A Unified Model of Language-to-Literacy Intervention Approaches

The seriousness and commitment by the United States government to literacy education was evidenced by the passage of the Reading Excellence Act of 1998. This act amended Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 by adding a reading component to ensure that:

  • children are provided with the readiness skills and support they need in early childhood to learn to read once they enter school;
  • every child is provided with opportunities to ensure that he/she is able to read by the end of the third grade; and
  • instructional practices of teachers and other instructional staff are improved in elementary schools.

The Reading Excellence Act also supports research-based reading activities that can be integrated into state and local education reform efforts. Professional development is also addressed by helping to improve instruction at the preschool and elementary levels, transitioning programs for kindergarten students, and working with families by allowing for literacy support and extended learning opportunities. The unified model for language-to-literacy intervention, which follows, exemplifies the best that the Reading Excellence Act has to offer. This model introduces a variety of strategies for teachers and parents that: 1) help to identify the child with language-based emergent literacy problems, and 2) assists in the remediation of those problems. The model incorporates instructional activities provided by classroom teachers and reading specialists; the language evaluation and intervention methods used by speech-language pathologists and audiologists; and the support efforts provided by concerned parents and guardians. Presented also are examples of techniques and strategies that teachers can use with children to augment their transition from questionable oral language performance to proficient reading and writing skills.

The Problem

A clear understanding and appreciation of the relationship between early language experiences (i.e., sound recognition and sound production), emergent literacy intervention and later reading development, appeared to languish among professionals for years until 1998, with the issuance of a report from the National Research Council, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). In addition to highlighting the distinctive features of early language performance and literacy intervention approaches, the report helped to identify and establish the significant role speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and audiologists (AUDs) should play in the literacy intervention arena (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association [ASHA], 2001). Communication disorders researchers have been encouraging SLP and AUD practitioners to take an active part in literacy intervention through collaborating and/or consulting with classroom teachers and reading specialists; helping with the provision of speech and language performance based literacy assessments and associated interventions (Creaghead, 1992).

With early identification of children who are at risk for reading difficulties, needed stimulation can be applied to allow for more positive outcomes (Catts, 1997; Fey, Catts, & Larrivee, 1995; Snow et al., 1998). Several studies have demonstrated that early literacy skills can be trained (Adams, Foorman, Lundberg, & Beeler, 1998; Blachman, Ball, Black, & Tangel, 2000; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1995; Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1994). By enhancing early literacy skills, children may be less likely to become disinterested and disengaged from the process of learning to read (Stanovich, 1986).

Reading research also supports direct teaching of decoding, comprehension, and literature appreciation and must include systematic instruction of understanding the "code" (written English). Even though the language-to-literacy connection begins prior to the time the child enters school, it can be greatly enhanced once the child starts school, regardless of his/her literacy background. Teachers and other educational specialists are key to this process. In order for teachers to be effective in building and supporting the language literacy connection in the classroom they must possess skills and knowledge for this transition such as those illustrated in the Table 1:

Table 1: Knowledge of Language Structure and Use

Language Structure and Meaning

Essential Skills of Culturally Responsive Teachers

Phoneme Awareness:

Understanding that spoken words consist of individual sounds that are the basis of words

  • Serve as a language-model to children by producing accurate speech sounds during class
  • Be aware of children's use of substitutions for phonemes in everyday classroom tasks (i.e. reading and spelling).
  • Teach vocabulary and speech sound awareness by selecting words that differ by single phonemes.


The study of sounds and how they work

  • Provide supportive, consistent, and constant feedback to children's articulation through the use of questioning, restating, clarifying, and rephrasing.
  • Be aware of phonological errors in children's use of language (i.e. speaking, reading, writing).
  • Support phonological skill development to reading and writing through the use of meaningful and purposeful language.


The study of how morphemes (smallest unit of meaning in the language) are combined to form new words

  • Use direct instruction to expand children's knowledge of words by teaching the meaning of roots, prefixes and suffixes.
  • Be aware of morpheme-use in words.
  • Choose morphology related words in teaching.


The writing system for language

  • Use a systematic plan for teaching decoding and spelling.
  • Be aware of predictable and unpredictable words.
  • Connect decoding and spelling instruction.

Syntax and Text Structure:

Principles that determine the sequence and function of words in sentences (i.e. grammar, sentence variation)

  • Create visual codes to describe sentence structures.
  • Use mapping strategies to teach "logical flow" of storylines.
  • Understand that texts can be represented graphically and convey this to children.


The study of processes used to derive meaning from symbols, signs, text, etc.

  • Identify associated words through the use of antonyms, synonyms, and analogies, and by using examples of concepts.
  • Teach word relationships.

