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Utah Finds Computer-Based Early-Learning Program Offers Literacy Boost

Utah preschoolers who participated in UPSTART, a state-funded home-education program created by the Waterford Institute, entered kindergarten with more literacy skills than nonparticipants, and those effects continued as the children moved through elementary school, according to a state study of the program. (UPSTART is short for Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow.)

The Utah Department of Education UPSTART evaluation, released April 14, showed that children who participated in the program scored significantly higher than control-group peers on two tests of early literacy. Researchers used the Brigance Inventory of Educational Development, which measures vocabulary and syntax, preliteracy discrimination, letter knowledge, and decoding, and the Bader Reading and Language Inventory, which measures phonological awareness. 

Through 4th grade, the state report also found that students in UPSTART continued to outperform their peers on Utah's standardized Student Assessment of Growth and Excellence, or SAGE.

"The UPSTART program shows continued success at helping preschool age children develop literacy skills and prepare for school," the study concluded. 

In addition to funding from the state, UPSTART was the recipient of an $11.5 million federal Investing in Innovation grant in 2013. The program consists of computer-based lessons, games, books, and activities that stress phonics, phonemic awareness, comprehension, and vocabulary and language concepts. UPSTART served 1,248 children in its first year, and in 2014-15, its sixth year, served 5,091 preschoolers. The program puts a priority on low-income families and families whose first language is not English; for the 2015-16 school year, the state allowed families who did not fall into those categories to participate for a fee of $725.

Utah does not have a state-funded traditional preschool program. In an interview with Education Week in 2015, J. Stuart Adams, a Republican state senator and an UPSTART supporter, said that the program was a good fit for state residents who want to keep their preschool children at home.  

"There's a group of very conservative individuals, and they're not really keen on pre-K because they feel like children should be at home with their families. The beauty of UPSTART in a rural or urban setting, is that it is parentally supervised," Adams said.

The program also offers an alternative for families in rural areas who would have a hard time getting to a central spot for a traditional preschool, said Utah educators. 

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