The Right Way To Read

When you walk through the brightly colored door of the Roseville Cooperative Preschool in northern California, you're entering a magical, pint-size world where 3- and 4-year-olds are masters of the universe. At the science table, they use magnifying glasses to explore piles of flowers, cacti and shells. In the smock-optional art area, budding da Vincis often smear blotches of red, blue and yellow directly on the table. (It's wiped off with a damp cloth when the next artist steps up.) There are ropes for climbing and two loft areas: one carpeted and filled with books and a dollhouse, and the other with a clear Plexiglas floor, perfect for keeping an eye on the activities below. There are no letters or numbers on the walls to distract from this focused play. The only rule, says director and founder Bev Bos, is that the kids are in control. "I tell other teachers, 'Forget about kindergarten, first grade, second grade'," she says. "We should be focusing on where children are right now."

Sounds like an idyllic preschool learning environment, right? Wrong, according to a growing number of early-education researchers. Until quite recently, Bev Bos's philosophy was the standard at preschools around the country, and there are still lots of teachers who passionately defend the idea that they should be helping kids feel secure and learn to play well with others, not learn the three Rs. But researchers now say the old approach ignores mounting evidence that many preschoolers need explicit instruction in the basics of literacy--the stuff most of us started to learn in first grade, how words fall on a page and the specific sounds and letters that make up words. New brain research shows that reading is part of a complex continuum that begins with baby talk and scribbles, and culminates in a child with a rich vocabulary and knowledge of the world. While some children acquire the literacy skills they need by osmosis, through their everyday experiences, many don't. Most at risk are children of poverty, who are twice as likely to have serious trouble reading. But studies have also shown that at least 20 percent of middle-class children have reading disabilities and that early intervention could save many of them from a lifetime of playing catch-up.

Earlier this month the increasingly fractious schoolyard brawl--between old-style educators who fear kids will be pushed to read and the new guard who fear they won't be pushed enough--became even more heated when President George W. Bush rolled out his early-childhood-education plan. Bush put himself squarely in the early-reading camp when he proposed retraining all 50,000 Head Start teachers in the most effective ways to provide explicit instruction in the alphabet, letter sounds and writing--whether through responsive reading to kids, early writing experiences or carefully designed group projects. He also wants Head Start to use a detailed literacy-screening test and asked for an unprecedented $45 million for preschool-reading research. Bush's domestic-policy adviser, Margaret Spellings, says preschool teachers shouldn't be afraid of these changes. "This is not about putting little kids in desks at age 3," Spellings says. "This is about doing things right from the beginning of life. It's the social-emotional plus the cognitive."

That hasn't reassured many preschool teachers, nor the National Head Start Association, which has vigorously attacked the Bush plan. "There's far more to children's development than just reading," says Cynthia Cummings, executive director of Community Parents Inc., a Head Start program in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. "We have children who come in who are not potty trained, who don't know how to sit down in a chair, who have difficulty following a routine, who may have some other types of delays that will affect their language. You have to address those." This holistic approach could get a boost this week, when Sen. Ted Kennedy, a longtime supporter of Head Start, is expected to introduce legislation that would create a comprehensive early child-care system, with reading readiness--the main focus of the Bush plan--as just one component.

Both sides in this debate agree that young children learn best when their five senses are engaged, when teachers and parents provide hands-on ways to master important language skills. But teachers like Bev Bos worry that making the ABCs a top priority will mean "drill and kill" instead of rich language experiences. "I'm afraid kids won't have any childhood," Bos says. Preliteracy advocates admit there's a danger that the new ideas will be incorrectly implemented. They say teacher training will help, and they stress that in the most effective preliteracy programs, there is no "reading hour" or all-group instruction, no teacher with a pointer at the head of the class. The goal isn't to get all kids actually decoding words at 4 or 5--though some may be ready to do that--but rather to expose them to the basics. The kids think they're just having fun when they play word games with blocks, although their teachers know better.

