High-quality preschool programs can boost language and literacy skills and, ultimately, reading achievement. But quality is essential, and many preschools fall short in promoting language and literacy.
In a high-quality preschool, the teacher should provide a good model of verbal language throughout the day. For example, when a child points a finger and says “Dat,” the teacher has a number of good choices. She could expand for him and say, “You want the red ball?” or she could say, gently, “Tell me what you want,” or “Tell me what you want in words.” Some teachers say, “Use your words” but accept the closest approximation that they think the child can produce. She should also have informal conversations with each child every day, encouraging them to use language by asking open-ended questions, such as why, how, and what-if.
Preschools should help children to learn, think, and talk about new domains of knowledge. They do this by providing opportunities for children to use language in a variety of ways, by ensuring lots of interesting conversations in which children are involved, by offering opportunity to play with language in ways that support phonological awareness and by incorporating meaningful uses of literacy into everyday activities. Children who have a wide body of background knowledge and life experiences are more likely to succeed in reading. They are more likely to relate to stories, recognize words in them, and to understand events described in books.
Children in America need more opportunities to attend affordable preschools where they will experience high-quality language and literacy environments. If we are to prevent reading difficulties, then children must start school motivated to learn and with the language skills they need in order to learn.
All too often preschool and day care settings for young children provide poor language and literacy environments—particularly for those whose families have limited resources. It is critical that these settings be designed to support language and literacy. As part of this effort, parents, teachers, pediatricians, social workers, speech language therapists, and other preschool practitioners should strive, using research-derived guidelines, to help children overcome language problems as early as possible.