|Archive article #0003
The Role of Autonomy-Support Versus Control in the Emergent Writing Behaviors of African American Kindergarten Children
|Children begin life with intrinsic motivation to explore, master, and manipulate their surroundings. However, as children grow older, features of their environment influence their intrinsic motivation. In particular, the context, whether autonomy-supportive or controlling, in which children learn new skills may affect their intrinsic motivation upon encountering that skill domain in the future (Boggiano, Main, & Katz, 1988; Deci & Ryan, 1985). Controlling events and contexts undermine motivation by removing choice and pressuring children toward particular outcomes. Autonomy-supportive events and contexts, on the other hand, encourage motivation by allowing self-determination, or behaviors initiated and regulated through choice (Deci & Ryan, 1985). When controlled, children may lack a true sense of choice and are "pawns" to desired outcomes even though they may intend to achieve those outcomes (deCharms, 1976; Deci & Ryan, 1987). However, although autonomy-supportive environments and interpersonal contexts may allow individuals the opportunity to choose what they wish to do, choice is not equivalent to total permissiveness. Instead, allowing children the freedom of choice means providing guidance that is informational rather than controlling (Ryan, Connell, & Deci, 1985).
Previous studies have demonstrated that the nature of the context in which interactions with others such as teachers and parents occur can have a profound impact on childrens motivation for particular tasks (Deci, Nezlek, & Sheinman, 1981; Deci, Schwartz, Sheinman, & Ryan, 1981; Swann & Pittman, 1977; Zuckerman, Porac, Lathin, Smith, & Deci, 1978). More recent studies, in particular, have focused on the importance of autonomy-supportive interactions for childrens motivated literacy behaviors. For example, Grolnick and Ryan (1987) assigned fifth grade students to read a social studies text under three conditions. The first group was instructed to read in order to answer questions that they thought were important, the second group was instructed to read on their own, and the third group was instructed to read in order to remember the content for a graded test. Although the third group was highest in rote learning, interest in the topic and conceptual learning were highest for the first group. The authors concluded that the students motivation was influenced by the perception of an external locus of causality in the reading assignment. The importance of autonomy in students motivated reading has also been shown in other studies of elementary school students, such as Gambrell (1995) and Morrow (1992), who found that the books that third to fifth grade readers enjoyed most were the ones they had the most freedom in selecting.
Other studies have also demonstrated the importance of autonomy-support for motivated reading and writing in elementary school classrooms. For example, Ng and her colleagues (1998) videotaped third and fifth grade classrooms and then interviewed the students to determine their motivations as well as their perceptions of the classroom context. Students who perceived freedom of choice in reading, writing, and interpreting texts reported more involvement, curiosity, and challenge than did students who did not perceive such freedom (Ng, Guthrie, Van Meter, McCann, & Alao, 1998). In another study of third to fifth graders, Skinner and Belmont (1993) found that when they believed that teachers were providing meaningful choices for them, students showed an increase in effort, attention, and interest in classroom reading and writing tasks.
These studies provide substantial evidence for the value of autonomy-support in childrens motivated literacy behaviors. However, they have focused primarily on how classroom context influences the literacy behaviors of older elementary school students (third to fifth graders). There is less information regarding how the context of interactions influence childrens early literacy learning. Yet, according to Teale (1982), early literacy development often depends upon the experiences the child has in reading and writing activities that are mediated by literate adults, older siblings, or events in the child's everyday life. Depending on the context, these early experiences may either encourage or hinder children's emergent reading and writing. For instance, autonomy-supportive experiences may support children's gradual progression from emergent to conventional reading and writing, whereas controlling experiences may not only limit children's opportunities to read and write emergently but also undermine their motivation to do so. Clearly, an examination of both autonomy-supportive and controlling environments seems essential in understanding the contextual influences on children's early engagements with literacy. The present study examined kindergartners' intrinsic motivation in the context of an emergent writing task in both autonomy-supportive and controlling interactions. As kindergartners, these children are in the process of becoming literate -- emerging as young readers and writers (Sulzby,1990).
