Tricia A. Zucker, Ph.D., is Co-Director of the Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and an author of Scholastic PreK On My Way™. In this post, she explores the urgent need to invest in early learners’ language and literacy skills, which is a foundational entry point for building reading comprehension.
For the first time in decades, our nation’s “report card”—the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP)—showed a significant decline in reading for Grade 4 students. The 2019 NAEP scores should serve as a wake-up call that we must make dramatic shifts in our early language and reading instruction to prevent further declines in the ability to understand complex texts (Carr, 2021).
The NAEP is a well-constructed measure that requires students to consider cause/effect relationships, evaluate characters and opinions, and use multipart reasoning. These most recent NAEP data show a decline for almost all levels of student ability, not just the lowest performers. Also notable is that the 2019 report card shows that struggling readers come from many backgrounds—the lowest performing students are Hispanic (36%), White (33%), and Black (24%), and 69% of these lower performers are economically disadvantaged. This is everyone’s problem—today’s struggling readers come from a variety of backgrounds. Unfortunately, it’s likely that these struggling readers have experienced further COVID-related learning loss. Students enrolled in remote learning in the 2020–21 school year appear to have lost more ground in reading skills than students enrolled in face-to-face learning (Carr, 2021). Thus, it is an urgent time for districts and schools to ask questions about what they can do to address declines in language and reading skills of U.S. students.
As educators prepare to address COVID-related learning loss over the next several school years, it is an urgent time to invest in early learners’ language and literacy skills. As early as pre-kindergarten (PreK) children are able to use oral language to build foundational skills necessary for later reading comprehension. Research is clear that we can prevent most reading problems with evidence-based and early instruction that builds our youngest students’ language comprehension skills alongside foundational decoding and literacy skills (Foorman et al., 2009). For many students, PreK is the initial entry point for systematically developing the language skills necessary for later reading comprehension. This includes learning sophisticated academic vocabulary and responding to questions about texts that require reasoning or evaluation. These verbal skills lay the foundation for later use of these same cognitive processes to successfully read and comprehend textbooks and to read proficiently on state reading measures or the NAEP.
Some educators ask, can young children really learn these types of academic language? Yes, they can, according to rigorous studies we conducted in Texas. The first study was English instruction with a group of young students who were mostly English learners (ELs, 63% of the 555 students; Zucker et al., 2019) and received 26 weeks of instruction using a shared reading program called Developing Talkers. The second study used an 11-week Spanish version of the program, called Hablemos Juntos, with a group of all Spanish-dominant bilingual learners with weak home language skills on a screening measure (Zucker et al., 2021). Students who participated in these shared reading programs were taught academic vocabulary and asked inferential comprehension questions about books their classroom teachers read aloud. Findings showed that students who experienced this approach learned significantly more sophisticated words compared to students who did not; effects were medium to large in size. Broader research repeatedly demonstrates that elementary students can learn words they are directly taught (Foorman et al. 2016), but this study shows young PreK and kindergarten students, including ELs, can learn academic level words.
Developing academic language in the earliest grades aligns with modern learning guidelines that view rigorous classroom discourse as foundational to college and career readiness. Many schools need supplemental language curricula to target these types of rigorous language skills. For example, core curricula for preschoolers vary in the extent to which they directly teach academic vocabulary words and elicit challenging levels of classroom discourse. Our team developed the Developing Talkers and Hablemos Juntos curriculum supplements to teach sophisticated vocabulary with visual aids, small-group extension activities, and supports for ELs such as cognate instruction. These supplements also provide a heuristic for teachers to responsively scaffold language for all learners and to successfully discuss sophisticated topics such as emotions, cognition, judgments, causal explanations, or predictive inferences. While Developing Talkers and Hablemos Juntos are no longer being produced, this research-tested instructional model is now built into Scholastic’s PreK On My Way curriculum in English and Spanish. Teachers can also work to layer these practices into their existing curricula.
As we recover from the COVID crisis and address troubling reading achievement trends that were beginning even pre-pandemic, it is more important now than ever to invest in early prevention efforts. The PreK period is the ideal time to begin this type of rigorous language development to ensure students will have ample language knowledge to answer the types of questions they will encounter in the grade 4 NAEP. These early language skills give children a strong start on their journeys as lifelong, avid readers.
Carr, P. “Plenary: What NCES’s Large-Scale Assessment Data Reveal About Widening Achievement Gaps in Reading.” Institute of Education Sciences and Council of Great City Schools Reading Summit, June 2021.
Foorman, B., N. Beyler, K. Borradaile, M. Coyne, C. A. Denton, A. Dimino, J. Furgeson, L. Hayes, J. Henke, L. Justice, B. Keating, W. Lewis, S. Sattar, A. Streke, R. Wagner, and S. Wissel. Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education (2016).
National Center for Education Statistics. “NAEP Reading Assessment.” Retrieved 2021. https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/
Zucker, T. A., M. S. Carlo, S. H. Landry, S. S. Masood-Saleem, J. M. Williams, and V. Bhavsar. “Iterative design and pilot testing of the Developing Talkers tiered academic language curriculum for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.” Journal of Research on
Educational Effectiveness, 12(2), 274-306 (2019).
Zucker, T. A., M. S. Carlo, J. J. Montroy, and S. H. Landry. “Pilot test of the Hablemos Juntos Tier 2 academic language curriculum for Spanish-speaking preschoolers.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 55, 179-192 (2021).