Combining language richness with teacher professional development could close achievement gap

A new approach to teaching pre-kindergarten could take a bite out of the achievement gap and level the playing field for America’s growing population of English language learners, according to a published study by researchers at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

“We are excited that we have helped teachers develop ways of teaching that result in such remarkable gains among children,” David K. Dickinson, professor of education and one of the project’s leaders, said. “Our teachers are committed to continuing using the approaches that are working, which means that many more children will benefit from being in their classrooms.”

The Enhanced Language and Literacy Success Project, a four-year intervention and research effort performed in collaboration with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, proved that a language-rich pre-K curriculum paired with coaching, feedback and professional development for teachers, can improve student outcomes significantly, the researchers say.

An article on the research was recently published by the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly (Volume 28, Issue 3). The authors, Sandra Jo Wilson, Dickinson, and Deborah Wells Rowe, write, “There were large and significant differences between treatment and control groups on literacy outcomes for all students. On the literacy tasks, ELL students in the treatment groups performed nearly as well or better than non-ELL students at the beginning of kindergarten, and reached national norms on standardized tests. There were also significant program impacts on some language outcomes for all students.”

“Research shows that children from low income families are behind when they start kindergarten and it’s really difficult for them to catch up,” said Wilson, associate director of the Peabody Research Institute and one of the project leaders. Wilson managed the analysis of data for the study. “Our study demonstrates that it is possible for children from diverse languages and backgrounds to enter kindergarten with literacy skills at or near national norms,” she said.

The researchers evaluated the outcomes of 700 students and 13 teachers in seven Nashville pre-K programs. About half of the students were English language learners and nearly all came from low-income households.

“The element of providing feedback to teachers turned out to be a key to the curriculum’s success,” Dickinson said. Dickinson co-authored the curriculum, helped guide the delivery of the intervention and did some of the teacher professional development. “Teachers were asking for their reports and wanted to see how they were doing—they were very responsive to what the coaches had to say.”

Deborah Wells Rowe, associate professor of education at Peabody and an expert on early childhood writing, worked with the teachers to incorporate writing into their lessons.