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100 children go to school: Connections between literacy development in the prior-to-school period and the first year of schooling

Susan Hill
deLissa Institute
University of South Australia

The 100 Children Go To School project[1] was conducted from October 1996 to May 1998. The project aimed to produce the following:

The study employed a range of theoretical tools to explore early literacy development. Both qualitative and quantitative research methods were used to situate literacy development within children's everyday worlds. Outcomes and recommendations were made to: The outcomes of this study reveal that teachers and children were highly successful, producing many measurable improvements in literacy learning in the first few terms of school. Most children were well on the way toward literacy by the end of the prior-to-school phase, and many were independent readers after attending school for less than one year.

Despite this impressive progress, the study also identified clusters of children who were learning at a pace or in an order different from others. Given this range of profiles in performance, it seems likely that teachers will be best served by curriculum materials and professional development experiences that balance the notion of uniform developmental sequences with support to accommodate those who develop literacy faster, slower, or in a divergent order.


The 100 Children Go To School project related to and informed the National Plan (DEETYA, 1998) in several ways. The National Plan has a strong focus on the vital early years of schooling which provides children with the necessary foundation blocks for developing appropriate literacy and numeracy skills. The National Plan states that all children will be assessed by their teachers in their first year of schooling. This will enable action to be taken so that every child's literacy needs are addressed and early intervention provided for those students having difficulty. In addition parents must be fully informed about their children's education.

The 100 Children Go To School project focussed on the vital early years and has many implications that relate to the National Plan. The following points address the prior-to-school year, the first year of school, and families and the community.

Prior-to-school experiences are highly variable

Children's access to material and human resources for the provision of literacy experiences was highly variable in the prior-to-school experiences. The ideological divide between preschool pedagogy and school pedagogy requires bridging so that early education is viewed as a period of time spanning 3-8 years. The preschool years and the early years of schooling should be continuous rather than arbitrarily divided by fifth birthday and the start of primary school.

There is great diversity in what children bring to and take from the first year of school

Some children have acquired the analytic, strategic tools and dispositions which quickly allow them to take up the institutional culture and pedagogic routines and to focus their attention on academic learning. Some children were able to ascertain which aspects of school were important, for example predicting teachers' questions and anticipating answers and this marked them as 'good students' from the beginning. Such children appear to their teachers as 'ready' for school and moved rapidly into school literate practices. Conversely, the study suggests that other children, who may be unfamilair with institutional routines, disoriented by new contexts for learning and unwell, hungry or emotionally insecure may have less energy for the forms of proactive studentship which are most productive of literacy learning.

In the first year of school formal academic learning occurs alongside learning to manage the social norms of school

In the early years of school when children first tackle formal academic learning they do so in combination with learning what it means to 'do school'. Learning to 'do school' includes learning to manage the environment, their own time, space, resources and bodies and to adapt to the social norms of the school. Children are being introduced to formal schooling in reading and writing at a time that coincides with less access to adults, involvement and feedback. Considering the academic and social load on children and teachers, class size remains a crucially important issue in the early years of school.

Several theoretical tools are required to understand early literacy

We found it necessary to employ a range of theoretical tools to understand early literacy development and took a wide lens to avoid the polarisation introduced by any attempt to separate out the technical features of literacy, as though the cultural bits can simply be added on later. This wide lens does not deny the importance of focus on technical skills or the cognitive aspects of literacy, but rather understands them as they are encapsulated within cultural wholes. We suggest that taking a wide lens allows for various theoretical positions to be employed as tools to make the best sense of a student's literacy experiences. Taking this wide lens avoids the reading wars of 'skills' versus 'whole language'.

In the study we focussed on the code, meaning, pragmatic and critical demands of texts (Freebody & Luke, 1990; Luke & Freebody, 1997). We viewed literacy as not just how to decode script but also learning cultural models of identity and the importance of early socialisation into a critical perspective (Street, 1994).

Developing assessment tools that relate to children's everyday life

We used a range of assessment tools including several we developed, such as environmental print and everyday print. We also used the more traditional early literacy assessments such as analysis of writing samples, concepts about print (Clay, 1993) and phonemic awareness (Yopp, 1995). The everyday print assessment procedures with a familiar toy catalogue allowed many features of print awareness and phonemic awareness to be assessed in a situation where the context was relevant plus it provided new ways of exploring children's use of text genres.

Pitfalls in early testing programs

The quantitative analysis of literacy achievements demonstrated that many of the children were unable to complete certain literacy assessment tasks in preschool which they were able to do once they were a little older and had been at school for several months. This points to a possible danger with testing programs being used too early or interpreted as evidence of 'risk', when in fact the children may simply have not had the opportunities to learn what is being tested. Early testing programs conducted before school may inaccurately label children or indicate inexperience with school literate practices rather than anything more.

There is no normative family literacy experience for all pre-schoolers

The case studies, quantitative analysis and mapping of early childhood provisions reveal that children in Australia come to school with diverse prior-to-school experiences. The 100 children who comprise the cohort for this research project are growing up in very different communities, families and homes. This investigation made clear the great inequalities in contemporary Australia and how this impacts on children's early lives. To expect families to provide a normative literacy experience for all pre-schoolers is to grossly disadvantage many children.