(See Teaching is Rocket Science, AFT, 1999 for additional information)

To summarize, successful early literacy experiences can reduce problems associated with poor literacy skills and low motivation for literacy activities (Catts, 1997).

Tips for Teachers

Instructional Approaches to Intervention

Instructional approaches in language-to-literacy intervention can be grouped into three main types: common, programmatic, and specialized. Culatta (2003) refers to these types as naturalistic, programmatic, and hybrid, respectively.

Common Approaches

Common approaches assume that children within an enriched literate environment will derive meaning from reading materials through active exposure to them. This is because skills, even those passively learned through listening and looking, emerge with experience. Exposing children to purposeful uses for print and engaging them in active word play, oral reading, and associated experiential learning activities will positively influence their literacy development (Catts, 1997; Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp, 2000; Snow et al., 1998). Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbooks (1979), as well as other reading specialists, offers excellent examples on how to promote active reading to young children to prompt their natural or spontaneous responses to written words.

Jervay-Pendergrass (2004) suggests that because all children have stories to tell and a need to share them, this propensity can be exploited. Jervay-Pendergrass's preliminary investigation of the origin of narrative production in very young children identified prenarrative talk, and isolated a class of distinct linguistic features called "narremes" produced by children in their day-to-day interactions with peers and adults in a child care setting. With the help of willing listeners, child-initiated "prenarratives" or first stories, produced verbally and/or visually in natural day-to-day interactions, can become teachable moments.

Programmatic Approaches

Programmatic approaches are pre-structured programs designed to provide direct and explicit exposure to specific reading (and writing) materials. This type of approach may work for some children because they are poor incidental learners and may need a more programmatic exposure to certain linguistic patterns. For example, patterns for learning letter naming, word rhyming, and initial sound and word identification may have to be prescribed (National Institutes of Health, 2000). Programs such as Hooked on Phonics and the Leap-Frog series of computer assisted reading and learning programs are good examples of programmatic approaches to reading.

Specialized Approaches

Specialized approaches blend the common and programmatic instructional approaches to meet the needs of a particular population of children. According to Culatta (2003) the idea is to expose children systematically to target goals in developmentally appropriate ways. By focusing on specific objectives and constructing contexts that encourage positive involvement or engagement on the part of all the participants, the goals of the specialized approach can be accomplished. An example of a program using the specialized approach is the Early Intervention Reading Initiative in Virginia (2002). This initiative was developed from research activities that incorporated the collaborative effort of teachers, reading specialists, psychologists, SLPs and AUDs, which led to the development of a language based reading performance program that was adapted for use with pre-kindergarten children from low income families in Virginia. The program began with the application of a scientifically-based phonological awareness and literacy screening (PALS) assessment that measured preschoolers' developing knowledge of important literacy fundamentals. The results from this screening offered guidance to teachers, SLPs, reading specialists, etc. for tailoring literacy instruction to children's specific needs. The PALS assessment reflects skills that are predictive of future reading success (i.e., name writing ability, upper and lower-case alphabet recognition, letter sound and beginning sound production, print and word awareness, rhyme awareness and nursery rhyme awareness). The assessment scores indicate children's strengths, as well as those areas that may require more direct attention.

PALS Intervention Activities (sequenced developmentally)

Nursery Rhyme Awareness: The teacher recites familiar nursery rhymes, stopping before the end so the child can supply the final rhyming word.

Rhyme Awareness: The teacher shows the child pictures and names each picture. The teacher asks the child to point to the picture that rhymes with the first one.

Beginning Sound Awareness: The teacher says the name of a picture and asks the child to produce the beginning sounds for words that start with /s/, /m/, and /b/.

Alphabet Knowledge: The teacher asks the child to name the 26 upper-case letters of the alphabet presented first in sequential order then randomly. Children who know 16 or more upper-case letters also take the lower-case alphabet recognition task. Children who know 9 or more lower-case letters are also asked to produce the sounds associated with the 23 letters and 3 consonant digraphs (ch, sh, th)

Name Writing: The teacher asks the child to draw a self-portrait and to write his/her name. Name writing is scored on a developmental continuum, ranging from scribbles to the use of mixed symbols to writing the entire name correctly.

Print and Word Awareness: The teacher reads a familiar nursery rhyme printed in a book format and asks the child to point to different components. In this natural book-reading context children demonstrate their awareness of print concepts such as directionality and the difference between pictures, letters, and words.

