This article aims to explore the conditions for children’s language and literacy learning in 153 Swedish preschools with children one to five years. The Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-3) is used to evaluate preschool quality, focusing on the subscale of Language and literacy activities. The study draws on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory to highlight the conditions for children’s language and literacy learning in preschool. Significant differences were found in the quality of the 153 preschools as a whole and the five subscales in ECERS-3, giving children unequal conditions for learning and development in the studied areas. Within the Language and literacy subscale, items related to children’s oral language development scored a higher average quality compared with written language-relateditems. Individualized teaching, Staff–child interaction, and Whole-group activities were moderately correlated with activities supporting language development. The results are discussed in terms of an ecological perspective on preschool quality in which intentional teaching needs to be directed at language and literacy learning in both individual, small, and whole-group interactions.
This article aims to explore various conditions for children’s language and literacy learning in Swedish preschools from a perspective of quality. Internationally, the importance of early literacy learning has been the foci of attention for many decades in both research and policy (OECD, 2019). In countries with a national curriculum for preschool, language goals are often included, as being literate gives children a good start in life and better possibilities to succeed in school (Gjems, 2010). Language and literacy learning, and the development of identity are seen as connected and are strongly emphasized in educational contexts (Hagtvet, 2017; Hofslundsengen et al., 2020; McLachlan & Arrow, 2017; Saracho, 2017; Slot et al., 2016; Sylva et al., 2020).
The Swedish preschool curriculum highlights the importance of supporting and stimulating children’s language and literacy development orally and in writing since these abilities are seen as necessary to assimilate knowledge and be part of a democratic society. Research has shown that an intentional learning-oriented perspective is a pivotal aspect of high-quality preschool pedagogy to create a constructive literacy environment for children’s language learning and development (Sheridan & Gjems, 2017; ). High quality learning environments require, thus, that preschool teachers have the knowledge and ability to proceed intentionally, both in spontaneous and planned activities, from children’s experiences, interests, and curiosity for new knowledge, while at the same time consciously orienting and communicating their interests toward specific learning objects (Sheridan et al., 2011). This presupposes that preschool teachers have professional competence to include various tools for communication in activities such as reading and writing, listening to something being read aloud, discussing literature and other texts, and exploring language and symbols to support, stimulate, expand, and encourage children’s language learning. Still, both the research on Swedish preschool quality over time (Sheridan, 2009; Sheridan et al., 2020) and the current Swedish evaluation reports (SOU, 2020; Swedish School Inspectorate, 2018) have described widespread variations in the quality of literacy environments provided for children in preschool, which can impact their opportunities for language development. These variations were related to both preschool teachers’ lack of competence to realize the intentions and goals of the curriculum in everyday practice, and the distribution of preschool structural resources. For example, preschool teachers expressed uncertainty in realizing into practice certain content areas, such as science, technology, mathematics, and language development for multilingual children. Furthermore, reading for and with children as well as writing were excluded in certain preschools due to the number of children and age heterogeneity in a group. The preschool teachers argued that they struggled to find opportunities to read with a few children or adequate time for expanded and sustained dialogues when children spontaneously initiated shared book-reading. In addition, difficulties were expressed to find literature that captured the interest of the whole group of children with mixed ages (Williams et al., 2018).
Extensive, positive effects of children attending preschool have been identified, both for the individual child and for society, not least when it comes to effects such as cognitive functioning, language development, and a reduced need for social interventions (Burchinal, 2018; Burchinal et al., 2000). However, the good effects presuppose that the children attend a high-quality preschool with access to enriching activities. Thus, a challenge is to reduce the unequal conditions for children’s learning opportunities, particularly when research shows that even below the age of three, children who participate in preschools of an excellent quality succeed better in tasks related to communication and language, as well as in early mathematics (Sheridan, 2009). Internationally, incorporating observational assessments of preschool quality such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS; Pianta et al., 2008), and the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS; Harms et al., 2014), has become an integral component of the policy agenda focused on quality improvement. By identifying and directing attention to areas of strength, these assessments can be the targets of quality improvements. A meta-analysis of 72 studies from 23 countries focusing on ECEC for children aged zero to five, demonstrated that the average level of comprehensive process quality as measured by the environmental rating scales was mediocre, with a score of almost 4 on a 7-point rating scale (Vermeer et al., 2016), indicating a challenge for continuing efforts to enhance high levels of preschool quality.
The Current Study
This study is based on quality evaluations using the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Third Edition (ECERS-3) (Harms et al., 2014), focusing on the subscale of Language and literacy. The ECERS-3 is a comprehensive assessment tool measuring both environmental provisions and teacher-child interactions affecting young children’s broad developmental needs, including the following dimensions: cognitive; social-emotional; physical; health and safety. The scale is intended to take on a child’s perspective, which is central to the Swedish preschool curriculum (Swedish National Agency for Education, 2019). This means that the evaluations of the conditions for learning, the pedagogical and didactical processes, and the experiences of the children, focus on the overall quality of preschool as such rather than on individual achievements of preschool teachers and children.
Drawing on Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986), quality in this study is defined as a pedagogical and intersubjective perspective that is constituted by four mutually interacting dimensions: the society, the child, the teacher, and the learning environment (Sheridan, 2009). Quality in relation to children’s language learning and development is defined as in the items of the Language and learning subscale in ECERS-3.The following research question guides our study:
What is the quality variation related to the conditions of children’s language and literacy learning in preschool and how is it expressed in preschool teaching activities as measured by the ECERS-3?
