A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Start Early, Finish Strong: How to Help Every Child Become a Reader - July 1999

Ready to Read

Building Skills Through Early Care and Education

As the 20th century nears its end, it is a fact of American family life that young children spend a substantial part of their days in the care of someone other than a parent. More than 13 million infants, toddlers, and preschoolers receive regular care from adults other than their parents—roughly six out of 10 children under age 6 who are not enrolled in kindergarten (U.S. Department of Education, OERI, 1996). According to the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, the average number of hours spent per week by children ages 3 to 5 in school settings nearly doubled from 11.5 hours in 1981 to 20 hours in 1997 (Hofferth, 1998).

The National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force estimates that 3 million people provided child care in 1998. The U.S. Department of Labor has projected the need for nearly 300,000 new child care workers between 1996 and 2006, making the occupation among the 10 fastest-growing in the nation.

These statistics give us important information for winning the war against illiteracy. For some children, the support of parents and elementary school teachers is not enough. While most parents are eager to learn more about early childhood development and education, work and family pressures strain their time and resources. Elementary school teachers do not even meet children until well after key periods have passed for cognitive and language development.

Architects of Reading Success

If we are serious about starting early to create a nation of readers, then we must do more to enlist the burgeoning corps of adults who work in early care and education—in preschools, child care centers, nursery schools, and home-based care settings. We must also address the reality that many of these early care and education providers need assistance with basic skills and training to fulfill their potential. As a nation, we must acknowledge that these Americans are not just children’s caretakers. They are architects of foundations that are critical for reading and academic success.

Many studies have established that high-quality early care and education lay the foundation for school success by enhancing cognitive and language development, as well as social and emotional competence (National Institute for Child Health and Development, 1997). More specifically, the 1998 National Research Council report found that early childhood programs can contribute to the prevention of reading difficulties. These programs contribute by providing young children with enriched, research-based literacy environments, and by identifying and removing possible obstacles to reading success.

Unfortunately, fulfilling the promise of early education is easier to imagine than to realize. By the time they enter kindergarten, most children have experienced some kind of early education or child care. But access to this care, as well as the quality of care, varies greatly. Children from low-income families, who are most apt to benefit from early intervention, are the least likely to attend preschool. In fact, the preschool participation gap between rich and poor has actually widened over the past two decades (National Education Goals Panel, 1997).

When we fail to make the most of this important period in young children’s lives, we set the stage for later difficulties. Kindergarten teachers have estimated that 35 percent of America’s children start school unprepared to learn (Boyer, 1991). In 1998, teachers in another national survey reported that about half of all children have problems making the transition to kindergarten (National Center for Early Childhood Development and Learning, 1998). Many of these children will have difficulty learning to read.

Bright Beginnings, Charlotte, NC

Bright Beginnings is a public pre-kindergarten program in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools. Focused on literacy, the program provides 4-year-olds with a literacy-rich, resource-rich, full-day school experience. Each school day is constructed around four 15-minute literacy circles, where teachers engage children in reading and literacy activities.

The school district has developed its own pre-kindergarten curriculum, content standards, and performance expectations that set high goals for every child. Pre-kindergarten standards have been developed in the areas of social and personal development, language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the creative arts, physical development, and technology.

Supported mainly through federal Title I funds, the program currently serves more than 1,900 children.

Plans call for reaching all 4,000 children in the school district who need high-quality preschool experiences to get ready for school.

The district collaborates with Head Start, special education, and other public and private partners. All teachers are early childhood specialists with at least a four-year degree and are certified to teach by the state.

Bright Beginnings serves only eligible children who are selected according to federal funding guidelines. An initial program evaluation shows promising outcomes.

Contact: Tony Bucci, Ellen Edmonds, Barbara Pellin
School District
701 East 2nd Street
Charlotte, NC 28202
(704) 379-7111

More Children in Child Care

The opportunities for early care and education to help—or hinder—America’s victory in the war against illiteracy have multiplied with the expansion of child care services. Much of this demand has been fueled by the tremendous expansion of women’s roles in the workforce. The percentage of mothers of infants and toddlers working outside the home has nearly tripled from 21 percent in 1965 to 59 percent in 1994 (Shore, 1997).