Other Practical Approaches for "At Risk" Populations

Other approaches have been used in high poverty schools where reading success is almost always an issue. These approaches include:

  • Reading Recovery (Clay, 1985); a short-term intervention involving one-on-one tutoring for low-achieving first graders. Each student is given a daily half-hour lesson for 12 to 20 weeks.
  • Success For All (Slavin et al., 1996); a research-based, comprehensive school reform movement based in reading instruction. The program is centered on highly scripted instructional interactions and incorporates 90 minutes of daily, uninterrupted reading instruction. Children are tested every eight weeks to determine the program type and level of instruction for the next eight weeks.
  • Prevention of Learning Disabilities (Silver and Hagin 1990); provides 1st graders with one-to-one tutoring focusing on general perceptual skills, rather than just reading.

These programs are reported to be quite successful with the targeted populations, however they can be quite expensive for implementation in the schools (Novick, 1996).

Kaderavek and Justice (2004) developed a language-based literacy intervention model designed for at-risk preschool and kindergarten children. They refer to this model as an embedded-explicit emergent literacy intervention model. The explicit component is the provision of designated or structured intervention interactions that target critical emergent literacy goals. The model addresses four interrelated domains of achievement. These are (1) phonological awareness, (2) print concepts, (3) alphabet knowledge and writing, and (4) narrative and literate language. These domains were selected because they have been critically linked to later literacy achievements and are particularly amenable to structured directed or structured intervention activities (Badian, 1998; Lomax & McGee, 1987; Scarborough, 1998). These areas are also particularly vulnerable for children who are experiencing circumstantial and/or language risk factors (Bishop & Adams, 1990; Boudreau & Hedberg, 1999; Lonigan et al., 1999). The intervention interactions are to be conducted through a collaboration involving the classroom teacher or reading specialist, the speech-language pathologist and/or audiologist, and the parent or guardian. Table 2 shows a list of the achievement domains targeted by this model. Also shown are descriptions of the intervention activities deemed appropriate for preschool and kindergarten children.

Table 2. Constructs of the embedded explicit emergent literacy intervention model (adapted from Kaderavek and Justice, 2004) with reference to targeted domains adapted to child-adult activities

Domain: Phonological Awareness

Definition: Sensitivity to the individual sound units (phonemes) of oral language

Child's Activities

Adult's Activities

Children identify word and syllable boundaries.

The adult guides children to identify word and syllable boundaries by clapping or stomping for the "pieces" of sentences and syllables (butter-fly), combining pictures (dog + house = doghouse), and deleting words ("Say doghouse without the dog.").

Children produce rhymes in unison with the adult or rhymes independently.

The adult re-reads a familiar rhyming storybook; children are encouraged to recite the story. The adult performs cloze procedures and the child is asked to provide the rhyming word (e.g., "Tim's ted is in the ____." Answer: bed).


The adult introduces a puppet friend who likes words that rhyme. The puppet says a word (e.g., red) and the children are asked to make rhymes (e.g., bed, head).

Children comprehend and produce words in syllable-by-syllable and phoneme-by-phoneme manner.

The adult introduces an "alien puppet" or other novel creature ("troll" or "robot") that only speaks in a syllable-by-syllable, onset-rime, or phoneme-by-phoneme manner.

Children take turns guessing what the puppet is saying and are encouraged to say words like the puppet; "The puppet says the word really slowly, you say it fast. He says but…ter…fly. Can you say that fast?"

The adult encourages the children to stand up, move, or clap when they hear a word that starts or ends with a target sound: "Stand up every time you hear a word that starts with a /b/… book… frog…pen…Billy."

Children identify words sharing the same sound in the initial and/or final position in words.


Domain: Print Concepts

Definition:forms of print in everyday life, including conventions associated with books and book reading (e.g., print is different than pictures, print is read from left-to-right and top-to-bottom), and early metalinguistic comprehension of written and oral language units, such as letter, write, read, and word.

Child's Activities

Adult's Activities

Children demonstrate book reading conventions.

The adult occasionally opens storybooks upside down or with the book spine on the right, acting "surprised and confused" when the book opens the wrong way. The child is encouraged to demonstrate the "right way" to read the book. The adult encourages the child (when appropriate) to hold the book and turn the pages.

Children recognize metalinguistic concepts referring to acts of writing and reading, as well as understanding words used for oral and written language units (i.e., sound, letter, syllable, word, sentence).

The adult uses terms like word, read, title, and sentence when reading to children and intermittently helps children to interact with specific print units (e.g., "Show me the word/letter/title on this page.")

Children connect information from text to real-life experiences.

The adult points to words in the book and says: "Here it says 'Eddie went into the woods.' Has anything like that ever happened to you?" By linking text to children's life, the adult encourages children to make personal connections to storybook themes.

Children recognize local environmental print.

