Recognising Early Literacy Development: Assessing Children's Achievements


Cathy Nutbrown

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    For those who respect learning enough to assess it with integrity


    for those who are so young that they have yet to learn what assessment means.


    The thinking which underpins this book draws on years of working with children, parents, teachers and students and this work is influenced by many who are not named here, but who through their interactions with me form part of my history of learning. My colleagues in early education continue to stimulate my thinking and I pay tribute to them for their generosity of time and expertise. The work of teachers in this book is acknowledged for its vital contribution.

    As ever, Marianne Lagrange, Paul Chapman and Joyce Lynch at Paul Chapman Publishing have provided that level of professional expertise and a personal ‘something’ that made completing this book so pleasurable.

    My many colleagues in the Division of Education at the University of Sheffield are generous in their support, but four people have played key roles in the formation of this work. I am proud to be associated with colleagues who, in different ways, have offered their specific expertise and support in the writing of this book. Kath Hirst, Elaine Millard, Nicki Hedge (now at the University of Glasgow) and Peter Hannon have my deep appreciation. They have offered their compliments and criticisms of my ideas and manuscripts with honesty, clarity and compassion. Peter Hannon has trusted my efforts over many years to improve understanding of early literacy assessment and through our many and long discussions helped me to clarify my thinking and encouraged me to seek with patience and diligence some solutions to my questions. The opportunity to work with those who value learning enough to seek to recognise and assess it with integrity is a jewel to be treasured.

    Teaching, researching and writing become part of one's being, so I am equally indebted to my family (older and younger – near and far) for their unique contribution to my work.

    Love of learning and love of life go together – neither can provide satisfaction alone. I am truly grateful for the ‘company’ I keep.

    Cathy Nutbrown, Sheffield – April 1997


    This book is a result of work over many years involving assessment of young children's learning and interest in their developing literacy. Through my work as a nursery teacher I developed an understanding of the importance of building curriculum and teaching upon observations and interactions with children. In 1994 in my book Threads of Thinking I tried to show how teaching should be based on observations of children and curriculum should be planned around understandings of how children learn. Through observation, and ongoing assessment, giving close attention to children's persistent concerns, the rich content of what children learn can be extended. My thinking on curriculum, observation and assessment was marked in 1996 by my collaboration with several colleagues in Respectful Educators – Capable Learners which emphasised children's rights in early education and the role that educators can play in ‘respectful assessment’ of children's learning.

    This record of experience in teaching and working with teachers, children and parents influenced my work throughout the 1990s on assessment of early literacy development. Recognising Early Literacy Development has grown from my conviction that children are entitled to be assessed in ways which respect them as people and as learners.

    As a teacher I used a variety of ways to understand children's literacy. As I developed my work in the field of educational research, and as I worked with other teachers who are interested in literacy research, my concern about ways in which some researchers assessed children's literacy grew. It seemed that researchers who needed statistical data were using measures of literacy which did not match the ways teachers assessed literacy. Some tests used by researchers did not even involve children in holding a book or a pen. Did this have to be? Was there some secret about assessment for research purposes that I did not know? Why the mismatch between interesting research into early or ‘emergent literacy’ development and literacy measures? Why the apparent gulf between the ways teachers and researchers assessed literacy? These questions lie at the heart of Recognising Early Literacy Development. They were my motivation for developing work on assessment of early literacy development.

    As a researcher I wanted to use measures of literacy which respected children's literacy and involved them in meaningful literacy tasks. In my search for such measures I found some existing measures to be distant from current best practice in literacy teaching and somewhat alien in their understanding of what constituted early literacy development. Many available measures used by researchers seemed a far cry from the portfolios of achievement which I kept as a nursery teacher and out of touch with the insightful ways in which teachers can assess what the children they teach know about literacy. This book traces the thinking which led to the development of a new measure. I set out to understand more about the measures that existed, a task which led me to develop a new way of assessing children's literacy. The Sheffield Early Literacy Development Profile is a measure of literacy designed for specific research purposes with tasks as closely matched to the best practice in teacher assessment as could be managed in a context out of the flow of everyday literacy.

    I did not embark on this task lightly. Showing due respect for the richness and power of children's thinking is one of the greatest challenges for teachers and researchers who wish to assess young children's learning with integrity.

    There is no better way of understanding children's learning than looking daily at their doings, listening to their words and questions and talking with their parents. If I had to choose one form of assessment this would be the one, because no test can adequately identify learning needs and therefore act as a basis for the planning of teaching. But there is room for more than one way of looking at children's learning, and certain purposes are best served by different assessment processes.

