parents or fellow educators. These other adults may perceive only the immediately visible differences between play and "real" (non-make-believe) thinking, and not the developmental connections underlying them (Roopnarine, 2003). Early childhood educators face the task of deepening such understanding and explaining to them how play contributes to the futures of children, not only socially but cognitively as well.

The fact that social pretend play seems more consistently beneficial than solitary make-believe suggests that early childhood educators should emphasize social forms of pretense in their programs: social pretend play apparently is a very developmentally appropriate practice (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Although this is not news to teachers and other professionals responsible for young children, it is reassuring nonetheless to find research support for a teaching practice that has had such widespread classroom appeal, at least in early childhood education.

But there remains the question of the effects of non-social play on cognitive development—the effects of the "practice play" described in classical Piagetian theory and of make-believe play engaged in by children individually. For several reasons, in spite of the research described above, it would be a mistake to restrict opportunities for such play in early childhood programs. One reason is that doing so overlooks the many social elements often hidden in ostensibly "non-social" episodes of play. A child building a road in a sand box alone, for example, is usually not cut off from the social world unless the child is effectively autistic. In most cases, this particular solitary, practice-oriented activity is likely either to have grown out of previous activities or knowledge learned from others, or to be a rehearsal for similar activities involving others in the future. In these ways the non-social pretend play serves the needs of social pretend play.

In any case, favoring play activities for their contributions to other human developments is to confuse the instrumental and expressive aspects of play described earlier at the beginning of this chapter. Play, whatever its form, is only partly "for" other developmental or social purposes; it is always also an expression of a human need, at least in modern society. As such it is valuable even when "useless" for furthering a child’s cognitive development (Ariel, 2002; Elkind, 2001). Non-social play therefore still deserves educators’ support, if only to honor the human needs of children. To do otherwise turns non-social play activities into useless educational "frills," and ironically renders social forms of play into educational "course requirements."

The final word is not yet in about correlations of non-social play with cognitive development. Piaget’s explanation its functions—that practice and non-social play stimulates development of later cognitive operations—has face validity, but research testing the explanation has found many qualifications that limit its generality (Case, 1998). Still, non-social play may have instrumental functions, such as fostering particular non-verbal or non-social forms of intelligence (Gardner, 1983, 1999), or such as organizing existing ideas or experience, including emotional experience (Erikson, 1977; Chazan, 2002; Ariel, 2003). It is quite possible, because it has happened so often elsewhere in the field of developmental studies, that the most important benefits of non-social play have not yet been identified. The Piagetian literature, for example, is full of research showing that small changes in experimental tasks can create large differences in outcomes (Gelman & Baillargeon, 1998). Context may also matter a lot with children’s play: seemingly small changes in the conditions of play may significantly change its meaning to children and its functions for their development.

In fact, for those who serve children and who use developmental research rather than create it, an obvious limitation of existing research on play is its tendency toward narrow definitions of social context. The limitation is a bit ironic considering the respect often paid to contextual influences in principle (Rogoff, 2003; Gauvain, 2001). In general, studies of play tend to take account only of a child’s immediate surroundings. If playmates are included, they tend to consist of only one or two parents or immediate relatives, or of a few peers. If interactions are studied, they tend to be dyadic (one-to-one), not group oriented. If the physical setting is noted, it tends to consist of a home living room, an experimental laboratory room, or a classroom. A culture in which children are segregated from the world of adults tends to be selected for study, or even taken for granted. The conceptual starting points reflect cultural assumptions and practices of Western, middle-class society, which admittedly will make the greatest use of the research. But the starting points also tend to overlook many richer, more exotic meanings of social context that might help in understanding the "local" (i.e. Western) culture more fully.

