02/02/2009 04:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Content, Code and Comprehensive Language= Early Literacy Development

After years in the making, the National Institute for Literacy at last issued its report from the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP), called "Developing Early Literacy." Designed to consolidate much of the extant literature in early literacy, the field has eagerly awaited their findings. Much like the National Reading Panel Report, such a consensus document, I had hoped, could potentially advance the field by giving researchers, practitioners, and policymakers clear evidence of what works, what doesn't and where we go from here.

In essence, the panel found that the strongest predictors of reading are:

• phonological processing skills
• phonological memory
• spelling (is this another word for phonology)
• letter knowledge (perhaps a proxy for phonology)

Absent from this list is the contribution of:

• Vocabulary (considered a weak predictor)
• Background knowledge (not examined at all)
• Conceptual knowledge (also not examined)
• Comprehensive language approach (and we could go on)

Naturally, the panel could only measure the research to date, and therefore, many of the missing pieces might have been added during the prolonged period of their discussions. However, its clear that recent research has shown that:

• Core language skills are the foundation of literacy development, and cannot be split like a recipe, with a little bit of grammar, a little bit of vocabulary, and just a touch of prosody for good measure.
• Content and background knowledge are the domains for which language is used--teaching skills apart from meaning is meaningless.
• There are a set of constrained skills (code-based) that may show rapid growth in the early years, and are responsive to intervention, but these skills hit a ceiling early on. This is contrast to nonconstrained skills like vocabulary and comprehension that continue to build and develop throughout a lifetime.
• Measurement difficulties (such as measuring comprehension) for children in their early years (3,4) may not adequately tap important skills that need to be taught. Just because something is easy to measure doesn't necessary mean it's the right thing to measure.

The early years are too precious to get it wrong. I strongly urge early childhood educator to adopt a more comprehensive understanding of early literacy development.