But even among households in which the mother is not employed, one-third use regular child care for their youngest children (U.S. Department of Education, OERI, 1996). Preschoolers spend an average of 35 hours a week in child care if their mothers work outside the home, and 20 hours per week if their mothers are not employed (Shore, 1997).

Child care starts early: 45 percent of infants under age 1 are regularly cared for by someone other than a parent, most by a relative in a private home. As babies grow, their chance of being cared for by non-parental adults also grows, from 50 percent of 1-year-olds to 84 percent of 5-year-olds. Similarly, the percentage cared for outside of private homes grows from 11 percent of 1-year-olds to 75 percent of 5-year-olds (U.S. Department of Education, OERI, 1996). Thus, an enormous potential exists for early childhood providers to influence later reading success.

Choices in Child Care

Individual and cultural preferences influence family choices about the use of early childhood programs. More than six out of 10 Black children (66 percent) and White children (62 percent) receive supplemental care and education, compared with 46 percent of Hispanic children. There are also wide income differences in families’ child care patterns: only half of all households with incomes of $30,000 or less use child care, compared with three-quarters of households with incomes of $50,000 or more (U.S. Department of Education, 1996).

Besides influencing whether families use child care at all, income also influences the type of care that families select. This has significance for the war against illiteracy: the care families choose makes a difference.

Building Literacy Through the Arts in Early Childhood

The Arts Education Partnership, representing more than 100 national organizations, researched the role of the arts in early childhood. The study identifies the best kinds of experiences for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and young elementary school students to build cognitive, motor, language, and social-emotional development.

Under the philosophy that play is the business of young children, the partnership study found that the arts engage children in learning, stimulate memory, and facilitate understanding. Role-playing games, poems, songs, rhyming, dramatic storytelling, and other creative arts play can develop language skills and a love of learning.

The study’s report, Young Children in the Arts, includes developmental benchmarks and appropriate arts activities for children from birth to age 8. Parents and adult caregivers are encouraged to use

character voices and dramatic gestures when reading or telling stories and to make sock puppets to increase the enjoyment of the tale. Show-and-tell stories can be created with photographs, and young children can pantomime their favorite book characters before a mirror. Older children can write poems and improvise stories with simple costumes.

Resources, research, and programs are available through the database of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts at www.wolftrap.org.

Arts Education Partnership
Council of Chief State School Officers
One Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Suite 700
Washington, DC 20001-1431
(202) 326-8693
Fax: (202) 408-8076

The Limitations of Income

In addition to having greater access to regulated care, higher-income families are much more likely to use center-based care—nursery schools, child care centers, and preschools—than are lower-income families (National Education Goals Panel, 1995; West et al., 1995). In low-income neighborhoods, the supply of any kind of regulated child care, whether in centers or family child care homes, is usually inadequate (Siegel & Loman, 1991).

A Jump Start

Jumpstart recruits college students to help children who are struggling in preschool. The mentors are paired for almost two years with 3- and 4-year-olds in Head Start or other programs for children living in poverty. The Jumpstart mentors work one-on-one with children to teach and reinforce basic academic and social skills.

Jumpstart forms partnerships with early childhood caregivers and involves families in their preschooler’s development. The summer program provides an intensive preschool experience for young children during the two months before kindergarten.

Jumpstart serves children in Boston; New Haven, Connecticut; New York City; Washington D.C.; Los Angeles; and San Francisco. The program aims to engage 1,000 college students as mentors by the year 2000 and to reach more than 12,000 children. Mentors may receive stipends or wages through AmeriCorps or the Federal Work-Study program.

93 Summer Street, 2nd Floor
Boston, MA 02110
(617) 542-JUMP
Fax: (617) 542-2557

This lack of options increases the number of poor children in unlicensed family child care or relative care (Fuller & Liang, 1995; Love & Kisker, 1996). Research shows that, in general, unlicensed care arrangements are of lower quality than licensed centers or homes (Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995; Kontos et al., 1994). Among those who offer services in a private home, 50 percent of non-regulated providers have been found to offer inadequate care, compared with about 13 percent of regulated providers (Families and Work Institute, 1994).

