We once thought a child's education started in kindergarten but that could be years too late. Across the country people are examining what it takes to give our preschoolers the early literacy skills they need to become successful readers. In this program we'll meet some of the dedicated parents, teachers, and researchers who are discovering how to give our children a good start on a great future.
Bringing Up Baby
Long before children set foot in a classroom, we can start giving them the skills they'll need to become strong readers. It all begins with a child's first teachers — mom and dad.
That's why Kimberly Johnson spends time reading and talking to her two-year-old daughter, Ava, every day.
"She loved books from the very beginning. She used to chew on the corners and just start to play with turning the pages. Now she's gotten to the point where she just starts to appreciate the story itself," says Kimberly.
Children who are not read to early often start school at a disadvantage. Studies show that children who enter kindergarten with poor language skills have a very hard time catching up. The single best predictor of how children will do in school is how much they know before they get there.
"We know from very close study that when parents read with their children they are really teaching language. And language is tremendously important for children's emotional development and also for their ability to succeed in school," says Dr. Robert Needlman.
To get there, Dr. Needlman co-founded Reach Out and Read, a program Ava and her mother are part of. It's a national organization that works with health care providers, like Dr. Nicole Lang, to offer early literacy training as part of regular pediatric care. Since pediatricians see both children and parents from day one, they're in a great position to help kids get a head start on reading.
Dr. Lang says, "We're giving them lots of good info that they are taking to heart — and when we talk to them about reading and how important that is they say — ok, well I should be reading to my child. Just as I give them fruits and vegetables I'll also read to them."
Chicago Child-Parent Centers
Parent involvement doesn't end when school begins; continued involvement even after kids start school helps them stay on track. So even when the temperature's below freezing, Althea Slayden and her 4-year-old daughter Nygeria can't wait to get to school.
she loves to come to school. Even on Saturday she asks me, 'mom, is there school tomorrow?'" says Althea.
Their school is the Parker Child-Parent Center, one of a series of Child-Parent Centers located all over Chicago. The goal of each center is to provide the children with a strong academic program while keeping the parents involved — and it seems to be working.
Chicago's high school graduation rate hovers around fifty percent, but studies show that students who attend one of these centers have higher test scores, are less likely to use special education services, and are more likely to graduate from high school.
Sonja Griffin manages the Child-Parent Centers, "We know that the more the parent works with the children at home, and the more involved they are, the more it carries over to the later grades. And in early childhood, we're setting the foundation for the child's later success in school."
Althea spends part of everyday at Parker. If she's not in Nygeria's classroom helping the teacher, she's down the hall in her own classroom the parent resource room. Waiting for her is Ms. Carol Robinson, the parent resource teacher. One of Ms. Robinson's primary goals is giving parents the tools they need to help their kids become good readers.
"Many times our parents come in with problems pertaining to literacy. For example, one parent came in and said, when I read to my child, I have a problem being expressive or being fluent. As the parent resource teacher I may read a book to them and model how the story should sound and schedule workshops or activities where we can develop those skills," explains Ms. Robinson.
For many adults, school can be an intimidating place. So the welcoming environment here makes it easier for parents to stay involved.
"There's not a parent who's ever crossed the threshold of this parent room who did not want the very best for their children," says Ms. Robinson. "Their children are their treasures."
In Decatur, Georgia, there's a five-year-old girl who can't wait to get started on her day.
Born with Down syndrome, Avery faces some big challenges when it comes to getting by in school.
"What we want to focus on are basic life skills and, of course, the most important of those is reading," says Avery's mom, Sherry Copenhaver.
That's why her mom was so excited to find the Coralwood School, a public preschool program that's helped Avery develop her language skills, an important precursor to reading. Coralwood's inclusion model means that children with special needs, like Avery, learn alongside typically developing kids.
Principal Rebecca Blanton recalls, "The program originally began for students with special needs. But in about 1990 we realized that for children to learn from other children we needed some typically developing students in the building and it has worked great because both sets benefit from it."
For Avery, this environment means that she gets to spend every day working with other students who can model those skills that are sticking points for her.
"The special needs child in very early years benefits tremendously from being in these classrooms. They develop friendships. They see how other children work. They learn to adapt and accept their own disability. And they learn to have peers who help them in certain ways," says Dr. Susan B. Neuman from the University of Michigan.
This modeling is something that speech language pathologist Susan Garrett sees every day, and it's one of the main reasons that Coralwood provides almost all of its therapies in the classrooms.
When it's time for Avery to learn to read, she'll need intensive one-on-one help. But the steps she's taking in class right now are critical.
Jennifer Mazarky is Avery's classroom teacher, "Just in the last few months Avery has shown amazing progress. At the beginning of the year, she might say yes, no, hi, bye. Now she told one of the other teachers 'my lips are chapped.' She used the word chapped
and you could tell that she understood what that meant. And that's another big part of language; it's not only being able to say it, but to understand what you're saying and what it means."
In Corpus Christi, Texas a preschool classroom has broken in to song. They are led by Dr. Rebecca Palacios, who teaches the Spanish half of a dual language preschool program.
"A lot of people don't embrace preschool because they think oh, well, they're just going to go and they're going to sleep and they're going to play and nothing's going to happen and I think what people don't understand is how much work goes into a quality preschool program," says Dr. Rebecca Palacios.
One ingredient is a well-qualified, well-trained teacher — and they are in short supply. Only half of preschool teachers have a four year degree — and often that degree has little to do with early childhood.
So while they probably don't know it, this class of four-year-olds has lucked out with Dr. Becky Palacios. With a PhD in Education and more than 30 years in the classroom she knows how to create a literacy rich preschool environment.
She also knows how important it is to pass her knowledge and experience on to others. That's why she has 23 students in her class — 22 four-year-olds and one 30-year-old — Denise Caldera.
Denise attends Texas A&M University, and she's studying to become a teacher. She spends part of every day observing and working with Dr. Palacios. Denise has seen already how much this can help.
"We're going be there every day all day. Basically, we're going to be in charge of the classroom. We're going to have to implement lessons, we're going to have to grade, we're going to have to have parent conferences. And if we have no exposure in the classroom and we don't know what it's like to be in the classroom, then we're going to be completely lost," says Denise.
Dr. Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education: "In the training of early childhood educators, it's critical that the training programs offer them opportunities to go in there and practice executing their knowledge of child development with children, get support about that and feedback about that from somebody who's experienced and knowledgeable in those kinds of experiences, have been shown in a lot of research about the training of teachers to be probably one of the most critical features in predicting those teachers' skills when they have a classroom of their own."
As a mentor few can match Dr. Palacios, with her knowledge of the field, her long experience, and her sheer love of teaching.
"I've had a lot of opportunities to leave the classroom," says Dr. Palacios, "People always asked me you have a doctorate, why do you stay in a preschool classroom? Why are you there? And I tell them it's not about who I am — it's who the children are. And I'm going to get a little emotional here, but I think it's about the kids and not about me."