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Early results show substantial improvements in reading skills

by Aug. 3, 2010, 2:28 PM

Deborah Rowe

Vanderbilt and Metro Nashville Public Schools have collaborated on an Early Reading First project among preschool children in Nashville schools that has yielded “spectacular” results in a preliminary study, according to project leaders.

“The big picture is that high quality language and literacy instruction in pre-K can make a big difference,” said Deborah Rowe, a project co-leader and associate professor of early childhood education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

On-going evaluations conducted by Vanderbilt researchers who were not part of the program, called Enhanced Language and Literacy Success, measured the performance of the 217 4-year-olds who participated in the project in fall 2009 and again in spring 2010. The children attended Metro preschool classrooms serving low-income children. Forty-five percent were English language learners (ELL), meaning that English is not their first language.

Test scores indicate improvement

The preliminary data showed impressive performance gains. The project used tests that adjust for age so that without special support a typical child should get the same score at different ages. Vocabulary scores on a test that consistently relates to later reading increased from a mean of 73.1 to 85.3 (with 100 reflecting the average score on national norms). The ELL children’s average scores increased from 55 to 75. African American children’s scores increased from 88 to 94.

While average scores are still well below national averages, this growth significantly narrows the achievement gap between less and more economically advantaged children, the researchers said.

For letter knowledge, the researchers noted a growth of more than a standard deviation on a nationally normed test – from 91 to 109.7. Average final scores from that test were comparable across groups.

David Dickinson

“These final scores are what I would expect to see as average scores in economically advantaged populations and  our teachers are achieving them across the board with children identified by Metro Schools as those who are most in need of pre-K services,” said David Dickinson, project co-leader.

“These are important data showing that spectacular results are possible in public preschool classrooms when sufficient resources make available strong support,” said Dickinson, chair of the department of teaching and learning at Peabody.

Agreed Rowe, “When you get students to make more than a standard deviation of growth in one year, that’s huge.”

Sandra Wilson, the independent evaluator, emphasized that this is preliminary data in a before-and-after comparison without a control group. “While the gains are excellent and, in some cases, put the children around the national norms at the end of pre-K, we cannot know definitively the source of those gains without a control group,” she said. Wilson is Associate Director and Senior Research Associate at the Peabody Research Institute.

The program is the result of a three-year U.S. Department of Education grant through the Early Reading First grant program. A second Tennessee project is ongoing in the Chattanooga area.

The project supports 13 classrooms as they adopt a new curriculum called Opening the World of Learning, developed by Peabody College faculty. The program intensifies support for teaching efforts in language, literacy, content knowledge learning and pre-school writing skills.

There is a community component that combines forces with the Nashville Public Library to foster home literacy and a summer program called Lift Off Camp (ongoing through August 11) through the YMCA Urban Services Program to boost learning gains and smooth the transition into kindergarten.

To visit or photograph the Lift Off Camp, contact Jessica Fain of the Downtown Y at or 615-259-9622.

Peabody College was recently named the No. 1 graduate school of education in the nation by U.S. News & World Report for the second consecutive year.