A new EDC study has found that training Head Start teachers to enhance literacy activities in their classrooms translates into measurable vocabulary gains for their students.
The study tested the effect of the Literacy Environment Enrichment Program (LEEP), an in-service college course for early childhood teachers developed by EDC researchers and practitioners in the Center for Children and Families. A research team directed by David Dickinson found that students in classrooms of Head Start teachers and supervisors who took LEEP experienced an increase of 3.28 points in their expected vocabulary gains as measured by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT). The PPVT is a national test of receptive, or spoken, vocabulary. Students in non-LEEP classes declined 1.58 points in the same test, whose average score is 100.
Prior research conducted by Dickinson and others has found that children’s vocabularies, as measured by the PPVT, play an important role in their later reading comprehension. In fact, Dickinson and his colleagues at Harvard University have found that children’s scores at the end of kindergarten are related to reading success as late as seventh grade. “The vocabulary increases we saw with children in the LEEP classrooms are both statistically and educationally significant,” he says. “We don’t yet know how much change is enough for preschool children, but we can see that training teachers in literacy enrichment has a great deal of promise.”
In addition to the PPVT test, the study also looked at the presence and use of books and writing materials in the classroom and the overall quality of classroom support for literacy. Measurements of the materials and activities related to literacy revealed increased uses of both books and writing materials in LEEP classrooms compared with other classrooms. The Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation, or ELLCO, developed by Dickinson and Smith, found literacy playing an increased role in the class goals and curricula of LEEP classrooms compared with other Head Start classrooms.
LEEP grew out of an earlier study, the Home School Study of Language and Literacy Development, a 12-year effort that traced the literacy development of a group of children ages 3 to 15. That study found a positive correlation between children’s early spoken language and later school performance-but it also exposed a widely missed opportunity for early language enrichment: only about 20% of the teacher talk they observed went beyond explicit instruction and matter-of-fact exchanges.
Early childhood classes, it was clear, had the potential to build stronger literacy skills among students. In 1995, Dickinson moved his research base to EDC and, with Miriam Smith, started to develop LEEP to incorporate the findings from the Home School Study of Language into the daily practice of early childhood teachers.
LEEP covers language and literacy development, emergent writing, book use, and curriculum development. Through readings, lectures, videotapes, and practical applications, such as recording and analyzing actual classroom conversations and having teachers draw maps of their classrooms, LEEP encourages teachers to analyze their own uses of language and literacy in the classroom. In particular, LEEP emphasizes the importance of content-based teaching and learning, even among young children.
A four-credit Academic Institute course conducted by EDC at six New England colleges and universities, LEEP is offered to teams of Head Start teachers and supervisors. The Institute consists of two on-site sessions separated by a six-month practicum in early childhood literacy.
Originally published on September 1, 2000