August 17, 2011 — Children's learning is a complex process, so even when a new educational method is supported by empirical evidence of its effectiveness, it may not work the same way in all situations or with all children. This was the conclusion reached in a recent multi-faceted study on preschool children's learning conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Virginia's Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, or CASTL, and The Ohio State University.
The research focused on a foundational skill, "print knowledge," which preschoolers need for future literacy development, said Anita McGinty, a CASTL research scientist. A consensus exists across researchers, policymakers and educators, she said, that explicit instruction about the characteristics of books and printed text in the preschool years can increase children's achievement once they begin receiving formal reading instruction in kindergarten and first grade.
"It's one of the strongest predictors of kindergarten-level literacy skills," she said, with another key predictor of early reading being phonological awareness, or the ability to isolate and manipulate the sound parts of words and oral language. "It seems to be a gateway skill."
Children from low-income families disproportionately fail to achieve skilled, fluent reading and writing in the elementary grades, partly because they often enter kindergarten with inadequate print knowledge. For this reason, the Head Start program, which serves children from low-income families across the nation, includes print knowledge in its instructional standards.
McGinty is the lead author of two new research reports on this topic appearing in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly. The first report, "Does Intensity Matter? Preschoolers' Print Knowledge Development Within a Classroom-Based Intervention," appears in the current issue.
This research incorporated a teaching strategy called "explicit print referencing," which was developed and tested by Laura M. Justice while she was on the faculty of U.Va.'s Curry School of Education. Justice, now at Ohio State, led the team of researchers studying the effectiveness of the strategy and its optimum implementation, with funding from a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Education Sciences.
According to McGinty, print referencing takes place as a teacher reads a book to students during shared reading time. The teacher makes statements while discussing the content of the book with students, such as "Let's look at the words on the next page and see what happens next," "Let's begin reading right here, at the top of the page" or "This word 'caterpillar' is very long, but this word 'sun' is short."
"It can look very seamless once a teacher becomes practiced with this kind of conversation," McGinty said.
Preschool teachers can adapt the practice easily, and previous studies have shown significant increases in children's preparation for reading as a result.
McGinty extended this research by exploring how much repetition of this strategy is necessary to improve children's print knowledge. "We ask teachers to do a lot, but we don't often provide evidence-based guidelines on what is the minimal amount that will still get results," she said.
Two groups of teachers in the study attended professional development sessions about the print referencing strategy and then were assigned a set number of shared reading sessions in which they were to use the strategy. Twenty-four teachers offered the sessions two times as week and 31 teachers offered the sessions twice as often. The researchers also recorded how many times the teachers made individual statements about book and text characteristics within each session.
Teachers made explicit print referencing statements ranging from an average of 16 times per session to an average of 51 times per session. Children who heard fewer references per shared reading session scored better on end-of-year skills tests when they experienced the sessions four times a week versus two. However, for the children who heard a much higher quantity of print referencing statements per session, two sessions were nearly as effective as four.
"These findings provide an initial step toward the larger discussion about how much change needs to happen in a classroom to support children's change," McGinty said. "There can be surprises. The answer is not always as simple as more is better. This study shows us that, after a certain point, it can be less efficient to do more."
The report on another facet of her research, "Does Context Matter? Explicit Print Instruction During Reading Varies in Its Influence by Child and Classroom Factors," is currently in press at Early Childhood Research Quarterly, and an early version is available online.
"This research was about answering the question, 'When we have a practice that we show works for kids, such as print referencing, does it really work the same for all kids in all contexts?' " McGinty said. "The answer was no. What we found is this practice doesn't work the same for everyone. It differed in its influence based on the kind of classroom and based on the behavioral characteristics of kids."
One surprising finding was that the benefit of explicit print instruction to preschoolers' literacy development was not as strong for higher-quality classrooms. "An untested explanation is that those classrooms were doing many other things to help kids' literacy development," McGinty said, "even if those things looked different than the specific technique of explicit print instruction."
She also found that the benefit of explicit print instruction to the literacy development of preschoolers was stronger for children with weak attention skills. "Maybe the nature of the intervention helped kids stay oriented to the book and print because the technique involves a lot of question-asking and child participation," McGinty suggested. "This sort of explicit, orienting approach to print instruction may be really helpful to the print knowledge learning of children with weaker attention skills and may work differently or be less critical for kids who have better attention."
Previously published research on print referencing by the same team of researchers was recently selected for the 2010 Editor's Award for Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, a journal of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The article is titled "Print-Focused Read-Alouds in Preschool Classrooms: Intervention Effectiveness and Moderators of Child Outcomes." An article selected for an Editor's Award is the one that the editor and associate editor feel meets the highest quality standards in research design, presentation and impact for a given year. The award will be presented at the Nov. 18 Awards Ceremony at the 2011 ASHA Convention.