    There are times when assessments other than ongoing teacher assessment are needed to provide brief profiles of children's achievement. That is where careful – and respectful – development of new assessment practices can be employed. Too many research studies have relied on poorly developed tests – constructed on questionable assumptions about what young children know or should know at a particular chronological point in their lives. What is needed for many research purposes are measures that can give a quick sketch of children's abilities to add to a bank of evidence about the effects of working with children – and their parents in different ways. Such ‘sketches’ are not comparable to the ‘oil painting’ of detail that can be obtained through a portfolio of children's achievements, but a carefully composed sketch can still tell us something worth knowing.

    Those who teach, those who research and those who make and implement policy all hold stakes in the business of assessment (as they do in the business of learning). Different sections and chapters of this book will speak differently to different people depending on their perspectives. Each will take meaning from, and bring their own meanings to, the following pages. The book is for those who have an interest in early literacy assessment: teachers who use research findings to develop their teaching; researchers who use assessments in their research, and teacher researchers who investigate their own practice and in so doing contribute to understanding of teaching and learning.

    I have written Recognising Early Literacy Development for several reasons: to contribute to understanding of assessment of early literacy development; to provide a perspective on measures used by researchers (and increasingly by teachers); to encourage those who use early literacy measures to think about ‘fitness for purpose’ and to support teachers in their thinking about purposes of early literacy assessment as they embark on a new era of national assessment of children who begin school.

    Cathy Nutbrown, April 1997

  • Appendix 1: The Sheffield Early Literacy Development Profile

    About the Sheffield Early Literacy Development Profile
    • The Sheffield Early Literacy Development Profile has been developed to measure three strands of children's literacy: environmental print, book knowledge and early writing.
    • The Profile is designed to be administered to individual children aged between 3;0 and 4;11 years. The best location is a private room away from distractions.
    • Administration time takes an average of twelve minutes but can vary and there is no time limit. Children must be allowed the time they need to complete the tasks.
    • A small number of children may be reluctant to participate at all – others may decide that they do not wish to continue when they are part way through.
    • At no point should children be put under pressure to work through the Profile. Testers are advised to write ‘discontinued’ on the child's score sheet at the point where they stop administering the Profile.
    • If children have completed one or two parts of the Profile these could be scored, but the total score cannot be calculated.
    • The Profile can be administered on more than one occasion with little risk of children becoming ‘practised’, so there is the option to invite children to try again later should they be happy to do so.
    • Parents should be asked for their informed consent before the Profile is used with their children. Every opportunity should be given to parents to discuss the outcomes of their child's performance on the Profile in the context of their overall learning.
    Part One: Environmental Print
    Task 1: Identifying Print in the Outdoor Environment
    Materials Needed

    Colour photograph of street scene including several examples of environmental print.


    Show the child the colour photographs of the street scene.

    Ask the following questions in this order:

    • What can you see in the picture?
    • Can you point to some signs, some words in this picture?
    • What are signs for?
    • Do you know what any of these signs say?
    • no score – this is a ‘warm up’ question
    • score 1 point
    • score 1 points for simple answer: roads, shops, bags OR
    • score 2 points for more detailed answer showing greater understanding or knowledge showing the way, showing what's in the shop, telling you
    • score 1 point for one correct response OR
    • score 2 points for two or more correct responses

    Maximum score for task El 5 points

    Record scores during the administration on the score sheet in the appropriate boxes.

    Record the final score in the total column in the box marked PART 1 Task 1.

    Task 2: Identifying Words and Logos
    Materials Needed

    Set of five cards showing logos from best selling products including:

    • cereals
    • drinks
    • foods
    • household tasks.

    These may be chosen according to the top ten best selling products. For this measure the following tasks were selected in this way:

    • Weetabix
    • Coca Cola
    • Walkers crisps
    • Persil washing powder
    • Fairy liquid.

    The photographs should be mounted on separate cards.


    Show the child one photograph at a time.

    Ask the following questions for each photograph:

    • What is this?
    • Show me the word(s) here?
    • What do the words say?
    • Show me the word that says
      • Weetabix
      • Coca Cola
      • Walkers
      • Persil
      • Fairy

    For each photograph score as follows

    Question 1PS 1 PointDescription of use or purpose is acceptable for example ‘breakfast’ is acceptable for Weetabix.
    Question 2PS 1 PointPointing at any words on the picture is acceptable – but not pictures.
    Question 3PS 1 PointApproximation of the words on the package is acceptable for example ‘crisps’ is acceptable for ‘Walkers crisps’.
    Question 4PS 1 PointThe exact word listed must be pointed to.

