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Brendan M. Lynch
KU News Service
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Project training preschool teachers to boost kids' literacy expands to more classrooms

Wed, 01/31/2018


LAWRENCE —  In classrooms around the Kansas City metropolitan area, literacy coaches are teaming up with more teachers in preschool settings to increase and improve children’s engagement with evidence-based literacy activities and foster growth in pre-literacy skills.

After four years as a pilot program, the Literacy 3D program of the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project at the University of Kansas Life Span Institute will expand from 19, adding 50 more classrooms by fall 2018, supported by a recent $3.3 million award from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences.

Preliminary findings have shown that as teachers increase their use of Literacy 3D instructional strategies, children increase literacy engagement, their early literacy skills and expressive language.

“A lot of the research about preschool early literacy instruction indicate that teachers have more potential for engaging children in literacy activities than they actually realize,” said Charles Greenwood, director of Literacy 3D, who also serves as a senior scientist in the Institute for Life Span Studies and the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project at KU. “We fill that gap by providing supports to the teacher for engaging in interactive activities around literacy with their children.”

Greenwood said the Literacy 3D program reflects a movement in early-childhood-education programs toward “intentional instruction.”

“This is planned instruction around literacy curricula that is teacher-directed,” he said. “In the past, much of preschool instruction has been child-initiated, allowing the child to lead in activities, an operating procedure for years and years. But the research community has learned a lot recently about what early literacy skills should be taught in preschool. So, we focus on spoken vocabulary, knowledge of letter sounds and names — when children learn to rhyme they’re learning how sounds work —  and print knowledge, or knowing how to use a book, turning to the front, turning pages, and reading from left to right on the printed page, learning punctuation. Our field has learned that children are prepared to learn to read in kindergarten if they have learned these early skills.”

Literacy 3D coaches chiefly work with teachers in schools serving low-income communities, who serve more children likely to be at high risk when they come into preschool, and where educators and parents often face a lack of resources to foster literacy skills in children between the ages of 3 and 6. 

“Many programs we work with meet the U.S. Education Department’s Title I classification — a simple way of saying they serve enough low-income children in the school to qualify for funds to meet additional educational needs, including the free and reduced lunch program,” said Alana Schnitz, assistant research professor at the Life Span Institute, who leads coaching and intervention for Literacy 3D. “These children are typically behind in preschool and for many reasons haven’t had sufficient early experiences with literacy. Maybe the child’s family speaks a language other than English or does not speak or read to them often and has few books or other supplies. The teacher’s challenge is how to catch these kids up in their literacy experiences. Because we know some children from low-income backgrounds who are behind, stay that way all through their schooling and have a high risk of dropping out later on, Literacy 3D makes a difference. What’s unique about Literacy 3D is we’re really starting early to address this problem in preschool.”

Under the program, Literacy 3D coaches capture information about the initial amount of time teachers spend in class focused on literacy building activities as well as children’s literacy engagement rates.

“Data from around the area reports that during 40 percent of children’s time in the classroom they were unengaged,” Schnitz said. “The teacher might have been teaching, but kids weren’t engaging with it. The goal of Literacy 3D is to increase the amount of time teachers focus on literacy and provide children more opportunities to respond to increase their engagement in activities.”

The KU researchers said Literacy 3D activities include games focused on manipulating letters and numbers or using flash cards previously shown to work. Coaches will offer teachers ideas and tips to support kids’ literacy development by increasing storytelling, circle time and large group undertakings based on literacy, as well as tips for managing challenging behavior.

These Literacy 3D activities don’t replace a preschool teacher’s adopted curriculum; rather, they are designed to fit the already existing daily schedule — such as when students are transitioning from one activity to another — and creating opportunities to keep kids engaged while learning literacy skills.

“One of the things research at Juniper Gardens over 50 years has focused on is the engagement behavior construct as a target for intervention — in this case its attentional participation and actively doing things,” Greenwood said.

Under the Literacy 3D program, coaches — including KU graduate students — will periodically visit classrooms to monitor progress through screening of child literacy levels and measure growth. Researchers will use tools like Get Ready to Read, the Preschool Early Literacy Indicator, the Test of Preschool Early Literacy and the IDEA Language Proficiency Test, which gives information about a child’s proficiency in learning literacy and oral language.

“Along with the teachers, we’re going to teach students their letters and names and sounds, and their numbers,” said Greenwood. “They’ll be able to rhyme, separate words by syllables, and read letters and words during the preschool year — that’s intentional teaching.”

The researchers will publish the results of the work in academic journals, presenting their findings along the way at scholarly meetings, and postings on their developing website.  

Schools and teachers interested in participating in Literacy 3D beginning in fall 2018 or two years later in 2020 should email greenwood@ku.edu or call Alana Schnitz at 913-321-3143.

Photo: Literacy 3D's Judith Carta reads with preschool students in Kansas City area. Credit: University of Kansas



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