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Reading in the Early Years

When it comes to children and reading, start 'em young.

In a 10-year study, two prominent reading researchers found that children who get off to a fast start in learning to read may be more likely to acquire a lifelong habit of reading.

Anne E. Cunningham

Anne E. Cunningham of the University of California, Berkeley, and Keith E. Stanovich of the University of Toronto published their findings in the November issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.

For the study, they gave a battery of reading-comprehension and intelligence tests to a group of 56 students when they were in 1st grade. Ten years later, when the children were in the 11th grade, the researchers tested 37 of them again.

This time, they gave the students a battery of tests designed to gauge their reading ability, vocabulary skills, general knowledge, and whether they actively engaged in reading outside school. On some of those tests, for example, students checked off names of authors or magazines that they recognized.

The researchers tried to keep students from randomly checking names on the lists by including names of nonauthors and fake periodicals as well.

The 11th graders who scored high on the tests measuring their reading habits, the researchers found, were those who had quickly mastered reading back in 1st grade. And this was true, the researchers write, regardless of how well they read in 11th grade.

"I think the beauty of this study is the importance of an early start," says Ms. Cunningham, a visiting associate professor in the graduate school of education at UC-Berkeley. "Oftentimes, what is discussed in reading development is the importance of letting children find their own way in 1st and 2nd grades and it really doesn't matter how soon they master the alphabetic code."

"This suggests, however, that an early start has implications for their future reading engagement," she adds.

Critics might contend that the checklists the students used may be a better measure of a student's ability to absorb general knowledge than they are of reading habits. But Ms. Cunningham says her decade-long program of research with Mr. Stanovich has shown that the tests are a good substitute for more-direct measures of reading engagement.

Veering Off the College Track

Suppose there are two high school students with similar backgrounds who hope to go to college.

Both may come from poor or single-parent households, or have an older brother or sister who dropped out. Yet one student goes on to earn a degree, and the other never sets foot on a campus.

What makes the difference? Where in the pipeline leading to college do students drop off?

Those questions are the subject of a report published last month by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

The report, put together for the department by mpr Inc., a Berkeley, Calif.-based research company, draws on data from a national study of more than 13,000 students who graduated from high school in 1992.

The report zeroes in on students who are considered more likely to veer off the college track because of at least one of the following characteristics: being poor or from a single-parent household, repeating a grade or changing schools frequently, earning C's or lower between 6th and 8th grades, and having a sibling who dropped out.

As 10th graders, 58 percent of the students with one or more of those risk factors aspired to college, compared with four out of five of their counterparts who were not deemed at risk. And, even if they did have college aspirations, the at-risk students were still significantly less likely than those not at risk to get the academic preparation needed for college.

"Even if they are prepared, some of those students still don't take the steps necessary to apply to college," Laura Horn, the report's author, observes. "They don't take the sat, or they don't send in an application."

Nevertheless, 30 percent of at-risk students do manage to enroll in college. And these students differed from other at-risk students in several ways.

For one, they were far more likely to have completed an advanced-mathematics "gatekeeping" course, such as calculus, in high school.

Also, more than half--56 percent--of the successfully enrolled students received help from school personnel in filling out their college applications. By comparison, only 44 percent of the students who never set foot in college got application assistance from an adult in their schools.

A higher percentage of the students who made it to college also participated in two or more extracurricular activities, had parents who often discussed school-related matters at home, and had friends who also planned to attend college.

The report is available at the nces World Wide Web site at www.nces.ed.gov. Click on "What's New." Copies are also available from the National Library of Education at (800) 424-1616.

Write Neatly, Write Well

One way to improve the quality of young children's writing may be to work on their penmanship, a University of Washington researcher says.

Virginia W. Berninger, the director of the university's Multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center in Seattle, estimates that as many as one in five children have handwriting problems that interfere with their ability to produce well-written compositions.

"We find [that] kids will say, 'We stopped writing because we knew people couldn't figure out our writing or our spelling,'" says Ms. Berninger, whose work is being supported by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Yet, she adds, educators often fail to pick up on those difficulties or to focus much attention on handwriting.

Recently, Ms. Berninger and her colleagues tested a variety of instructional methods aimed at students with handwriting problems. From a group of 700 1st graders, the researchers identified 144 children facing potential handwriting difficulties.

They randomly assigned those students to smaller groups, where the children were exposed to different strategies. One group, for example, watched a teacher demonstrate writing lowercase letters on a blackboard and then copied the letters. Another group looked at letters, covered them up, and then tried to write them from memory.

A more traditional approach was used with a third group. Those students copied rows of frequently used letters onto worksheets.

All of the sessions lasted 20 minutes and took place approximately twice a week over a period of two to three months.

The most effective method, the researchers found, was a combined approach. Students were first told that their 10 minutes of handwriting practice was a warm-up for a composition activity. They looked at letters marked with numbered arrow cues, covered up the letters and wrote them from memory. Then they engaged in a writing activity for the remaining 10 minutes.

Most of the students taught to write that way improved the speed and accuracy of their handwriting and produced better-quality compositions to boot. Easing students' handwriting difficulties, Ms. Berninger believes, frees up their brains for the kind of higher-ordered thinking required to produce better writing.

She published her findings from that study in the December issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology. Her co-authors on the report are Steve Graham of the University of Maryland College Park and Katherine B. Vaughan, Robert D. Abbott, Sylvia P. Abbott, Laura Woodruff Rogan, Allison Brooks, and Elizabeth Reed of the University of Washington.

Ms. Berninger says all students might benefit from similar kinds of handwriting lessons if they are introduced as a precursor to longer writing assignments so that children see the purpose of the activity.

But she cautions against a return to old-fashioned penmanship instruction, which typically requires students to copy rows and rows of the same few letters: "We think the normal way handwriting is taught is cruel and unusualpunishment."

--DEBRA VIADERO dviadero@epe.org

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