    Total possible ‘raw’ score for task 2 is 20. Divide the maximum score by 2.

    Maximum final score for task 2 10 points

    Record scores during the Profile on the score sheet in the appropriate boxes.

    Record the final score in the total column in the box marked PART 1 Task 2

    Task 3: Decontextualised Print
    Materials Needed

    Five cards printed in clear bold type with decontextualised words selected from the five products already used from the environmental print examples (task 2).


    Shuffle the five cards.

    Show the child each card in turn and ask:

    What does this say?


    Score 1 point for each word read correctly. No approximations are acceptable.

    Record scores during the Profile on the score sheet in the appropriate boxes.

    Record the final score in the total column in the box marked PART 1 Task 3.

    Part Two: Book Knowledge
    Task 1: Knowing About Books
    Materials Needed

    Three objects of which one is a book selected according to the criteria below e.g. a teddy, the book, another object (cup, ball, jigsaw).

    Criteria for Book Selection
    • Pictures and print should be clearly differentiated and should appear together on the majority of pages.
    • The book should be ‘unfamiliar’, possibly newly published or at least not available in the nursery/group book stock.
    • There should be a clear story line which is also discernible from the illustrations with, where appropriate, repeated illustrations of key characters.
    • Text should include appropriate punctuation and at least full stops and capital letters.
    Some Books Which Fit These Criteria

    Butterworth, N. and Inkpen, M. (1992) Jasper's Beanstalk, London, Hodder Children's Books.

    Dale, P. (1990) Wake Up Mr. B!, London, Walker Books.

    Mangan, A. (1996) Little Teddy Left Behind, Hayes, Magi Publications.

    Murphy, J. (1986) Five Minutes Peace, London, Walker Books.


    Arrange the three objects, one of which is the book, on the table.

    Ask the following:

    • Pass me the book please?
    • Take the book from the child (or from the table if the child does not succeed with question 1).
    • Do you know what this is for? What do we do with a book?
    • Show me the front of the book.
    • Show me a page in the book.
    • Show me a picture.
    • Show me the words.
    • Show me just one word.
    • Show me just one letter.
    • Show me the letter ‘c’ (tester say the letter name not sound).
    • What letter is this (point to a ‘b’).
    • Show me a full stop on this page (open the book at a page where there is a full stop).
    • Show me a capital letter on this page (open the book at a page where there is a capital letter).
    • score 1 point for picking the book
    • score 1 point for a suitable answer, e.g. ‘for stories’, ‘to read’, ‘for bedtime’, or other such reply which suggests that the child knows what a book is for
    • score 1 point if front is identified correctly
    • score 1 point if page is identified correctly
    • score 1 point if picture is identified correctly
    • score 1 point if words are identified correctly
    • score 1 point if a single word is identified correctly
    • score 1 point if a single letter is identified correctly
    • score 1 point if a letter ‘c’ is identified correctly
    • score 1 point if the child says ‘b’ (name or sound acceptable)
    • score 1 point for correctly pointing to full stop
    • score 1 point for correctly pointing to capital letter.

    Maximum score for Task 1 12 points

    Record scores during the Profile on the score sheet in the appropriate boxes.

    Record the final score in the total column in the box marked PART 2 Task 1.

    Task 2: Using Books – Retelling Stories

    The same book chosen according to specified criteria.


    Give the book to the child and say: I just need to tidy up a bit, would you like to look at this book while I do that, then you can tell me about the story. Give the child time to look at the book then ask: Will you tell me about that book?

    • Who is in the story?
    • How does the story begin ?
    • What happens in the story?
    • How does it end?
    • score 1 point for mention of single character either by name or by description (a teddy, a dolly, patch, mummy, baby, etc.) OR
    • score 2 points for mention of two or more characters
    • score 1 point for brief description of the start of the story (e.g. there was a lady with a dog, there was a postman) OR
    • score 2 points for a fuller description giving more specific detail
    • score 1 point for a brief description of events (they went to the sea side, they had a party) OR
    • score 2 points for a more detailed description of the plot with events in the correct order
    • score 1 point for brief description of the ending (they came home and went to bed, they found the dog)
    • score 2 points for a fuller description of the ending.

    Maximum score for Task 2 8 points

    Record score in the appropriate boxes.

    Record the final score in the total box marked PART 2 Task 2.

    Part Three: Early Writing
    Task 1: Identifying and Knowing about Writing

    Five postcard size pictures: animals, a toy, child's drawing, blank piece of coloured card, adult writing.

    Blank writing paper – fine tipped black felt tip pen.


