Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Education and Organizational Leadership Development

Committee Member

Linda B. Gambrell, Committee Chair

Committee Member

Sandra M. Linder, Committee Chair

Committee Member

Celeste C.B. Bates

Committee Member

Jacquelynn A. Malloy


Head Start is a federally funded program providing comprehensive social and early education services to children from low-income households and their families. Seeking to boost outcomes of Head Start students, in 1998 Congress amended Head Start's statement of purpose, specifying school readiness as the program's top priority. This mission change necessitated that Head Start, long-focused on promoting social competence, shift attention to a new concern—supporting children's development in cognitive domains such as math and literacy. Data suggest that though some progress has been made, Head Start preschoolers still lag behind their peer group in assessments of early math, language, and literacy. The reasons why this problem persists are complex and may be better addressed at the local level. This investigation—a case study of the four preschool classrooms comprising a Head Start center in the Southeastern United States—examines how teachers address early language and literacy in their practice; the extent to which literacy teaching and learning in Head Start classrooms supports emergent literacy; and the factors influencing practice decisions related to early language and literacy. Analysis of data, including teacher interviews, classroom observations, artifacts, photographs, and program quality evaluation reports, provide a rich and nuanced account of Head Start teachers' language and literacy dispositions and practices. The study reveals the teachers support promoting language and literacy but have mixed understanding of Head Start's mandate to promote school readiness, and lack clarity regarding readiness goals for their center. The teachers attend to the domains of language development and literacy because they feel compelled to prepare their students for the increasing demands they perceive are being made of kindergartners, rather than in response to Head Start's mandated purpose. As in previous studies, promoting phonological awareness was virtually absent from practice. The data suggests that teachers lack comprehensive knowledge of language and literacy elements comprising the domains. Further, though curriculum fidelity was outside the scope of the investigation, the evidence strongly suggests the teachers have significant gaps in their knowledge of HighScope, the curriculum used at the center.



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