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Pre-K and the foundation for literacy

New York Teacher

There’s a view out there that early childhood educators are big softies.

Certainly, these educators will find the thousands of 4-year-olds arriving in schools and neighborhood centers in September as adorable as everyone else does. But they have surprisingly tough ideas of what the new universal full-day prekindergarten programs should look like and a most unchildlike urgency about getting it done.

Early childhood educators want to see rigorous, high-quality programs. That doesn’t mean they want a little workbook culture — far from it. But it does mean they want to see a huge push on literacy skill-building.

“The curriculum should be academic,” said retired early childhood reading teacher David Krupp. “The way you teach it to 4-year-olds is not sitting down at desks. It’s what’s in their head and what they know.”

Krupp responded to an earlier Insight column that stressed the subtle, intuitive nature of pre-K teaching by sending the union a dozen highlighted articles and a four-pound handbook for preschool teachers that detailed essential preliteracy skills that young children need to master.

“We have to be really militant about this,” he said in a later phone conversation. “I just hate to see kids fail when we know what works.”

 

A 30-million-word gap

Other early childhood educators concurred. They cited 2003 research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley that found that by the age of 3 the children of professionals are exposed to 30 million more words than the children of families in poverty. It is a word gap that continues to grow as the two groups of children build on these very different foundations as they move up the grades.

Pre-K teachers are unsentimental about closing that gap.

What pre-K classrooms should be doing is exposing children to words — lots of them — and to oral language, stories and the basics of written language, said Helen Chan, a pre-K teacher at PS 361 in Manhattan. To make those words stick, children should experience them so the brain connects to something, she said.

“Vocabulary should come through natural conversation. You should not talk down to children. Go outside to the garden, talk about composting, meal worms. They experience it, and they get it,” Chan said.

Doreen Bevilacqua, a Teacher Center early literacy specialist who wrote the pre-K literacy curriculum for the UFT’s family child care providers, said that pre-K classrooms should be learning environments. Rather than undirected free play, children can be offered a topic or theme in their classroom centers that helps them make connections to the world around them. “It’s not just having the materials there. It’s giving them the guidance and support to use the materials in a purposeful way,” she said.

 

Tier 2 words

Using transportation as an example, she said that if a class reads books on transportation, the teacher can make the topic come alive with activities to create transportation on land, sea and air. They can experiment with what makes something roll, sink or float.

“It’s surprising how many kids have had experience flying,” Bevilacqua continued. They can learn about what happens during a plane’s takeoff, the parts of a plane, the landing gear, “things they have had in experience but never had the vocabulary to connect it to.” This allows the teacher to introduce new words. “They may know ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ but now they learn ‘speeding’ or ‘comes to a halt,’” she explained.

These are what literacy expert Isabel Beck, a co-author of “Bringing Words to Life,” calls Tier 2 words, necessary for school but not part of everyone’s daily conversation.

In her unit “All About Me,” for example, Bevilacqua coaches teachers to use a richer vocabulary than “happy” or “sad.” “Maybe ‘elated’ or ‘excited,’” she suggested. “Tier 2 words are going to help kids read widely and develop their comprehension.”

The latest research bears her out. Robert Pianta, who directs the National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education at the University of Virginia, says that rigorous curricula combined with attention to teachers’ interactions with children are what make for high-quality pre-K. “You have to teach this stuff; kids don’t learn it automatically,” he said. “They don’t learn by osmosis.”

 

Beyond generic quality

Explicit instruction is very much on Chan’s radar, too. Pre-K teachers “build the foundation,” she said. They should be teaching the letters of the alphabet, introducing letter and sound correspondence and teaching some sight words.

Rita Danis, the assistant director of the UFT Teacher Center and a specialist in early-grades literacy, says phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension should all be addressed in pre-K in age-appropriate lessons.

New, engrossing experiences and the words that explain them are at the center of the pre-K classroom, and they don’t stop at the classroom door. Danis said parents and guardians are essential to this work and must be included in the push for early literacy development. Teachers should explicitly tell parents to read and talk with their children — pretty much a steady stream.

When they talk about 4-year-olds, these early childhood educators use words like “fascinated,” “unbelievable” and “sponges.” They urge the designers of the new pre-K program to use rigorous curricula and insist on high quality because children are hungry for it.

“If we just push a generic quality pre-K, I’m afraid it will fail and the enemies of education will have a new stick to beat us over the head with,” said Krupp.