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Here's a short slideshow about helping children get ready for school. To view, click the PLAY button on the left (arrow pointing right).

Ready For School

Studies demonstrate that the greatest factors predicting a child’s success in school are early literacy skills – a “readiness to read.” These need to be nurtured in a child’s early years, before they enter preschool or Kindergarten, so that children begin formal education as developmentally ready as possible and with fundamental skills that provide a foundation for reading, writing, and all other academic subject areas.

Children do not enter Kindergarten as “blank-slates.” Developmental periods before children start formal schooling are key windows – yet these years of a child’s life are viewed as distinctly separate from the school experience. In fact, they largely determine education outcomes. A child’s development from birth to 4 years of age represents a tremendous opportunity to help prepare them to succeed in school.

A meaningful dialog about school reform must look at the larger socioeconomic issues that negatively impact a family’s ability to raise children in an enriched environment that prepares them for academic achievement. This is especially true in urban communities where the functions of macro economics and government policies have created high concentrations of unemployment, poverty, and little hope for residents to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Saying that urban schools can resolve structural problems and issues that have little to do with education is not a rational approach. Meaningful change demands recognizing that not all parents, for various reasons, are in a position to provide enriched early childhood experiences.

The early years are critical, from 0 to 4, this is when a child’s brain is developing. An environment that stimulates a child’s development prepares them to learn. Disadvantaged socio economic status, poverty, and stresses that adversely impact families can undermine enrichment experiences that nurture a child’s ability to learn. Young children that grow up in urban areas with high concentrations of poverty start school at significant disadvantages and more likely to have problems learning to read throughout their K-12 experiences.

When children start school, differences between students’ language skills and early literacy development are striking. Students that are behind in terms of their “readiness to read” are at significant disadvantage and are unlikely to catch up. Schools generally let students develop reading skills at their own rate. Special attention and interventions are not provided until students have failed to acquire reading skills.

By this time, gaps between poor and proficient readers are large and often cannot be overcome for the remainder of disadvantaged students’ K-12 schooling. The current system allows students to “fail” before recognizing basic problems – by that time, it is really too late.

These burdens fall most heavily on students in high-poverty schools. Indicators of socio-economic status are consistently found to predict academic outcomes. Clearly, poverty undermines schools. Children from high-poverty communities are less likely to meet literacy and academic standards. As students fall behind in reading, they also have less access to academic curriculum than their peers.

Crisis in Wisconsin's Schools

The current situation in Wisconsin’s schools, as it relates to urban areas and non-majority students, is unacceptable and unsustainable. Wisconsin has the largest “achievement gap” between majority students and non-majority students in the country. This is despite the fact that Wisconsin consistently ranks at the top in SAT/ACT scores and has for many years.

While disparities in education outcomes exist across America, they are extreme in Wisconsin and its only “major league” city, Milwaukee. Disparities, however, can also be found in other Wisconsin communities including Madison, Beloit, Racine, Kenosha, and La Crosse, to mention a few.

Not surprisingly, Milwaukee’s inner city faces some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation. Even more distressing, over the past 6 years, macro economic trends in Milwaukee have been deteriorating.. Only Detroit has a higher unemployment rate. The prospects for closing Wisconsin’s academic achievement gaps do not appear encouraging. A recent study finds that the standards Wisconsin uses to access proficiency in reading and math are among the lowest in the nation.

Low expectations, highly concentrated poverty and unemployment, and deteriorating macro economic trends are a recipe for disaster. Across America, 1 out of every 6 children lives in poverty, by far the highest rate of any the world’s wealthy nations. In Milwaukee, 2 out of 5 children live in poverty – this is the 7th highest concentration of poor families in America’s urban centers.

The essential skills that the 21st Century demands require preparing students with adequate academic, critical thinking, and information & technology literacy skills. Public schools are failing to adequately serve some of America’s youth, especially those in urban communities with high concentrations of poverty.

The current “choice” model is not working either. The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank that has advocated for school choice for almost twenty years and is funded by conservative Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, has just released a study announcing that “choice” school are not increasing academic achievement.

School Reform: Can They Work?

So what do we do next? Changes in schools are difficult to achieve. Different stakeholders have different perspectives, objectives, and ideas on what needs to be done and how it should be accomplished. There is no general consensus on how to improve schools. Like many issues, reasonable people can disagree.

While systems like public schools change slowly, the need to help children receive quality educations is great NOW. Parents of young children and young couples that will raise families cannot wait for rational, effective, long-term solutions. Many believe (and can document) that the factors that create dysfunctional schools are largely outside of what schools can influence.

If high concentrations of poverty, multi-generational poverty, and other structural barriers negatively impact the abilities of families to raise children, then K-12 public school systems are not likely to be successful increasing academic achievement across diverse populations in the immediate future. Focusing on schools misplaces efforts and resources if the real problem is a lack of investment and opportunity in urban communities.