The ECERS-3 is the latest revised version of a widely used observational tool for assessing preschool quality. The ECERS-3 has a strong focus on teacher–child interactions in relation to different content areas and teachers’ use of their available resources to encourage children’s learning rather than on the mere presence of those materials in previous versions. New items have also been introduced in the areas of Language and literacy (Harms et al., 2014). Recently,, the scale has been validated and compared with other observational measurement instruments (Early et al., 2018; Neitzel et al., 2019), supporting the ECERS-3 as a reliable and valid tool for evaluating preschool quality. So far, few studies have been conducted using the ECERS-3 with an explicit emphasized focus on children’s language and literacy learning. Therefore, it is intended that the current study will make a contribution in this research area.
Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986) is used in the present article to highlight the conditions for children’s language and literacy learning in preschool. The concept of ecological means that the theory is based on a holistic view where people, the environment, materials, and immaterial aspects, such as values, traditions, expectations, and demands influence each other. Ecological changes are constantly taking place and reflect how individuals and the environment adapt to each other. A result of such a change can be expressed in improved knowledge and development. Every ecological change can contribute to a development process. Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory includes micro-, meso-, exo-, macro-, and chronosystems. The systems interact with each other and together form the context in which children learn, develop, are influenced, and influence one another, and are in phase with society’s development and people’s life situations. The model of Ecological Systems Theory as depicted in Fig. 1 indicates no specific direction, start, or ending of the systems’ interaction and mutual influence.
The Ecological Systems Theory also points out that preschool quality depends on several factors that interact with one another on different system levels (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986). A country’s policy and educational intentions for preschool influence the conditions created for children’s language and literacy learning and development in preschool. Using an evolving process, policy can also change over time for various reasons, such as new findings from research, changing parental views, and the implications drawn from preschool teachers’ practical experience of preschool. This means that the quality of preschool has to be studied from a comprehensive perspective and in light of preschool policy and theories on children’s learning and development. To gain knowledge about the preschool’s contribution to children’s language and literacy learning, neither actions in preschool nor views on children’s learning and development can be distinguished from the events in other ecological systems. Therefore, policy processes can be described as transformation processes where different actors interpret, understand, and realize ideas, for example, the meaning of teaching and language and literacy learning in preschool.
The Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986) guided the authors of ECERS (Harms et al., 2014). The theory gives a large picture of factors that influence children’s learning and development. Therefore, they argue that the full environment of early childhood programs needs to be considered. The construction of the ECERS is based on the theory and recognizes the interaction of factors that impact children in early childhood environments, including all aspects of children’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development, as well as health and safety factors. The authors state that development in each of these domains’ influences development in the others (Clifford et al., 2021).
Previous Research on Quality Focusing on Children’s Language and Literacy Learning in Preschools
Research has provided convincing scientific evidence of both the short- and long-term benefits for children and society related to high-quality preschools . In high quality preschools, communication, collaboration, and creativity are combined in the teacher’s pedagogical approach together with the teacher’s professional competence in developing a physical, emotional, and cognitive closeness to the child (Burchinal et al., 2000; Sheridan et al., 2011; Sylva et al., 2010). Preschool teaching is here seen as communicative, interactive, and relational and is part of political, social, and educational contexts that continuously transform each other (Sylva et al., 2010). The teacher’s professional competence embraces theoretical and subject knowledge, which is integrated with a didactic understanding of how to encounter, support, and direct children’s learning toward a specific learning objective, to create sustained shared thinking (Siraj et al., 2019; Sheridan et al., 2019). Consequently, social interaction, cognitive challenges, and a stimulating material environment become the resources for learning. Thus, teachers’ professional approaches regarding children, knowledge, and learning have an impact on the conditions created for learning in preschool (Siraj et al., 2019).
A summary of the research on preschool educational programs highlights the ways in which intentional teaching, individual and small group interactions, and communication with teachers are all related to cognitive gains (Burchinal, 2018; Camilli et al., 2010). Respectively, children make better all-round progress in preschools where teachers use open-ended questioning and where they can encourage dialogue and meta-communication. Also, of importance is an awareness of the child’s interests and an understanding to involve the child and maintain a balance between teacher-initiated and child-initiated activities (Siraj-Blatchford, 2007; Sylva et al., 2010). These types of interactions and communication that determine the quality of teaching and didactics. Thus, a high-quality preschool is decidedly linked to the competence and professionalism of the teacher (Hagtvet, 2017; Sheridan, 2009; Sheridan et al., 2011; Sylva et al., 2010). As children’s language and literacy learning are strongly connected to the historical and cultural context in which the child is involved, language is a fundamental tool in mediating knowledge and culture (Säljö, 2000; Vygotsky, 1978).
How to encourage children’s linguistic awareness is the focus of extensive research (McLachlan & Arrow, 2017; Mellgren & Gustafsson, 2011; Norling, 2014; Sandberg & Norling, 2020). Linguistic awareness is the goal of the Swedish preschool education, to support children’s awareness to contextualize the use and construction of spoken and written language.