In the case of non-social play, an overly narrow definition of "social context" may obscure children’s reasons for playing non-socially—reasons that might paradoxically have social origins and consequences if definitions of context were expanded. If, for example, preschool peer groups sometimes re-enact social prejudices of the larger society in spite of teachers’ efforts to the contrary, certain children may find that social "play" is actually less playful than is assumed in most research studies (see Cohen, 1994). Or suppose, for another example, that certain children come from families or cultures that do not segregate children from adult activities as strongly as do white middle-class North Americans. For these children, the notion of playing with others will carry a different meaning than Western-oriented researchers expect: playing with a single age group may seem limiting to such children, not enriching, and they may consequently rely on peers less than usual for models, motivators of action, and confidantes. In both of these examples, social "play" may be less than playful to the children themselves. For early childhood teachers, such possibilities suggest a need for balance and thoughtfulness in providing opportunities for "play" as normally understood. No form of play, it seems, may be helpful for every child, all of the time (Rogoff, et al., 2003).

As in other education-related research, the effort of developmental studies to be scientific by focusing observations and conclusions has limited its usefulness to teachers. For the topic of play discussed here, in particular, it is well and good to conclude that social pretend play generally helps children’s thinking and that early childhood educators should therefore provide for it. But educators have more precise curriculum needs and more precise hopes for the cognitive development of their children. Most of the time, they seek to encourage not just thinking in general, but particular kinds of thinking skills. Although there is a long list of potentially desirable cognitive skills to foster, the most notable among them are the skills of literacy—the traditional backbone of the early public schooling. The expected level and type of literacy depends, of course, on the age and maturity of the children served. Teachers working with five-year-olds will have different expectations than those serving toddlers, and both will hold different expectations than teachers of seven- or eight-year-olds in the primary grades. It is important to note, though, that even those serving the youngest of children will seek to foster attitudes, skills, and knowledge that will help literacy to emerge. The next section therefore looks at this area in two ways: how cognitive development facilitates literacy, and how literacy in turn affects children’s cognitive development.


The Emergence of Literacy and Cognitive Development

Literacy and cognition influence each other’s development to a significant extent: not only do emerging cognitive skills set limits on early reading and writing, but reading and writing also affect the organization and dynamics of children’s thought. Yet the mutual influence is not total and not equivalent to mutual causality. Like other forms of cognition, literacy skills are affected importantly by social opportunities and human motivations. This section explains each of these ideas in turn.

Cognitive Developments That Facilitate Literacy


For most children, literacy begins as a way of representing the world on paper (Olson, 1996). The first signs emerge in the preschool years, and involve treating words or letters as emblems or signs that stand directly for familiar objects, people, or events. A child may "read" the name of her favorite cereal on the cereal box, using some combination of the letters, words, or pictures on the box. In doing so, the child seems to make a fundamentally mistaken assumption: that the text represents or refers to something in the world directly, much the way that oral language represents or refers to the world directly (Adams, Treiman, & Pressley, 1998). On the cereal box, for example, the printed word Cheerios is taken to stand for the cereal and/or the box itself, not for the word "cheerios." The assumption of direct correspondence is not unreasonable given children’s (and adults’) experience with oral language, in which a spoken word such as "cheerios" refers to nothing linguistic as such, but to a tangible object or activity. As the child will eventually learn, however, generalizing the function of print from the function of oral language is incorrect: print is not, strictly speaking, "about" the world, but "about" a way of representing language.

Evidence for the initial, mistaken hypothesis about print can be seen in observations of preschoolers’ mistakes when reading. At this age, the mistakes tend to honor the context of a textual passage rather than its graphemic details. If an illustration shows a boy walking, for example, along with just one (mysterious) word printed as a caption, a four-year-old may be as likely to "read" (i.e. guess) that the word as boy, walk, or child. Any of these "readings" may be reasonable given the context or meaning of the text, but they show little relationship to each other graphemically or to clues in the printed caption.

By guessing correctly much of the time, context-oriented reading can sometimes look like the real thing and therefore conceal a child’s inability to new or unfamiliar words and sentences. The impression of real reading is especially likely if a preschooler has memorized his or her favorite stories by hearing them read repeatedly. If a child has heard the "Three Bears" ten times, he or she may be able to recite large parts of it verbatim on the eleventh time, much like reciting a poem or singing a song by heart. The result can look like mature reading, but with a difference: on request, the child might demonstrate a skill that no mature reader ever has, namely "reading" with eyes closed (Biemiller, 1979, 1999).

