Small Change In Reading To Preschoolers Can Help Disadvantaged Kids Catch Up

May 29, 2012
Originally published on May 29, 2012 8:45 pm

On a recent Monday morning in Washington, D.C., a group of 3-year-old preschoolers bumbled their way into a circle, more or less, on the rug of their classroom. It was time to read.

The children sat cross-legged as their teacher, Mary-Lynn Goldstein, held high a book, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. There was a short conversation about pigeons, then, for reasons that weren't entirely clear, cows; and then Goldstein began to read. She read as most teachers read, occasionally stopping to ask a question, point out a picture or make a comment about the story.

In other words, it was a familiar scene — a scene that, on that very day, likely took place in every preschool classroom in the country. Preschool teachers do this, and have been doing it for decades.

"The thought was you read to children — that will make a big difference in how well they read later on when they're in school," says Anita McGinty, an education researcher who works at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. "That's still probably the biggest message out there: Read to young children."

But about 15 years ago, says McGinty, researchers like her started to look more closely at reading, trying to unpack exactly which behaviors helped children learn to read. In the process, she says, they discovered something surprising about the simple act of sitting down and reading a story through with a child. "It mattered a lot less than we thought it did," she says.

It's not that reading didn't help a child to learn. It helped to build a child's vocabulary, for example. But it didn't necessarily improve a child's ability to read, per se.

To figure out why, researchers embarked on a new round of studies — specifically, eye-tracking studies.

"What they would do is that they would put a child on their parent's lap, and then they would use some special equipment that allows them to pinpoint exactly where the children are looking at any given moment in time," says Shayne Piasta, a professor at Ohio State University.

They found that when you simply read a book to kids, they tend to ignore the print on the page. More than 90 percent of the time the children are focusing on the pictures, or they are looking up at the parent, she says.

Here, went the theory, was the answer: Learning to read is an incremental process; you become familiar with letters, then words; the practice of reading from left to right; and eventually you put all that together and begin to read. But if a child's attention isn't drawn to the printed word, then reading to a child won't necessarily make them more familiar with what it means to read.

And so new questions emerged. How could teachers change what children saw and thought about when a book was being read? And how much difference would that make? If disadvantaged children who often have reading troubles were made to think more about print at a very young age, would they become better readers later on?

Reading Changes Made A Difference To Children

To answer these questions, McGinty, along with Piasta and a researcher named Laura Justice, designed a research study to look at the effects of modest changes in the way preschool teachers read to children. McGinty and her colleagues decided to target disadvantaged preschoolers because they frequently end up with reading issues.

For the study, they gave two groups of preschool teachers books for an entire school year — 30 weeks' worth of books. One group was told to read the books normally; the other was given weekly cards with specific questions the teacher could ask — really just small phrases — that might momentarily draw a child's attention to the print on the page.

The teachers were told to read their books four times a week, and to point out the print in this way between four and eight times, so that together the small phrases hardly added extra time to their reading sessions — maybe 90 seconds per book.

It is hard to imagine that such a small adjustment would make any difference. It was a series of moments, questions and gestures. How much could that do?

So far, the kids have been followed for two years. They are now in first grade, and according to the most recent findings, which were published in the journal Child Development, even these small changes make a measurable difference.

"Children who focused their attention on print ... had better literacy outcomes than those who did not," says Piasta. "It was very clear."

Understanding The Details Of Learning

But how much should we trust this? Positive results from interventions like this frequently are lost over time, overwhelmed by the reality of bad schools and poor support at home. This was, after all, such a modest adjustment.

The question is almost a philosophical one: How big a difference can small changes make?

The fact is, this study is part of a broader effort that's been going on in education research for the past 20 or so years. Education researchers are attempting to break down in minute ways how teachers (and parents) should interact on a moment-to-moment basis with children in order to promote their learning.

It's one focus of the field right now, and there have been some encouraging findings. But it's still not clear whether interventions like this have real staying power.

"Findings like this are at a very high risk of fading out," says Scott McConnell, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota. "But let's talk about why they might fade out. There's no reason to believe that an intervention like this, provided to 4-year-olds, is all these kids will ever need. They are going to need sustained intervention that takes advantage of the growth that they've achieved here."

Without other programs, gains are easy to lose, he says. He also points out that it's hard to implement preschool programs like this broadly, because at the preschool level there's wide variety in teachers' skills.

But he still believes programs like this are important. It's simple, he says: "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Reading to preschool kids is important. No surprise there. But a study in the Journal of Child Development found that how we read is important, too, and the teachers who make a small change in the way they read to their preschoolers could have big consequences down the road.

NPR's Alix Spiegel reports.

MARY-LYNN GOLDSTEIN: It's time to get your circle for rug time. It's time to get your circle for rug time.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: It's Monday morning. It's 9:00 and, in certain parts of the world - parts of the world inhabited primarily by three-year-old preschoolers - that means just one thing.

GOLDSTEIN: It's time to get your circle for rug time.

SPIEGEL: So the three-year-olds in this Washington, D.C. preschool gather into a circle. By 9:10, all legs are crisscross applesauce, all hands officially to themselves and it is time to read. The teacher in the class, Mary-Lynn Goldstein, holds up a book and announces the title.

GOLDSTEIN: "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the"...

CHILDREN: Bus.

SPIEGEL: Then Mary-Lynn splays the pages and begins to read.