Since 85% of all Swedish children aged one to five, are enrolled in preschool activities (Swedish National Agency for Education, 2019), preschool become an important arena for children to use their language in a social and meaningful practice. The preschool environment should be designed so that every child is surrounded by and involved in a playful and communicative context, in which the spoken and written language, storytelling, reading, and exchanges about texts, symbols, and pictures, all contribute to stimulating and challenging the child’s linguistic development. Consequently, preschool teachers’ competence to teach and create good conditions for children’s learning becomes a critical aspect of preschool quality. A high-quality language learning environment is characterized by engaged and competent teachers who extend children’s talk, facilitate dialogue and communication, and promote vocabulary development in everyday situations (Hansen & Broekhuizen, 2020). However, despite intentions in the Swedish preschool curriculum and widespread research, children’s books are, for example, rarely used for teaching purposes or as a source for learning in Swedish preschools (Alatalo & Westlund, 2019; Sheridan et al., 2020). Research also specifies (Nasiopoulou et al., 2021) that Swedish preschool teachers consider, on the one hand, language, mathematics, art, play, and motor skills as the most emphasized, goal-oriented activities in their daily work; and on the other hand, reading and writing as the least emphasized areas. The argument for rating these content areas as low is interpreted as a child-directed approach, indicating that reading and writing are not experienced as formal goals for preschool assignments; hence, they are included only in response to children’s displayed interests.
Materials and Methods
Data were collected between autumn 2016 and spring 2017. A stratified sampling strategy was selected involving dividing municipalities in a specific geographic area into groups comprising preschools with characteristics representative of the preschools within the country as a whole. To represent a variety of living conditions with varying socioeconomic statuses and ethnic diversity, 12 municipalities were selected. Based on the Swedish National Agency for Education’s statistics , the selected municipalities were representative of preschools within the country regarding the number of children in preschool, the proportion of annual employees, staff training, number of children in groups, and staff density (Swedish National Agency for Education, 2017). All preschool principals of approximately 500 preschools included in these 12 municipalities were invited to participate. The sample embraces 153 preschools who voluntary agreed to participate in this study. The preschools consist of children aged one to five years. Although the ECERS-3 is usually implemented with children aged three to five, given the variation in Swedish preschool age ranges, it was deemed suitable. The preschools opted in after initial contact from the researchers. Of the total sample, 35 groups had children aged one to five years (sibling groups), 13 groups had toddlers, and the majority (98 groups) had children aged three to five years, while seven preschools did not provide information. The work teams in each preschool consists of both certified preschool teachers and childcare attendants.
Measures of Quality with ECERS-3
The ECERS-3 has 35 items organized across six subscales: Space and furnishings, Personal care routines, Language and literacy, Learning activities, Interactions, and Program structure. The 35 items define levels of quality in typical preschool situations. The items are rated on a 7-point Likert scale, where the quality descriptor 1 indicates “inadequate quality” and the quality descriptor 7 indicates “excellent quality.” The ECERS-3 encompasses the child’s overall environment for well-being, play, learning, and development; that is, the physical, social, emotional, and educational environment. The ECERS-3, therefore, includes both an evaluation of the physical conditions, such as spaces and material resources, as well as the learning conditions such as preschool teachers’ educational awareness, subject, and didactic knowledge and competence to create children’s learning environment. Scores for the range of inadequate, minimal, good, and excellent quality were based on observations of adequate and varied materials for children’s use and for teachers creating active and positive learning environments. Evaluations in our study showed a strong variation in the overall mean scores. The majority of the sample fell in the range between 3 and 5 for the overall mean score. The total mean value for the 153 preschools was 3.97. High quality was reported in the subscales of Interaction (overall mean score of 5.25) and Program structure (overall mean score of 5.03), while low quality was reported in the subscale of Learning activities (overall mean score of 2.71) and quality meeting the minimum requirements for the subscale of Language and literacy (overall mean score of 3.79). For the subscales of Space and furnishings and Personal care routines, the total mean scores showed a good quality level, with total mean scores of 4.22 and 4.67, respectively. The Cronbach’s alpha reliability for the data was 0.90, indicating high internal consistency between the subscales (for further descriptive information on the sample see Sheridan et al., 2020).
In the present paper, we focus on exploring the conditions for children’s language and literacy learning in Swedish preschool; thus, the Language and literacy subscale was selected for further investigation. The subscale embraces items that require specific teaching proficiencies, such as subject and didactical knowledge, to create the conditions for high-quality language and literacy interactions. This subscale consists of five items: Helping children expand vocabulary, Encouraging children to use language, Staff use of books with children, Encouraging children’s use of books, and, Becoming familiar with print. Data were analyzed with descriptive statistics for the subscales and overall means using SPSS statistics. To further investigate quality variation between the subscales and how this variation is expressed in relation to preschool teaching activities included in the Language and literacy subscale, correlation analyses were performed.