Advantages of Center-based Care

Although many families prefer family child care arrangements for their home-like atmosphere and small numbers of children, center-based care is the preference of most families for their older, preschool children (Leibowitz et al., 1988). Because centers are designed to serve larger groups of children, they often offer greater resources for preschoolers’ literacy development, such as books, tapes, and computers.

Additionally, a recent multi-site study found that center care is associated with better cognitive and language outcomes and a higher level of school readiness, compared with outcomes in other settings of comparable quality (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 1997b). But not all center-based care is equal. Children who attended centers that met professional guidelines for child-staff ratios, group sizes, and teacher education had better language comprehension and school readiness than did children enrolled in centers without these standards.

But the doors to high-quality early care and education are often closed to low-income families, either because of cost or location. These barriers result in many poor children entering school without the early educational choices available to their affluent classmates, placing them at greater risk of reading difficulties.

Low Funding, Low Quality

Child care providers have struggled to satisfy the demand for services. Unfortunately, this struggle has resulted in the chronic, twin calamities of low wages and high employee turnover. The under-funding of early care and education—including fees, subsidies, and donations—is acknowledged to be the chief cause of low quality (Gomby et al., 1996; National Education Association, 1998).

Both parents and child care teachers bear the burden of the current inadequate funding system. Clearly, parent fees put high-quality early care and education out of reach for many working families. Yet, this system also perpetuates low salaries, which fail to attract and retain highly skilled teachers. The impact is negative for all involved—child care providers, families, and children—and ultimately, for our nation as well. Low-quality early care and education put children’s development at risk, including the development of abilities associated with reading success.

The Gardner Children's Center, San Jose, CA

For this bustling child care center, serving children from 6 weeks old through seventh grade, literacy is the foundation of all learning. Each child is read to daily. Lesson plans are based on “Ten Best Books,” which each teacher chooses to ensure that all children learn the joy of reading. Every classroom has a designated reading area, and both pre-kindergarten and school-age children regularly visit the Biblioteca (the Spanish language library) for story hour and book selection. Teachers aim to make visiting the library a lifelong habit.

The Gardner Children’s Center also reaches out to families to promote literacy. At orientation, all parents are given a book in their home language and coached on the importance of reading to and with their

children. These messages are reinforced at parent conferences twice a year. A family literacy night is celebrated through a partnership with the local public television station.

Also, parents learn to share literacy activities at home with their children in English and Spanish. Children’s books are distributed at the annual health fair. At holiday time, every child enrolled in the program, and each sibling, receives at least one book as a gift. The total environment communicates the value and joy of reading.

Frederick Ferrer, Director
Gardner Children’s Center Inc.
611 Willis Avenue
San Jose, CA 95125
(408) 998-1343

In 1989, a national study reported that the quality in most child care centers was “barely adequate” (National Center for the Early Childhood Workforce, 1989). In 1999, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that fewer than 10 percent of American youngsters ages 3 and under are likely to receive “excellent” care (Booth, 1999). About 20 percent of child care centers are estimated to provide unsafe and unhealthy care (Shore, 1997). The 1995 Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study found that child care at most centers is poor to mediocre, and almost half of infant and toddler care may be detrimental. The recent NICHD study found that 61 percent of child care arrangements—including centers, family child care homes, in-home sitters, and relative care—to be poor to fair quality (Booth, 1999).

Six for Success!

Both child development theory and research on successful practices point to six key features of high-quality early care and education programs:

  1. 1. High staff-child ratios
  2. 2. Small group sizes
  3. Adequate staff education and training
  4. Low staff turnover
  5. Curriculum emphasizing child-initiated, active learning
  6. Parent involvement

Source: National Education Association, 1998

The States Take Action

Many states are taking action aimed at improving child care quality, in part because a growing amount of public money is being spent on child care. Although states traditionally spend the lion’s share of funds for children on elementary and secondary education, states increased expenditures on child care by 55 percent between 1996 and 1998 (National Governors’ Association, 1998).

