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Reading, Early-Childhood Experts Seek Ways To Aid Children at Risk

In what one participant described as a "watershed event," representatives of the major early-childhood-education and reading organizations gathered here recently to talk about the best ways to improve reading achievement for children at risk of academic failure.

The Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement at the University of Michigan, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the International Reading Association, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and the Council for Exceptional Children joined together to sponsor the March 24 event. The conference was organized by Susan B. Neuman, who was nominated by President Bush last month to serve as the U.S. assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education. Ms. Neuman is currently the director of the University of Michigan early-reading center.

"We're all trying to do right by the same groups of kids," said Jerlean E. Daniel, an associate professor of child development at the University of Pittsburgh and a past president of the Washington-based NAEYC.

The research presented at the session focused on assessment, professional development, and techniques that teachers can use to spark children's interest in reading—especially with preschoolers and primary-grade students who do not have a rich literacy environment at home.

For example, Nell K. Duke, an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, talked about the role of informational books in early-childhood classrooms and in children's homes.

While some parents and educators may think only storybooks are appropriate for children, Ms. Duke noted that nonfiction is not only appropriate, but can stimulate children's interest in reading if the text is about a topic they care about.

"There is a nice fit between informational text and young children," she said. "The research shows that we are missing an opportunity to teach children to read to learn [through informational text] by grade 4, and to teach children to learn to read to learn after grade 4." Her studies show that children can understand and respond to nonfiction, and that informational text builds on young children's natural curiosity about the world and adds to their vocabulary.

Ms. Duke also found that when informational or other nonfiction books are available, children choose them just as often as fiction books.

Another example of an appropriate way to build young children's language and literacy skills through nonfiction subjects came from Annemarie S. Palincsar, who holds a chair in reading and literacy at the University of Michigan.

Through science, for instance, children can talk about "big ideas," she said, and build vocabulary by conducting "what if" experiments. In addition to conversing with their teachers and classmates, students can use newly acquired language to present their theories and findings through posters, notebooks, and a variety of other ways.

In comments to the 100-plus attendees, David K. Dickinson, a senior research scientist at the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass., said the oral exchange that takes place between young children and their teachers significantly contributes to the growth of the children's literacy skills. And several researchers emphasized the importance of giving children "cues" and open-ended questions that allow them to stretch their language skills.

During a comment period, one participant noted that some early-childhood teachers, particularly those without college training, may not feel equipped to engage children that way and may need to work on building their own vocabulary.

But Mr. Dickinson said that teachers do have the language skills to challenge young children, and that the goal should be helping them "realize that they need to use what they have."

Another common question that teachers often have about early-reading instruction is how children should be grouped.

Sharon Vaughn, an education professor at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that at-risk children always do better when they receive small-group instead of whole-group instruction.

One particularly effective method, she said, is to pair two children for a reading activity and to let the poorer reader serve as a "tutor" to the other child.

While many remedial-reading programs are designed to give children one-on-one instruction from a teacher, Ms. Vaughn pointed out that model might not always be necessary. In her study of 89 pupils in 2nd grade, she compared the effectiveness of three different small-group configurations— with ratios of instructor to student of 1-to-1, 1-to-3, and 1-to-10.

While 1- to-10 was the least effective of the three, the results for the two smaller groups were relatively equal.

When other students are present, Ms. Vaughn noted, struggling readers can receive feedback and praise from their peers while still getting the attention they need from the teacher. Those struggling readers, however, should not always be placed in the role of tutee. Being the tutor at times can be a far more powerful experience for improving reading skills, Ms. Vaughn said.

"For students who are the most at risk, one-to-one instruction may be necessary," she said. "But for many, many, many students, small groups might be effective."

That finding, she said, should be particularly encouraging to administrators who are trying to hold down costs.

"We only have so much money and so much time," Ms. Vaughn said.

Assessment of young children's reading skills was a topic of considerable discussion at the conference. Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, a professor of psychology and pediatrics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, presented a preliminary look at a screening tool he has designed for the National Center for Learning Disabilities that would be used to gauge children's early-reading skills.

The instrument, he said, could be used by parents, educators, librarians, pediatricians, and others interested in children's development, and would eventually be available on the Internet.

The indicators that would be part of the screening are made up of skills that can predict future reading success, Mr. Whitehurst said.

But some participants at the conference expressed reservations about the screening tool.

Samuel J. Meisels, an education professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in the assessment of young children, said he was concerned about assessments that were designed for one purpose being used for others. And he said that while a screening instrument can be part of a "prevention strategy," it can't prevent a learning disability.

Several speakers at the conference stressed the importance of linking assessment and instruction.

Carol M. Connor, a doctoral candidate in education at the University of Michigan, outlined what she has found teachers want from assessment. They want it to provide early identification of a child's skills. They want an instrument that provides continuing feedback about a student's progress. And they want to know that the teaching methods they use are making a difference. They also want to know, she said, whether their students are reaching the standards they are supposed to meet.

Providing meaningful professional-development opportunities for teachers is among the most effective ways of changing classroom practice, panelists here said. The long work hours and year-round schedules of many child-care and early-childhood-education programs, however, leave limited opportunities for teachers to take training courses, remarked Marilou Hyson, the director of professional development at the NAEYC.

P. David Pearson, a professor of education at Michigan State, said research shows that professional development should be "local, continuous, and program- specific," but that most of it is "distant, piecemeal, and generic."

A few speakers stressed the importance of building incentives into the professional-development system that would encourage teachers to seek out the training. Ideas suggested ranged from offering teachers dinner if they stayed after work to linking the staff-development course to a step on the career ladder.

While everyone at the conference agreed that early success in reading leads to future achievement, those speakers from the field of early-childhood education urged the participants to think about the whole child.

"Children don't learn literacy skills through literacy instruction alone," Mr. Meisels said.

And Ms. Daniel added that young children's social and emotional growth should be considered as much as their cognitive development.

—Linda Jacobson

Vol. 20, Issue 29, Pages 10-11

Published in Print: April 4, 2001, as Reporter's Notebook
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