Prior to conducting the present study, a research team undertook ECERS-3 training by inviting experts from the Environment Rating Scales Institute (ERSI) training program, so that the research team could be certified in ECERS-3. The training ensured that the Swedish research team understood, observed, and rated the quality standards within each of the subscales and items. The mean interrater agreement for the six researchers was 89% of the total agreement, indicating high interrater reliability. Thereafter, the research team trained 15 additional observers on the ECERS-3 in a university course. In teams of three, they made both parallel and independent observations in different preschools to attain high interrater agreement. After each visit, each observer completed the ECERS-3 independently, and then, in discussions with the other observers on the same team, they compared and shared rationales for ratings without changing the scores. After the training period, all observers’ scores were compared and statistically analyzed. Out of these comparisons, 10 observers were selected to evaluate the quality of the 153 preschools. Their mean interrater agreement was 89% of the total agreement, or a difference of one point. All observers had prior experience in early education and were either master’s or Ph.D. students or possessed a Ph.D. The observers contacted teachers in each preschool to schedule their observations for a predetermined date agreed upon between the observer and teacher. Each preschool was observed based on the ECERS-3 criteria for three hours, between 09.00 A.M. and 12.00 A.M., that is, the time of day when the entire work team was usually present, and the activities were either planned and/or child initiated. The observations focused on the total environment, including the space, materials used inside and outside, surroundings, teacher–child interactions and communication, social-emotional climate, conditions for children’s language development, mathematical learning, and so forth. Administering the observations and scoring were conducted as prescribed in the ECERS-3 (Harms et al.,2014).
The study included consulting and following the guidelines for good research practice in social science research, as formulated by the Swedish Research Council (2017), adhering to the requirements for confidentiality, consent, information, and autonomy, highlighting their right for voluntary participation or withdrawal at any time. Because the focus of the current study was on observing preschool teaching activities, the children were indirectly involved in the research; thus, parents provided consent through an agreement with the headmasters for their children’s participation. Throughout the research, the children were treated with respect, listened to, and valued as competent stakeholders noting their specific knowledge and experiences (Larsson et al., 2019).
In the present study, using the ECERS-3 preschool quality measurement, we descriptively explored quality variation related to the conditions of children’s language and literacy learning in preschool and further investigated, by correlation analyses, how this quality variation is expressed in preschool teaching activities.
Quality Variation within the ECERS-3 Subscales
Table 1 displays the mean and standard deviation of each item within the ECERS-3, where the Language and literacy subscale is highlighted. As can be seen, there is variability in all items included in the ECERS-3. Understanding written numbers was the lowest rated item (2.03), while Indoor space had the highest quality rating (6.08), followed by the item Staff–child interaction, which had a mean value of 6.03.
Within the Language and literacy subscale, two of the items that focused on spoken language had scores of a higher average quality: (a) Helping children expand vocabulary and (b) Encouraging children to use language. Regarding the items involving the written language in teaching activities, the items Encouraging children’s use of books and Becoming familiar with print were rated as having slightly above the minimal quality (3.5 and 3.3, respectively). The highest standard deviation (2.01) was exhibited with the lowest quality rated item within this subscale, which was Staff use of books with children, indicating high variability across preschools related to the use of books in teaching activities.
Table 2 shows the descriptive statistics of preschools’ quality scores in the items included in this subscale. As can be seen, the quality differences are notable among preschools regarding the oral Language and literacy items.
The two items Helping children expand vocabulary (87%) and Encouraging children to use language (94%) that are used to measure preschool staff support in children’s oral language development, show that the vast majority of the participating preschools were rated as having good to excellent quality. Within the literacy-oriented items, more than 50% of the participating preschools were rated as low quality when the staff were observed using books, while no preschools were rated as Excellent in this item. Although about half of the preschools were rated with a good quality in either item of Encouraging children’s use of books or Becoming familiar with print, a considerable percentage of preschools (30% and 34% respectively) were rated as having a low quality on these two items.
Table 3 shows the correlation analysis among the five items included in the Language and literacy subscale and the other ECERS-3 subscales. The analysis shows a strong variation regarding the strength of the relationship among the subscales.
The results suggest that four out of five Language and literacy items were statistically significantly correlated with the ECERS-3 subscales, ranging from r = + 0.20 (p < .05, two-tailed) to r = + 61 (p < .01, two-tailed). However, correlations ranging from 0.20 to 0.40 show only a very weak linear relationship between the variables, even though they are statistically significant, whereas values between 0.50 and 0.70 are considered as having a moderate correlation (Cohen et al., 2011). When compared with the other items included in this subscale, the items Helping children expand vocabulary and Encouraging children to use language have higher correlations, even though moderate, to the ECERS-3 subscale Interaction, which is the subscale with the highest quality mean value. Further, these two spoken language-related items have a moderate correlation with the subscale Learning activities, a subscale rated as having the lowest quality in terms of mean values. The analysis also shows an adequate correlation between these two items and the Program structure subscale. Regarding the written language-related items, Becoming familiar with print is the item with a moderate relationship with both the Learning activities and Interaction subscales. No statistically significant correlation was found among Staff use of books with children and any of the subscales; while the item Encouraging children to use books correlates to a certain degree with the Learning activities subscale, even though it is below the cut-off point of 0.50. Further correlation analyses between the highest correlated items in the Language and literacy subscale and the items included in the Learning activities, Interaction, and Program structure subscales showed weak to moderate correlations with almost all the items included in each subscale. Significant positive correlations above the cut-off point of 0.50 were observed in a few cases. Within the subscale Interaction, the two items related to spoken language were highly correlated with the items Individualized teaching and learning (0.65 and 0.56, respectively) and Staff-child interaction (0.52 and 0.52, respectively). Within this subscale, these two items have a moderate correlation with the item Whole-group activities (0.52 and 0.50, respectively).
