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Boosting the Literacy Development of Preschoolers

How Quickly Do Preschoolers Learn?

How quickly do preschoolers learn vocabulary, beginning sounds, rhyming and concepts? Is it possible to evaluate their growth? If so, how frequently should educators measure preschoolers' literacy skills so that instructional changes can be made?

"We don't know," says Robin Hojnoski, associate professor of school psychology. "This is what we're trying to figure out."

Collaborating with researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington, Hojnoski is helping to develop measures to monitor literacy progress among preschoolers and ways for teachers to use the assessment data to assist students. The four-year study is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

"If we think about the investment that we make in preschool education, we want to make sure that we're focusing our efforts on building children's skills in important areas," Hojnoski says. While there are many reasons preschool matters, she says, one is "to build children's language and literacy skills so that they have the foundation for moving into kindergarten and being successful."

Hojnoski and graduate assistant Elizabeth Boyd began by creating more measures for monitoring literacy skills and assessing which ones would work well across family income levels and regions of the country. A picture of skis, for example, would not necessarily be a good universal measure for assessing vocabulary skills, she says, since preschoolers in regions without snow might less likely be able to identify what they are.

The team also worked on measures to assess preschoolers' grasp of beginning sounds—pairing photos of a rock and a mouse, for example, to identify a word with the "mmm" sound. The measures will be narrowed down through a statistical process, Hojnoski says, allowing the researchers to develop tools for evaluating small changes or growth in literacy over time.

In January, Lehigh began testing 85 preschoolers on iPads to assess which of the measures worked best and at what pace preschoolers were learning. Lehigh is working with children enrolled in Berks County (Pa.) Intermediate Unit programs, such as its Head Start classes, childcare programs and preschool classrooms.

Once effective tools for measuring literacy skills are determined, Hojnoski says, the researchers will focus on developing ways for teachers to use the data to assess who needs more instructional support, in what areas, and how best to provide the additional instruction. The researchers want to develop platforms that would outline activities for strengthening skills in particular areas.

"It's one thing to know that a child isn't making as much progress as another child," Hojnoski says. "Now, what should be done? And actually, kids who are behind have to make more than adequate progress. They have to make extra [progress] to be able to catch up with other kids."

Hojnoski acknowledges the lingering debate in some circles over the appropriateness of teaching early academic skills to preschoolers, regardless if it's literacy, science or math, rather than just allowing them to play.

"We're the ones who create the false dichotomy between the two," she says. "I think kids just love to learn. And so, why would you not teach them? Creating instructional activities that provide an enjoyable experience and meaningfully engage kids allows them to both play and learn."

This story appears as "How Quickly Do Preschoolers Learn?" in the 2017 Lehigh Research Review.

 

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