Emergence and literacy

MA Education
Saturday, April 2, 2016

This is the last article in a three-part series that aims to re-examine how we understand children's repeated behaviours; this month, we look at ‘emergence’ and the foundation stage curriculum.

Emergence and literacy
Emergence and literacy


This is the third in a series of three articles that present a new integrated model for understanding child development and learning, curriculum content, and pedagogic practice in early childhood. In the previous articles we explained how free flow play ‘works’ – how it provides children with the freedom to explore and try out their newly acquired skills and capabilities, in a variety of new contexts.

It is in the process of ‘hands on’ free flow play that children first make the sort of connections in their minds that will later increasingly be made through abstract reflection. In Piagetian terms, free flow play provides a crucially important opportunity for children to assimilate newly acquired operative schemes within existing figurative schemas; and to apply new schemas to schemes. As Laevers (1993) observed, the child's total involvement, or immersion, can only occur within the zone of activity that matches the child's capabilities, what Vygotsky (1962) referred to as their ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD).

In free flow play, the child is scaffolding their own learning through the recall of existing schemes and schema and we, therefore, refer to this as play within the Zone of Proximal Flow (ZPF) (see Figure 1). In the second article in the series we suggested that it is this very process of ‘cognitive assimilation’ that we are observing when we see a young child repeatedly ‘enveloping’, ‘transporting’, or ‘rotating objects’, and so on, in their ‘schema play’ (Athey, 1990; Bruce, 2004).


In the earliest years, most of children's newly acquired schemes and schemas come through observation, they learn most of their new actions and behaviours from the significant adults and children around them. But as children's learning and development advances, focused learning activities become more significant. Many pre-schools underestimate the amount of focused learning interactions that adults provide, but one only needs to consider the priorities that are given to hygiene practices, social interactions, safety, rules, routines, and order, to appreciate that it is common practice.

There are, however, controversies surrounding the extent to which formal learning activities should be provided to support academic learning and development, and clearly it is not sufficient to say that if a child is capable of learning something at a particular age then we should teach them. If it were true, we might see all two-year-olds playing the violin!

In a Montessori environment, focused learning activities are systematically introduced to each child, during the sensitive periods, and at a time that they are observed to have an interest and have reached an appropriate stage in their development where they will benefit from them. Montessori educators put children in contact with new materials/focused activities on a daily basis but the children are also provided with three hours of uninterrupted play time, during which they freely access the materials that have been introduced to them and apply their new schemes and schemas.

There are other pre-schools which take pride in offering children almost complete freedom of play without interruption, while most compromise and offer varied proportions of focused instruction, and free play. There are two major justifications for including some degree of focused activities in pre-schools and they are both supported by significant research evidence and academic authority.

Montessori observed over a century ago: Sensitive periods for language (0-72 months); order (12-36 months); sensory skills (0-48 months); motor skills (18-48 months); and social skills (30-72 months). Today, many psychologists and neuroscientists have identified similar periods of special sensitivity to environmental stimulation and instruction. While learning in these areas may be possible throughout the learning life course, it is felt that any lack of appropriate provision during these crucial periods could mean that significant opportunities for learning and development are missed. Second, language acquisition is held to be more effective in childhood.

Children's early attachment and language needs are also widely recognised, and other areas of particular relevance to pre-schools have been identified by Nash (1997) and Shonkoff (2000) [Figure 2: Sensitive periods in early brain development].


The most significant reason that UK policy makers have cited in support of increased teaching and instruction in the EYFS has been related to social justice and equality. Research evidence has shown that some balance between teacher initiated learning activities and free play in pre-schools can significantly compensate for early learning and developmental disadvantage, with at least the potential of creating a ‘level playing field’ for most children entering school at age five (Sylva et al, 2010).

From this perspective, investments such as Every Child a Reader and SureStart are directly addressing the moral and economic imperatives to intervene in the intergenerational processes that reproduce poverty (in material and aspirational terms), and also to address human and children's rights concerns associated with the systematic underachievement of individual children due to what may be considered an ‘accident of birth’.

One issue that has been highlighted more than any other in the context of discussions about the use of teacher-led focused activities has been the issue of supporting children's reading, and the introduction of focused activities related to phonics. Children benefit from learning to recognise the letter sounds associated with letter symbols but it is also important to recognise that, however well they are taught, learning phonics will not be sufficient to enable a child to read.