The adult takes photographs of neighborhood environmental print (e.g., road and building signs). Classroom books are made from the photographs (e.g., illustrating a field trip); children are asked to emergently read the story about their school trip.

Children recognize individual aspects of words and/or recognize a few sight words.

The adult encourages children to sort word cards into categories of "long words" and "short words," such as motorcycle versus mow.

Domain: Alphabet Knowledge and Writing

Definition: Recognizing individual letters of the alphabet, and the ability to trace, copy and write the letter symbols.

Child's Activities

Adult's Activities

Children learn to sing the alphabet song.

The adult sings the song in entirety at least once during each intervention session; the emphasis is on developing children's independent production of letter names. It may be useful to teach the song in "chunks."

Children recognize letters in their name.

The adult provides varied opportunities for the children to recognize their name in the classroom environment (e.g., labeling coat hook, cup, chair), as well as during shared book readings ("That's my letter.").

Children recognize the first letter in environmental print (e.g., M = "McDonalds").

The adult gives the children an index card with an uppercase letter. On a school tour or field trip, children find examples of "their letter" in environmental print.

Children independently sort uppercase letters and recognize some uppercase letters.

The adult engages children with sorting tasks to learn the visual representation of letter forms. Children are provided with sets of manipulable letters with duplicates; sorted objects should be varied using letter tiles, magnetic letters, lettered blocks, and so forth. Letter size and font can also be varied.


The adult labels toy trucks, cars, or other pull toys with letters. The children are encouraged to "drive" their toy to the "garage" (box, mat, or card) with the matching letter.

Children independently write their name

The adult provides multiple opportunities for children to produce their name, not only by tracing and copying, but also by forming their names with letter tiles and matching tiles to their written name, magnetic letters, and letter cutouts.

Domain: Narrative and Literature Language

Definition:(a) comprehend narrative story structure and aspects of decontextualization that are essential to narrative construction; (b) analyze and interpret text by using conjunctions to understand cause-and-effect relationships; and (c) produce low-frequency syntactic/semantic structures that are related to academic literacy demands, including noun and verb phrase elaboration and use of mental/linguistic words

Child's Activities

Adult's Activities

Children produce an oral story with a beginning (initiating event), high point, and conclusion.

The adult involves children in repeated readings of narrative storybooks. Familiar stories are reenacted with story props, puppets, or felt-board cutouts. Children practice telling stories using visual prompts (sequenced pictures, simple line drawing, photographs).

Children demonstrate comprehension of cause-and-effect by using some conjunctions when describing action in a familiar storybook or a real-life event.

The adult prompts children to discuss a personal event by describing "why" something happened. Children are encouraged to ask questions about others' stories. The adult asks questions eliciting cause-and-effect answers ("Why did that happen?").

Children use mental and linguistic words when describing a character's thoughts or actions or describing a real-life event.

The adult encourages children to describe the action of others by using mental and linguistic verbs ("What did your mother say?" "What do you think about having cupcakes for snack today?"). The SLP demonstrates noun phrase elaboration and adverbial use when retelling a familiar storybook or describing a real-life event.


The adult presents a felt-board story reenactment but varies the story during each retelling. For example, in one version of the story, the birthday girl is wearing a red hat and puts all of her presents in her toy box. In another version, the birthday girl is wearing a blue hat and is very tired and leaves her birthday toys scattered around the room. In the retelling, the descriptive words are stressed, including noun phrase and adverb use (e.g., "The tired girl in the blue hat slowly leaves the room with her toys scattered around the room.").

In the embedded-explicit intervention model, the SLP and/or AUD provides both indirect and direct service delivery. The teacher and communication disorders specialists work together to deliver the embedded learning opportunities that occur throughout the week. As an example, the SLP could take an active role in the classroom with the teacher 1 day per week for a 45-min block. During this period, the SLP and teacher work with children individually and in small groups to read books with children, organize literacy-enriched play settings, and facilitate children's meaningful interactions with environmental print. The SLP may use this time to work with children on his or her caseload to deliberately integrate language and literacy goals within classroom contexts per children's individualized education plans. During the rest of the week, the teacher provides ongoing embedded literacy-learning experiences for all children in the classroom. An alternative approach would be to have the SLP involved in a consultative role at this level, but not be directly involved in teaching during embedded classroom experiences.

Optimally, the SLP and teacher co-teach a whole-group 25-min explicit literacy lesson twice weekly. This lesson addresses specific targets in phonological awareness, print concepts, alphabet knowledge and writing, and narrative and literate language. If the SLP is not able to co-teach the whole-class explicit lessons at the first tier of intervention, he or she should be directly involved in preparing lesson objectives and monitoring children's participation and outcomes. An example lesson plan is provided in Table 3.

