Showing posts with label Preschool. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Preschool. Show all posts

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Role of Early Oral Language in Reading Comprehension

           When I was 18-years-old I was a volunteer tutor in an inner-city school. I wasn’t an education major—that came later—but I was intent on saving the world. I was excited about the idea of going into the city and working with elementary school kids who were growing up in poverty.

            But I was also nervous about it. I didn’t know a damn thing about working with kids, the inner city, or reading. A trifecta of ignorance.

            I decided to school myself the evening before my first day of tutoring, so I went to the university library and looked for some books on the teaching of reading. I found two that seemed pertinent and I checked them out.

            One was Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read and the other was Roach Van and Claryce Allen’s Language Experiences in Early Childhood. At the time I couldn’t have found two more separate takes on early reading: Flesch’s convincing polemic on the need for explicit phonics instruction and the Allen’s romantic homage to the role of early language development.

            It turns out I was also ignorant about philosophical differences. I was scrambling to figure out what to do and these books—as far apart as they may have been—were pointing me in practical, if seemingly incommensurate, directions.

            Now, 47 years later, with lots of knowledge and experience, I’m back to where I started. I no longer see them as incommensurate (again). Decoding and language, language and decoding… it’s like those television commercials: “tastes great, less filling” or “peanut butter, chocolate.” Sometimes the complementary just makes good sense.

            Recently, Chris Lonigan and I wrote a short article for Language Magazine. It’s focus is on “The Role of Early Oral Language in Literacy Development.” I think both Chris and I have bona fides in the “phonics/decoding/foundational skills” community and have the scars to show it. But we are both also advocates of the so-called “simple view” of reading—students need to know how to decode from print to language and they need to know how to understand language. This is a both, not an either/or.

            Here is a link to the article. Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Does Preschool Improve Later Literacy Achievement?

Here we go again.

Last week, Dale Farran and a team of researchers at Vanderbilt University concluded that preschool education gets kids off to a great academic start, but by the end of kindergarten the results start to wear off. And, by the end of second grade you can’t even tell that the kids had attended preschool or not.

That suggests that preschool education is a lousy investment—if the goal is to improve students’ later reading and math achievement.

The same kind of findings resulted a couple years ago in a similar study of Head Start. Good initial payoff, but no lasting value.

Over the past few days there have been lots of post-mortems of these findings. The press has interviewed various experts and many have focused on the same concern: the quality of this specific preschool program.

But as Dr. Farran points out, these preschool experiences must have been darn good. Remember, these children were initially doing better than the other kindergarten kids on lots of measures. 

I think the experts are looking in the wrong direction.

Our system of education, both formally and informally, aims at the bottom, with a clear goal of trying to raise the lowest kids up. Kindergartners and first-graders are tested to identify those who need extra help. Then Title I reading support kicks in; not for everybody, but for the strugglers.

If the children who experienced preschool are generally in the top half of the distribution when they enter kindergarten, schools are going to work hard at trying to close the gap. They’ll address it by giving the lower achieving kids  (the ones who didn't attend preschool) more instruction to try to close the gap. This isn't some weird response by individual teachers. It is public policy. The lower achieving kids--that would mean the ones without preschool will get Title I, RtI, Reading Recovery, after school interventions, and summer school. 

What will the higher achieving kids get while this is going on? Probably not very much. If they enter kindergarten already knowing their letter sounds or able to segment words phonemically, then they are likely to get more work with those same concepts. [I remember my oldest daughter, who could read when she entered school, being surprised that they were going to teach her the letter names—despite the fact that she had known them for years.]

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Dolores Durkin documented it back in the 1970s. She taught a bunch of preschoolers to read then followed them through second grade. Each year the schools retaught these kids skills they had mastered long ago, until eventually the other kids caught up.

Some people think that early teaching changes kids cognitively, making them smarter. If it worked that way, the early benefits wouldn’t wash out, even given these policies and programs.

But I think preschool helps because it gives kids extra time to learn specific knowledge and abilities, like numbers and addition or letter sounds and high frequency words. They don’t lose this knowledge once its gained, but if they have no opportunity to add to it, then the other kids simply catch up, making it look like the preschool time was wasted.

