A few weeks ago, I wrote about the value of preschool and received a flurry of responses from preschool and day-care providers and educators.

One of the most interesting was a lengthy e-mail from Esther Newlin-Haus,project director for a federally-funded Early Reading First grant in Kalamazoo. Her program is working with 12 classrooms in Kalamazoo County Head Start, the Learning Village and the YWCA Children’s Center.

Her basic point is this: For years, the focus in early-childhood education has been on socio-emotional development, and academics have been pushed to the side. The conventional wisdom is that elementary school provided plenty of time to teach literacy and math skills.

But“there’s been a huge paradigm shift” in that thinking, Newlin-Haus said, and she counts herself among the converted. The new research shows that a child’s brain from birth to 5 is like a sponge, and pushing academics during those years is not only thrilling for children but can make a lifelong difference in terms of their academic and life success.

“A loving, warm environment is the critical base, but it is not enough,” Newlin-Haus wrote in her e-mail. “And we know now that learning literacy skills is not as much a matter of developmental readiness as skilled instruction.  This is a huge shift in thinking.”

This is especially true when considering the substantial gap in academic outcomes between white and Asian middle-class children and those from low-income and black, Hispanic and Native American families. That gap, a national trend that is readily apparent in kindergarten and grows through K-12 schooling, can be narrowed through intensive preschool programs — before brain development starts slowing at age 5, experts say.

“Many children from more affluent homes literally hear millions more words before they hit kindergarten than children from low-income homes,” Newlin-Haus said.” And the preponderance of children from middle-high income homes also experience many more literacy experiences than less affluent children.

“To close this gap in experience, teachers need to intentionally accelerate learning of children from low-income homes.  This is not accomplished through exposure, but through intensive, explicit teaching.

“In the last 15 years there has been an explosion of research about the predictive factors for literacy achievement in school. And what we know is this: oral language and vocabulary are critical, and to help close the income gap, we must offer intentional, targeted oral language and vocabulary instruction to accelerate the rate of learning for children from many low-income homes.”

That means teaching specific literacy skills such as alphabet recognition, knowledge of letter sounds, understanding the sound structure of language that includes being able to hear and manipulate beginning sounds, rhymes and syllables, she writes.

It means getting preschoolers to know how to read a book — that you read from the top to the bottom, that there are spaces between words, functions of punctuation.

“Many children learn much of this from thousands of experiences of sitting on a loving adult’s lap and reading multiple books a day, and from watching adults in their environment read for fun and for a wide variety of practical purposes,” Newlin-Haus writes. “Children who don’t have these experiences, or who have very limited experiences with print, need preschool teachers who teach these foundational skills very intentionally and intensively.

“We don’t need to give up the socio-emotional piece” of preschool, Newlin-Haus said in a telephone conversation. “You just need to layer it with other stuff.”

We shouldn’t underestimated the ability of preschoolers to learn, she said.

“In our project, for example, we have been astonished, frankly, at how much our 3-year-olds are learning — and they are so proud of themselves!” she said.  “Learning to break the code of reading is one of the most important accomplishments of a child’s life —and they know it.”

Source: Kalamazoo Gazette – MLive.com – http://tinyurl.com/ykeeahv