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Q&A: What California's Transitional K Needs to Succeed

I recently checked in with Gabrielle Miller, California resident and executive director of Raising A Reader, to get her take on California's transitional kindergarten initiative and what supports it will need to succeed. Raising A Reader is a national nonprofit that helps foster children's literacy among families in need by providing high-quality children's books and support for parents to read to their children at home. Here's an edited version of our email Q&A.

Q. What's most encouraging to you about transitional kindergarten?

A. The fact that the legislation received bipartisan support—virtually unheard of in California—means there is widespread understanding of and support for the developmental differences among children. That support is an important resource schools need.

Q. How can California leverage other resources to ensure all children are ready for kindergarten?

A. There is a tremendous variance in the level of resources available in different districts. Libraries can play a critical role in ensuring transitional kindergartens have access to print-rich environments. We also know children need print-rich environments at home, and nonprofit literacy programs can help. Raising A Reader brings more than 100 high-quality children's books into each participating child's home over a 15-20 week cycle.

Skilled staff and evidence-based instructional practices are essential. Schools know that, and work hard every day to provide those supports. What is not always easy for schools is meaningful parent involvement. Schools want to involve parents, but it is often hard to move from intent to practice. Raising A Reader has spent 10 years developing local structures through which parents can be meaningfully involved. When they are, children's performance significantly improves.

Q. What do parents need to know to make sure their children are ready for kindergarten, whether they attend transitional kindergarten or not?

A. Children's ability to achieve is not limited by indicators like IQ or family income. Brains change and develop. It's all about habits and effort. When children and families develop the habits needed to achieve in school, children remain excited about the challenge of learning, and they achieve. Parents can read to their children, communicate with their teachers, set routines at home and teach their children the importance of learning by learning something new themselves (knitting, gardening ... whatever). Volunteering and attending meetings are important, but there is much more parents can do.

Q. Could you comment on helping dual-language preschoolers prepare for kindergarten?

A. The research clearly supports Raising A Reader's practice of encouraging book sharing in whatever language the family feels most comfortable. We offer bilingual books in a variety of different languages. Researchers Marian, Faroqui-Shah, Kaushanskaya, Blumenfeld & Shing (2009) summarize these key clinical findings:

1. Bilingual children develop an earlier understanding of taxonomic relationships than their monolingual peers (e.g., car and bus are vehicles).
2. Linguistic input co-activates both languages in bilinguals, partially overlapping linguistic structures in the other language are also activated.
3. Bilingual chidren have been found to exhibit superior performance in divergent thinking, figure-ground discrimination and other related meta-cognitive skills
4. Bilateral processing of language (and other nonverbal tasks) is most likely to occur in early children who are bilingual.

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