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Volume 21, Number 4
July/August 2005

From Literacy to Learning

An interview with Catherine Snow on vocabulary, comprehension, and the achievement gap


Catherine Snow, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is an expert on language and literacy development in children. Her research focuses on how youngsters acquire oral language and how those skills determine educational outcomes. Her current research includes a 15-year longitudinal study of language and literacy skills among low-income children. Here, she discusses with HEL contributor Darcia Harris Bowman and editor Michael Sadowski the importance of high-quality language instruction in preschool and early elementary school, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.

What is literacy, and how does its development determine a child’s readiness to learn and succeed academically?

I define literacy rather narrowly, as the capacity to construct and express meaning through reading, writing, and talking about texts. Clearly, literacy defined this way has to be seen as developmental. Literacy is a prerequisite to the acquisition of new information and the formulation of new ideas. Almost everything kids learn from the fourth grade on they have to learn by reading and writing. Kids who struggle with the task of reading or writing—through which they must convey what they’ve learned—are unable to show their teachers that they understand.

This article is part of an ongoing series on the education of children from preK through grade 3, made possible through the support of the Foundation for Child Development.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    M.S. Burns, P. Griffin, and C.E. Snow. Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children’s Reading Success. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1999.

    B. Hart and T.R. Risley. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1995.

    D.K. Dickinson and P.O. Tabors. Beginning Literacy with Language: Young Children Learning at Home and School. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1995.