Teaching the young child

January 22, 1999|By Nancy S. Grasmick

WHILE improving elementary education is important, we must also concern ourselves with the preschool years to ensure the success of more of Maryland's students.

Recent brain research shows that early learning experiences have a decisive impact on brain development and subsequent reading achievement.

By their first birthdays, children have developed pre-language skills. By the time they turn 3, the brain has developed critical circuitry that helps determine future success.

Children who are given "phoneme-awareness" training in the sounds of the English language and then taught the relationship between letters and sounds are likely to become good readers.

While an individual's abilities are not rigidly fixed at birth, the brain's greatest capacity to change and compensate occurs during the first three years of life.

National experts on cognitive development say that, in general, children who are most at-risk for reading failure are those who enter school with limited exposure to language and thus less prior knowledge of concepts related to phonics, letter and print awareness, and general verbal skills.

The National Research Council maintains that reducing the number of children who enter school with inadequate linguistic, cognitive and early literacy skills would greatly reduce the magnitude of the literacy problem facing schools today.

The only way to do this, the council says, is to demand preschool and kindergarten environments that help develop the skills and motivation children need to read. The International Reading Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children issued a position paper last year calling for early childhood programs that support literacy development before more intense and costly interventions are required.

Congressional support

The experts have spoken and, it seems, people are listening. By 1996, three-quarters of the states supported one or more state-funded comprehensive programs explicitly targeted to young children and families. Congress and the nation's governors have made readiness to learn the first national education goal.

The experts agree, too, on the kinds of activities that facilitate literacy in young children: reading books aloud; talking about letters by name and sounds; re-reading favorite stories, especially those with predictable text; engaging children in language games; promoting literacy-related play activities; and encouraging children to experiment with writing.

Most preschool-age children are ready to engage in literacy-based activities, such as recounting experiences, describing ideas and events that are important to them, learning the letters of the alphabet, discriminating letters from one another, printing letters and attempting to spell words that they hear.

Ideally, these activities would be undertaken not by early childhood educators alone, but by parents, too. After all, parents are toddlers most influential teachers.

However, we know that many children are not read to at home and are not shown the importance of reading or the joy that it can bring.

Legislative remedy

It is this inequity that makes early childhood education programs so very critical. Research-based programs -- such as those pioneered in Michigan and North Carolina that follow a strict curriculum and provide seminars for day-care teachers -- can provide key developmental experiences for young children and offer valuable training experiences for early childhood professionals.

For too long, we assumed that a child's health was the key predictor of success in the early grades. This is only partly true. Health and safety are, of course, imperative, but so, too, are the early literacy skills that lead to fluency in the primary grades.

The research is clear and incontrovertible: To benefit from classroom instruction, children must arrive in the first grade not only physically and emotionally healthy, but also with a strong basis in language and cognitive skills, and motivated to learn to read. Intervention is important, but prevention is preferred.

Children are prolific learners long before they are students. If we fail to grasp the implication of this, we risk doing irreparable harm to children whose real potential we may never know.

Nancy S. Grasmick is state superintendent of schools.

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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