GOLDSTEIN: There's the bus driver and what does pigeon say? I thought he'd never leave.

SPIEGEL: All across the country, there are preschool teachers doing this exact same thing in almost the exact same way. They hold up a book in front of a group of preschool kids who cannot read themselves and they read the story through. Now, preschool teachers do this and they have been doing it for decades, at least in part because of a belief that this simple act of reading to children will ultimately help the children to become good readers themselves.

ANITA MCGINTY: The thought was, you read to children, that will make a big difference in how well they read later on when they're in school. That's still probably the biggest message out there - read to young children.

SPIEGEL: This is Anita McGinty, an education researcher at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. And she says that about 15 years ago, researchers like her started to look more closely at reading. They wanted to understand which behaviors exactly helped a child to learn and, in the process, they discovered something really surprising about the simple act of sitting down and reading through a story with a child.

MCGINTY: It mattered a lot less than we maybe thought it did.

SPIEGEL: It's not that reading wasn't helpful. It helped build vocabulary, for example, but it didn't necessarily improve a child's ability to read, per se. The question was why. So, researchers did more studies, specifically eye tracking studies.

Here's Shayne Piasta, a researcher from Ohio State University.

SHAYNE PIASTA: What they would do is they'd put a child on their parent's lap and then they would use some special equipment that allows them to pinpoint exactly where the children are looking at any given moment in time.

SPIEGEL: Turned out, when you simply read a book to kids, they tend to ignore the print on the page.

PIASTA: Over 90 percent of the time, the children are focusing on the pictures on the page or they're looking up at their parent or things of that nature.

SPIEGEL: So, here, went the theory, was the answer. Reading is an incremental process. First, you become familiar with letters, then with words, with the process of reading from left to right. And then, eventually, you learn to read. But if a child's attention isn't drawn to the printed word, then reading to a child won't necessarily make them more familiar with what it means to read, which raises this question. Anita McGinty.

MCGINTY: Can you change what they're looking at or thinking about during book reading?

SPIEGEL: And so, McGinty, along with Piasta and a researcher named Laura Justice designed a study, a study that made a very modest change in the way that teachers read to preschool kids, specifically very disadvantaged preschool kids who can end up having reading issues.

Essentially, they gave two groups of preschool teachers books for an entire year. They told one group to just read as they normally did and the other...

MCGINTY: We would give weekly cards that said, when you read the book we gave you, use this card.

SPIEGEL: On the card were instructions with questions that the teacher could ask. Really, just small phrases that might momentarily draw a child's attention to the print on the page. For example...

MCGINTY: Who can find the first word on this page?

GOLDSTEIN: Do you see these words?

MCGINTY: Who can find the last word on this page?

GOLDSTEIN: Who can find another letter B?

MCGINTY: Who can find the word, giraffe? The word, bus? The word, snake, pigeon, lion, bat, hippopotamus.

SPIEGEL: Now, altogether, these small phrases hardly added any extra time, maybe like 90 seconds a book. The teachers were asked to read the books four times a week and point at the print just a handful of times.

MCGINTY: Somewhere between four to eight times.

SPIEGEL: It is hard to imagine that such a small adjustment would make any difference. It was a series of moments, questions, gestures. How much could that do? Well, so far, these kids have been followed for two years. They are now in first grade and two years later...

PIASTA: These children who focused their attention on print - they had better literacy outcomes than children who did not.

SPIEGEL: How much better? Well, one way to think about this is in terms of the achievement gap. There is an achievement gap in this country between rich kids and poor kids. Poor kids do worse. But, according to McGinty, if the poor kids in this study are able to maintain their gains 'til fourth grade - and that is a pretty big if - but if they can...

MCGINTY: If the effects last to fourth grade, it would be essentially taking the gap and narrowing it by a third.

SPIEGEL: So, according to McGinty, the gains are real and, if they can be maintained, potentially significant. But how much should you trust that? Positive results from interventions like this often fade out over time. They are overwhelmed by the reality of bad schools and poor support at home and this was, after all, such a modest adjustment.

So this kind of raises a philosophical question for me. How much do small things count in determining a life?

PIASTA: Right.

SPIEGEL: Can small things make big differences?

PIASTA: I mean, I think that's the big question that we don't have a hold on.

SPIEGEL: The truth is this study is part of a broader effort that's been developing over the last 15 to 20 years. Education researchers who are breaking down in these minute ways how teachers should interact on a moment-to-moment basis with children in order to promote their learning. It's one focus in the field right now and there have been some encouraging findings, but it's still not clear whether interventions like this have any real staying power.

Scott McConnell is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota who's been following this research.

SCOTT MCCONNELL: The answer is that findings like this are at very high risk for fading out, but let's talk about why they might fade out. There is no reason to believe that an intervention like this provided to four-year-olds is all these kids will ever need. They're going to need sustained intervention that takes advantage of the growth that they have achieved here.

SPIEGEL: Without other programs, gains are easy to lose. McConnell also says that it's hard to implement preschool programs like this broadly because, at the preschool level, there's a very wide variety in teachers' skills. Still, he thinks that programs like this are important. He says it's very simple.

MCCONNELL: As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

SPIEGEL: The earlier you start, the more impact you can potentially see.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm back. You didn't let the pigeon drive the bus, did you?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No.

GOLDSTEIN: Thanks a lot. Bye.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: That was a cute story.

SPIEGEL: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.