This investment is important not only to meet the demands of the marketplace but also, if the quality of care is high, to put more children on the path to school success. Thus, quality improvement efforts must attend to children’s development—cognitive, language, social, and emotional—as well as reduce risks of physical harm.

Forty-four states reported to the National Governors’ Association that they were working on child care quality issues in 1998. One positive trend finds 16 states paying higher reimbursements to child care providers who meet higher quality standards. Fortunately, reforms to boost health and safety often parallel reforms that can improve opportunities for cognitive and language development.

For example, improving child-staff ratios and requiring smaller class sizes enables teachers to have individual conversations, read with small groups, and implement classroom practices that research shows are necessary to promote literacy and later school success (Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995). Research also has found that favorable adult-child ratios increase children’s imitation of adults and increase children’s verbal interactions (National Education Association, 1998). Despite this evidence, only 18 states maintain requirements for a 10-to-1 ratio throughout the preschool years, and some states allow ratios twice as high (General Accounting Office, 1998).

Quality of Early Childhood Teachers

Whether they work in child care, preschool, or public school, research consistently shows that the quality of teachers is the key to quality education. This is especially true in the early years.

A national study found that when child care providers had more years of education and more college-level early education training, they provided more sensitive, developmentally appropriate care to children (Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995). Higher education and specialized training also allow early childhood teachers to do a better job of advancing children’s language skills, a key predictor of later reading success (Whitebook et al., 1990).

But not all child care teachers get the professional preparation they need. In a study for the U.S. Department of Education, 93 percent of child care teachers reported having some child-related training, but only 36 percent had formal, college-level teacher preparation, and only 24 percent held a credential from a professional organization. Among home-based providers, only 64 percent reported any child-related training and just 6 percent were accredited by a professional organization (Kisker et al., 1991).

Early childhood teachers find little incentive under current state requirements to prepare themselves better to support literacy development. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends that all early care and education teachers have formal training at the bachelor’s level, but most states require that child care workers hold only a high school diploma. Only nine states require any college credit in early childhood for child care center teachers. Only two—Hawaii and Rhode Island—require a bachelor’s degree in any field with specialized training in early care and education (Azer & Eldred, 1998).

Just as improvements in child-staff ratios and class size benefit all areas of children’s development, more professional training opportunities and higher standards for early childhood teachers would enhance children’s growth, including their preparation to be successful readers.

Efforts to Improve

Small but promising steps have been taken to enhance the professional preparation of early childhood teachers. One study showed that even a modest increase in high-quality training can benefit children.

A Family Place

The Family Place Library recruits child care providers to bring children to the library for learning fun. This library also provides Storytime Kits for child care providers to use in their homes. The kits include books, videos, puzzles, puppets, and activities. Educational toys, including adaptive toys for children with disabilities, can also be borrowed.

This program offers learning opportunities based on family strengths, cultures, and interests.

The Family Place Library, a joint venture between New York’s Middle Country Public Library and Libraries for the Future, is funded by the Hasbro Children’s Foundation. Family Place Library is a national project operating programs in six communities.

Sandy Feinberg
Middle Country Public Library
(516) 585-9393, ext. 200
Libraries for the Future
(212) 352-2330

These researchers found that even 18 to 36 hours of training for family child care providers resulted in improved caregiving environments and stronger relationships between adults and children. A taste of professional development also whetted the participants’ appetites—after completing the training, 95 percent of the providers said they wanted more instruction (Galinsky et al., 1995).

However promising, this level of preparation does not approach what is needed to provide our youngest child-ren with the foundations for healthy development. More comprehensive approaches to training can strengthen the early childhood work force. The Council for Early Childhood Professional Recognition offers a Child Development Associate (CDA) credential, which is used as one of the standards in the licensing of child care teachers and center directors in 46 states and the District of Columbia. The credential calls for a high school diploma, 120 hours of training in specified categories, and 480 hours of experience, along with a formal assessment procedure.

With leadership from Wheelock College’s Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education, many states are developing more coherent early childhood training systems, with increased collaboration between higher education institutions and community partners.

Other state efforts include the T.E.A.C.H. project (Teacher Education and Compensation Helps). In North Carolina and a small number of other states, this innovative project provides college scholarships for early childhood teachers, administrators, and family child care providers. Completion of the program leads to higher compensation.

