Elsie Thomas, a preschool teacher at the Miramonte Early Education Center here, holds up a book titled Store as she leads a circle of 24 children in a discussion. Together, they determine that shoes come from a shoe store and toys from a toy store.
As she turns to put the book down, a boy in a striped shirt crawls to the front and points to the cover.
“Oh,” Ms. Thomas says, “he wants to tell us the properties of the book.”
“Front cover,” the boy says. Then the others join in: “Back cover. Title page.”
The 4-year-olds’ knowledge about the features of a book is one of the results of the stronger emphasis that this South- Central Los Angeles neighborhood preschool has been placing on early literacy for the past year.
Using a program called Building Language for Learning, the children follow a daily routine that includes books and vocabulary about zoos, restaurants, farms, airports, and other places that they may or may not have visited.
Their study of stores includes singing “Step to the Store,” playing shoe store, and using words such as customer, cashier, and credit card— all activities that help build oral-language skills and fit the description of what the Bush administration is hoping to achieve with Early Reading First.
The early-reading effort is a companion to Reading First, an initiative that is part of the new federal education law and will provide more than $5 billion in grants for reading instruction in elementary schools over six years.
Indeed, the Building Language for Learning curriculum being used here at the Miramonte center—part of the Los Angeles Unified School District—was co-written by Susan B. Neuman before she was named by President Bush to be the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, and Catherine Snow, a Harvard University education professor.
Ms. Snow chaired the committee for the National Research Council, an arm of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Sciences, that wrote “Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.” The 1998 report has since guided many efforts nationwide to improve the teaching of reading. Among other steps, the report recommended that preschool teachers and child-care workers play a larger role in developing young children’s literacy skills.
“Everybody is realizing that children don’t learn to read naturally,” said Susan E. Canizares, the editor in chief of the early-childhood and early-literacy division at Scholastic Inc., the New York City-based educational publisher that produced the Building Language for Learning program. “There are absolutely definitive things that you need to do,” she said.
And that’s the principle behind Early Reading First, which will award grants to preschool programs that are either affiliated with a local education agency receiving Reading First funding or are located in a community where the school district has a Reading First grant.
The administration expects to award between 50 and 100 six-year grants, ranging from $750,000 to $1.5 million.
Also, programs receiving Early Reading First funds will be required to screen preschoolers to identify those children who may be especially at risk for future reading problems.
‘Centers of Excellence’
“The goal is to create centers of excellence all across the country,” said Ms. Neuman of the Education Department.
She added that the agency would look for centers or providers that have been working to enhance the reading features of their programs.
The department will not begin distributing the $75 million allotted for the first round of Early Reading First grants until the end of this year. But advocates for early-childhood education say they are pleased with what they’ve heard about the program.
“It’s a good first start,” said Adele Robinson, the director of public policy and communications at the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children. “A lot of what we asked for made it into the law.”
The NAEYC, for instance, wanted the program to be sensitive to the developmental needs of young children, and to emphasize professional development for teachers, Ms. Robinson said.
She stressed that it is important for the Education Department to reach out to a variety of early- childhood-education providers—not just school-based programs—when considering applications.
One such initiative now being underwritten primarily with corporate contributions is Child Care Reads, a pilot project in New York City operated by the Child Care Action Campaign, an advocacy organization based there.
The program, which began last year, involves 1,200 family child-care providers. It offers them training on how to blend books and vocabulary skills into the daily child-care routine.
“The key thing is that adults need to be communicating with children,” said Faith Wohl, the president of the Child Care Action Campaign. “The more children hear words, the more likely they are to say them.”
Federal education officials emphasize that the intention of Early Reading First is not to have 3- and 4-year-olds actually reading books when they are preschoolers. Rather, the objective is to improve classroom environments so that children acquire the skills—such as letter recognition— they will need when more formal reading instruction begins in elementary school.
“The last thing we want to do is jump to explicit instruction in phonics without children having these foundational experiences,” Ms. Canizares of Scholastic said.
In addition to enhancing children’s language skills, Early Reading First will seek to build their cognitive skills.
“I think our children aren’t given enough content in these early years,” Ms. Neuman said, pointing out that a preschool curriculum rooted in science or art, for example, can give children a lot of material to talk about.
“If we’re just doing senseless rhymes,” she said, “that’s not going to get us anywhere.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Bush’s Program Turning the Pages To Emphasize Early Reading Help