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Early literacy teaching and learning: Innovative practice in four different national contexts, a thematic network

The aims of this Network were to:
- Contribute to the establishment in the EU of a _shared knowledge base on educational innovations in the area of early literacy teaching and learning, including a focus on children from marginalised groups;
- Share and enlarge the perspectives, understandings and sense of what is possible in terms of early literacy teaching and learning, both of those involved in the research and also, of other researchers, of teachers, of teacher educators and of administrators in the various countries of the EC;
- Enhance the quality of early primary education in literacy, particularly for children from marginalised groups.

Major findings:
In the course of the Network activities, a high degree of commonality in the conceptions informing the various projects emerged. These include ideas stemming from a number of seminal figures in the area, whose key works date from some twenty years ago, but whose influence on official, national conceptions of the teaching and learning of reading and writing has been slow, despite productive innovation in particular areas.

Those of most significance to the Network's participants have been:
- Very young children (from four years or earlier), even those at the margins of their societies, are interested in written language and its use, and capable of developing powerful ideas about it (Ferreiro and Teberosky 1979).

- The act of reading involves "simultaneous, multi-level, interactive processing" (Rumelhart 1977) - that is reading involves the generation of expectations about the text in general and particular sections, sentences and phrases, and at the same time the recognition of letter shapes, letter strings and common words. Data at one level are used to generate hypotheses at other levels. So to learn effectively, children need to attend to what a text is saying and what its function is, as well as to the letters on the page and their relation to speech sounds.

- Following Vygotsky (1978), learning is seen as an essentially process, in which, aided by proficient practitioners and by their own peers, learners engage in tasks which would be beyond their individual independent capacity. Participation in this collaborative activity develops the capacity to perform such tasks independently.

Where the participants have differed has been mainly in the particular contexts in which they work. These prompt differing emphases and points of entry to the written word. In the UK the complex nature of the orthographic system, the early age at which formal schooling starts and the intense national anxiety concerning early independence and fluency in reading and writing have meant that there is a particular interest to help children towards mastery of the code, albeit in a way that recognises that much more than this is involved in learning to read. By contrast in Italy the spelling system is more straightforward, the age of starting formal schooling is later and there appears to be less public anxiety about standards of fluency and independence in reading and writing in the early years. Consequently innovative practice in Italy places much greater emphasis on the construction (through dictation) of a range of texts than it does on developing mastery of the code.

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