If we were really serious about early childhood education making a long-term difference in children’s literacy achievement, we would change primary grade reading curricula to allow these kids to keep progressing from where they are when they enter kindergarten—rather than reteaching the same skills again and again, as if they had not been in preschool, and giving all the extra tuition to the kids they accelerated ahead of.

If you want preschool to be effective, take a close look at what is going to happen to these children when they leave preschool. Given that their skill levels are generally so advanced, one would expect to find a more advanced curriculum aimed at these kids. But I bet you won't find one. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Why Does He Want to Hurt Kindergartners?

Two groups that are strong advocates in early childhood education (Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood), released a report called Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose (see They claim there is no research base for the importance of learning to read in kindergarten (so that its inclusion in the Common Core as a goal for K is potentially harmful).   

I think they are wrong about the research here, but wanted to seek out your reaction. Does research suggest that learning to read, especially as indicated in the Common Core, is associated with long-term positive or negative effects? 

Great question. This is one that I’ve been thinking about since I was 5-years-old (no, really). My mom asked my kindergarten teacher if she should do anything with me to help and the teacher discouraged any efforts in that regard. At the time, the “experts” believed that any early academic learning was damaging to children—to their academic futures and to their psyches.

When I became a first-grade teacher, we were still holding back on such teaching, at least during the first-semester of grade one. We didn't want to cause the mental disabilities, academic failure, and vision problems predicted by the anti-teaching types. 

These days we are doing a great job of protecting poverty children and minority children from this kind of damage. Of course, many of us middle-class white parents are risking our own kids. It is not uncommon these days for suburban kids to enter first-grade, and even kindergarten, knowing how to read. As I’ve written before, I taught both of my kids to read before they entered school.

There are not now, and there never have been data showing any damage to kids from early language or literacy learning—despite the overheated claims of the G. Stanley Halls, Arnold Gessells, Hans Furths and David Elkinds (and many others).

Let me first admit that if you seek studies that randomly assign kids either to kindergarten literacy instruction and no kindergarten literacy instruction and then follow those kids through high school or something… there are no such studies and I very much doubt that there will be. Given how strong the evidence is on the immediate benefits of early literacy instruction I don’t think a scholar could get ethics board approval to conduct such a study.

That it wouldn’t be ethical to withhold such teaching for research purposes should give pause. If it isn’t ethical to do it for research, should it be ethical to do so for philosophical reasons? Yikes.

What we do have is a lot of data showing that literacy instruction improves the literacy skills of the kids who receive that instruction in preschool and kindergarten, and another body of research showing that early literacy skills predict later reading and academic achievement (and, of course, there is another literature showing the connections between academic success and later economic success). There are studies showing that the most literate kids are the ones who are emotionally strongest and there is even research on Head Start programs showing that as we have improved the early literacy skills in those programs, emotional abilities have improved as well.

And, as for the claim that early teaching makes no difference, I wonder why our fourth-graders are performing at the highest levels ever according to NAEP?

The studies showing the immediate benefits to literacy and language functioning from kindergarten instruction are summarized in the National Early Literacy Panel Report which is available on line.

And here are some of studies showing the long-term benefits of early literacy achvievement:

Early reading performance is predictive of later school success (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Duncan, Dowsett, Claessens, Magnuson, et al., 2007; Juel, 1988; Snow, Tabors, & Dickinson, 2001; Smart, Prior, Sansor, & Oberkind, 2005). This means that young children’s reading performances tend to be pretty stable: kindergarten literacy development is predictive of 1stgrade performance; 1st grade predicts achievement in various upper grades and the performance at each of these levels is predictive of later levels.

If a youngster is behind in reading in grade 3, then he/she would likely still be behind in high school, which can have a serious and deleterious impact on content learning (science, history, literature, math), high school graduation rates, and economic viability (the students’ college and career readiness). 

The research seems clear to me: teach kids reading early and then build on those early reading skills as they progress through school. Don’t expect early skills alone to transfer to higher later skills; you have to teach students more literacy as they move up the grades (something that has not always happened).

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E., (1997). Early reading acquisition and the relation to reading experience and ability ten years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.
Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428-1446.
Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 437-447.
Smart, D., Prior, M., Sansor, A., & Oberkind, F. (2005). Children with reading difficulties: A six year follow-up from early primary to secondary school. Australia Journal of Learning Difficulties, 10, 63-75.

