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Early-Childhood Educators Seek Guidance on Fostering Literacy

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Anaheim, Calif.

Politicians and public school teachers aren't the only ones concerned about improving children's reading skills. Those who care for the nation's infants and toddlers are also looking for guidance on how to foster early literacy and encourage the desire to read during a child's first years.

At this year's annual convention of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a session co-hosted by the International Reading Association drew hundreds of people wanting to get their views into the organizations' joint policy statement on literacy.

The two groups have been gathering comments for almost a year, and the revised statement is expected to be released next spring.

The NAEYC last year unveiled its new statement on developmentally appropriate practice for programs that serve children from birth through age 8. But naeyc leaders soon heard from IRA representatives, who said they thought the new statement didn't provide members of the field with enough direction on the issue of literacy.

Susan Neuman, a member of the IRA's committee on literacy development for young children, said the first document "relegates literacy to language development, and that's not enough."

Stressing the importance of reading is fine, she said, but teachers also need to understand why it's so vital to expose children to books and other printed materials. "You and I know that in the preschool ages, if some of these critical pieces are not done and not done well, the children are already behind," she said.

By the time children enter kindergarten, they should be thinking of themselves as readers and writers, said Jack Pikulski, the president of the Newark, Del.-based IRA. He added that certain literacy activities, including independent reading and writing, should be part of a daily routine.

A few who attended the popular session expressed concern over states' emphasis on raising academic standards. They said they feared that standards might not take into consideration young children's development and might restrict teachers to one method of reading instruction. Others said they hoped the new position statement on literacy would be made available in a separate version for parents.

Presenters at the Nov. 12-15 conference here provided a variety of tips that early-childhood professionals can use to bring literacy into their classrooms. Chants, songs, and nursery rhymes are excellent ways to encourage the development of language in infants and toddlers, said Alice S. Honig, a professor at Syracuse University in upstate New York.

Ms. Honig noted that some children, especially those who are growing up in homes where English is not the native language, may not yet have expressive language, or speech. But that doesn't mean they don't have strong receptive language--understanding what is being said and following directions.

Sharon Tipton, a teacher in the Jefferson Parish district, and Meher Banajee, a speech and language pathologist at Louisiana State University Medical Center's Human Development Center, offered practical suggestions on how to encourage reading, writing, and speaking.

Little fingers can turn pages much more easily if there is something to grasp onto at the corner of the page, such as a ponytail holder attached with tape. And sliding foam rubber hair curlers onto pens and pencils makes the instruments much easier to hold, thereby encouraging writing.

Rooms should also have plenty of blank books and paper so children can write and illustrate their own stories.

Housekeeping, kitchen, and dress-up centers are also common in early-childhood classrooms, but several speakers suggested that those areas could be improved by adding more print materials, such as cookbooks.

Early literacy is just one issue that brings together early-childhood and public school educators. The New York City-based Child Care Action Campaign and the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington, want to find more examples of child-care centers, preschool programs, and schools working together to make children more successful.

"Child Care and Education: Right From the Start" is the title of an inventory in the works that will include examples of such partnerships that are showing good results.

One site to be featured is the Frederick County public schools in Maryland, where there is a strong interagency council that includes representatives from Head Start, the school system, social service agencies, and child-care providers. As a result, various sources of funding have been combined to offer better programs to preschool-age children. About 350 children are being served through the project. Increases in readiness-assessment scores and decreases in special education referrals have been noted.

To nominate a program for the report, which will be completed by spring, call Gail Richardson, a CCAC program director, at (212) 239-0138.

Assessment of children in the early grades can be a sensitive subject for both parents and teachers. But a district in Canby, Ore., has created a K-3 testing program that is being used to communicate with parents and is even attracting interest from area preschools.

A team of teachers and administrators from the Canby district first conducted a review of the assessments already being used in the classroom. The team then wrote its own in the form of an easy-to-read continuum, measuring children's progress in reading, writing, and math. It's also aligned with the state's 3rd grade benchmarks.

Instead of the district mandating its use, teachers are using the assessment to conduct "action research" around how to improve student performance.

"The list was an eye-opener to me," said Janet Frazier, who has a combined 1st and 2nd grade class at Carus Elementary School in Canby. "It showed me things that I didn't even know kids could or couldn't do."

--LINDA JACOBSON

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