This focus on young children's literacy development has brought more attention to the social context in which young children learn about literacy. As a result, numerous studies have documented the importance of parent-child and teacher-child interactions to childrens early literacy development (for example; McMahon, Richmond, & Reeves-Kazelskies, 1998; Ninio, 1980; Pellegrini, Brody, & Sigel, 1985; Snow, 1983; Snow & Ninio, 1986). However, only a few studies have explored the role of autonomy versus control in such interactions (Burns & Casbergue, 1992; Turner, 1995). In one study, Burns and Casberque (1992) examined the degree of parental control in parent-child interactions during a letter-writing task. In their sample of middle-income European American families, they found that a higher degree of parental control was associated with the parent demonstrating how to complete at least one step of the task, correcting the child's performance, or verbally commanding the child to pursue a given course of action. A lower degree of parental control was associated with the parent asking the child more open-ended questions, giving the child more choices, repeating what the child said, or commenting on the child's work. They also found that lower levels of parental control were associated with a more emergent-looking letter (e.g., scribbles, drawings, invented spellings, and letter-strings), while higher levels of parental control were associated with more conventional spelling and writing. This may be due to the fact that controlling parents often wrote the letter for their children, while less controlling parents allowed their children to write their own letter. Furthermore, higher levels of parental control were associated with children who passively responded rather than initiated conversation, whereas lower levels of control were associated with more verbal input and initiation from the child.
In an observational study of the classroom context, Turner (1995) demonstrated similar findings for first graders in a predominantly middle-income European American school district. Turner (1995) found that when children were given a reasonable amount of freedom and responsibility for literacy activities, such as choosing their own books to read and deciding whether to write or draw, they demonstrated more motivated literacy behaviors. Turner (1995) concluded that motivation for early literacy learning is situated in childrens encounters with reading and writing, however she suggested that future research investigate the applicability of her results to other cultural and ethnic groups. The present study of African American kindergartners from a predominately low-income elementary school represents such an investigation.
The present study addresses these issues by examining children's intrinsic motivation during an emergent writing task in both controlling and autonomy-supportive interactions. Using a repeated-measures design, African American kindergartners from a predominately low-income elementary school were randomly assigned to experience either the autonomy-supportive followed by the controlling interaction or the controlling followed by the autonomy-supportive interaction. There were three main hypotheses. First, we examined whether the same child's intrinsic motivation changed depending upon the context of the adult-child interaction. We hypothesized that children would make more statements of independent-mastery, interest, and competence in the autonomy-supportive context than in the controlling context. This prediction was based on numerous studies demonstrating that autonomy-supportive interpersonal contexts are positively correlated with independent mastery, perceived competence, and interest (Deci, Nezlek, et al., 1981; Deci, Schwartz, et al., 1981; Ryan & Grolnick, 1986).
Second, the order of the autonomy-supportive and controlling interaction was considered. We hypothesized that children experiencing the controlling interaction first would demonstrate less interest and competence, and more dependent mastery in the subsequent autonomy-supportive context than children who experience the autonomy-supportive interaction first. This prediction was based on research demonstrating that when controlled, children display less intrinsic motivation in similar, subsequent activities (Swann & Pittman, 1977; Zuckerman et al., 1978).
Third, we examined the quality of children's writing product in both autonomy-supportive and controlling interactions. It was expected that children's written products in the autonomy-supportive context would be more emergent-looking than their written products in the controlling context. This was based on previous research suggesting that children in autonomy-supportive contexts engage in more emergent literacy behaviors (e.g., scribbles, invented spellings, and letter-strings), whereas children in controlling contexts use more conventional spelling and writing dictated by adults (Burns & Casberque, 1992).
The kindergarten class had one teacher and an aide. The teacher frequently interacted with the children, while the aide organized the classroom materials. The teacher followed a routine, but was flexible in her approach. She frequently read to the children and many of her lessons incorporated writing. The classroom was organized around centers that included a writing and computer center.
