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The foundation of all learning is rooted in the development of language and literacy abilities. Literacy development begins well before children enter school and can accelerate in an early childhood classroom setting. As teacher educators, we often hear about the importance of literacy development. In particular, the significance of phonological awareness to emergent readers and writers is emphasized. Teachers must be adequately prepared to teach important phonological awareness skills and must have a basic understanding of language structure. This study explores the extent to which early childhood educators are knowledgeable in regard to these components of early literacy. If teachers are knowledgeable in phonological awareness and language structure, then they have the potential to positively impact students' early literacy development.
Phonological awareness is defined as "... one's sensitivity to, or explicit awareness of, the phonological structure of the words in one's language" (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994, p. 276). Awareness of the structure of spoken language develops as children's understandings of "phonological units" move from larger (words, syllables) to smaller (morphemes, phonemes) units of speech (Pullen & Justice, 2003, p.88). For young children, phonological awareness can be evaluated through the use of activities that require attentiveness to rhyme and/or alliteration and through the use of tasks that require an individual "to identify, isolate, or blend the individual phonemes in words" (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994, p. 276).
Phonological awareness is a crucial stage in literacy development. This early stage forms the foundation of learning, as the literacy skills developed in early childhood are strongly linked to a child's future reading success (Muter & Snowling, 1998; Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994). A child's knowledge of letters, ability to distinguish syllables, rhymes, and phonemes, and understanding of phoneme-grapheme correspondence are all variables that influence the acquisition of language skills (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Nation and Hulme (1997) report that the capability to segment phonemes is a strong predictor of reading and spelling abilities in young children. The importance of building a strong phonological foundation is evident. Studies show that children who exhibit proficient phonological awareness in kindergarten learn to read with greater ease than children who do not demonstrate the same level of proficiency (Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994). These same researchers concluded that although there are many variables that contribute to a child's ability to read, phonological awareness is the skill that is most closely related to future reading success. Furthermore, there is evidence that phonological awareness is essential for the development of decoding skills (Pullen & Justice, 2003).
Language structure has been identified as an area significant to future reading development (Moats, 1994; Spear-Swerling, Brucker & Alfano, 2005). The understanding of morphemic structure in words supports beginning readers in both reading and spelling. It also supports progression to advanced stages of reading and spelling as learners "must become aware that the spelling of meaningful word parts often stays constant even when pronunciation changes from one word to another" (Moats, 1994) as exemplified in the words progress and progression. In order to foster this knowledge in children, teachers must themselves have knowledge of word meaning and structure.
There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the dangers associated with delayed development of phonological awareness in young children. Children who have difficulties developing certain early literacy skills, such as phonological sensitivity, may be at risk for reading difficulties or failing to learn how to read (Burgess, 1999). These young children may also develop difficulties in other areas. In a 1987 study cited by Jerger (1996), researchers concluded that difficulties with phonological awareness tasks could lead to difficulties in other tasks involving linguistic abilities. For children lacking these skills, Ball and Blachman (1991) determined that instruction in phonological awareness could significantly improve kindergarten students' early reading and spelling aptitudes. Evidence, in fact, supports the conclusion that early literacy skills are significantly impacted by early, consistent, and accurate instruction in the areas of phonological and phonemic awareness (Mather, Bos & Babur, 2001; Bos, Mather, Dickson, Podhajski, & Chard, 2001; Torgesen, Wagner, & Rashotte, 1994). In light of this research, we must ask: Are teachers in early childhood classrooms settings prepared to teach these skills?
In order to positively impact and expand a child's knowledge in these crucial areas, teachers must themselves be knowledgeable. If the teachers do not know and understand the basic principles of phonological awareness, it follows that teaching these skills to young children would be an impossible task. Recent studies indicate that some teachers lack appropriate knowledge in the area of language structure, phonology, and other basic skills related …