A year or two later, when schooling begins, formal instruction may undermine the initially blithe reliance on context, and instill doubts about its universal appropriateness. Around age five or six in our society, most children begin realizing that printed text refers most directly to something linguistic—to particular words or sentences—and that it refers to the world only indirectly, via the particular words inscribed in print. In the short term, this insight can sometimes spoil the fluency (a.k.a. memorization) shown in earlier reading. Now the child may pause longer and hesitate more often, or simply fall silent when faced with what he or she knows is a decoding task to which the child has no sure solution. It can be tempting to interpret the change as regression in a child’s reading ability, or as the result of overbearing or poor teaching practices. But a more optimistic interpretation is also possible: silence and hesitation may signify the new insight that print does represent language rather than the world. The new insight prompts uncertainty about the significance of certain letters, words, or sentences. The child knows that some sort of decoding is necessary, but for awhile that may be all that the child knows.

For most children, reading skills begin developing in earnest sometime during the first year of formal schooling, which happens at about age six. In spite of the predictions of some whole language theorists, emerging literacy seems to cause children to pay less attention to contextual cues (e.g. pictures or associated oral comments), and more attention to exactly what is printed on the page (Pressley, et al.,1997; Snowling, 2002). Evidence again comes from misreadings, which increasingly imply knowledge of spelling conventions and letter-sound correspondences. In the example described earlier of a captioned picture of a boy walking, the young reader would be more likely to inspect graphemic features of the "mystery" caption than in the past. If he or she noted a "b" at the start of the word, he or she might piece this fact together with prior knowledge of words known to start with this letter. Combining clues from the picture and any mental "files" of words starting with "b," the reader might come up with a correct reading of the word (e.g. boy). Even if the child chooses the wrong word, the error is more likely to honor features of the print than at earlier points in reading development: the child might note the word has three letters, for example, and erroneously choose another "b" word with three letters (bag, bad, big,…).

For most children the overall impression conveyed at this level of development is one of effortful, but halting success. When properly understood, the effortful reading marks a definite advance over the non-responses and "fluent guess-work" that characterized earlier efforts. But effortful achievement is also prone to misperception by adults. When reading is observed only casually or occasionally, it might suggest that reading instruction has spoiled the fun of reading, turned literacy into work, and placed it far behind speaking and listening as a medium for communication and learning. And in the short term, there is a grain of truth in these criticisms. In the long term, however, the picture gets more complicated. Although most children and youth continue learning (i.e. improving) their reading for many years, and while some struggle with literacy for their entire lives, most eventually become skillful enough to render reading and writing productive for many purposes (Biemiller, 1999). In spite of the prevalence of reading disabilities among school children, the majority of children are "reading to learn" instead of "learning to read" by the late elementary years.

Note that this account of reading development is constructivist in the sense that it portrays the child as actively and autonomously choosing among rather general strategies to guide learning. Yet literacy acquisition can be interpreted just as reasonably in terms of information processing (Adams, 2001). From this perspective, the young child does not initially adopt a hypothesis about print that happens to be wrong. Rather, the child is unable at first to keep two things in mind at once—both the word and its meaning. In information processing terms, the young preschooler lacks enough working memory for both of this equation, and does not develop a "big" enough memory until the early or mid-elementary years (Case & Okamoto, 1998). In the meantime the meaning of printed text dominates the child’s attention, presumably because meaning has greater immediate utility. In the cereal box example described earlier, for example, the box cover gives more cues and reinforcements for knowing that cheerios are inside, than for knowing how to decode and sound out the letters c-h-e-e-r-i-o-s. Eventually the focus on meaning changes as the child’s working memory increases with time and age, and as the environment begins encouraging attention to the details of print, as well as to its meaning. Whoever undertakes the initial instruction, then, faces the intriguing task of diagnosing and respecting the child’s cognitive readiness or lack thereof, while at the same time prompting the child to increase the readiness. As the next section shows, nudging children into "higher" states of cognition about print is tricky, because it involves creating phonemic awareness.