Snow, C. E., Tabors, P. O., & Dickinson, D. K. (2001). Language development in the preschool years. In D. K. Dickinson & P. O. Tabors (Eds.), Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school (pp. 1–26). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. (preschool literacy and language predicts 7th grade performance)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Teaching My Daughters to Read -- Part II, Print Awareness

Last week, I began a multi-part series on how I taught my daughters to read. My oldest daughter wryly replied to that entry, suggesting I could have saved a lot of pixels if I had just said that I hired a tutor…. And her son who just had his third birthday (and who did not read that entry) informed me that his goal for being 3-years-old was to read words.

In that first entry, I described the literacy context in which my daughters grew up. Now, let’s turn to the more formal side of the teaching.

When the girls were 2-3 years old, more explicit teaching was introduced. Each child was encouraged to tell stories (often recounting personal experiences—I think this may have started with a family vacation). Essentially, these were language-experience approach stories. They would tell the story and I’d print them out in letters, two-lines high with plenty of space between words (initially on pieces of paper, and later in composition books—which they still have). I’d read the stories back to them, and they would choral read with me.

Over time, they came to recognize some of the words in their stories. This was less direct teaching (I did not set out to teach particular words), but I was just responsive to what they were picking up. If they seemed to remember a particular word, I’d add it to an index card (yes, a flash card); if they forgot it at some point, that word would disappear from the pack.

The point was to build a collection of words that they would recognize at sight. Like most children, they were fascinated by words like mommy, daddy, grandma, grandpa, as well as their names and their sister’s name. They each managed to develop a sight vocabulary of approximately 25 words—words they could recognize out of context—before they could actually read.

This facet of what I did probably accomplished several goals beyond getting some written words into their memories:

(1) it would have developed an understanding of print awareness (including directionality, the idea that letters are used to write words, the concept of word—the idea that words are separable);
(2) it would have further sensitized them to the relationship between language and reading (since they saw language being recorded and read back);

(3) it would have started to sensitize them to the idea of the permanence of literacy, that we could read back the words and that they didn’t change over time;

(4) it may have provided them with some baseline insights into sound-symbol relationships (as I would repeat their words as I wrote them)—however, I don’t think it was particularly powerful in this regard and I did not stress that.

Thus, we built an early base of both word knowledge and print awareness.

Authorities argue over whether you should start with words or letters and sounds. My reading is that here is no convincing evidence on either side; research seems to show that both approaches work and that they do not need to be mutually exclusive.

In our case, the whole time we were meeting the goals listed above, we were also explicitly teaching letters and sounds, and later spelling patterns. Thus, when they were telling these language experience stories, they were also memorizing their letters and learning the letter sounds.

(The same thing is currently going on with my grandson. He is currently learning some words, but he already knows all of the letters—lower case and upper case, and the simple sounds that go with all or most of the consonants. He isn’t decoding yet, but he is gaining the raw materials needed to do that well).

We did many language experience stories and this soon morphed into the kids doing their own writing--they could both "write" before they could read. But let me add one additional "print awareness" activity that we found beneficial.

I have already described the extensive shared reading that we did with our girls. Remember, I was a young professor at the time, still learning lots about my craft. One day I was reading some research studies by Ferreiro & Teberosky. They described how the children they were studying had to learn that the words on the page told the story (the kids thought their parents made up the stories based on the pictures). I'd never noticed that confusion before--whether it had been there or not--but I brought this one home right away.

That evening when I was reading to E., she put her hand on the page as young children do. Usually I would have just moved it away and kept reading, but this time I stopped in my tracks. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"You've covered the words, so I can't read them."

"You read that?"


She was amazed and the rest of that reading was spent with her trying to interfere with it by anticipating where my eyes were going to be looking. Despite having the benefit of outstanding parents, she had no idea what to look at during reading before this. Not surprisingly, I introduced M. to this little game earlier than I had done with her sister. 

Japanese scholars have long believed that when parents point at the text that they read to their children, that they are teaching important aspects of print awareness. You don't always have to print at what you read, but it is a good idea to do that some of the time.

Next week I’ll get into the home decoding instruction more explicitly.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Teaching My Daughters to Read; Part I -- Context

Hi Dr. Shanahan,
I couldn't help but notice in your latest blog post the mention of how you "remember vividly teaching your oldest daughter to read."  I am writing in hopes that you'd be willing to share - either with me or your readers on your blog - what you did (either in broad strokes or even specifics) to teach her to read.  

