An Interview with the Editors of “Pivotal Research in Early Literacy”

Left: Christina M. Cassano, EdD, Right: Susan M. Dougherty, EdD

Christina M. Cassano, EdD, and Susan M. Dougherty, EdD, are co-editors of the recently published Pivotal Research in Early Literacy: Foundational Studies and Current Practices, a book that examines key research that has influenced teaching practices in preschool and the early elementary grades and resulted in shifts – or pivots – in the field.

Cassano is a professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts and Dougherty is a professor at Rider University in New Jersey. Both are researchers and experts in the field of early literacy and each spent a part of their early careers as elementary school teachers.

In today’s blog, the editors tell us why it is important to think critically about current early literacy practices, and why they decided to donate a portion of their book’s royalties to Jumpstart.

What was your inspiration for this book?

The idea for an edited volume on pivotal research comes from our early literacy doctoral seminar with Dr. Judith Schickedanz at Boston University. With Judy — who serves on Jumpstart’s National Early Education Council — guiding us, we learned about scholars whose research and writing had a profound and lasting impact on approaches to early literacy research and practice. As we read the work of these scholars, we found ourselves thinking about the teaching practices of today. We took note when we read research that seemed contrary to what we knew was happening in early childhood classrooms. This experience inspired the commitment to connect research to practice that continues to guide our work with teachers.

Why is a book like this needed?

It is a challenging time for early childhood education. In our work in early childhood classrooms and as we interact with teachers, parents, and administrators, we hear their concerns:

  • They worry about the “pushing down” of the academic curriculum, so that pre-K and kindergarten children are now expected to master skills once expected of older children.
  • Recess and play-based learning opportunities are reduced to make more room for academics, particularly in schools with large numbers of children from underserved communities.
  • Families are feeling burdened by news that their young child is “falling behind” or that they are not doing enough at home to support skill acquisition.
  • Opportunities to learn about science, art, history, and other content areas are being diminished as children spend their time practicing discrete reading- and writing-related skills.

These concerns are not new. In fact, many of the pivotal studies were conducted in response to these same questions and offered solid advice on which educators might act. In some cases these answers have been muted or forgotten. It is our hope that this book will prompt us to remember what previous research has already revealed about best practices and will inform us of the subsequent works that offer further guidance.

How did you pick these seminal pieces of research to feature?

The studies examined in the book are foundational works that are cited frequently in early literacy research and works that have a profound impact on our thinking, research, and writing.

Although many of our selections are expected, a few may surprise our readers. We believe that some studies are the work of visionaries, whose research warranted attention that may not have been received (e.g., Almy, 1949) or was not received until many years later (e.g., Hildreth, 1931). In other cases, we believe that the pivotal studies had unintended effects, perhaps leading to ineffective classroom practices (e.g., Krashen, 1985), or to erroneous messages about early literacy or language development (e.g., Hart and Risley, 1995). A complete bibliography of the pivotal research examined in each chapter can be found at

Several of Jumpstart’s National Early Education Council members are contributors to the book, including Judith Schickedanz, Molly Collins, Roberta Golinkoff, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. How is their work helping build our collective understanding of how early literacy develops?

Judy, Molly, Roberta and Kathy offer unique contributions to the field. Specifically, not only are they reading, responding, and reflecting on past research, but they are actively engaged in supporting Jumpstart’s mission as council members. These scholars are sharing their messages with others through this book and other publications, and they are helping to ensure that young children from underserved communities are getting the same research-based language and literacy-based experiences that they are researching and writing about.

Among the big takeaways is the recognition that some current practices — while popular or appealing to teachers — do not offer the best opportunities for the flourishing of literacy among young children.

What are some of the biggest takeaways for current practice?

Among the big takeaways is the recognition that some current practices — while popular or appealing to teachers — do not offer the best opportunities for the flourishing of literacy among young children.  Likewise, some practices that have endured for a long time do so for good reason and they warrant our attention. Finally, we are reminded that new practices should be carefully examined in order to discover whether and how they shape the contexts in which young children learn and grow.

How do you think an organization like Jumpstart can use this book?

Jumpstart does such important work with young children and college students. We think that college students might be fascinated to understand where the practices they are learning come from. We also think they’d be interested to learn about what research has taught us about young children’s literacy development. They are likely to see examples in the book that match what they see the Jumpstart preschoolers doing.

You’ve chosen to generously donate a portion of your royalties to Jumpstart. Why?

We are grateful that so many renowned scholars agreed to contribute a chapter to this book. These literacy “giants” had important roles in shaping our beliefs about literacy and language and we were honored and humbled by their willingness to participate. We agreed that the best way to thank these individuals was to “pay it forward.” For this reason, we are donating 20% of our royalties to Jumpstart because of their work with two populations that are particularly important to all of the chapter authors—preschoolers from underserved communities and college students.

Together, we can help all children build the key language and literacy skills they need to take on the world.

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