Early schooling, serious learning

EDUCATION BEAT

Preschool: State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says education must start earlier than kindergarten and first grade, particularly for children in poverty who don't get a lot of early mental stimulation.

August 22, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IF STATE SCHOOLS Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick had her way, public schooling in Maryland would end at the 11th grade. The money spent on the terminal year of high school would be "front-loaded" on a year of education -- heavy on literacy -- for Maryland's 85,000 4-year-olds.

Grasmick is only partly serious. Exchanging 12th grade for pre-kindergarten would raise a host of practical, legal and political problems, not least of which is the opposition that would come from Dr. Laura's conservative stay-at-home moms. (Bethlehem Steel workers established the state's first kindergarten at Sparrows Point in 1888. It took another 104 years to make education for 5-year-olds mandatory.)

But Grasmick is fully serious about the need to start education earlier, particularly for children in poverty who don't get a lot of early mental stimulation. The 1990 census found almost 42,000 such children in Maryland, and only about 20,000 of them were in state- and federally sponsored preschool programs.

Sandra J. Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children, says preschool education has to be regarded as seriously as college education. "It's a necessity for people who want to succeed in our modern world, but people don't give it the attention it deserves. We have to have all kids on a level playing field by the time they begin the first grade, and we're failing at that."

The latest research shows that children begin learning to read long before they begin formal schooling. A 6-month-old can recognize the vowel sounds that are the basic building blocks of speech. Talking to a baby speeds up the process of learning new words.

I'm not speaking here of extremes like playing Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major to a newborn or forcing a 1-year-old to watch a reading video every day. I'm talking, rather, of things we know intuitively.

"Children who receive stimulating literacy experiences from birth onward appear to have an edge when it comes to vocabulary development, an understanding of the goals of reading and an awareness of print and literacy concepts," G. Reid Lyon, chief of reading research at the National Institutes of Health, told a House committee last month.

Huge teaching potential exists among child care providers. Skolnik says more than 200,000 Maryland children are in preschool programs of all types. There are 12,500 family child care providers and thousands of other adults working in before- and after-school programs, group programs, Head Start, day care and youth camps.

What if all of them had more than a cursory knowledge of what works -- and what doesn't -- in prereading activities? What if all of them knew how to employ all of the literacy value in "Pajama Sam," an enormously popular book character among 4-year-olds?

What if all of them knew a recent research finding from the Johns Hopkins University that it's better to ask children questions before and after reading to them than to interrupt the reading?

What if all knew that playing with rhyming words and nonsense ("funny, bunny, runny, tunny, sunny") isn't just a fun game for a 4-year-old; it's a crucial pre-reading activity that enhances "phonemic awareness"? What if all knew that "pretend" writing, using scribbles and unconventional shapes, is perfectly appropriate for 3-year-olds?

Skolnik says the road to preschool literacy is "bumpy." But a lot is going on. At the national level, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley recently announced a private initiative, Child Care READS, to link workers in day care centers with training programs and literacy resources.

In Maryland, Grasmick's department has joined forces with Skolnik's agency in a two-year effort to train child care workers to teach their little ones the skills they'll need when they enter formal schooling.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is paying for this "Maryland Model for School Readiness" program with a $257,000 grant, and the child care workers get not only training, but credit at Villa Julie College.

But only 50 of them are in the program. That's a drop in the bucket or, in this case, a page in the book.

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