By one estimate the number of words read in a year by a middle-school child who is an avid reader might approach 10,000,000, compared to 100,000 for the least motivated middle-school reader. Children who lag behind in their reading skills receive less practice in reading than other children, miss opportunities to develop reading comprehension strategies, often encounter reading material that is too advanced for their skills, and acquire negative attitudes about reading itself. Poor readers fall further and further behind their more literate peers in reading as well as in other academic areas.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 38% of fourth graders nationally could not read at the basic level in 1998. In other words, these children could not read a short expository paragraph and extract facts from it. This problem is strongly correlated with family income. For example, among African-American and Hispanic students in the U.S. (two groups who experience disproportionate rates of poverty) the percentages of Grade 4 students reading below the basic level in 1998 were 64% and 60%, respectively. Within some urban school districts the percentage of Grade 4 students who cannot read at the basic level exceeds 70%. Of those children who experience serious problems with reading, from 10 to 15 percent eventually drop out of high school and only 2 percent complete a four-year college program. Surveys of adolescents and young adults with criminal records show that about half have reading difficulties. Similarly, about half of youths with a history of substance abuse have reading problems. It is not an exaggeration to say that early reading failure places a child’s life at risk.
What does this have to do with preschool? There is strong continuity between the pre-reading skills with which children enter school and their later academic performance. Connie Juel at Harvard University reported that the probability that children would remain poor readers at the end of the fourth grade if they were poor readers at the end of the first grade was .88. The relationship between the skills with which children enter school and their later academic performance is strikingly stable. For instance, Harold Stevenson at the University of Michigan found a correlation of .52 between the ability to name the letters of the alphabet as a child entered kindergarten and performance on a standardized test of reading comprehension in Grade 10.
Two recent longitudinal studies, one by me and my colleagues at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the other by Christopher Lonigan at Florida State University, have identified important preschool predictors of elementary school reading success. Both studies assessed an array of cognitive, linguistic, and pre-reading skills in children during the preschool period, and followed those children into elementary school. Both studies employed sophisticated mathematical modeling techniques to identify the independent influence of various preschool abilities on reading outcomes. In both investigations, specific pre-reading skills such as knowledge of print (e.g., letter names), phonological awareness (e.g., being able to rhyme), and writing (e.g., being able to print one’s name) were strong predictors of reading success well into elementary school. For instance, my colleagues and I found that 58% of the differences in performance in reading ability at the end of first grade in the sample of roughly 600 low-income children could be predicted from their knowledge of print and their phonological awareness at the end of kindergarten. In turn, 50% of the differences among these children in their print and phonological skills at the end of kindergarten could be predicted from these same abilities measured at the end of their pre-K year in Head Start. In other words, children who had begun to learn about print, sounds, and writing during the preschool period were children who were more likely to be ready to read at the end of kindergarten, and more likely to be reading successfully in elementary school. In this same sample, the influence of children’s vocabulary and general cognitive abilities in the preschool period on their reading outcomes in elementary school was small and indirect compared to the effect of pre-reading skills in the areas of print knowledge, phonological awareness, and writing.
Another piece of the puzzle, contributed by Monique Senechal at Carlton University and others, is that experiences that develop vocabulary and conceptual skills in preschoolers are different from experiences that develop print skills. Vocabulary and oral comprehension abilities derive from rich oral interactions with adults that might occur spontaneously in conversations and around shared picture book reading. In contrast, knowledge of letters, letter sounds, and writing is derived from explicit teaching. For example, preschoolers who know the letters of the alphabet are from homes in which materials such as magnetized alphabet letters and alphabet name books are present and the source of teaching interactions with parents. A study by Jana Mason found that nearly 50% of preschoolers from families receiving public assistance in Illinois did not have any alphabet materials in the home. In contrast, nearly 100% of preschoolers from professional families played with alphabet materials at home.
If preschoolers are not exposed to the domain of print and given some tutelage in its principles at home, why should we expect them to have a personal interest in print or to have a goal of understanding it? For children who enter preschool without an interest in the pre-reading domain, how is a child-centered program in which the teacher follows children’s personal interest and supports their play ideas supposed to develop that interest? If children do not develop pre-reading skills at home or in their preschool, how are they supposed to succeed in school, given that pre-reading skills are such strong predictors of reading success?
Children need help in getting ready to read. A child does not learn the name of the letter A or what sound it makes or how to print it simply by being around adults who know these things, or by being in an environment in which picture books are read to children, or by being in an environment in which adults read for pleasure. Children learn these things because adults take the time and effort to teach them. Preschool classrooms in which teachers believe it is developmentally inappropriate to display alphabet letters, or to use systematic activities to teach emergent literacy, are classrooms in which only children who get this help at home will be ready for school. Supporting this conclusion are recent data from 22,000 children involved in the National Center for Educational Statistic’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the Kindergarten Class of 1998-99: After controlling for family income, children who attended more academically oriented preschools had significantly higher scores in reading, math, and general knowledge when tested in the fall of their kindergarten year than children in preschool settings without academic content.
Acknowledging the value of pre-academic content in preschools does not mean that should be the only goal of preschool education. Both social competences such as the ability to interact well with peers and general approaches toward learning such as task persistence are important to later school success, over and above the effects of specific pre-academic skills. However, molar social skills and approaches to learning have to be acquired in the context of more molecular activities. Arguably, a child can acquire the ability to share and persist as well while learning about letter sounds as while working with playdoe.
Acknowledging the value of pre-academic content in preschools also does not mean that four-year-olds should be taught using the same methods and materials as a employed for seven-year-olds. A push-down to pre-K of the pedagogy and materials used in elementary school will likely fail and could actually harm young children. The challenge for content-centered preschool education is to develop classroom activities, including computer-based activities where appropriate, that teach while engaging and developing children’s interests, that are both fun and educational. Preschoolers are demonstrably eager to learn about all manner of topics, including reading, math, and science, so a little ingenuity, time, and money ought to accomplish this task.
An effort to provide more academic content in preschools will likely generate disappointment among policy makers and taxpayers unless it is accompanied by educational policies that link appropriate content-centered preschool curricula with pedagogy and content in kindergarten and elementary school. Preschool needs to get children ready for school, not just in a generic sense, but ready for something specific that will be provided at the next educational step and then built on thereafter. We would expect any run-of-the-mill piano teacher to start students with the basics and move them through a sequence of lessons that are hierarchically organized and cumulative in their effects (and learning to read music is remarkably like learn to read text). Shouldn’t we expect as much of the connections between the lessons of preschool and school?