A Major Challenge: Phonemic Awareness

Most research suggests that success in early reading is strongly associated with awareness of phonemes (Adams, et al., 1998; Adams, 2001). Sensitivity to English phonemes provides mental categories useful in decoding printed text, in part because English orthography records or preserves many phonemes in its spelling (or graphemic) conventions, even though English orthography is only mediocre at recording its sounds phonetically. As a child achieves this insight, he or she can use it to make reasonable guesses about spelling, as well as do the converse of guessing how unfamiliar words should be pronounced. Orthographic clues (spelling) are not foolproof (we all sometimes mispronounce unfamiliar words), but they are helpful nonetheless.

In spite of the importance of phonemic awareness, however, it is not self-evident how early childhood teachers might help children to develop this skill, simply because phonemes are not acoustically observable (or audible). Acoustically, normal speech does not contain separations between most sounds, but instead flows continuously. Slowing speech down to aid hearing the individual sounds is not necessarily helpful, since doing so alters the sounds phonetically, often making them unrecognizable as versions of a phoneme (Meyer, 2002). In any case, phonemes are actually not specific phonetic sounds (like the initial sound of the word big), but groups or categories of sounds that are treated as equivalent (like the various sounds indicated by the letter t in tip, bitten, and cat) by a language community. Becoming phonemically aware, then, means learning which sounds to treat as equivalent.

Yet in spite of the inaccessibility of phonemes, good readers somehow figure out phonemic groupings, and do so better than non-readers and struggling readers. How do they do it, and why do other children sometimes fail to do it? Phonemic awareness apparently calls for a form of abstract cognition—the creation and use of mental categories in linguistic contexts. Even though the categories are strictly mental, the child must learn them and "know" about them at least at an unconscious level. Early childhood teachers therefore have the challenging job of getting children to notice and learn something that neither they nor the teachers can experience directly, but can only infer from what they hear. On the face of it, this goal would seem to be developmentally inappropriate.

That said, it is still true that some degree of phonemic awareness may be teachable if teachers can just find effective ways of doing it. A variety of curricula and programs in fact exist for this purpose, based on various combinations of oral language activities (Adams, 1998, 2001; McGee, 2003; Goswami, 2001; Pressley, et al., 1997). For preschool and kindergarten children, awareness-building activities include nursery rhymes, rhymed stories and production, segmentation of sentences into words, clapping or dancing to syllabic rhythms, segmentation and blending of the initial phoneme in short words, and the like. In general the activities resemble practices already widely used, or at least widely recommended, in early childhood classrooms (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). The good news, then, is that in order to support emergent literacy, early childhood teachers do not have to implement teaching strategies that are in principle unfamiliar or intuitively inappropriate. The bad news is that in the normal course of preschool classroom life, reading readiness activities actually only work with about two-thirds of all children (Farstrup & Samuels, 2002). The other third of preschoolers arrive in kindergarten, and eventually in first grade, with little or no phonemic awareness. This is a rather high "failure" rate for such a crucial skill, and especially for one needed so early in a child’s educational career.

Why does teaching phonemic awareness fail with so many children? One reason may simply be the sociological converse of developmental limitations: because certain children are not yet "ready" to grasp phonemes and meaning simultaneously, the age-graded curriculum of schooling is at fault. Too often, perhaps, school curricula expect particular achievements at particular ages instead of facilitating something more reasonable, namely diversity in children’s rates of development. The problem is not the child’s inability to learn phonemes or other reading skills, but the schools’ insistence on teaching the skills at a certain age.