Misdirecting attention from root causes of problems in urban schools ensures that underlying issues will not be addressed. Treating larger socio-economic problems as “school problems” sets schools up to fail, undermining public education.

Historically, America’s public schools have never fully served diverse students with diverse needs. Some question if that is what mandatory education and public schools were established to do.

Even if schools today strive to serve diverse learners, have the interests that may have created and manipulated education for their own political and economic purposes been thoroughly “wrung out” of public school systems?

School Accountability and Standardized Assessments

While today’s “accountability movement,” is, in theory, designed to help students; it actually holds young children responsible for “achievement” and does hold powerful economic interests, politicians, and government policies responsible for the socio-economic and macro economic conditions that undermine the ability of families to more-fully prepare children for academic success. A real “accountability movement” would acknowledge factors that impact child development and strive to help all families support children with early learning at home, before children start school.

Assessment, both formative and summative, are important parts of effective instruction – the way standardized achievement tests are used today put pressures on schools to register short-term gains at the expense of more beneficial longer-term skill development. The scores on tests that are currently used to assess student learning can be increased by merely practicing those tests.

Practicing test formats, which many believe amounts to teaching to the test, does not give students meaningful skills. Real academic achievement demands adequate literacy and critical thinking skills. Whatever potential “accountability” and its accompanying assessments may have to increase school performance, that potential is undermined if test prep, “drill-and-practice” usurps teaching or interventions that build fundamental skills like early literacy and reading.

Given what is known about the importance of early literacy, reading development, and academic outcomes, why aren’t students’ early literacy skills assessed before children fall behind their peers in reading and academic achievement? Why are assessments given after some children have fallen behind in early literacy development the driving force in “accountability?”

Current practices fail to acknowledge that if assessment is a key part of “accountability”, then assessing early literacy skills that can be demonstrated to predict academic success should be the start of the entire process. If the goal of “accountability” and assessment is to help students, then there is a need to quantify early literacy skills in preschool and early elementary school. These are nurtured from birth when language and communication skills begin to develop.

Helping Children Get Ready for the Schools We Have

The most important thing we can currently do to increase academic performance is to support children and families so that students enter school ready to learn and “ready to read”. Affluent communities know that their children have a “head-start” and advantage when they are enrolled in quality preschool programs.

These communities are also in a better position to provide enrichment experiences before children start preschool. When children live in poverty, they are less likely to attend quality preschool programs. Only 47% attending any program at all compared with 59% of children being raised above the poverty line. In this nation, the burden of poverty falls most heavily on African Americans and Hispanics.

Studies show that the single greatest factor predicting a child’s success in school (K-12) is entering the system “ready-to-read.” A child’s experiences beginning at birth affect a child’s success or failure once they start their formal education. Research demonstrates that experiences, early learning, and physical development before the age of 3 is just as important as experiences, early learning, and physical development between the ages of 3 and 5.

Exposing children to books at an early age, reading to them, and a “print rich” environment helps children get ready to read and ready for school (Nieto, 1999, p. 7). Children that enter school behind their peers in reading readiness are unlikely to catch up, are at-risk for reading failure, are more likely to drop out of school and encounter any number of problems as they struggle to find a productive place in society.

At the heart of “school readiness” are early literacy skills which can be defined as: “what children know about reading and writing before they can actually read or write” (ALA, n/d). The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) of the National Institutes of Health have researched the developmental needs of children and identified 6 skills that correlate to a child’s success learning to read and has identified these skills as correlated to a child’s success in schools (K-12).

These skills are:

bulletPrint Motivation. Being excited about and interested in books.
bulletPhonological Awareness. Playing with the sounds in words.
bulletNarrative Skills. Telling stories and describing things.
bulletEnriched Vocabulary. Knowing the specific names of things.
bulletPrint Awareness. Noticing print everywhere, knowing how to handle a book, and following words on a page.
bulletLetter Knowledge. Knowing the difference between how letters look, their names, and their sounds.

It is not rational to wait for a “quick fix” for dysfunctional urban schools – the issues are complex, inter-related, and may lie totally outside of a school district’s control. While we work towards creating schools that more fully educate diverse learners with diverse needs.

We must promote early literacy skills, share strategies for families and childcare providers to nurture these skills, integrate early literacy into family life, build elements of social change, and use these organizations and resources to share the importance of early literacy development and education while forming information networks and media outlets to give a voice to those that are underserved by the mainstream media.

Helping children build early literacy skills prepares them to get the most out of the schools they attend. It is fun and creates bonds within families, caregivers, and communities – it gets those close to children more involved in their education. The resulting collaboration between diverse communities and stakeholders sharing early literacy can create a dialog, social capita, and emergent leadership needed for meaningful school reform.

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