The researcher used a a specific script for the controlling interactions, and another for the autonomy-supportive interactions. In order to simulate parent-child interactions, these two frameworks were developed from transcripts of parents and their children from the Burns and Casbergue (1992) study. In particular, the script for each interaction was based on one or two transcripts that exemplified either a controlling or autonomy-supportive context.
A video camera was in the room and visible to the child. The camera was placed directly in front of and focused on the faces of the researcher and the child in order to record their affect throughout the interactions. A second researcher videotaped and took notes on the interactions. She also monitored the first researcher for consistency in following the interaction script.
Order effects were controlled by random assignment of children to either the controlling followed by autonomy-supportive interaction or the reverse ordered interaction. For consistency throughout the study, and to avoid excess variables in the interactions, the first researcher alone interacted with all of the children on the letter-writing task in both the controlling and autonomy-supportive contexts.
The researcher took one child at a time and walked with him or her to the room where the videotaping was to take place. During that time, she talked with the child and often held the child's hand. Once they were in the room, the researcher interacted with the child according to the following guidelines:
In the autonomy-supportive context of the study, the researcher first provided information about the task to the child. The researcher then asked the child whom he or she was going to write to, what he or she was going to write about, and what color marker he or she was going use to write the letter. The researcher used phatics and repeated what the child said in order to indicate that she understood and was listening to the child. The researcher did not offer unsolicited help to the child; however, the she answered the child's questions if the child specifically asked for help. The researcher also allowed the child to write autonomously without disturbing the child.
Writing - Controlling Guidelines
In the controlling context of the present study, the researcher first told the child about the task. The child was then told whom to write to and what to write about. The researcher told the child that he or she should write a letter to his/her mother and tell her what she/he did in school yesterday. In order to demonstrate the task, the researcher had queried the classroom teacher about a recent event that the child would have taken part in. In the session, the researcher asked the child a series of yes/no questions about the classroom event which would be the content of the letter. The researcher then asked the child whether he/she wanted her to write the letter for him/her. If the researcher wrote the letter, she wrote several sentences and then told the child to sign his or her name and draw a small picture. If the child wrote the letter, the researcher told the child what to write, where to write it, and how to spell it. The researcher also demonstrated how to write certain letters and words by placing her hand over the child's hand.
In this study, the motivational categories were based on two of Harter's (1981) intrinsic dimensions (independent mastery and interest) and one of Harters (1982) perceived competence domains (cognitive). The other categories in each of Harters scales were not considered since preliminary analyses revealed that the children did not verbalize them. Children's written products were assessed using categories based on the Forms of Writing and Rereading Checklist developed by Sulzby (1990).
The children's statements were coded using categories based on Harter's scales (1981, 1982). These categories are mutually exclusive; that is, each statement was coded into only one category, and no statements overlapped into more than one category. The motivational categories included:
1. Mastery - The child comments on or asks a question about his/her letter.
The other verbal categories are:
Reliability was also assessed between the first and second researchers on five children in both interactions for each of the motivational categories. Mean reliability for the motivational categories was .98. The reliability was .88 for independent mastery and 1.00 for dependent mastery, claimed competence, denied competence, claimed interest, and denied interest.
Forms of writing
Reliability between the first and second researcher was assessed on five children in both interactions. Mean reliability for the forms of writing was .94.
There was also a significant interaction between Order and Context for the dependent variable independent mastery F (1, 18) = 4.58, (p <.05). In fact, the range(s) between the levels of independent mastery obtained in the autonomy-supportive context and the controlling context differed according to which context came first (Order). As shown in Figure 1, when the autonomy-supportive context was first, the mean of independent mastery was 5.7 statements, but this value declined to 2.5 in the immediately following controlling context. The pattern was very different when the controlling context was first: the level of independent mastery began at the negligible level of .5 statements, but climbed steeply to 31.3 in the following autonomy-supportive context (see Table 1).
Figure 1. Interaction between context and order for independent mastery.