But even if age-graded curriculum is a culprit, phonemic difficulties may also be non-developmental to some extent, and therefore stem from factors that can be remedied by teachers deliberately. One key to successful learning, for example, may be to give up on the apparently impossible task of sounding out words so as to "hear" them concretely, and instead try associating phonemes with non-auditory analogs. Some instructional programs have shown success at teaching phonemic awareness, for example, not by getting children to listen for phonemes, but by having them physically articulate particular phonemes—to "feel them in the mouth" with tongue, teeth, and the like (Skjelfjord, 1976; Truch, 1991). Other programs have had success by using colored chips to stand for individual phonemes, or even by using letter-like visual symbols for phonemes (Elkonin & Zaporozhets, 1974; Byrne, 1998). Both techniques apparently work because they create concrete, non-auditory referents. In the articulation strategy, the child focuses on the shape of the mouth, the position of the tongue, the timing of voicing, and the like, that are associated with a phoneme. In the visual chip strategy, the child focuses attention on a permanent visual record of each phoneme available for inspection and reflection, analogous to how printed letters and digraphs function a bit later in childhood, when reading truly begins. In either case, the teaching strategies render phonemes as objects of thought, and not merely as the vehicles of thought that they were before. This new way of thinking about language initiates an important developmental change relevant to early childhood teachers: the impact not of cognition on reading skills, but of reading skills on cognition.

The Effect of Reading on Children’s Cognition

Cognitive development not only influences literacy, but is affected by it in turn. The most important effect is on children’s awareness of language: children move from simply using language to thinking about it. Put more formally, initial linguistic ability becomes metalinguistic as well (Olson, 2002). The transformation takes many years (actually a lifetime, strictly speaking), as the child gradually learns the specific ways that print corresponds to and maps onto language and speech. Eventually this knowledge creates cognitive distinctions impossible without literacy. Children become aware, for example, that what is said may be different from what is meant, and they begin developing vocabulary for "inner" emotions and feelings that previously were only expressed and sensed non-verbally. The next sections explain how these cognitive changes are created.

The Preliterate Mind At first—during a child’s third and fourth years—print has little distinctive impact on cognition. As explained earlier, children conceptualize print as representations for objects or events, rather than as representations for bits of language. Cognitively, it is therefore just another form of representation, almost equivalent to drawing and make-believe play, which also involve representing objects and events. But note the proviso: writing is almost equivalent to other forms of representation, but not quite.

Evidence that writing represents objects rather than language is plentiful. In early "scribble writing," for example, a child may pluralize words by repeating a scribble instead of by making a different, unique scribble to indicate number. Duck may be written as one scribble, but so might one duck. Two ducks, three ducks, and four ducks may be written as two, three, and four similar scribbles, respectively, even though the number of words in each expression is two and the number of morphemes in each is three (number + /duck/ + /-s/). The number of scribbles in all of these cases corresponds to the meaning of the expression, not to the words or morphemes used to express the meaning (Pelletier, 2002).

Research has found an analogous phenomenon not just when young children write, but when they read as well (Kress, 1997). In a proto-typical study of this type (Ferreiro & Teberoksy, 1996), for example, an adult read a card to a child that contained the expression "three little pigs." The adult then covered up one of the three words and asked the child what the words now represented. Ferreiro & Teberoksy found that children tended to read the revised card as "two little pigs," not as "little pigs" or as "two little." This behavior made sense if children were assuming that each word stood for an object (one pig), and not for a particular word.

Yet another piece of evidence that preliterate children reference words to objects and not to language has a touch of irony: young children often find certain expressions impossible, in principle, to write. An example of this behavior was documented by Homer & Olson (1999), who asked preschoolers how to write the expression "no cats." Many children declared that it simply could not be done, apparently because the expression refers to no objects, not because the expression contains no words. It was as if the children heard the request without its implied quotation marks: what they heard was a request to draw or represent no cats, rather than to write "no cats."

Finally, and consistent with the other evidence just described, preliterate children often believe that the size of a word is related to the size of the object to which it refers. Thus when shown the two words train and caterpillar and asked which word is "train," a preliterate child may explain that the longer word (in this case, caterpillar) is "train" because trains are longer than caterpillars. For the same reason, car and bicycle may be confused, or oven and refrigerator. The phenomenon was described first in the developmental literature in 1978 as an illustration of Piagetian cognitive development (Sinclair, 1978), and later confirmed in research on emergent literacy (Ferreiro, 1994). (But observant teachers of first-grade no doubt saw this phenomenon much earlier than developmental psychologists.)

