Investments in Early Literacy Strategies Have a Clear Payoff for Students and Schools
Many young children get their start on the road to literacy while seated on the lap of a loving adult. Whether it be a babysitter, a parent, or a grandparent, that adult often sings or reads to their young charge, thereby developing the child’s ear for language and helping them gain essential vocabulary and pre-literacy skills. Unfortunately, for a plethora of reasons, some children are not afforded the same opportunities.
That’s why Fred Logan, an elementary school principal in Spartanburg, South Carolina, coined the term “lap gap.” Logan is part of a four-school coalition in South Carolina that is focusing on the need to better prepare young children for school, and according to a local news report, one of the group's central areas of concern is the “lack of language skills developed during early childhood.” Quoted in the news report, Logan explained that he came up with the term because an adult's lap is where children typically begin “learning and building vocabulary”—and where kids who do not get such beneficial early experiences may begin to fall behind. It is pertinent to note that Principal Logan’s efforts did not originate from a perspective of shaming families who may not have the time or resources to provide their children with the same opportunities. Simply because a parent or caretaker is low-income does not mean they care any less. Instead, they may have trouble finding appropriate resources and an even harder time affording those services. The goal of this initiative is simply to close this gap.
That’s where schools and early intervention services come in. For instance, the coalition to which Logan belongs is working on delivering the kind of language-rich preschool interactions that are “all about learning to read and to write and to speak.” And research indicates that Logan and his colleagues are on the right track, as investments in early literacy strategies have been shown to have a clear payoff. The idea has even been given a boost by an unexpected source: economist James Heckman, a Nobel laureate who dedicated a significant amount of his research to the benefits of early childhood education and has become an advocate for making a greater investment in young children’s lives in the process.
The No. 1 benefit Heckman listed for supporting early childhood education is that doing so “can prevent the achievement gap”—a difference in educational outcomes between children of different racial and economic backgrounds that, according to Heckman, starts “before kindergarten” and should be addressed as early as possible through a “proactive approach to cognitive and social skill development.” The stakes are clearly high when it comes to reducing the lap gap in early childhood literacy, as strong reading skills are widely regarded as the necessary gateway to later academic success. So, how is this work being done, and where is it being done successfully? Let’s take a look.
Early literacy intervention: Start at birth?
Written by Kirsten Weir, an article on the American Psychological Association’s website argued in favor of “catching reading problems early” and posited that “reading disabilities are far and away the most common” form of learning difficulty. The article included an eyebrow-raising claim by educational researcher G. Reid Lyon that “75 percent of kids who struggle with reading at age 9 will struggle to read for the rest of their lives”—and, as University of Nebraska psychologist Dennis Molfese noted, most of these kids simply do not get the help they need until after they have struggled for years.
To remedy this, Molfese and his wife Nancy, who is also a psychologist, developed an early screening for reading problems and subsequently identified infants whose brain waves were shown to process sounds such as “ba” and “ga” more slowly. According to the husband-and-wife duo, this indicates a bump on the road to learning to read, as children who have trouble quickly distinguishing one sound from another will later have a harder time reading. Working with education experts from Finland, the Molfeses developed a computer program to help very young children strengthen their ability to recognize different sounds.
Drill down on emergent literacy skills
Early literacy experts from the National Institute for Literacy have argued that “early literacy skills have a clear and consistently strong relationship with later conventional literacy skills.” These conventional skills include decoding words, reading aloud, and fluency and comprehension. As these experts noted in a 2009 report, young children can be taught to, among other things, grasp and understand how to “manipulate” sounds and letters and navigate the relationships between the two. The researchers went on to state that these children should also be encouraged to “build their oral language and vocabulary skills,” as these are considered “precursors to children’s later growth in the ability to comprehend and decode text, to write and to spell.”
The National Institute for Literacy report also included a detailed skills checklist that teachers can use to assess their students early on. Phonemic awareness is high on the list of important pre-reading skills, as are the abilities to recognize patterns or colors and remember such things as story details or a teacher’s instructions. Beyond this checklist, the researchers offered a variety of ways for educators to make literacy instruction a priority, such as through singing and rhymes, games, and memorization tactics, all of which are said to strengthen a child’s later ability to accomplish the difficult cognitive task of learning to read.
Early literacy success stories
For years now, Oklahoma has had a universal preschool program. In 2017, researchers from Georgetown University released a report that analyzed the effects of this program on students from Tulsa, which has a participation rate of 70 percent. Through their longitudinal study, the researchers concluded that access to Tulsa’s preschool program has had “significant, positive effects on students’ outcomes and well-being through middle school.” According to Georgetown University professor William Gormley, the program costs the state about $10,000 per student, but Gormley believes its long-term benefits far outweigh this short-term expense.
Indeed, Gormley told National Public Radio education reporter Claudio Sanchez that English language learners in Tulsa showed some of the most impressive academic gains: “Their reading gains in particular were phenomenal after only nine months of being in Tulsa’s pre-K program.” As observed by Tulsa middle school teachers, other benefits included an increase in students’ readiness to learn, which made them better prepared to do rigorous academic work.
Researchers have also noted the strength and success of the Perry Preschool, a long-standing program run by the HighScope Educational Research Foundation of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Since its launch more than 40 years ago, researchers have kept tabs on the initial cohort of Perry students, along with a group of students who did not attend preschool at all. The Perry graduates were found to have higher literacy and graduation rates, as well as a far lower rate of grade retention (21 percent for Perry graduates vs. 41 percent for those who did not go to preschool).
Invest early for best results
The fact that the higher literacy rates detailed above were maintained into adulthood indicates the potential lifelong benefits of high-quality, research-supported early education programs. Investing early in the lives of young students seems especially important in light of statistics that suggest approximately 16 million adults in the United States are illiterate—one of the highest rates in the developed world. As South Carolina elementary school principal Keith Burton phrased it in an article about the lap gap, “We know that early literacy is very, very important. If we can get students with a great foundation early on, then they have a greater chance at being successful in school.”
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