The aim of the present article was to explore the various conditions for children’s language and literacy learning in Swedish preschool from a perspective of quality using the ECERS-3 (Harms et al., 2014). The results of children’s Language and Literacy learning showed a statistically significant difference in the quality of the 153 preschools as a whole and within the five subscales in ECERS-3, giving children unequal conditions for Language and literacy learning. A specific focus on the subscale of Language and literacy activities highlights two oral language items scoring a higher average quality, while three items related to book reading and print scored a lower quality. The subscale’s items related to oral language have a moderate relationship with items in the subscales of Interaction and Learning Activities and marginally with items in the subscale Program structure. The relationship between items included in these three subscales and the oral language items shows an adequate relationship with teaching activities related to Individualized teaching, Staff–child interactions, and Whole-group activities for play and learning. No adequate statistically significant relationship was found between the book reading–related items and the ECERS-3 subscales. In the subscale of Language and literacy learning, the items of Helping children expand vocabulary and Encouraging children to use language and Becoming familiar with print showed a moderate correlation with the total preschool quality mean scores.
A holistic approach and deeper understanding of how preschool contributes to children’s language and literacy learning and development emerges when seen in light of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological System Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986). From this theoretical perspective, the macro-system is defined by a society’s discourses, its ideologies, values, policy, laws, and socioeconomic contexts. These global ecosystems highlight how the language skills and abilities that children are expected to learn in preschool are intentionally connected to and influenced by changes in society, policy, curricula, and theories about children’s language and literacy learning. From a Swedish point of view, this perspective is expressed by the revised preschool curriculum (Swedish National Agency for Education, 2019), where the concept of teaching was introduced, and political intentions became clearer and more distinct in the area of children’s language and literacy learning. For instance, the goals of language and literacy development were elucidated to provide each child with the conditions to develop their vocabulary, an interest in spoken and written language, and a variety of texts, pictures, and symbols. These goals were also emphasized by strengthening the preschool teacher’s role in communicating and interacting with children in play and other teaching situations where they work with activities related to reading, narration, and writing through conscious preschool didactics, where children are challenged and stimulated (Hofslundsengen et al., 2020). Despite the lofty political intentions in Sweden to increase literacy skills, the ECERS-3 ratings in this study showed that the conditions for children’s language and literacy learning were both unequal and evaluated with a quality of 3.79, which is considered mediocre. Even though comparisons with other countries need to be made with caution, here by considering cultural issues and policy intentions, similar results have been found in countries such as Denmark, Norway, and the United States (Hestenes et al., 2019; Næsby, 2020; Vermeer et al., 2016).
The current study showed that items related to oral language learning and interaction have high ECERS-3 scores. The results are consistent with other studies using the ECERS-3 (Early et al., 2018) and the Infant/toddler Environment Rating Scale (ITERS-R) (Bjørnestad & Os, 2018; Hansen & Broekhuizen, 2020), indicating that language development goals are and should be a great priority in preschool activities. Yet, the results in this study showed a positive correlation among the oral language items and items of Individualized teaching and Staff–child interactions included in the subscale Learning activities. These results can be viewed in relation to the paradigm shift that has occurred in Sweden away from a social pedagogic perspective to a more learning-oriented approach (Bennett, 2010; Sheridan et al., 2011), which is both mirrored in the revised preschool curriculum and preschool practice as traces of intentional teaching (Sheridan et al., 2020). Even though the correlation analyses in our study provide only one measure of the strength of associations between the oral language items and these ECERS-3 subscales, the finding lends support to the idea that efforts to improve any dimension of quality are likely to improve other dimensions as well. Contemporary research on preschool programs underlines how intentional teaching, individual, and small group interaction, and communication with teachers can benefit cognitive gains (Burchinal, 2018; Camilli et al., 2010). However, further research is needed to identify what types of staff-child interactions as well as possible rationales for group organizing that could benefit quality improvements in the early literacy domain. Children’s interest and needs as well as contextual factors such as group size, the composition of the group and staff workload might affect the possibility of attaining high quality literacy scores.
When the framework of Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986) is considered in light of the results of the current study, the exosystem highlights how structural factors such as local and regional guidelines for teacher–child ratios, group size for preschool classrooms, and teacher’s formal education can have strong impacts on the conditions for Language and literacy teaching. In Sweden, the exosystem embraces municipalities and local authorities whose decisions affect structural and pedagogical conditions for the preschool, its organization, teachers’ working conditions, and, thus, the possibilities for children’s learning and development (Garvis et al., 2017; Nasiopoulou 2020; Sheridan & Gjems, 2017; Sheridan et al., 2019). This system also embraces preschool teacher education, which highlights the goals and conditions for preschool teacher candidates’ knowledge development in early literacy. The ECERS-3 Language and literacy subscale embraces items that require specific teaching proficiencies, such as subject and didactical knowledge, to create the conditions for high-quality language and literacy interactions in preschool. The results of the current study indicate that more knowledge is needed in this area, both in preschool practice and in preschool teacher education. In the present study, the results also showed a strong relationship among the two oral language items and the subscale of Program structure, or more specifically, the item of Whole-group activities, for example, circle time, which has a long tradition in preschool. Whole-group activities are often used as a way to inform children about activities and play, to make the children aware of who is present and absent, and to introduce the actual theme and project, which are often continued in smaller group activities (Nasiopoulou, 2020; Williams et al., 2018). Such whole-group activities are important times of the day when teachers and children communicate and teachers use oral language to introduce meaningful activities and ideas.