Using funds of literacy knowledge

The mediation phase of this study was intended to build connections between home and school and to develop a curriculum responsive to local communities. The assumption driving this approach is that when teachers have greater knowledge of and respect for their students they will construct a more appropriate curriculum which explicitly builds on children's existing cultural capital and preferred ways of learning. It was clearly evident that more time and more professional development is necessary for educators to better understand and respond to the cultural and social patterns or 'funds of knowledge' (Moll et al., 1992) in diverse homes and communities.

In many cases the school literacy curriculum, themes and topics and preordained order for teaching the ABC's was already set before the children arrived at school. Such a literacy curriculum is more congruent with the literacy experiences of children from middle class homes than for other children, and the teachers tended to have more pedagogically useful information about these students.


The 100 Children Go To School project raises several professional development priorities, as discussed below. However, the project alerted us to the fact that increasingly teachers are likely to teach in diverse communities, and need to reconsider their practices as 'community' practices with specific and often differential effects on different groups of children. Rather than as 'outsiders' to communities within which a school operates, teachers are key mediators of wider social values, goods and practices. The complexity and significance of their work requires increased public support in order to enhance their community standing.

Understanding diverse prior-to-school literacy experiences

Professional development is required to understand the vast range of prior-to-school learning experiences in order to design and implement an early literacy curriculum that builds on the 'funds of knowledge' in local communities. This has clear implications for teacher education provisions, and requires more than a focus on methods. Teacher education - both preservice and inservice - needs to focus to a much greater extent on cultural understandings and ways of dealing with social difference, and to address social theory and the cultural practices found in communities of difference. These are the issues that need to be drawn into and built upon in preschools and schools in order to make learning literacy an extension of home literacy practices instead of being a site of potential disjunction and dislocation.

Refocussing the preschool curriculum

The refocussing of the preschool curriculum would involve professional development as a two-way process requiring first-years-of-school teachers to learn about teaching activities used by preschool teachers and likewise the preschool teachers to integrate some school activities into their curriculum. Teacher's knowledge of the diverse lifeworlds of children, coupled with strategic practices, would enable all children to have consistent, coherent engagements with print, as is necessary to ease transition through the early years.

Developing and managing assessment tools

There is great value in developing contextualised assessment tools that relate to everyday reading and writing. Assessment tools may be developed to examine how phonemic and print awareness contributes to children's understanding of the alphabetic principle and their knowledge of everyday print. The knowledge gained from assessment is of particular value to teachers as this may be used to develop culturally responsive pedagogy.

Flexible repertoire of learning strategies

Teachers working in communities with diverse groups of young learners require a comprehensive, flexible repertoire of teaching and learning strategies. The very differences in prior-to-school experiences challenge the notion that there is a one size fits all, quick-fix early literacy methodology. In addition, whatever the range of methodologies and pedagogy used in early literacy learning, it is the 'teacher talk' - the particular ways of explaining with clarity, and precision what is known about reading and writing - that is critical.


The project highlighted the complexity of early literacy development and early childhood pedagogy and noted the sparsity of longitudinal Australian research in the field of emergent literacy. The following research priorities can be identified:


The National Plan provides a succinct forward direction. The 100 Children Go To School project informs the National Literacy Plan in relation to teacher professional development and it highlights key research priorities.

It is important that policy is informed by research that combines measurable outcomes which are related to the contexts of students' everyday life. For this reason it is vital that early literacy pedagogy, assessment tools and intervention programs not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach but be tailored to meet local community requirements. In communities disadvantaged by poverty and other social and material inequalities, additional resources, support and strategic local initiatives are required.


C lay, M. M. (1993). An observation survey: of early literacy achievement. Auckland: Heinemann.

DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm

Freebody, P. & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: A Journal of Australian TESOL, 11, 7-16.

Luke, A. & Freebody, P. (1997). The social practices of reading. In S. Muspratt, A. Luke and P. Freebody (Eds), Constructing critical literacies (pp. 185-225). New Jersey: Hampton Press.

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D. & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.

Street, B. (1995). Social literacies: Critical approaches to literacy in development, ethnography and education. London: Longman.

Yopp, H. K. (1995). A test for assessing phonemic awareness in young children. The Reading Teacher, 49 (1), 20-29.


  1. Hill, S., Comber, B., Louden, B., Rivalland, J. & Reid, J. (1998). 100 children go to school: Connections and disconnections in literacy development in the year prior to school and the first year of school. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1998_100children.html
Author details: Associate Professor Sue Hill
deLissa Institute
University of South Australia
Magill, SA, 5072.
Email: sue.hill@unisa.edu.au

Please cite as: Hill, S. (1999). 100 children go to school: Connections between literacy development in the prior-to-school period and the first year of schooling. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 35-42. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/hill.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 1 Jan 2005. Last revision: 1 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/hill.html