Oral language development is crucially important. When we read we do not use letter sounds to decode every word, in fact, researchers studying eye movements have shown that we do not even look at most of the words in a text when we read. Paulson and Freeman (2003) state that we skip over 15 percent of all the content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) and 65 percent of all the function words (prepositions, conjunctions, articles, pronouns).

Most literacy experts advocate an ‘emergent’ approach to literacy education that recognises the importance of oral language development and stress the importance of focused activities, such as reading a range of different kinds of text to children, and drawing their attention to the value and uses of text in the world around them.

Children need to develop the concept of what a book is before they read – playful ‘mark making’ is, therefore, encouraged as a natural prelude to writing. The various orientations and directions of scanning the textual characters of a language must be learnt as well as the letter sounds, and all of these provide different skills supporting the accomplishment of reading. Teacher-initiated focused activities are provided in most pre-schools to support the children in developing all of these prerequisite schemes (Figure 3).


‘Emergent Literacy’ as a term was first applied in Marie Clay's doctoral dissertation (Clay, 1966), while Sulzby and Teale (1991) define the concept as: ‘… the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that are presumed to be developmental precursors to conventional forms of reading and writing.’ As well as, ‘… the environments that support these developments.’

‘Emergence’ is a philosophical notion that dates back to 19th Century psychology, and is an underlying assumption in the developmental psychologies of both Piaget and Vygotsky (Sawyer, 2003). When the term is applied to early learning and development it suggests that the cognitive structures that emerge in children are not determined, and cannot be reduced to their component parts.

Emergence, as a natural phenomenon, has been found in many complex systems, and in chemistry we might consider the simple example of a water molecule, which has numerous properties that are entirely absent in the hydrogen and oxygen that makes it up. The practical implications of ‘emergence’ in education is that we cannot break down any complex operation or concept into its component parts and teach each separately, and then expect the child to automatically understand the whole. All of the component schemes and schema may be in place (all the concepts, attitudes and understandings) and yet the child may still not be able to carry out a complex operation (reading, addition for example) – until they are motivated and prepared to develop (for themselves spontaneously) the higher order scheme/schema that brings together all of the prerequisite schemes and schemas for reading. Learning is, at the most fundamental level, an individual and a creative act.

The concept of an ‘Emergent Curriculum’ has been applied to practices and resources being used to support children in learning the skills, knowledge and attitudes identified as developmental precursors to a much wider range of subject areas. Whitebread (1995) argued for an emergent mathematics education, and Siraj-Blatchford (2000) and Siraj-Blatchford and Whitebread, (2003) have also written about an emergent science and technology education.

We are currently working in partnership with Townsend Montessori Preschool in Bournemouth, applying the ZPD model in the establishment of an emergent curriculum for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Literature reviews, and an analysis of a wide range of documents, including the Earth Charter (2000), have identified some of the key developmental prerequisites for sustainable citizenship.

Montessori's ‘cosmic’ education is extremely relevant to ESD in early childhood, her perspective emphasised the importance of recognising the interdependency between the peoples of the world, and between humanity and nature: ‘The trees that purify the air, the herbs that capture vitamins from sunlight, the coral that filters the sea, which teems with countless creatures that would die if there were no such forms of life to keep the water pure, the animals that populate the earth are unconscious of their cosmic mission, but without them the harmony of creation would not exist and life would cease.’ [Montessori, 1949]

Focused activities, including many sourced ‘off the shelf’ from Montessori ‘cosmic’ education resources are being trialled at Townsend Preschool to provide the children with some appropriate schemes they may apply in their free play and in support of their emergent sustainable citizenship. There are many general features of Montessori practice that support this initiative. Research suggests that the Montessori emphasis on children developing their independence, and in support of ‘grace and courtesy’ support the development of empathy.

There are also activities focused on developing the child's ‘cosmic’ or holistic understanding of the world they inhabit. These include activities and games focused on the Sun and food chains (see Figure 4), land and water forms, the continents, animal families and the classification of the animal kingdom, life cycles, and natural habitats. Focused activities are also being developed to supplement these.


Key Points
  • It is in the process of ‘hands on’ free flow play that children first make the connections that will later increasingly be made through abstract reflection

  • In free flow play, the child is scaffolding their own learning through the recall of existing schemes and schema

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