At four years old, children are natural conversationalists. They are well-equipped to engage in conversations that prime them for the language and reading skills they will need in later grades. “Children who enter first grade with limited verbal ability tend to fall farther behind in reading skills as they move through school,” says EDC’s Nancy Clark-Chiarelli. “Poor children are particularly at risk.”
Clark-Chiarelli leads the Literacy Environment Enrichment Project (LEEP) in West Virginia that helps preschool teachers improve how they promote language and literacy in early childhood classrooms. Since the professional development program launched in 2005, EDC has trained close to 100 preschool teachers and assistant teachers in curriculum development and instructional techniques designed to support children’s language, vocabulary, reading, and writing development.
According to Clark-Chiarelli, the LEEP’s approach to instruction emphasizes direct experiences with conceptually challenging concepts and content coupled with strategies that help children make meaning of their experiences. For example, before a trip to the apple orchard, children and their teacher may read a book about how apples grow and after the trip, engage in a charting of the different sizes, colors, and tastes of apples.
“The teachers have been amazed at what they can bring to their classrooms and what their students are capable of talking about and learning,” she says. “The program has been a self-esteem builder for many teachers, and we’re seeing significant gains in the children.”
Bridging the achievement gap
According to the 2007 West Virginia Kids Count Data Book, West Virginia ranks 44th among the 50 states for at-risk indicators (such low birth weight and low income level) that affect children’s living conditions and learning outcomes.
To improve the lives of all children, especially those at risk, West Virginia instituted a universal pre-K system, so that any parent who wants to send their four year old to one year of preschool can do so. The state is in the process of creating more preschool classrooms, and LEEP has been working in partnership with the state to offer content-rich professional development to support teachers working with the West Virginia’s youngest students.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, the project is a two-year, college credit-bearing course for preschool teachers. EDC delivers LEEP instruction face-to-face in West Virginia State University classrooms. The course includes:
- One year of curriculum-development training that helps teachers integrate literacy and language learning into preschool activities, such as reading and writing, dramatic play, art activities, and conversation during meal times.
- A second year of teacher mentoring (many mentors are retired teachers recruited for the project), classroom observation and videotaping, and self analysis and evaluation.
“It’s an intensive program, and for some of the preschool teachers, it was their first college course ever,” Clark-Chiarelli says. “It’s gratifying to see their dedication to the program and how the practices have taken hold in their classrooms.”
LEEP also trains teachers in ways to engage children in meaningful conversations that help them use the power of words to interpret the world around them and improve their language skills. Clark-Chiarelli uses the word bridge as an example of how preschool teachers can help four year olds learn the power of a single word.
“You can show a four year old a picture of a bridge,” she explains. “They understand it is something that goes over water that cars drive over. But the concept of a ‘bridge’ is something deeper. If you ask them, ‘Can a person be a bridge?’ They might say no, because a person isn’t made of concrete and steel. But a person can be a bridge. There’s an opportunity to teach them about using the deeper meaning of a word in context by intentionally exposing them to new words presented in multiple ways and woven into conversation.”
Vocabulary for the future
LEEP is now entering its fourth and final year, where the second group of teachers is beginning the mentoring phase. Supporting teachers in expanding children’s vocabulary will continue to be an EDC priority and a challenge.
“Our research has shown impact on literacy skills such as alphabet recognition, print knowledge, name writing, and phonological awareness,” Clark-Chiarelli says. “The good news is we’re potentially affecting children’s readiness for kindergarten. But like other researchers, we’re still wrestling with how to show impact on the more conceptual areas of children’s language and literacy development, such as vocabulary. We still have more work to do.”
The success of EDC’s preschool teacher training work has led to a new companion project called Expanded LEEP in West Virginia. Directed by EDC’s Ingrid Chalufour, the project extends through 2012 and is funded by the West Virginia Department of Education.
Originally published on April 17, 2009