[This is an archived article]

Improving Child Care for Reading Success

The number of children in child care is quickly increasing. Early childcare can lay the foundations for reading, and help prevent reading problems from developing. This article describes the current state of child care, and the challenges we face in improving its quality.

Many young children spend a substantial part of their days in the care of someone other than a parent. More than 13 million infants, toddlers, and preschoolers receive regular care from adults other than their parents-roughly six out of 10 children under age six who are not enrolled in kindergarten (U.S. Department of Education, OERI, 1996).

According to the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, the average number of hours spent per week by children ages three to five in school settings nearly doubled from 11.5 hours in 1981 to 20 hours in 1997 (Hofferth, 1998).

The U.S. Department of Labor has projected the need for nearly 300,000 new child care workers between 1996 and 2006, making the occupation among the ten fastest-growing in the nation.

These statistics give us important information for winning the war against illiteracy. For some children, the support of parents and elementary school teachers is not enough.

Architects of reading success

Many early care and education providers need assistance with basic skills and training to fulfill their potential. We must acknowledge that these Americans are not just children's caretakers. They are architects of foundations that are critical for reading and academic success.

Many studies have established that high-quality early care and education lay the foundation for school success by enhancing cognitive and language development, as well as social and emotional competence (National Institute for Child Health and Development, 1997).

More specifically, the 1998 National Research Council report found that early childhood programs can contribute to the prevention of reading difficulties. These programs contribute by providing young children with enriched, research-based literacy environments, and by identifying and removing possible obstacles to reading success.

Unfortunately, fulfilling the promise of early education is easier to imagine than to realize. Access to this care, as well as the quality of care, varies greatly. Children from low-income families, who are most apt to benefit from early intervention, are the least likely to attend preschool. In fact, the preschool participation gap between rich and poor has actually widened over the past two decades (National Education Goals Panel, 1997).

When we fail to make the most of this important period in young children's lives, we set the stage for later difficulties with learning to read.

More children in child care

The opportunities for early care and education to help-or hinder-America's victory in the war against illiteracy have multiplied with the expansion of child care services.

Much of this demand has been fueled by the tremendous expansion of women's roles in the workforce. The percentage of mothers of infants and toddlers working outside the home has nearly tripled from 21 percent in 1965 to 59 percent in 1994 (Shore, 1997).

But even among households in which the mother is not employed, one-third use regular child care for their youngest children (U.S. Department of Education, OERI, 1996). Preschoolers spend an average of 35 hours a week in child care if their mothers work outside the home, and 20 hours per week if their mothers are not employed (Shore, 1997).

Child care starts early: 45 percent of infants under age 1 are regularly cared for by someone other than a parent, most by a relative in a private home.

As babies grow, their chance of being cared for by non-parental adults also grows, from 50 percent of 1-year-olds to 84 percent of 5-year-olds. Similarly, the percentage cared for outside of private homes grows from 11 percent of 1-year-olds to 75 percent of 5-year-olds (U.S. Department of Education, OERI, 1996).

Thus, an enormous potential exists for early childhood providers to influence later reading success.

Choices in child care

Individual and cultural preferences influence family choices about the use of early childhood programs. More than six out of ten Black children (66 percent) and White children (62 percent) receive supplemental care and education, compared with 46 percent of Hispanic children.

There are also wide income differences in families' child care patterns: only half of all households with incomes of $30,000 or less use child care, compared with three-quarters of households with incomes of $50,000 or more (U.S. Department of Education, 1996).

Besides influencing whether families use child care at all, income also influences the type of care that families select. This has significance for the war against illiteracy: the care families choose makes a difference.

In addition to having greater access to regulated care, higher-income families are much more likely to use center-based care-nursery schools, child care centers, and preschools-than are lower-income families (National Education Goals Panel, 1995; West et al., 1995).

In low-income neighborhoods, the supply of any kind of regulated child care, whether in centers or family child care homes, is usually inadequate (Siegel & Loman, 1991).

This lack of options increases the number of poor children in unlicensed family child care or relative care (Fuller & Liang, 1995; Love & Kisker, 1996). Research shows that, in general, unlicensed care arrangements are of lower quality than licensed centers or homes (Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995; Kontos et al., 1994).

Among those who offer services in a private home, 50 percent of non-regulated providers have been found to offer inadequate care, compared with about 13 percent of regulated providers (Families and Work Institute, 1994).

Advantages of center-based care

Although many families prefer family child care arrangements for their home-like atmosphere and small numbers of children, center-based care is the preference of most families for their older, preschool children (Leibowitz et al., 1988).

Because centers are designed to serve larger groups of children, they often offer greater resources for preschoolers' literacy development, such as books, tapes, and computers.

Additionally, a recent multi-site study found that center care is associated with better cognitive and language outcomes and a higher level of school readiness, compared with outcomes in other settings of comparable quality (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 1997b).

But not all center-based care is equal. Children who attended centers that met professional guidelines for child-staff ratios, group sizes, and teacher education had better language comprehension and school readiness than did children enrolled in centers without these standards.