A New Option for Certification in Child Development

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training (BAT) is taking a collaborative approach to credentialling child care providers. Through BAT’s partnership with the state of West Virginia’s apprenticeship program, candidates who take four semesters of college courses and get 4,000 hours of on-the-job training receive certification from the U.S. Department of Labor as a Child Development Specialist.

Hundreds of providers have graduated from the program, and many hundreds more are actively pursuing completion of the requirements. Florida, Minnesota, and Maine have followed suit, with Maine requiring six semesters of college courses.

The program draws on core teams of educators, health professionals, parents, and employers. The system creates a career ladder for child care

providers who earn their salaries while in the program and receive incremental wage increases as their skills, abilities, and knowledge increase.

Employers report almost no turnover among participating providers, and the providers report high satisfaction with their careers. Plans are under way to launch similar projects in 10 more states in 1999.

Dana Daugherty
U.S. Department of Labor
Bureau of Apprenticeship & Training
Child Care Development Specialist Registered Apprentice Program
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20210
(202) 219-5921

These promising trends are consistent with recommendations by experts in the field. The Not By Chance report (Kagan & Cohen, 1997) summarizes four years of discussions by early childhood and policy experts. They recommend that every person employed in early care and education programs hold an individual license to practice, based on demanding standards of education and training.

Licensing Priorities

Hairdressers in more than 40 states are required to have between 1,000 and 2,100 hours of training at an accredited school to get a license (BeautyTech, 1999). Yet 39 states and the District of Columbia do not require child care providers to have any early childhood training prior to taking children into their homes (Azer & Caprano, 1997).

In the literacy area alone, the 1998 National Research Council’s report sets forth a long list of in-depth knowledge and skills that all early childhood educators must have if children are to enter school ready to become successful readers.

The Orton Dyslexia Society calls for all preschool and kindergarten teachers to be able to, at minimum: stimulate oral expressive language, language comprehension, and print awareness; foster phonological awareness and recognition of the links between sounds and letters; and identify language problems of children at risk for reading difficulty. One-shot workshops and minimal training requirements will not be enough to produce the skilled professionals needed to support children’s language and literacy development.

Books Aloud: A Child Care Experiment

A recent study called Books Aloud, in and around Philadelphia, found that children’s early literacy skills can be enhanced by simultaneously flooding child care centers with books and training caregivers to read aloud (Neuman, in press).

This $2 million study, funded by the William Penn Foundation, targeted more than 330 child care centers serving more than 17,000 low-income children. Centers were flooded with nearly 90,000 books—an average of five new, high-quality books per child.

At the start of the study, more centers had TVs than library nooks; the majority had neither. The centers had negligible funding for supplies, so the books they did have were in shabby condition.

Research has found that talk between adults and children in some child care settings can be dominated by imperatives—adults telling children what to do (Cost, Quality and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995). The Books Aloud teachers received 10 hours of training from preschool specialists on how to enrich the language and literacy opportunities they offered to children. Caregivers were shown that, in addition to being fun, reading aloud also teaches childrenabout vocabulary, narrative structure, and the relationship between spoken and printed words.

Child care teachers were encouraged to designate a reading area in their center and storytime in their schedule. They were coached on how to prepare for storytime and extend the concepts of the book through discussions, questions, and hands-on activities, such as puppets.

The frequency of literacy interactions between adults and children, such as talking about stories and developing skills through singing, counting, and rhyming, doubled over seven months. Teachers regarded reading aloud as an opportunity for interactive learning. This increased the children’s motivation, interest, and reading time. Books Aloud children frequently asked to be read to, pretended to read, and played with books during their free time more often than similar children who were not in the program. Books Aloud children outperformed their peers in specific abilities that lead to successful reading, such as knowledge of letters and understanding of print, writing, and narrative. Gains were still evident six months after the program had ended.

