There's a new school of thought about reading. It may not be big news to literacy specialists, but other educators are catching on. Literacy isn't a switch that can be flipped on in first grade. It's more like a dimmer that gradually brightens from children's early years. Preschools can lay the groundwork for lifelong literacy success.
"Nationally, we are in the middle of a big shift with educators beginning to understand the links between preschool, kindergarten and literacy development, but this isn't emphasized in many preschools," says Cathy Roller, director of research and policy for the International Reading Association.
Seattle Public Schools is one of a handful of districts in the nation that are giving private preschools a helping hand by facilitating seemingly modest changes in the preschool environment to fuel early reading skills. Instead of struggling to catch up in kindergarten and first grade, students in Seattle Early Reading First preschools start off on the right foot, says Dan Coles, the district's literacy program manager.
Started in 2003 and funded by a three-year, $3 million federal grant, the program approaches kindergarten readiness comprehensively--by improving teacher training, reshaping classrooms and curriculum, supporting parents as children's first teachers and building relationships between the district and preschools. It makes sense that Seattle, a city that has earmarked $103 million for its Families and Education program, would be involved in such an effort.
First Steps to Literacy
The four-year-old 'doctor' who writes prescriptions for his ailing classmates is a classic example of Seattle Early Reading First success; he learns that print carries a message.
The program adds an early literacy twist to the traditional preschool focus on social skills. So as students race cars around the room a teacher would encourage a child to write speeding tickets.
A 'before' glance at SERF preschools shows sparsely stocked bookshelves with only about 25 books each; 'after' SERF shelves overflow with about 150 books, including dozens of new titles and multicultural and bilingual stories. Walls are papered with stories dictated and illustrated by children. New writing tables are stocked with alphabet stamps, pencils and markers.
It Takes a Village
The brainchild of City of Seattle Family and Youth Services Division and professors at Shoreline Community College, Early Reading First works because of its participants' common mission--to help every child become an efficient reader and writer.
The teachers had to be open to change and information sharing. For example, kindergarten and preschool teachers attended a kindergarten transition course together. Sonja Griffin, the SERF project manager for Seattle, says this time spent establishing relationships among partners was crucial.
Besides the district, city and community college, partners include the public library, the department of public health and five independent preschools--Jose Marti, Toddler Tech, Sea Mar, Zion Prep and Community Day--serving 240 students.
The teacher who has mastered strategies for increasing children's vocabulary with picture books earns an "A" in her Best Practices in Early Childhood course. This lesson is worthwhile because a broad vocabulary paves the way to literacy.
Most Seattle Early Reading First preschool teachers don't have an associate's degree; now 35 of them are pulling double duty--teaching and taking professional development courses. "Many have 20 years of great field experience," but lack the theory to implement best practices, explains Mennoo Yasher, SERF professional development coordinator at Shoreline Community College.
The program has helped remedy this situation since the summer of 2004, when district staff and Shoreline professors aligned early childhood courses with district kindergarten entry standards. And Shoreline makes it easier for teachers to go back to class by holding some courses at preschools.
The grant funds a coach to model early literacy approaches with children, such as prefacing storytime with discussions and activities. Yasher says the comprehensive format completes the circle between theory and practice.
Dinner with dozens of preschoolers and an evening of literary discourse sound like mutually exclusive events. Not in Seattle. The public library hosts six family nights at each Seattle Early Reading First preschool.
Evenings start with dinner and progress to parent programs like what to look for in alphabet books and tips to encourage storytelling. Then kids settle in as children's librarian Kim Kopetz-Buttleman reads aloud. Book making, in which parents and children write personal stories, or another project follows, and then each child is awarded one or two free take-home books. Kopetz-Buttleman explains, "I've planned the selections so children who participate in every program can build a balanced library with books from a variety of genres."
Experiences help strengthen what parents already do to support literacy. For example, a parent survey revealed that most read to their children but few write with them, so writing activities are often included.
Native Spanish-speaking students in SERF preschools are primed for the transition to learning in English. "Children won't have success if they aren't supported in their first language," points out Hilda Magama, director at Jose Marti Child Development Center, a multi-cultural preschool serving a predominantly Hispanic population. So teachers there emphasize literacy development through key words, poems and songs in both languages.
To support speakers of other languages, SERF preschools seek community resources and enlist adult speakers as volunteers to help children develop vocabulary in their native languages.
The Kindergarten Survival Kit
Reading and writing are critical skills, but lunch ranks high with most kids. Some Seattle kindergartners are boggled by the pre-dining task of punching a personal lunch code into a keypad. So preschoolers at SERF locales get calculators to practice on.
It's just one example of interaction between the district and private preschools. A 2003, district-organized brainstorming meeting attended by 250 preschool and kindergarten teachers and administrators led to a five-year improvement plan covering little details like the lunch keypad and big-picture items like curriculum. SERF also includes:Preschoolers taking field trips to neighborhood schools. Because parents can get the kindergarten jitters too, they're welcome at orientations and PTA meetings.
Simplified kindergarten registration. As the "big day" gets closer, participating families don't need to navigate unfamiliar halls to register for kindergarten. The process is held at preschools with kindergarten staff, a bilingual resource person and an enrollment officer in attendance.
To check on how all these efforts are making a difference, longitudinal studies will begin tracking kindergartners' performance in the 2006-2007 school year.
The district already has plans to apply for another Early Reading First Grant. And the City of Seattle expects to use $3 million from its 2004 Families and Education Levy to expand SERF into other preschools.
Seattle Public Schools
No. of schools: 100 (12 high, 11 middle, 59 elementary schools, plus 8 K-8 and 10 alternative schools)
No. of teachers: 3,122
No. of students: 46,412
Ethnicity: 41.7% white, 21.7% black, 23.1% Asian, 11.2% Latino, 2.3% Native American
Per-pupil expenditure: $9,447
Dropout rate (2002-2003): 6.2%
City Population: 572,600
Superintendent: Raj Manhas, since 2003
Lisa Fratt is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Wis.