Forms of Writing
The present study supports previous research indicating that autonomy-support has a positive influence on children's motivation for literacy. This study also expands past research by demonstrating this association in the framework of an emergent literacy task and, in particular, for low-income African American children. Our study found that the same children demonstrated more interest in the autonomy-supportive context than in controlling context. This finding is especially important since few studies have examined the motivational influences on African American children (Graham, 1994). In support of Turners (1995) findings with middle-income European American children, our results suggest that low-income African American children's motivation to engage in literacy tasks are not determined solely by a general orientation toward extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, but rather may also be situated in their encounters with reading and writing.
Our study also supports previous research indicating that the context in which child learns new skills may affect their intrinsic motivation in that skill domain in the future (Boggiano et al., 1988; Deci & Ryan, 1985). In particular, our study suggests that a controlling context in which a child engages in an emergent literacy task may undermine their subsequent motivation for that task. As predicted, we found that children in the controlling followed by the autonomy-supportive group demonstrated more dependent mastery in both the controlling and autonomy-supportive contexts than children in the autonomy-supportive followed by the controlling group. However, we also found that children in the controlling followed by autonomy-supportive interaction made more statements of independent mastery in the autonomy-supportive context than children in the autonomy-supportive followed by controlling interaction. These unexpected findings may be explained, in part, by the children's prior knowledge of letter writing. As kindergartners, these children are likely to have had few experiences with letter writing. Indeed, when visiting their classroom, we did not observe any classroom lessons on writing a letter. Since research in emergent literacy clearly indicates that many facets of children's literacy development are facilitated through adult guidance, these children may have been more receptive to instruction when first learning how to write a letter. Therefore, although children in the controlling followed by autonomy-supportive interaction elicited more adult help, they also demonstrated more independent mastery because they had more previous adult guidance concerning how to write a letter.
Our study also highlights the importance of autonomy-supportive contexts for children's literacy productions. As expected, the controlling context discouraged emergent literacy behaviors and limited children's opportunities to engage in natural literacy practices. In contrast, the autonomy-supportive context allowed children to write in their own way. As a result, in the autonomy-supportive context, children used many forms of emergent writing such as drawing, scribbling, and invented spellings and wrote for relatively long periods of time without soliciting adult help. These children showed such behaviors as maintaining a flow of writing while changing colors of markers, keeping an attentive eye on the paper, occasionally sounding out words, or saying letters aloud. This suggests that autonomy-supportive environments are important in encouraging children's gradual and natural literacy development.
Our study also highlights the importance of scaffolding for emergent literacy. In particular, our data suggest that childrens literacy development is facilitated through adult guidance especially when learning a new task such as writing a letter. As Teale (1982) asserted, literacy learning is not an independent and purely autonomous activity. In addition to autonomy-support, emergent writers also need guidance, involvement, and structure. What seems important is the right combination of structure, a warm and supportive environment, and positively motivated role models (Grolnick & Ryan, 1992). In order to encourage natural literacy learning, teachers and parents need to give children the freedom of choice, encourage expressiveness and initiation, and provide guidance and structure that is informational rather than controlling.
Second, although we used a repeated-measures design, our study examined only a small time frame for these children. Further research may investigate the longitudinal effects of context on childrens motivation for literacy. For example, how does the context, whether autonomy-supportive or controlling, in which children engage in early literacy learning influence their literacy behaviors as they grow older? Moreover, can more autonomy-supportive contexts in childrens later literacy experiences facilitate increased motivated engagements with literacy?
In conclusion, motivation is clearly an important factor in childrens early engagements with literacy. As our data suggest, the controlling nature of the context in which children learn literacy may not only limit childrens opportunities to use emergent literacy, they may also undermine their motivation to do so. Evidently, researchers and educators need to place sharper attention on how the nature of the context influences childrens motivation for emergent literacy.
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This research was conducted as part of CIERA, the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, and supported under the Educational Research and Development Centers Program, PR/Award Number R305R70004, as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents of the described report do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment or the National Institute on Early Childhood development, or the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.