Learning to read sooner is better

Beginning foundational literacy in pre-K is one effective way to get more students reading on grade level by 3rd grade.
By: | April 27, 2022
Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell

Literacy is an indispensable skill. All educators can agree with this idea. But that’s where the unity sometimes ends. In the latest round of the “reading wars,” some educators, academics, and parents have been battling once again about the best way to teach students how to read.

How to teach reading shouldn’t be controversial. The practices that create lifelong learners are well-established, proven again and again by research and practical examples. The beginning of a reader’s journey is foundational literacy, and it’s clear that student success can be shaped by starting that journey earlier than kindergarten.

The promise of pre-K programs

The recent publication of a multi-year research study on public pre-K programs for low-income children in Tennessee called into question the efficacy of early education. In addition to concluding that public pre-K programs were harmful to long-term student success, the authors contend that play-based education produces better outcomes than academic-focused instruction. Their reasoning: higher-income families more often choose programs that focus on play. The same set of children on average also perform better on standardized tests. Therefore, the researchers inferred that it’s the type of program, not when a program starts, that is the most important factor for students.

An analysis of this study by well-regarded researchers suggests that it may be a bit more complicated. Play is great, and it may be sufficient for developing strong pre-reading skills for some children, but it’s too soon to discount the value of well-crafted preschool intervention. Two other research studies show us different factors that predict literacy success: parental involvement and participation in pre-K programs. From these studies, we can see an academic focus in pre-K is not inherently flawed; rather, the importance lies in the design and intentionality of building a longer on-ramp.

This does not mean that we start formal reading instruction earlier in children’s lives. Rather, it demands that we think about skills that will serve children well when that formal instruction begins, and we deliberately (and successfully) introduce those skills for all students during the preschool years. What skills? Research suggests that preschool children are on the path to proficient reading when they have well-developed vocabulary and oral language, they can hear and manipulate sounds in our language (like rhyming or blending separate sounds into single words), they develop initial understanding that letters represent sounds, and they listen to and understand stories that are read to them. These are preschool skills, but also foundational to later reading success.

Establishing a pre-K on-ramp

When it comes to foundational literacy, and more specifically to pre-reading skills, quite a bit happens before a child sets foot in a kindergarten classroom. This preparation sets up students to read proficiently, but also creates unequal starting points for kindergartners, depending on the pre-reading skills they develop at home or in other care environments. Opportunities to develop these skills might vary by socioeconomic status, parental education levels, and child and parent involvement in early education programs. The result is that kids in the same kindergarten or first grade classroom may be beginning their formal literacy education from drastically different points.

This system that relies on parents and caregivers to introduce key concepts is unfair, uneven, and often unworkable. All parents love their children and want what’s best for them, but some have more time, energy, resources, or opportunities to “lean in” to activities with their children. There are certain abilities kids will learn from reading books regularly with parents, but this kind of shared book reading—even when done daily—may not produce the same outcomes as formal teaching and learning. Critical pre-reading skills such as knowing and hearing parts of words, letter-sound correspondence, and being able to print one’s name are often learned through intentional instruction. Expecting all parents to take on this level of teaching at home, outside of working hours or on the weekend, is unreasonable, and contributes to existing inequities in our schools.

By extending the on-ramp to literacy into pre-K by ensuring that all children receive the full complement of opportunities and experiences needed to gain early skills—we can make outcomes more equitable. Programs that provide for rich language development; introduce children to books, letters, and the sounds of language; and encourage the joy of discovery that comes from reading provide all students more of the opportunities to build skills they need. From showing children that they can discover interesting things in books to building phonological awareness, early introduction of literacy skills can increase the chances of students’ developing and sustaining the motivation to read.

Identifying and reversing old habits

As we extend the on-ramp for literacy education, educators will need to be more aware than ever of what works and what doesn’t. In many cases, old habits will prevent students from reaching their desired outcomes. In part that is because the dynamics of the classroom have changed. The global pandemic has cost teachers a guaranteed, set amount of time with students. To support learning that works in a physical classroom, remotely, and in a hybrid environment, finding the most effective and efficient teaching methods is critical. For example, reading a book as a class is inherently different when students are in the same physical location as opposed to learning remotely.

Supporting teachers as they learn new effective and efficient ways to teach early literacy skills, as well as strategies to measure the progress of children, is critical. Elements such as accessible data, giving students a bigger voice in class, and creating two-way engagement where teachers have time to listen as well as instruct will help. Reframing instruction in these ways can shift the dynamics of the classroom and ensure students get the support they need to be reading at grade level by the end of 3rd grade.

Nurturing motivated readers through fun

In the reading wars, perhaps one of the most common critiques of phonics is that it’s boring. Supporters of balanced literacy or meaning-based literacy often point out that phonics does not tap into students’ interests. Any early education teacher knows that when students are not having fun, they are not engaged. Teaching young children the basic mechanics of reading shouldn’t be boring, and it should be great fun! Foundational literacy education can be systematic, explicit, and structured—as well as exciting.

Making instruction fun and introducing a variety of texts—including picture books, informational text, books that focus on learning letters, and more—can show children that books are a source of inspiration. Even before children can learn to read, teachers can introduce the idea that they will find new ideas, explore interests, and have fun with books by actively engaging their students with stories and linking instructional content to students’ broader interests and lives. Especially for younger children, nurturing a motivation to read will help them feel rewarded by their growth and encouraged to keep going.

By using proven, engaging, and logical methods of literacy education, educators can introduce the rules of reading sooner, address inequities in the school system, and motivate learners by making reading fun. The cumulative effect will be students who grow into competent, proficient readers and self-directed learners. But the journey must start before kindergarten Pre–K programs will create a longer on-ramp for children so they can feel proud of their progress and navigate challenges as they become lifelong learners.

Scott McConnell is the director of assessment innovation at Renaissance Learning. He can be reached at scott.mcconnell@renaissance.com.

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