This paper is going to outline the myriad of benefits that high-quality preschool literacy programs will afford families, communities, school districts and the world. Today, numerous researchers are delving into HOW to establish an effective and successful pre-school program. In this paper, I hope to answer several questions: ▪ What is pre-school literacy?
▪ What benefits do participants in a preschool program receive? ▪ HOW do we go about establishing a high-quality pre-school literacy program?
I am rather passionate about this area. Being a speech pathologist, literacy skills and communication skills are so interwoven it is difficult to separate them. I have to say that while going to school many years ago, we didn’t learn that much about literacy as it related to speech and language development. It is only recently that researchers and educators have identified the importance of how both developmental areas are linked. I feel that establishing successful and highly effective programs that incorporate family and child directed activities are crucial to the success of our young students. That being said, let’s explore pre-school literacy.
What is preschool literacy?
Most people hear the word ‘literacy’ and equate that with ‘reading’. This would be an adult analogy. For very young children, we don’t, nor should we, expect them to read! Early literacy skills refer to many different things, none of which is sitting down with Mom at the age of two and reading aloud for her. At the youngest ages, early literacy skills refer to children’s exposure and experience with books. The following list is derived from Schickendanz (1999) and Early Literacy (www.zerotothree.com) . It states that early literacy behaviors include:
▪ Book handling behaviors – handling and manipulating the book ▪ Looking and Recognizing- how are they paying attention to the book, pictures, words; demonstrating recognition of pictures, etc. ▪ Picture and Story Comprehension – Imitation of actions noted in a story, talking about a story ▪ Story-Reading Behaviors – verbal interactions with the books, imitating a pointing a finger at words and/or pictures.
‘Establishing strong early literacy behaviors is essential to literacy development and should be the focus of early language and literacy programs’ (Early Literacy, 2003) It is suggested that these skills develop naturally and unfold as a result of social interactions with parents and caregivers, rather than direct instruction. I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. Ideally, it is everyday interactions with infants and toddlers that include talking and book reading that help establish the crucial beginning stages of literacy development. I recently heard on a radio program (can’t cite it) that children between the ages of 0-3 years should hear approximately 30,000 words a day to build an effective vocabulary! Amazing. Todd Risley, co-author of Meaningful differences in the everyday Experiences of young American children (Mangione, 2005), states that isn’t an intentional teaching of these behaviors but rather embedded in the social interactions. He believes, as do I, that oral language skills appear to be the basis of phonological processing skills, which is a strong indicator for reading readiness in kindergarten.
As children move into the preschool realm, (typically described as ages 3 through 5), prereading skills are developing along a continuum, rather than as a set of discrete and separate skills. In the article Critical Issue: Addressing the literacy Needs of Emergent and Early Readers (www.ncrel.org), the authors made a very interesting point I’d like to share with you. They discussed the various stages of literacy development that are not relevant to this article, however, an important transition occurs when a child’s “‘reading’ of a story changes from sounding like oral language to sounding like written language. This demonstrates a change in ideas from thinking of reading as spoken words to understanding that reading is recreated from written text that has special wordings” (McGee & Richgels, 1996;Sulzby, 1991). It is the beginning of the child’s print recognition.
With respect to specific pre-school literacy behaviors that we should see addressed in a high-quality preschool program, the most important would be: ▪ Oral Language- engaging in rich conversational exchange with students, developing oral vocabulary, reading aloud daily, having children develop their own stories by looking at pictures (Tomie DiPola books are excellent for this) ▪ General Knowledge – what prior knowledge are the student’s coming into school with that they share, encouraging questions and new experiences with in the classroom, ▪ Print Awareness- being exposed to various written materials, some repetition of early literacy behaviors, point/drag techniques while reading ▪ Alphabet knowledge – the ABC song, recognizing sounds that letters make, letter recognition. ▪ Phonological awareness- Increased awareness of the sounds of the letters and how to play with them through rhyme, segmenting, blending, ▪ Pre-writing skills – later stages of development and exposure to writing mediums (pen, pencil, crayon, markers, paint), using journals with self-made pictures, word walls. (Roskos, K; Christie, J, Richgels, D, www.naeyc.org)
How do participants in high-quality preschool programs benefit?
I think I could go on for days about the benefits of an excellent preschool experience. For the sake of brevity, I won’t! Numerous studies have been conducted to determine whether preschool programs are beneficial and cost effective. The majority of studies suggest the answer to that is an overwhelming YES.
The Chicago Child Parent Center (CPC), the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program and the Abecedarian Project are all examples of highly qualified preschool programs. The CPC is recognized by the US Department of Education as an exemplary early childhood program. A comparison of the benefits of these programs was conducted, yielding what I thought were incredible results. These programs have been in effect since the 1960’s, servicing low-income areas in Chicago and Michigan (Lee, J, www.ccsso.org). In a speech given by Dr. W. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Intervention Research in 2006, three separate studies compared the results of participants enrolled in the above-mentioned preschool programs against a control group that wasn’t enrolled in any preschool program. Their longitudinal studies revealed amazing results, which are credited to the attending of the preschool programs. According to them, participants in the program (as compared with non-participants):
▪ Were less likely to be enrolled in special education
▪ Had a higher rate of high school completion
▪ Demonstrated higher test scores
▪ Were less likely to repeat a grade
▪ Had increased earning after completing high school
▪ Engaged in less criminal activities
▪ Had a lower incidence of smoking, pregnancy and abortion.
