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Teaching the ABCs

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After six years the National Early Literacy Panel released its study of preschool literacy research. I wrote about the panel's preliminary report in 2003, so the final version has been a long time coming.

There's nothing too surprising here: The panel found that teaching the alphabet, the sounds of letters, and vocabulary, as well as developing oral language and print knowledge in small children are important foundations for learning to read later on.


But the report's strong focus on the effectiveness of code-related interventions, and weaker findings on the importance of vocabulary and background knowledge, have raised some concerns in the field that the report could have some unintended consequences when applied to policy. The panel, which was chaired by Tim Shanahan and included other prominent researchers like Susan Landry and Anne Cunningham, did not make recommendations, and it doesn't endorse running phonics drills with 3- and 4-year-olds. But it wouldn't be surprising if some people interpreted the findings that way.

It is more likely, however, that the NELP study will be one of many sources that inform early childhood policy at federal, state, and local levels. The National Institute for Early Education Research, for example, released its proposals for the Obama Administration (as requested by the transition team) this week as well. Other advocacy groups, like PreK Now, have been hard at work to get the issue high on the agenda.

Eduflack, who has made a career out of promoting the research-based reading agenda, says the NELP is no National Reading Panel, which he worked closely with to craft and disseminate the recommendations in its influential 2000 report. The NELP report, he says, will have a lesser impact by itself, and will be "one of many tools" for improving preschool literacy.

He has some recommendations for the stakeholders. First, he writes, they should come up with three top issues (although he doesn't say what they should be). He agrees with PreK Now about the need for an early childhood education czar (isn't that what they called Reid Lyon?). Then they must build a coalition to push the agenda and take some bold steps to move it forward.

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I'm more than happy to put forward the top three issues for the early childhood education committee, as I see them, but the answer is far more powerful coming from those in the trenches who have been dealing with PreK issues during the lean years, those who have benefited from the investment of Early Reading First and other issues, and those who have a strong analysis of the gaps, opportunities, and resources in the field. Libby Doggett should be answering that question well before little ole me, but if there is the gap, I'm always happy to fill.

First and foremost, PreK needs to tie its programs to academic curriculum. We need to truly build a P-20 education continuum with early childhood education providing the foundations for real learning in K and beyond. That starts with instructional building blocks in both literacy and math.

From there, we need stronger certifications for our PreK instructors, ensuring that they have the content, social, and pedagogical skills necessary to deliver those instructional building blocks.

Third, we need to move Head Start and all other preK programs and dollars under one singular office at ED, with everything held to the same standard and measured with the same yardstick.

But I'll yield the soapbox to those who know better. We should ask Steve Barnett to whittle down NIEER's most recent report into three core policy reccs. Ask PreK Now the three most important things to move their platform forward. And go from there.

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