    Write a few lines in front of the child.

    Ask the following:

    • Do you know what I am doing?
    • Do you know what writing is for?

      Put this writing out of sight of the child and move on to the next task.

      Lay the five pictures out on the table in front of the child:

      • toy (no. 1)
      • animals (no. 2)
      • child's drawing (no. 3)
      • adult's handwriting (no. 4)
      • blank coloured card (no. 5)

      Tester take care not to ‘eye’ point or give other clues about the correct choice here.


    • Which one of these is writing?
    • score 1 point for correct description (for example you're writing)
    • score 1 point for suitable answer e.g. letters, cards, stories etc.
    • score 1 point for identifying the adult's writing (no. 4)

    Maximum score for Task 1 3 points

    Record scores during Profile on the score sheet in the appropriate boxes.

    Record the final score in the total box marked PART 3 Task 1.

    Task 2: Writing

    Writing paper

    Black felt tip pen

    Teeddy bear with glasses to fit


    Ask the child if s/he thinks teddies can write. Introduce the teddy who is wearing glasses. Say This teddy can't write very well but he can read when he wears these magic glasses.

    The use of the teddy is to make the administration of the writing part of the Profile more user friendly and to give the child some encouragement to write if this is needed.

    • Give the paper and pen to the child. Ask the child to write a message on the paper for the teddy to read. Let the child write, encourage this effort. If the child says that s/he can't write say that the teddy can read all sorts of writing so long as he wears his magic glasses. Suggest that the child ‘pretend’ to write if he/she insists they cannot. If the child refuses at this point say OK, let's try the last bit, and go on to the next part of the Profile.
    • When the child has finished his/her ‘independent’ writing (or if they refused):
    • Ask:
    • Will you write your name at the bottom so that teddy knows it is from you?

    If the child has already written their name either let them repeat it if they wish or identify for you which is their name in the first piece of writing.


    Score the child's writing as follows whilst the child is writing:

    1. Making any line of marksscore 1 point
    making letter-like marksscore 1 point
    writing conventional lettersscore 1 point
    writing left to rightscore 1 point
    writing top to bottomscore 1 point
    2. Name writing after the child has left: full name written correctlyscore 1 pointplus
    beginning name with a capital letterscore 1 point

    Maximum score for Task 2 7 points

    Record scores on the score sheet in the appropriate boxes.

    Task 3: Writing Words
    Materials Needed

    Writing paper

    Black felt tip pen


    Give the child a piece of blank paper. Ensure that no words are visible.


    Write down some words you know.

    Give the child a maximum of 1 minute – stop before this if the child stops or says he/she has done all they can.


    After the child has left:

    (Words must be spelled correctly to score)

    Score 1 point for writing 1 word in addition to their name

    (if this is written again) OR

    Score 2 points for writing 2–4 words OR

    Score 3 points for writing 5 or more words

    Maximum score 3 points

    Record the score in the box marked PART 3 Task 3.

    Task 4: Writing Letters
    Materials and Instructions

    Give the child a new sheet of paper and a black felt tip pen and say:

    Write all the letters you know.

    If the child is unsure say:

    Do you know some letters in your name, or the alphabet? – have a go.


    After the child has left check off the letters on the score sheet for Part 3 Task 4.

    Score According to the Following Scale:
    Letters writtenpoints scored
    Maximum score7 points.

    Record the score in the appropriate box marked PART 3 Task 4.

    Record the final score in the total box marked PART 3.

    Profile Concludes

    Thank the child.

    Complete the Profile score summary on the final page of the score sheet.

    Attach writing samples to the score sheet.

    Ensure all details on the score sheet are complete.

    Add any tester's comments.

    Score Sheet

    Early Literacy Development Profile – Score sheet − 1997 Version

    Part 1: Environmental Print
    Task 1: Identifying Print in the Outdoor Environment

    Show the child the set of colour photographs of street scenes. Ask the following in this order:

    Task 2: Identifying Words and Logos

    Add the total scores for each row. Total all the the scores in the total boxes on the right hand side of the table. Insert the ‘raw’ score. Divide by 2 for the actural score for Task 2. Maximum score 10 points.

    Task 3: Decontextualised Print

    Part 2: Book Knowledge
    Task 1: Knowing about Books

    Task 2: Using Books, Retelling Stories

    Part 3: Early Writing
    Task 1: Identifying and Knowing about Writing

    Task 2: Writing

    Child does a sample of writing, score after the child has left the room as follows:

    Ask the child to write his or her name, score as follows:

    Task 3: Writing Words

    Task 3: Writing Letters


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    Author Index

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