Further, Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 1986) mesosystem is defined by relationships between preschools and parents in a specific society, as well as the networks between preschools. For a long time, targeted efforts of the Swedish educational system in terms of book reading have been directed at both parents and preschool teachers to promote children’s language learning, for example, collaborating with public libraries. However, the results of the current study showed no adequate significant relationship found between the book reading-related items and the ECERS-3 subscales. Consistent with similar research (Alatalo & Westlund, 2019; Hansen & Broekhuizen, 2020), the item of Staff’s use of books was the one with the lowest quality mean score. Still, more than 50% of the participating preschools in our study were rated as having a low quality when using books with children. This implies that aspects required for even a good quality rating, such as shared book reading, where children actively engage in book-related activities, were not fulfilled by most preschools. Despite extensive professional development efforts and solid evidence from research, the current study confirmed that book reading in preschool is neither systematic nor included in teaching processes.
However, regarding the item Encouraging children to use books, more than 50% of our sample was rated as having a good quality. One explanation could be that this item included indicators that were more related to the arrangement and accessibility of the material resources than the amount and content of the shared book reading. This item and the item Becoming familiar with print was marginally positively correlated to the Learning activities subscale. Even though the correlation analysis cannot indicate causality, one might assume that changes in learning activities can be associated with changes in encouraging children to use books and written language. Intentional literacy teaching, nonetheless, needs to be directed toward reading and writing with children to arouse their interests in stories, text, symbols, and language. Preschool teaching and didactics need to be focused on continuing professional development to support teachers’ literacy awareness and knowledge in this area (Siraj et al., 2019).
In the current article, Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 1986) microsystem is defined by preschools, preschool teachers, and children. The microsystem brings into focus the conditions created and sustained for children’s language and literacy learning in relation to the goals of the Swedish preschool curriculum and quality of preschool teaching. The microsystem highlights how preschool teachers communicate with children and how their subject and didactical competence to teach affect children’s learning and the development of language, literacy, and writing skills in preschool. The results of the current study showed that conditions for children’s oral language learning are strong in Swedish preschools because the two ECERS-3 items related to the oral language were evaluated with high scores. The scoring highlights that preschool teachers focused on Expanding children’s vocabulary and that they Encouraged children to use their language throughout the day. These items can be understood in light of the quality in other ECERS-3 subscales, because a high quality was also observed in the subscales Interaction and Program structure. Interpretations based on this scoring are that teachers communicate and interact with the children and encourage them to use their language in everyday activities and in individualized teaching situations. The scoring of a high quality in the Program structure subscale showed that oral language is also used during whole-group activities and gatherings, such as circle time.
Our study is subject to some limitations. The standard ECERS-3 protocol of three hours of observation within a single day in each preschool may present a limitation, because preschool teaching is profoundly relational and activities such as book reading may vary across days and times of the year. In a study by Rentzou (2017) using rating scales to evaluate preschool quality over the course of a week, the activities and types of interactions were found to fluctuate over days, even though the variances observed were not statistically different. Using a repeated measures design or subsample for further research might provide additional insights into how preschool staff use books in their activities to support children’s literacy development. However, the observations in our study took place during the morning time when almost all children were present and the most intentional teaching activities occurred, which may strengthen our results.
Another limitation is related to psychometric issues with the rating of actual measures of preschool quality identified by research. Researchers (Burchinal, 2018; Early et al., 2018) cite concerns with interrater reliability standards that certify data collectors as reliable when certified observers and a trainer rate 80–85% of the items on the rating scales as having the same score or a score within one point of each.
Similarly, an adaptation of ECERS-3 to the Swedish preschool context might require consideration of critical aspects such as the Swedish preschool philosophy, curriculum, and pedagogy (Garvis et al., 2017). Another issue of concern is related to the limitation and consequences of no longer having a teacher interview in the ECERS-3 version. Additional salient information may have been overlooked without a description of the literacy teaching activities to flesh out the observational ratings.
To be a literate person is a fundamental democratic right so that children can create meaning and take part in literacy teaching and learning activities (whether teacher or child initiated) (Siraj-Blatchford, 2007; Sylva et al., 2010). To become a literate person is a life-long process, as mirrored in the Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory (1979, 1986) chronosystem. This system encompasses the development and changes of ecological systems over time and relates not only to a child’s environment and language learning over the course of a lifetime, but also to an overall socio-historic context of children’s language learning in Swedish preschools. The present study indicated that, in most participating preschools, the teachers rarely used books with the children; nor was it common to encourage children’s use of books; thus, written language and book reading were seldom prioritized. In relation to preschool teaching situations with subjects such as art, music, dramatic play, construction, values, mathematics, nature, and science, children become familiar with print. However, the subscale of Learning activities rated a low-quality score in general, highlighting that these items in the subscale were seldom in focus for teaching or used as a mean to boost children’s language and literacy learning. These results, thus, point to the importance of addressing the range of diverse needs for professional development and teacher education preparation among preschool teachers to support children’s equal opportunities for literacy development during their early years.
Based on the results of our study, we suggest that children’s language and literacy learning must be the prioritized focus for teaching, as children learn and develop better in preschools where teachers interact and use open-ended questions to encourage dialogue and meta-communication (Sylva et al., 2010). Therefore, preschool teachers need to interpret the target areas in the curriculum and reflect on how to create the best conditions for children’s language and literacy learning.
