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Experts Urge Bigger Role for Preschools in Literacy Development

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A panel of prominent researchers, in a long-awaited report on reading released last month, joined those educators and policymakers who are shifting more attention to the prekindergarten years. In the report for the National Research Council, the panel recommends that day-care workers and preschool teachers play a much larger role in early literacy.

But the experts also acknowledge that those teachers are largely unprepared for the task.

Sitting in an adult's lap reading a favorite book, reciting and singing nursery rhymes, and carrying on conversations about everyday things all set the groundwork for reading even before a child recognizes a single word in print, experts say. Yet, too few children in preschool and day-care settings, or even those who stay at home with a parent or other family member, are regularly exposed to a rich range of experiences that assist language development and provide the foundations for learning to read.

The report to the research council, "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children," suggests that more-thoughtful planning of activities for children who have not yet reached kindergarten could help prevent a large proportion of reading problems later on. ("NRC Panel Urges End to Reading Wars," March 25, 1998.)

"In many [day-care] situations, the language and literacy needs of these children are not the caretakers' primary concern," says the report, written by a panel of reading researchers who studied the literature on the subject for more than two years. "Traditional caretaking, such as keeping children safe, fed, and clean, is often the main focus. Yet, many of these children are in special need of early language stimulation and literacy learning," says the report commissioned by the NRC, the research arm of the Washington-based National Academy of Sciences.

'The Right Time'

The report recommends universal access to preschool programs that are designed to build literacy skills. The panel suggests that the earliest learning experiences should include conversation with adults, introduction to the alphabet, and exposure to books, games, and activities that are developmentally appropriate and promote a love of reading.

"Preschool is the right time to begin serious language and vocabulary development," said Marilyn J. Adams, a professor of education at Harvard University and a member of the NRC panel.

But the sounds of little children at play should not be drowned out by the recitation of letters or drill-and-skill instruction in phonics, the panel warns.

"The report does not recommend early instruction in reading," emphasized Barbara T. Bowman, the president of the Erikson Institute, a private graduate school and child-development research center in Chicago. "The notion is that if ... you have an environment in which there are rich, receptive language and literacy experiences, [children] will be well-primed to learn to read," said Ms. Bowman, who served on the panel.

Creating such an environment requires staff members who are knowledgeable about how children learn to read and skilled in conceiving activities appropriate for the age group. But the child-care field may not be prepared to handle such duties, the report says.

"Very often, these are not professionally trained people," said Catherine Snow, also a professor of education at Harvard and the chairwoman of the NRC panel. "They are pretty good at providing love and attention to kids, but may not be particularly good at creating the optimally stimulating environment."

Standards Coming

As more attention shifts to child care and early education and their potential to prepare children better for school, the responsibilities on teachers in those settings are gradually increasing, according to Marcy Whitebook, the executive director of the Center for the Child Care Workforce, based in Washington. But, for the most part, the salary and benefits needed to attract a highly trained workforce are not.

"We're constantly asking people to do more, but we're not redefining the pay or the status that comes with it," Ms. Whitebook said.

Child-care workers, some 40 percent of whom have no more than a high school diploma, make less than $14,000 a year on average. Fewer than 10 percent of the estimated 80,000 early-childhood programs in the country are accredited, and the ratio of children to teachers varies widely--from 35-to-1 in some states to the relatively few centers that follow the National Association for the Education of Young Children's recommendation of 10-to-1, according to Barbara A. Willer, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based group.

With the current state of the field, some experts agree that fulfilling the recommendations in the NRC report would require large-scale change.

"The bottom line is that there is very little literacy going on naturally in the preschool environment," said Susan B. Neuman, an associate professor of language and literacy at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Ms. Neuman, who is helping produce a report on early literacy for the NAEYC and the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association and, said that "massive efforts" are needed to improve and expand training, develop resources for teachers, and push for more collaboration between early-childhood programs and public schools.

The NAEYC-IRA report, expected out next month, will make more specific recommendations for emphasizing reading skills in the early years, Ms. Neuman said.

In preschool, according to Ms. Neuman, children should learn to identify some letters and letter-sound relationships, begin to understand that print carries a message, listen to stories and discuss them, write some basic phrases, and engage in language games.

Play in Print

At the Main Street Child Development Center in Springfield, Va., one of the accredited centers, children get plenty of early exposure to print. Objects in the classroom, from chairs to windows, are labeled. Areas of the room designated for art, housekeeping, and drama are stocked with print materials, such as coupons and phone books. To ensure that children get enough time to talk and read with adults, volunteers are enlisted.

"One of the scary things [in the field] is that you find everything from children being placed in front of the television for hours at a time, to extreme academic settings," center Director Brenda Kuhlman said. "They don't do a whole lot in terms of literacy development. Teacher training needs to be emphasized more."

Any design of day care or preschool, however, should not preclude what interests children most of all: fun.

"What happens in these [settings] needs to be informal and joyful, but also planned," said Dorothy Strickland, an education professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who also worked on the NRC report.

"There have to be opportunities where children are using print in their play."

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