Susan B. Neuman
437 Ritter Hall
Temple University
Philadelphia, PA 19122
(215) 204-4982

The Need for Coordination

An equally challenging obstacle to the consistent preparation of high-quality early childhood teachers is the isolation and lack of coordination in the early care and education field. Providers range from Head Start teachers to private nursery schools teachers to a neighbor caring for a handful of toddlers. Settings range from family homes and churches to private centers and public preschools. Funding ranges from private to local to state to federal.

Watching Kids,
Watching Cars

The median hourly wage for parking lot attendants ($6.56) remains higher than the median hourly wage for child care workers ($6.48).

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1997

This fragmented array of early childhood services has resulted in an inequality of resources and lack of communication about good teaching practices, undermining our commitment to provide high-quality education to all children. Greater coordination is needed at the local level to link this mosaic, share resources, increase access, improve overall care, and foster children’s language and literacy development.

It is not unusual for children entering a single kindergarten class to display a five-year range of literacy skills. Some children may have the reading ability of an 8-year-old, while others may have the language skills of a 3-year-old (Riley, 1996). Although children will always arrive at school with different learning needs, better early education will increase the number of kindergarteners who are ready to become successful readers.

Only by rejecting business as usual and facing up to these many challenges can we take advantage of the tremendous opportunities to improve child literacy through early care and education. Policymakers and early childhood administrators can work actively to support child care teachers and to bolster their contributions to reading success.

Resources for early care and education providers may be found in Reading Resources, Appendix I of this book.

Action Steps for Policymakers

Local, state, and national policymakers can improve our systems of early care and education and promote literacy. Policymakers can:

&Develop innovative strategies to adequately fund America’s early care and education system. Redesign the current financing system to ensure affordable, high-quality care for children and families and competitive compensation for teachers.

&Broaden expectations for high-quality care to include enhanced early learning environments that promote language skills and literacy.

&Provide high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds who are at risk for later school difficulties, and examine ways to provide universal preschool.

&Strengthen links between family child care homes, child care centers, and public schools to share resources and training.

&Ensure that accreditation and licensing requirements in early care and education incorporate research-based practices that support children’s cognitive, language, social, and emotional development, and that build successful readers.

&Develop policies and structures, such as Offices for Young Children, through which state and local authorities can coordinate services in early care and education.

&Create incentives for early childhood programs to use research-based knowledge in program design.

&Where necessary, modify minimum standards for group sizes and adult-child ratios to create better literacy environments for children.

&Support efforts to build an early childhood career ladder, with increased responsibilities and compensation for practitioners with higher qualifications. These efforts should attract and keep the staff who are best at helping children learn.

&Support efforts to improve staff training and ongoing professional development. Coordinate training efforts across programs and sponsoring agencies. Fund scholarships and create incentives to encourage pro-viders to pursue advanced training.

&Use public information campaigns to encourage parents to seek effective child care that develops language and other pre-literacy skills.

Action Steps for Practitioners

Child care providers, teachers, directors, and others can actively prepare young children for reading success. Practitioners can:

&Use research-based recommendations and resources to improve literacy environments for children.

&Converse frequently and informally with babies and children to build vocabulary, strengthen concepts, and enhance language skills. Encourage and respond to children when they try to communicate.

&Read to children every day. Encourage children to talk about the story or characters. Read one-on-one with a child when he or she asks.

&Read to infants even before they can speak. Babies love to listen to voices and will associate books with pleasant feelings.

&Encourage volunteers to read with children. Find volunteers through colleges, high schools, community and seniors organizations, religious groups, and businesses.

&Engage children in daily activities to build reading readiness, such as singing nursery rhymes and playing sound, word, and letter games.

&Use the arts to engage young children in the development of language and communication skills.

&Set up a reading and writing area for children. Make sure the area is well lit, with interesting books and writing tools. Include books for and about children with special needs, and books about the children’s languages and cultures.

&Encourage parents to read to and with their children, either in English or in their home language. Lend a range of books overnight.

&Make frequent trips to the library. Contact your librarian to plan a guided tour. Ask about bilingual story times or special story hours.

&Seek out continuing education and training in child development and in effective teaching practices. Learn to identify “red flags” that may signal barriers to successful reading..

&Find ways to coordinate training with other early care and education organizations. Joint training may be scheduled at a central site such as a library. Network to share information and resources.


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