At the Children's Village Child Care Center in Philadelphia, nearly 200 children, many from non-English-speaking homes, spend much of their day engaged in activities specifically designed to develop pre-reading skills. There are lots of alphabet puzzles and games, as well as reading and writing areas full of books, crayons, pencils and paper. The school's library includes bilingual Chinese-English children's books because many of the parents are Chinese immigrants. "We want to encourage parents to read to the children, no matter what the language," says director Mary Graham.

One morning last week, Miranda Tan, who just turned 5, worked with her teacher, Norma Bell, on her "phonics writing book." In it, she practices what is often called invented spelling--writing down words as they sound rather than as they are actually spelled. Early-reading proponents say it would be more accurate to describe this practice as "phonics writing," to get across the message that it's an exercise in phonemics (the way letters represent sounds) rather than true spelling. Miranda's book is titled "My Big Sister," and the first page offers a drawing of a girl with a blue face, pink hair and a brown dress. Underneath, written in shaky print, is "c e s my sistr kli." Bell reads it back to her and then writes, "This is my sister Kelly" underneath Miranda's sentence.

Early-literacy advocates say this kind of detailed instruction is especially important for the kids in the poorest neighborhoods who have the least exposure to books and sophisticated use of language. In one study, researchers found that children of poverty start school with a vocabulary of only about 10,000 words, compared with 40,000 for kids from middle-class homes. Bush has said that statistics like these prompted him to target poor kids, especially Head Start participants. As the governor and First Lady of Texas, Bush and his wife, Laura, were impressed by the success of the preliteracy curriculum at the Margaret Cone Head Start Center in Dallas. Until a few years ago, more than a quarter of the children coming into the program at the age of 4 scored in the bottom 1 percent of a national preschool test. Even more troubling, the same group had even lower scores after a year at the Cone Center, despite special funding from Texas Instruments that gave them access to high-quality health care, often cited as a factor in school success.

All that changed when the Cone Center adopted a curriculum developed at Southern Methodist University. Every child now wears a name tag, a visual and personal reminder of their link to the world of print around them. Teachers spend time with kids in small groups talking about word sounds and letter names. Children are encouraged to talk in sentences, use new words and stick to proper English. When the new curriculum was introduced, some Cone teachers were dubious. "I didn't think it would go over," says Vina Dawson, a Head Start teacher for more than 13 years. The emphasis on literacy was the exact opposite of all the child-development training she has received. But, Dawson says, "the test scores prove it works." By the end of third grade, 55 percent of the children who attended both Cone and a local elementary with a strong literacy emphasis were reading at grade level, compared with 5 percent in the control group.

Results like that are dramatic, but early-reading advocates say that literacy training can work just as well on kids who aren't poor. Many researchers believe that significant numbers of middle-class children could avoid being labeled learning-disabled if they got early help with language and letters. Teachers are already being encouraged to seek consultations with speech therapists for kids who are slow to talk, since language problems can be a precursor to reading difficulties. Following the example of Texas, a number of states are also considering screening preschoolers and kindergartners for early signs of dyslexia so problems can be treated early. That could save districts money and give more resources to kids with severe learning problems that aren't so easily remedied.

The new literacy-rich curriculum could use projects to teach kids multiple skills. That's the central concept at the Early Childhood Education Center in Oglesby, Ill., two hours southwest of downtown Chicago. A typical project gives 3- to 5-year-olds the task of researching pizza. They begin by asking questions posted on the classroom walls. What is the crust made of? What is the shovel for putting the pizza in the oven? Are there other ways to get pizza besides from a pizza place? They get answers by visiting local pizza parlors and making and decorating their own pies. In the process, they measure ingredients, chart their progress and write about their experiences. "We aren't 'teaching reading'," says Sallee Beneke, the director, "but we are teaching the precursors to reading by encouraging children to understand that things we draw and write about can be useful for communication."

The fight over what's best for the pizza makers and the finger painters won't be resolved quickly. But some major change seems inevitable. Even Bos is always looking for creative ways to use language. One morning last week she played the autoharp in the indoor play area as youngsters hopped around and made up their own lyrics. Then she read them a book one mother had brought in, "Piggie Pie," with no clear ending. Bos encouraged the kids to pick their own conclusion. Would the witch eat the wolf for lunch or just make him a burger? As usual, there were no easy answers.