The foundations for language and literacy success are built in the early years. Trajectories for reading proficiency in third grade and beyond are set in birth to five early learning environments. Knowing this, preschool and early elementary educators work hard to provide literacy-rich environments and interactions, but the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into the plans of even the most veteran teachers. These disruptions have changed learning across the board, including in the critical area of early literacy.
For example, every year, nearly every K-3 student across Virginia is given the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS), giving educators and policymakers an annual snapshot of children’s incoming language and literacy skills. Results from fall 2020 show that kindergarten and first grade students were significantly more likely to be identified as high-risk for reading failure than in previous years. What’s more, this increase was largest for Black, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, and Dual-Language Learner (DLL) students, all of whom face compounded systematic disadvantages as they progress through elementary school.
This data for Virginia is echoed by teacher anecdotes from across the country. After a year of virtual, blended, and occasionally face-to-face instruction, it’s hard to know exactly how children’s language and literacy development has been affected or how lasting those effects may be. But the challenges posed to literacy learning by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the equity issues that have shown to be further exacerbated, make it even more important to pinpoint practices that best support student learning.
That’s why we are excited to share our newest research summary on the links between the Pre-K CLASS tool and children’s language and literacy outcomes. Pre-K CLASS measures adult-child interactions in three key domains. Emotional Support (ES) describes how teachers create warm, supportive environments for learning. Classroom Organization (CO) captures how teachers manage children’s behavior, time, and attention. And Instructional Support (IS) measures how teachers promote higher-order thinking skills and language.
All three Pre-K CLASS domains are related to children’s language and literacy outcomes. Studies found that emotionally supportive, well-organized classrooms were linked to stronger student performance on measures of phonological awareness, print awareness, letter-word recognition, alphabet knowledge, and more, particularly when scores on Emotional Support and Classroom Organization were in the high range of 6 or above. On the other hand, students in classrooms that lacked these supportive relationships (i.e., scored low in Emotional Support) tended to have lower receptive language skills.
Instructional Support just might be the most important lever. It makes logical sense for the Instructional Support domain, which explicitly measures Language Modeling, to be positively related to children’s language and literacy outcomes. However, the research shows that IS is particularly important for children from less privileged backgrounds. These kinds of intellectually stimulating interactions can serve as a buffer for children who come from families with lower income or levels of education.
Dual-language learners stand to benefit from CLASS-based interactions in multiple languages. Just like monolingual students, children who are DLLs showed growth in their English expressive and receptive language skills in classrooms with higher levels of Emotional Support and Instructional Support. In fact, DLL students who scored lowest on vocabulary assessments at the beginning of the year benefited the most from stronger Instructional Support.
Children continue to benefit from supportive Pre-K classrooms into elementary school, but more is better. Research shows that the language and literacy advantages from having a warm, organized, and appropriately challenging pre-K classroom can extend at least through the end of third grade. Several studies also showed that having multiple consecutive years of strong instruction compounded these effects. While it’s wonderful - and academically beneficial - to have a great preschool teacher, supportive interactions in kindergarten and beyond continue to build children’s strengths and avoid the potential for these gains to fade out.
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When I was a teacher, I can remember taking care to intentionally plan differentiated, or individualized, instruction. And, when I was teaching pre-K I added the same level of intentionality to which materials were available in interest areas, and how I approached transitions throughout the day.
While any level of intentionally, specifically in relation to planning, is important -- I missed a critical opportunity in being more intentional in my interactions with the children in my class.
There is always an opportunity for interaction. Some opportunities are easily recognizable: times of play, free choice, centers, small group. We often see teachers engaged in activities alongside children during these times or hear questions being asked. Other opportunities might be a little less obvious. These are the times of your day that you might see as mundane moments that merely require your supervision or monitoring. The times where you’re going through the motions. “I’m doing this thing so I can move on to the next thing.”
In a previous blog, colleague and early childhood environment extraordinaire, Heather Sason, discussed how your classroom environment can help promote effective teacher-child interactions. In this blog, I propose we explore some of the often overlooked times in your day that are ripe for interactions with children and that do promote exploration, learning, and development!
It's not uncommon for teachers in early education to need to strike a balance between following children's leads and sticking to the classroom schedule. We know that intentional teachers are aware of their responsibility to assess student progress, understand skill mastery, and plan accordingly to provide opportunities for children to grow. However, many times, as teachers begin a specific teacher-directed activity, it is unsettling when students begin to veer from the step-by-step plans the teacher has worked hard to implement.
Teacher and coach, Colleen Schmit, will share how teachers can strike the balance between following the lesson plans and giving children freedom of choice and flexibility in the classroom.
As an educator, you’re busy. Your time is being split by competing priorities, from managing students’ needs, meeting your program’s goals, and communicating with parents. While you’re juggling your work, it can be difficult to keep learning about important ways to improve your daily teaching practice. Teachstone is here to help!