In spite of these research findings, however, young children do distinguish between writing and other forms of representation. Their drawings look different from their preliterate "scribble-writing," and both of course look different from their make-believe play (Pelletier, 2002). From the point of view of the child, each activity offers different constraints and opportunities as a medium of representation. In the case of reading and writing, the young child eventually begins to notice many constraints imposed by adults, but he or she may also eventually notice that this form of representation is also highly privileged. Hopefully, for the majority of children, the high value placed on literacy by parents and teachers makes it worth the effort to learn the constraints—to learn the skills of reading and writing.

Transitional Effects on Cognition By fits and starts—sometime between their fourth and sixth birthdays—the majority of "schooled" children in our society begin shifting away from the emblematic literacy described above, in which print stands directly for meanings instead of for words. Gradually their knowledge of print becomes more phonemically based, prompting them to consider the possibility that printed words can represent segments of language, such as syllables, words, and sentences. The new cognitive insight takes time to unfold, because it depends on the gradual learning of many specialized correspondences between letters and sounds, and between letters and words (Snowling, 2002). Meanwhile, children are apt to hang on their earlier, emblematic use of literacy as a default interpretation of print: their writing will mix phonemic knowledge and guesses with variations on their earlier scribble-writing.

Precisely how the transition gets started remains an important problem for reading researchers, but one that is only partially understood. One possibility is that children initially use their knowledge of letter names to help in retrieving words from memory (Ehri, 1995). Seeing the letter "b" at the beginning of a word, for example, the child will review various "b-words" that he or she remembers, until a plausible b-word is recalled. This strategy is not exactly phonemic, since the child is using letter names as a cue instead of letter sounds. But it helps to establish the principle of print referring not to words, but to meanings. Adopting such a principle is crucial to motivating the search for truly phonemic correspondences between orthography and speech (Pelletier, 2002).

Stages and sequences in the learning of phonemes has been studied extensively, but have yielded only a few reliable generalizations for early childhood teachers who teach reading. One of the most reliable is that the first phonemes to be learned tend to be initial ones in short, familiar words, such as the /c/ in /cat/ or the /p/ in /pin/, along with their rimes—in these examples, /-at/ and /-in/ (Marsh, et al., 1981; Adams, 2001). Beyond this regularity, developmental patterns become less certain. For purposes of teaching, about all that can be said for sure is that additional sub-lexical sounds and units—including final phonemes, middle phonemes, and consonant blends—tend to be learned "later." Even though reading curricula often recommend teaching these bits of phonemic awareness in a particular order, research on phonemic awareness has not actually found any particular sequence strongly predictable—or at least not strongly enough to be useful to teachers. Instead the research tends to show a lot of individuality in the sequence of learning specific letter-sound correspondences learned, and in the strategies used to learn them. Within broad, reasonable limits, how children learn about decoding is somewhat independent of how and when they are taught about decoding (Thompson & Johnston, 2000).

Given the complexity of English orthography, it is not surprising that the transition to full literacy takes several years, indeed it can ever be said to be complete. In the meantime, children make many errors (miscues) when reading particular words or segments of text. In their writing, furthermore, they persist in using an ad hoc mixture of emblematic and phonemic strategies, combined with limited but growing knowledge of correct orthographic conventions (Kress, 1996). When asked to write "Mommy has two scissors," for example, a child might combine letters and drawings: "Mom ". Where letters are in fact used to represent words, their spelling is often simplified, as in "I WNT TO S TDAY" for "I went to school today." The details of such simplifications have been studied extensively, both in English and in other languages (Levin, Korat, & Amsterdamer, 1996; Bissex, 1980; Smith, 2003; Turbill, 2003). Overall, graphemic development displays some consistent trends; initial letters tend to be learned before later letters, and consonants tend to be learned before vowels. But like phonemic awareness, a lot of graphemic development is idiosyncratic—or at least enough so that teachers need to keep the individuality of children firmly in mind when teaching reading.