These benefits did not stop at the poverty line. They also demonstrated that middle class children benefited from the experience as well. He discussed the well-known fact that disadvantaged children benefit more when they are in class with children from different socio-economic backgrounds. An analysis I found very interesting was that ‘For every dollar invested into the preschool programs described in this paper $7 is saved in public expenditures’ (Lee. www.ccsso.org). WOW, think what that could mean to a superintendent’s budget! When trying to determine whether a preschool program could benefit those in the middle class, the US Dept. of Education, NCES, (1997) article entitled Dropout rates in the United States:1995 determined that middle class children have fairly high rates of the problems that preschool reduces for low-income children. While benefits decrease gradually with an income increase, the overall benefits are greater when ALL children are exposed to PreK. In an evaluation of 5 state prek programs conducted by Barnett,W.S, Lamy, C. and Jung, K. (2005), results revealed that in all programs, whether universal or targeted, students demonstrated gains in language, literacy and math. While all students (various SES backgrounds) gained, the low-income students gained more.
How do we go about establishing high-quality preschool literacy programs?
In an ideal world with unlimited funding, it wouldn’t be too difficult. However, we don’t live in an ideal world and much needed financing is often diverted to other important (or not so important!) causes. Really, what is more important than education?
One resolution could be to emulate the success demonstrated by the Chicago and Michigan programs spoken about earlier in this paper. In Rockland County, some school disctricts already offer a district-based preschool program. This year, all districts were alloted slots to participate in a Universal PreK initiative. However, while that is an excellent start to establishing a much needed entity, a lot of work still exists.
During my research gathering I read many, many articles that discussed the family-centered literacy approach. Such as at the CPC, involving the parents and providing them with strategies and useful techniques to help their children empowers them and makes them feel useful and successful. Without parental involvement at the preschool level, literacy development suffers.
Since the institution of NCLB, many school disstricts are seeking wasys to provide needed support to their students without it becoming a ‘special ed’ component or target program. Instituting a universal prek program benefits all. Looking at the various achievement gaps that Dr. Barnett identified in his paper, while there is significantly more of an achievement gap at the lower SES levels, there are still marked gaps in the middle class level, thus further justifying why ALL students would benefit from the experience.
In an effort to establish successful high-quality preschool programs in Texas, the retired CEO of Texas Instruments was aware of the huge impact the Perry Preschool Program had on its communities and he was eager to replicate that success in Texas. Therefore, after establishing a successful pilot program, the participants wanted to be able to spread the success throughout the state and a handbook “Improving Early Literacy of Preschool Children’ was developed for prekindergarten educators. The authors and editors really were able to target what a high-quality program looks like with suggestions on how to implement them into your existing programs.
The following steps are indicated to improve a preschool program:
▪ Set goals
▪ Create an improvement plan
▪ Build a classroom library
▪ Train the teachers and encourage collaboration
▪ Keep rack of student’s progress
▪ Inform and involve parents
▪ Communicate with elementary schools the children will attend ▪ Measure and document results (Dougherty, 1999)
All of these steps are so important to developing a program that is successful. It is hard to determine whether one step is more important than another. Personally, I really feel that if the teachers and the teaching assistants and/or aides are given the proper training, every interaction with a child will take on new meaning. The Margaret Cone Head Start Center in Southeast Dallas has serviced predominantly low-income populations. As part of their language enrichment program (LEAP), each teacher attends six weeks of instruction at the nearby university as well as several workshops a year. Because of these teacher trainings, Cone Center children have produced improved scores on a variety of tests targeting vocabulary, language skills and social skills. I believe that involving the parents as much as possible and having them in the classroom for a half-day a week or twice a month lets them see what is happening and provides modeling they can use at home.
Obstacles that I can identify at this point to establishing high-quality preschool programs that ALL children can attend include: ▪ FUNDING
▪ Private preschool programs vs. school district based programs ▪ Consistent participation on the part of the parents ▪ Difficulty providing quality training programs for the teachers and teaching assistants/aides due to lack of funding, time, resources
While I feel there are many excellent examples of qualified and successful preschool programs in Rockland County, we do not meet the needs of all the children of the preschool age. As CPSE chair, I am able to provide special education needs to many children that require it. However, there is great variability between the programs that we recommend students attend. Consistent high-quality preschool programs would be beneficial to ALL students involved, not just the special needs children.
In conclusion, it is a well-documented fact that preschool literacy education benefits all children involved. The need lies in our ability to establish high-caliber programs that are consistent, with staff that is well trained and caring. I think if we can distribute the information about the long-term effects researched and prove to the masses (school boards!) that the bottom line would be cost savings to the community, we might see some change. I look forward to that day!
1. Schweinhart, L. J. Lasting Benefits of Preschool Programs ERIC Digest. ericdigests.org. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.ericdigests.org/1994/lasting.htm
2. Dougherty, C., et al. Improving Early Literacy of Preschool Children – a
Handbook for Prekindergarten Educators. Texas Instruments, 1999.
3. Lee, J. The Benefits of Preschool for High School and Beyond. Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.ccsso.org
4. Roskos, K. A., Christie, J. F. & Richgels, D. J. The Essentials of Early Literacy Instruction. National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved February 23, 2008, from www.naeyc.org/resources/journal
5. Mangione, P. L. (2005). Creating Language and Literacy Experiences for Infants and Toddlers. PITC Graduate Conference. Berkeley, CA.
6. Johnson, D. & Sulzby, E. Critical Issue: Addressing the Literacy Needs of Emergent and Early Readers. North Central Regional Educational Library. Retrieved January 21, 2008, from http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/content/cntareas/reading/li100.htm
7. Barnett, W. (2006, Jan. 10). Research on the Benefits of Preschool Education: Securing High Returns from Preschool for All Children. New York, NY. 8. Brain Wonders.Early Literacy (2003). Zero To Three. Retrieved January 24, 2008, from www.zerotothree.org/BrainWonders