But the doors to high-quality early care and education are often closed to low-income families, either because of cost or location. These barriers result in many poor children entering school without the early educational choices available to their affluent classmates, placing them at greater risk of reading difficulties.

Low funding, low quality

Child care providers have struggled to satisfy the demand for services. Unfortunately, this struggle has resulted in the chronic, twin calamities of low wages and high employee turnover.

The under-funding of early care and education-including fees, subsidies, and donations-is acknowledged to be the chief cause of low quality (Gomby et al., 1996; National Education Association, 1998).

Both parents and child care teachers bear the burden of the current inadequate funding system. Clearly, parent fees put high-quality early care and education out of reach for many working families. Yet, this system also perpetuates low salaries, which fail to attract and retain highly skilled teachers.

The impact is negative for all involved-child care providers, families, and children-and ultimately, for our nation as well. Low-quality early care and education put children's development at risk, including the development of abilities associated with reading success.

In 1989, a national study reported that the quality in most child care centers was "barely adequate" (National Center for the Early Childhood Workforce, 1989).

In 1999, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that fewer than 10 percent of American youngsters ages 3 and under are likely to receive "excellent" care (Booth, 1999).

About 20 percent of child care centers are estimated to provide unsafe and unhealthy care (Shore, 1997). The 1995 Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study found that child care at most centers is poor to mediocre, and almost half of infant and toddler care may be detrimental.

The recent NICHD study found that 61 percent of child care arrangements-including centers, family child care homes, in-home sitters, and relative care-to be poor to fair quality (Booth, 1999).

Six for Success!

Both child development theory and research on successful practices point to six key features of high-quality early care and education programs:

  1. High staff-child ratios
  2. Small group sizes
  3. Adequate staff education and training
  4. Low staff turnover
  5. Curriculum emphasizing child-initiated, active learning
  6. Parent involvement

Source: National Education Association, 1998

Quality of early childhood teachers

Whether they work in child care, preschool, or public school, research consistently shows that the quality of teachers is the key to quality education. This is especially true in the early years.

A national study found that when child care providers had more years of education and more college-level early education training, they provided more sensitive, developmentally appropriate care to children (Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995).

Higher education and specialized training also allow early childhood teachers to do a better job of advancing children's language skills, a key predictor of later reading success (Whitebook et al., 1990).

But not all child care teachers get the professional preparation they need. In a study for the U.S. Department of Education, 93 percent of child care teachers reported having some child-related training, but only 36 percent had formal, college-level teacher preparation, and only 24 percent held a credential from a professional organization.

Among home-based providers, only 64 percent reported any child-related training and just 6 percent were accredited by a professional organization (Kisker et al., 1991).

Early childhood teachers find little incentive under current state requirements to prepare themselves better to support literacy development. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends that all early care and education teachers have formal training at the bachelor's level, but most states require that child care workers hold only a high school diploma.

Just as improvements in child-staff ratios and class size benefit all areas of children's development, more professional training opportunities and higher standards for early childhood teachers would enhance children's growth, including their preparation to be successful readers.

Efforts to improve

Small but promising steps have been taken to enhance the professional preparation of early childhood teachers. One study showed that even a modest increase in high-quality training can benefit children.

These researchers found that even 18 to 36 hours of training for family child care providers resulted in improved caregiving environments and stronger relationships between adults and children(Galinsky et al., 1995).

However promising, this level of preparation does not approach what is needed to provide our youngest children with the foundations for healthy development. More comprehensive approaches to training can strengthen the early childhood work force.

The Council for Early Childhood Professional Recognition offers a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, which is used as one of the standards in the licensing of child care teachers and center directors in 46 states and the District of Columbia. The credential calls for a high school diploma, 120 hours of training in specified categories, and 480 hours of experience, along with a formal assessment procedure.

With leadership from Wheelock College's Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education, many states are developing more coherent early childhood training systems, with increased collaboration between higher education institutions and community partners.

These promising trends are consistent with recommendations by experts in the field. The Not By Chance report (Kagan & Cohen, 1997) summarizes four years of discussions by early childhood and policy experts. They recommend that every person employed in early care and education programs hold an individual license to practice, based on demanding standards of education and training.

In the literacy area alone, the 1998 National Research Council's report sets forth a long list of in-depth knowledge and skills that all early childhood educators must have if children are to enter school ready to become successful readers.

The Orton Dyslexia Society calls for all preschool and kindergarten teachers to be able to, at minimum: stimulate oral expressive language, language comprehension, and print awareness; foster phonological awareness and recognition of the links between sounds and letters; and identify language problems of children at risk for reading difficulty.

One-shot workshops and minimal training requirements will not be enough to produce the skilled professionals needed to support children's language and literacy development.

Only by rejecting business as usual and facing up to these many challenges can we take advantage of the tremendous opportunities to improve child literacy through early care and education. Policymakers and early childhood administrators can work actively to support child care teachers and to bolster their contributions to reading success.


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Excerpted from: Ready to Read. (July, 1999). Start Early, Finish Strong: How to Help Every Child Become a Reader. America Reads Challenge, U.S. Department of Education.

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