How then are early childhood teachers to make use of the research on early literacy? Various curricula have been proposed to facilitate children’s emergent literacy, some of which take into account the individuality of children’s strategies (Murphy & Dudley-Marling, 2003; Adams, 1998). Although the details are beyond the scope of this chapter, two general points about the curricula and about the teaching of reading are worth noting here. The first is that as a group, "good" teaching of emergent literacy tends to use a common, identifiable set of practices. A survey compiling these has been published by Michael Pressley and his colleagues (Pressley, et al., 1997). The second is that although the list tends to be consistent with reading research, it also goes well beyond the research to include particular methods or styles of teaching, as well as particular content. Successful practices include, among other things, a liberal use of "direct" teaching. They also include a focus on skills prerequisite to reading, such as auditory and visual discrimination of shapes and sounds; continual return to key concepts such as word; and practice at specific letter-sound associations both in reading and writing and both in context and in isolation. In line with the constructivist perspective of reading research, current "good" practices tend also to include early encouragement for writing, including an emphasis on invented spelling. Cognitively, these practices focus children’s attention on how print represents language, and may serve as mechanisms for the effect of literacy on cognitive development described next.

The Literate Mind in Early Childhood Once children begin to adopt the idea that writing represents language rather than meanings directly, several additional beliefs, concepts, and distinctions become both necessary and possible as well. Children become increasingly committed to the new ideas as their literacy education progresses. One of the most basic new concepts is simply that words have fixed meanings—an artifact of the fact that print itself provides a permanent, unchanging record of utterances (Olson, 2002). The idea of fixed meanings in turn creates a distinction between word meaning and speaker meaning. Children begin to believe that words can mean something of their own accord, regardless of whatever a speaker may intend when using them. It follows that words can also be misused in two ways: either accidentally or on purpose. Lying—though probably not created by literacy—takes on a new, deeper meaning as literacy develops, and is extended to literate lying in print. More precisely, three concepts acquire mutually dependent meanings: truth, falsity, and intentions. The latter notion in particular triggers a need for greater attention to "inner," psychological states, thus making possible refinements in children’s "theory of minds" that develop at about the same age, and that are discussed further below (Wellman, 2002; Astington & Pelletier, 1996).

New notions of truth and accuracy therefore make "getting it right" a new issue for young readers, in more ways than one. Words have to be spelled according to conventions in order to avoid misunderstandings when reading them, and they have to be chosen wisely and appropriately in order for sentences or paragraphs to make sense. The challenges of spelling and composing in turn make the idea of a dictionary both possible and necessary. Just like adults, early reader/writers begin to find it useful to have a "permanent," stable archive of meanings for word meanings and spellings. Disagreements over invented spellings or about how to interpret text can thus be reduced.

But whether the authority takes the form of a teacher or a dictionary, authoritative advice about print contributes to the idealization of standards for even the earliest writing, with several cognitive effects. One is that standards create the new activity of editing, or the polishing and perfecting of text. Under good conditions, even in early childhood, editing does achieve its purpose: spelling becomes more canonical and phrasing becomes more grammatical, accurate, and graceful. But editing also has a dark side: if taken too seriously, editing can crowd out creativity and expose children to the emotional risks of perfectionism, on the one hand, and of academic apathy, on the other. Since writing can always be improved, a discouraged child may conclude that none of his or her writing will ever be good enough, or that in general, reading and writing may not be worth much effort. These adverse possibilities are certainly not news to teachers of the primary grades, but they deserve mention as real developmental effects of literacy for some children (Mather & Goldstein, 2001).

The distinction between print and speech also creates a subtler one, between direct, literal meaning and indirect, implied meaning. Sometimes a speaker or author may intend more than what he or she actually writes. In addition to stating something outright, he or she may also connote, allude, or hint. This state of affairs creates a new activity, the interpretation of text. In early childhood classrooms, interpretation starts when teachers ask children "comprehension questions" about stories that they have read, or invite children to comment on what the stories mean to them personally. Later in life, among literate adults, the possibility and need for interpretation creates the field of literary criticism. But analogues to literary criticism begin in early childhood whenever two or three individuals discuss or comment on a common text (Bruner, 2002; Feldman, 2002).