I would not expect you to publicly endorse a program or approach nor am I asking you to divulge anything about your family publicly - I'm simply in the same position as a father of a four year old daughter and sincerely interested in how you approached this fun and special opportunity.

Response- Part I:
Yes, we taught both of our girls to read at home before they started school. I’d be happy to tell you how, but that will have to spread out across a few entries to do the topic justice.

Anyone who has had one child is usually a deep believer in the power of DNA; anyone with two realizes that couldn’t be the explanation. Children can be pretty different, and my daughters definitely were not cut from the same cloth. Some of what we did with them was the same, and some of our efforts differed because of their differences.

For instance, language came much easier to my oldest (E), while my youngest (M) was a late talker (or, perhaps, more accurately, her development was slowed by having an older sibling who spoke for her—not surprisingly her spokesperson eventually became a lawyer). When M was three, we took her to the neighborhood elementary school to get speech services, focused on pronunciations and general vocabulary.

Let’s start with context. Most kids don’t “learn to read” just from being in a literate environment; teaching is needed, too. But that doesn’t mean that context does not matter so let me describe that. There were lots of opportunities for our kids to find out about literacy and language and to develop some motivation for it.

Both girls were read to a lot, though E received more of this—mainly because she was more attentive and interested from an early age. Shared reading started within hours of birth for both, and they were exposed to typical picture books (usually read by their mother) and advanced chapter books (my contribution). There was no set schedule for this reading, but it typically took place several times per week throughout their childhoods, including when they were learning to read from more explicit lessons.

E stayed interested in my book sharing once she was a toddler, so reading Charlotte’s Web or Grimm’s Fairy Tales to her was a joyful duty. M, once mobile, made it clear that having her father read to her was something to avoid.

This will sound horrible, but I’d have to “capture” her—that is, I’d grab her up in my arms for reading—initially for very brief periods (often fewer than 15 seconds at a time). She’d wiggle, wrestle, and squirm away, giggling all the way, but resistant to the book sharing.

Over time, she grew less resistant and could sit longer and longer; it was never unpleasant, but at first it was unusually brief and was not something to which she submitted willingly. [Lest this description sound too negative, I would point out that M. and I continued to read together until she was a freshman in high school—and those exchanges and the books themselves are something that we are quite both sentimental about today).

Each girl owned their own little library and books were often given as presents to them. They also had magazine subscriptions, too, and the public library was close. Rarely did a week go by that they didn’t bring home an armful of books.

The books that my wife read to them tended to be these library books (picture books for the most part) and from the girl’s own libraries while the books that I read tended to be in our library (or they were classic books with which they had been gifted).

It can take a long time to read books like “The Yearling,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Hobbit,” or the “Odyssey.” Given that I often tried to follow the completion of these books up with some fun activity. Sometimes we would rent a videotape of the book and pop some corn and make an evening of it. A couple times we even built vacations around particular books (“Tom Sawyer” led to a visit to Hannibal, Missouri, and “Misty of Chincoteague” had us meeting the island ponies in Virginia).
The TV was often on in our house and they would watch Sesame Street often (and there are some reading and language lessons there). Later they became big fans of “Little House on the Prairie” and “Anne of Green Gables” (we read a lot of those books, too).

Lots of toys in the household had literacy or language themes, too, including alphabet blocks, early electronic toys that taught about flags, musical instruments, and flags. And, they definitely saw their parents reading and writing both for pleasure and work.

Not only did we read to the kids a lot (from the first day), but we spoke to them a lot, too. Reading is a language activity and our children had lots of opportunity to hear language, to engage in language—including songs, nursery rhymes, and language games. For example, we used to play Game of Fives. I’d name a category and the kids would try to come up with five examples (5 toys, 5 kinds of jewelry, 5 family members, 5 colors—and later 5 lakes, 5 states, 5 shapes, etc.).

As, I said, context alone is usually insufficient to cause someone to be a reader, but it does carry lessons, opportunities to learn, and motivation. My daughters were surrounded by literacy and language and this likely played an important role in the eventual success of the lessons that we provided to them. I’ll write about those lessons next week.