Alatalo, T., & Westlund, B. (2019). Preschool teachers’ perceptions about read-alouds as a means to support children’s early literacy and language development. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 21(3), 413–435.
Bennett, J. (2010). Pedagogy in early childhood services with special reference to Nordic approaches. Psychological Science and Education, 3, 15–21.
Bjørnestad, E., & Os, E. (2018). Quality in Norwegian childcare for toddlers using ITERS-R. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 26(1), 111–127. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2018.1412051
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Harvard University Press.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1986). Ecology of the family as a context for human development: Research perspectives. Developmental Psychology, 22, 723–742. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16126.96.36.1993
Burchinal, M. (2018). Measuring early care and education quality. Child Development Perspectives, 12(1), 3–9.
Burchinal, M. R., Roberts, J. E., Riggins, R. Jr., Zeisel, S. A., Neebe, E., & Bryant, D. (2000). Relating quality of center-based child care to early cognitive and language development longitudinally. Child Development, 71(2), 339–357.
Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryans, S., & Barnett, W. S. (2010). Meta-analyses of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. The Teachers College Record, 112(3), 34–37.
Clifford, R. M., Yazejian, N., Jang, W., & Jigjidsuren, D. (2021). A Guide to Analyzing and Interpreting ECERS-3 Data. Teachers College Press.
Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2011). Research methods in education (7th ed.). Routledge.
Garvis, S., Sheridan, S., Williams, P., & Mellgren, E. (2017). Cultural considerations of ECERS-3 in Sweden: A reflection on adaption. Early Child Development and Care, 188(5), 584–593.
Early, D. M., Sideris, J., Neitzel, J., LaForett, D. R., & Nehler, C. G. (2018). Factor structure and validity of the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale - Third edition (ECERS-3). Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 44, 242–256. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2018.04.009
Gjems, L. (2010). Teachers talking to young children: Invitations to negotiate meaning in everyday conversations. Early Childhood Education Journal, 18(2), 139–148. https://doi.org/10.1080/13502931003784479
Hansen, J. E., & Broekhuizen, M. L. (2020). Quality of the language-learning environment and vocabulary development in early childhood. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 65(2), 302–317. https://doi.org/10.1080/00313831.2019.1705894
Hagtvet, B. E. (2017). The Nordic countries. In N. Kucirkova, C. E. Snow, V. Grøver, & C. McBride (Eds.), The Routledge international handbook of early literacy education. A contemporary guide to literacy teaching and interventions in a global context (pp. 95–111). Routledge.
Harms, T., Clifford, R., & Cryer, D. (2014). Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-3). Teacher College Press.
Hestenes, L. L., Rucker, L., Wang, C., Mims, Y., Hestenes, S. U., S. E., & Cassidy, D. J. (2019). A comparison of the ECERS-R and ECERS-3: Different aspects of quality? Early Education and Development, 30(4), 496–510. https://doi.org/10.1080/10409289.2018.1559681
Hofslundsengen, H., Magnusson, M., Svensson, A. K., Jusslin, S., Mellgren, E., Hagtvet, B. E., & Heilä-Ylikallio, R. (2020). The Literacy Environment of Preschool Classrooms in Three Nordic Countries: Challenges in a Multilingual and Digital Society. Early Child Development and Care, 190(3), 414–427.
Larsson, J., Williams, P., & Zetterqvist, A. (2019). The challenge of conducting ethical research in preschool. Early Child Development and Care,, 191 (4), 511–519 https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2019.1625897
McLachlan, C. J., & Arrow, A. W. (2017). Promoting the predictors of literacy in early childhood settings: An analysis of two studies in low SES settings. In C. J. McLachlan & A. W. Arrow (Eds.), Literacy in the early years. International perspectives on early childhood education and development 17 (pp. 199–220). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-2075-9_11
Mellgren, E., & Gustafsson, K. (2011). Early childhood literacy and children’s multimodal expressions in preschool. In N. Pramling, & I. Pramling Samuelsson (Eds.), Educational encounters: Nordic studies early childhood didactics. International perspectives on early childhood education and development, 4 (pp. 173–189). Springer.
Nasiopoulou, P., Williams, P., & Lantz Andersson, A. (2021). Preschool teachers’ work with curriculum content areas in relation to their professional competence and group size in preschool: A mixed-methods analysis. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research. https://doi.org/10.1080/00313831.2021.1897875
Nasiopoulou, P. (2020). Investigating Swedish preschool teachers’ intentions involved in grouping practices. Early Childhood Education Journal, 48, 325–335. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-019-00988-8
Neitzel, J., Early, D., Sideris, J., LaForrett, D., Abel, M. B., Soli, M., Davidson, D. L., Haboush-Deloye, A., Hestenes, L. L., Jenson, D., Johnson, C., Kalas, J., Mamrak, A., Masterson, M. L., Mims, S. U., Oya, P., Philson, B., Showalter, M., Warner-Richter, M., & Kortright Wood, J. (2019). A comparative analysis of the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale–Revised and Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, Third Edition. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 17(4), 408–422. https://doi.org/10.1177/1476718X19873015
Norling, M. (2014). Preschool staff’s view of emergent literacy approaches in Swedish preschools. Early Child Development and Care, 184(4), 571–588.
OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) (2019). Providing quality early childhood education and care. Results from the Starting Strong Survey 2018. OECD Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1787/301005d1-en
Pianta, R. C., Paro, L., K. M., & Hamre, B. K. (2008). The Classroom Assessment Scoring System Manual, pre-K. Brookes.
Rentzou, K. (2017). Using rating scales to evaluate quality early childhood education and care: Reliability issues. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 25(5), 667–681. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2017.1356599
Sandberg, G., & Norling, M. (2020). Teachers’ perspectives on promoting reading and writing for pupils with various linguistic backgrounds in grade 1 of primary school. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 64(2), 300–312. https://doi.org/10.1080/00313831.2018.1554600
Saracho, O. N. (2017). Literacy and language: New developments in research, theory, and practice. Early Child Development and Care, 187(3–4), 299–304. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2017.1282235
Sheridan, S. (2009). Discerning pedagogical quality in preschool. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 53(3), 245–261.
Sheridan, S., Williams, P., Sandberg, A., & Vuorinen, T. (2011). Preschool teaching in Sweden - A profession in change. Educational Research, 53(4), 415–437.
Sheridan, S., & Gjems, L. (2017). Preschool as an arena for developing teacher knowledge concerning children’s language learning. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45(3), 347–357. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-015-0756-8
Sheridan, S., Garvis, S., Williams, P., & Mellgren, E. (2019). Critical aspects for the preschool quality in Sweden. In S. Garvis & S. Phillipson (Eds.), Polification of early childhood education and care. Early childhood education in the 21st century Vol. III (pp. 216–230). Routledge.
Sheridan, S., Williams, P., & Garvis, S. (2020). Competence to teach a point of intersection for Swedish preschool quality. Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education, 14(2), 77–98.
Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2007). Creativity, communication and collaboration: The identification of pedagogic progression in sustained shared thinking. Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education, 2, 3–23.
Siraj, I., Kingston, D., & Neilsen-Hewett, C. (2019). The role of professional development in improving quality and supporting child outcomes in early education and care. Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education, 13(2), 49–68.
Slot, P., Cadima, J., Salminen, J., Pastori, G., & Lerkkanen, M. K. (2016). Multiple case study in seven European countries regarding culture-sensitive classroom quality assessment. http://ecec-care.org
Swedish National Agency for Education (2019). Curriculum for the preschool, Lpfö18. Skolverket. https://www.skolverket.se/publikationsserier/styrdokument/2019/curriculum-for-the-preschool-lpfo-18
Swedish National Agency for Education (2017). Skolverkets jämförelsetal 2016 [Comparative figures]. http://www.jmftal.artisan.se/databas.aspx?presel#tab-1
SOU (2020). Förskola för alla barn – För bättre språkutveckling i svenska. (Statens offentliga utredningar, 2020:67). [Preschool for all children- for better language development in Swedish. Official Reports of the Swedish Government, 2020:67] https://www.regeringen.se/4ad046/contentassets/73de9759ac8a41548fe7a7a7e3641b73/forskola-for-alla-barn--for-battre-sprakutveckling-i-svenska-sou-202067
Swedish School Inspectorate (2018). Förskolans kvalitet och måluppfyllelse—ett treårigt att granska förskolan. Slutrapport [Preschool quality and goal fulfilment — A three-year review of preschool. Final report]. https://skolinspektionen.se/globalassets/02-beslut-rapporter-stat/granskningsrapporter/regeringsrapporter/redovisning-av-regeringsuppdrag/2018/forskolans-kvalitet-och-maluppfyllelse-slutrapport-feb-2018.pdf
Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj-Blatchford, I., & Taggart, B. (2010). Early childhood matters. Evidence from the effective pre-school and primary education project. Routledge.
Sylva, K., Sammons, P., Melhuish, E., Siraj, I., & Taggart, B. (2020). Developing 21st century skills in early childhood: The contribution of process quality to self-regulation and pro-social behaviour. Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft, 23, 465–484.
Säljö, R. (2000). Lärande i praktiken. Ett sociokulturellt perspektiv [Learning in practice. - A sociocultural perspective]. Prisma.
Vermeer, H. J., van IJzendoorn, M. H., Cárcamo, R. A., & Harrison, L. J. (2016). Quality of child care using the environment rating scales: A meta-analysis of international studies. International Journal of Early Childhood, 48, 33–60. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13158-015-0154-9
Swedish Research Council (2017). God forskningssed [Ethics in Research]. Vetenskapsrådets rapportserie. https://www.vr.se/download/18.2412c5311624176023d25b05/1555332112063/God-forskningssed_VR_2017.pdf
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Harvard University Press.
Williams, P., Sheridan, S., & Pramling Samuelsson, I. (2018). A perspective of group size on children’s conditions for wellbeing, learning and development in preschool. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 63(5), 696–711. https://doi.org/10.1080/00313831.2018.1434823
Open access funding provided by University of Gothenburg. This work was funded by Gothenburg University, Department of Education, Communication, and Learning.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Nasiopoulou, P., Mellgren, E., Sheridan, S. et al. Conditions for Children’s Language and Literacy Learning in Swedish Preschools: Exploring Quality Variations with ECERS-3. Early Childhood Educ J 51, 1305–1316 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-022-01377-4