Distinguishing between word meaning and speaker meaning also creates awareness of the difference between exact quotation and paraphrase, and allows children to learn that each has distinct social uses. Answering certain questions on a quiz or test, for example, often requires using precise wording—essentially a nearly exact quotation of the teacher or text, even if the teacher does not refer to it as "quotation." In writing a daily journal, on the other hand, a child may be expected to express "original thought," a task that involves a lot of unacknowledged paraphrasing because the child has to combine words and sentences into familiar, yet novel forms. Each kind of expression—quotation and paraphrasing—is risky outside of its expected context. In writing a personal journal, quoting others’ words exactly or even closely may be regarded as ‘stealing ideas" or as an avoidance of learning. In taking a test, departing from the expected answers too far risks getting a low mark on the test. The twin and mutually dependent notions of plagiarism and academic individuality are born, it seems, because of literacy.

All in all, as reading and writing become established, the "literate mind" that emerges takes on a distinctly psychological quality. Distinctions between word meaning and intended meaning, the notion of indirect meaning, the need for interpretation: collectively these achievements create a need for a vocabulary of feelings and intentions. When writing, children gradually realize that written descriptions of human actions do not necessarily "speak for themselves" when it comes to the feelings, motives, and intentions motivating them. They sometimes have to be explained in "so many words" (Olson, 1996; Bishop, 1997). Emotional states are often not always obvious when a speaker’s words are written down verbatim. For example, the written sentence, "John said, ‘I love school’" is ambiguous. Was John being sarcastic, feeling ashamed of his sentiment, proud of himself, or what? As children realize that these questions are legitimate, they are stimulated to develop concepts that can be used to answer them in writing—and eventually also in personal conversations. The concepts involve feelings, motives, and other psychological states. The stimulus for the new vocabulary begins as soon as young children begin writing—for example, in making entries in their daily journals in first-grade—at a time when recording "facts" in writing is likely to be the most abbreviated. In this way, literacy fosters a psychological (i.e. reflective) mind-set; it turns mind and feeling, along with language itself, into objects of awareness.


Conclusions: Learning as Development, Development as Learning

Although this chapter has obviously not covered all possible developmental changes about cognition, it has shown some important, direct ways that cognitive development relates to early childhood education and vice versa. The two areas emphasized—play and literacy—constitute priorities for most early childhood programs. Each area gets underway or begins developing only if certain representational and classification abilities have already become established. Yet play and literacy also contribute to these cognitive abilities, taking them to new levels of richness and reflectivity. With time and practice, a child becomes aware of his or her own play, and of how language is used and intended, whether orally or in print. The resulting thoughtfulness allows for greater sophistication not only in play and literacy, but also in the related areas of social relationships and self-directed learning. For an early childhood teacher to provide opportunities for play and literacy, then, is to facilitate a bootstrapping of learning by development, and of development by learning.

Note that the interweaving of learning and development is closely related to richness of development, its multiplicity of meanings discussed at the beginning of this chapter. The changes in play and literacy are more than "merely" variational, even though children do become simply more skilled at these activities during the preschool and early school years. The changes are also transformational because children develop truly new self-awareness as a result of previous activities: eight-year-olds "know what they are doing" when they read or play in a way that they did not yet know when they were three years old. The developmental changes are also instrumental because improvements in play and literacy contribute directly to children’s success in other realms of life, such as schoolwork or making friends. And the changes are expressive because they foster children’s self-fulfillment as human beings: skillful playing, reading, and writing allow children to express feelings with more sensitivity and to learn more autonomously than previously. For early childhood teachers, the richness of children’s development is a blessing because it offers several reasons and avenues for intervening helpfully on behalf of youngsters and their futures. In the minds of children themselves, the complexity of their own development is no doubt taken for granted, but it is nonetheless a blessing if only because as a source of their continual attractiveness as people.



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