Quality Instruction Aids Preschool Learning

A collaboration between Vanderbilt and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools on an Early Reading First project for preschool children 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,” says Deborah Rowe, a project co-leader and associate professor of early childhood education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

Ongoing 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.


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 say.

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.

“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,” says David Dickinson, project co-leader and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody. “These are important data showing that spectacular results are possible in public preschool classrooms when sufficient resources make available strong support.”

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

Sandra Wilson, PhD’00, the independent evaluator, cautions 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 further data analysis, says Wilson, associate director and senior research associate in the Peabody Research Institute.

The program, which intensifies support for teaching efforts in language, literacy, content knowledge learning and preschool writing skills, is supported by 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.


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