Table 3. Sample lesson plan adopted from the embedded-explicit emergent literacy intervention model (Kaderavek and Justice (2004)

Activity (duration)


Writing and letter recognition
(5 min.)

Students are given sheets of paper (on which their names are written lightly and in crayon. The instructor asks the students to trace their names on the sheet of paper, providing help as needed. Children are then asked to read their names to the group and to point to and say the first letter in their own names.

Alphabet knowledge
(5 min.)

Students are each provided with a laminated copy of the alphabet with corresponding pictures (i.e., above the letter B is a picture of a Bear). Students are led through the alphabet song two times and are helped to point to letters as they are sung.

(5 min.)

Each student picks a picture card out of a hat and is asked to tell if the card selected rhymes with "hat." Picture cards that rhyme with hat are placed in a "yes" pile; picture cards that do not rhyme are placed in a "no" pile. The cards in each pile are reviewed at the end (e.g., "Do these rhyme with hat: car, toast, man… No!!!").

Important Must-Do's for At Risk Populations

Two important inclusions in collaborative efforts for children "at risk" for literacy failure are the creation of a curriculum based on the frame of cultural relevance and cultural responsiveness and the inclusion of parents in the teaching process.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Basic to all teaching to all populations of children is the fact that teaching must be culturally relevant and responsive to the needs of that child. "Teachers who embrace culturally responsive literacy instruction will serve as a catalyst for improved reading achievement among students who are culturally and linguistically diverse" (Callins, 2004: 6). One example of an approach that has been used with at-risk children that incorporates the culture of the child is Culturally Responsive Teaching. When teachers employ Culturally Responsive Teaching, they are keenly aware of the importance of including the cultural references of the students they teach in all that they teach (Ladson-Billings,1994). It is important that teachers build on students' prior knowledge and experiences to support authentic learning in the classroom setting. According to Willis (2000), some of the ways in which culturally responsive teaching can be actualized include:

  • respecting the cultures and languages of the families and children in the school.
  • becoming involved in the concerns and needs of communities of the children.
  • emphasizing the development of language proficiency through modeling, questioning, restating, clarifying, and praising, in purposeful conversation
  • maintaining high academic expectations for all students.
  • modeling and encouraging two-way communication, not only between students and teachers but also between school personnel and parents.
  • building trust, by developing relationships, encouraging dialogue, and listening to the concerns of parents and community leaders
  • extending multiple personal invitations to parents and children to participate and have input in school literacy activities.
  • ensuring literacy-rich classrooms, including multicultural and multilingual materials.

Inclusion of Parents

Parents must be encouraged to become involved by reading, writing and talking with their children because literacy efforts must extend beyond the classroom and be reinforced in the home environment. Parents can use books, newspapers, or whatever is readily available in the home (environmental print). Other simple and ecologically valid ways in which parents can support literacy development in their children include:

  • talking with children, engaging them in conversation, giving names of things, showing interest in what a child says
  • reading predictable text to children
  • encouraging children to recount experiences and describe ideas and events that are important to them
  • visiting their local public library regularly
  • providing opportunities for children to draw and print, using markers, crayons, and pencils
  • suggesting that children write to friends and relatives
  • sharing their children's writing with teachers in parent-teacher conferences
  • displaying the written work of children in prominent spots in the home
  • staying in regular contact with teachers about activities and progress in reading and writing
  • building a love of language in all its forms and engaging children in conversation

Suggested ways in which parents can take an active role in making the curriculum culturally responsive and at the same time support literacy in their child's school include reading aloud, sharing oral histories, offering cultural commentary along with stories, as well as reading and writing with children in their native language. Additionally, parents can talk with children during activities, ask children to talk about events they experience in their lives, restrict the amount and kind of TV their children watch, and keep track of children's progress in school by visiting the classroom (US DOE, 1997).


The embedded-explicit emergent literacy intervention model presents a detailed framework for organizing early childhood literacy programs to support all learners and to specify and the role of SLPs and AUDs in these programs. The embedded-explicit model is exemplary of the kind of language-to-literacy intervention that emphasizes the dual importance of embedded and explicit literacy-learning opportunities. The concepts and skills that are explicitly targeted include phonological awareness, print concepts, alphabet knowledge and writing, and narrative and literate language. A unified model of language-to-literacy intervention is designed to ensure the successful transition of all young children from prereaders to readers, and endorses the integral involvement of communication disorders specialists in supporting all learners, including those who are vulnerable for difficulties in such transitions (Kaderavek & Justice, 2004).



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