What Makes Some Preschools Better Than Others?

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It might seem like preschool is all about naps and playtime, but the latest research shows that early classroom experiences can have a major impact on later learning and academic performance, especially when it comes to language.

David Dickinson, a professor of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, reported in the journal Science that the quality and type of experiences in preschool can make a difference in how a child’s linguistic skills develop.

Specifically, when preschool teachers engage children more in interactive conversations that require the youngsters to think and respond creatively, they go on to develop a more advanced vocabulary by kindergarten, which in turn translates to stronger reading and expressive skills by fourth grade.

In addition, when preschool teachers use a rich and varied vocabulary when talking with their students, the kids are more likely to show an enhanced vocabulary in kindergarten and to read better by fourth grade, compared with preschoolers whose teachers don’t use such complex language.

Previous studies have suggested that kids who go to preschool tend to do better academically, compared with children who go straight into kindergarten. Further, some studies have found that higher-quality preschool experiences are more likely to yield improved scholastic results than preschool settings where teachers aren’t engaging youngsters but merely babysitting them.

Dickinson’s work attempts to tease out what it is exactly about the high-quality preschools that contributes to enhanced learning. “It’s like looking through an electron microscope instead of a hand lens at the classroom experience,” he says.

To do that, he and his team recorded conversations between teachers and preschoolers during unstructured free time in the classroom, when there wasn’t any designated curriculum to cover. During these interactions, he says, it’s possible to get a sense for how well teachers are engaging children and encouraging them to think and learn independently, as opposed to following a more rote pattern of learning in which youngsters merely parrot back things they hear.

For example, rather than reading a book and simply asking kids to count the number of animals they see on the page, or repeating a question asked in the story, teachers could use the story as a jumping off point for new discussions. In a story about bears, for example, rather than asking children what color the bear in the story is, the teacher could ask about what type of skin the bear has. The question could lead to a discussion about fur and its importance for keeping bears warm, and might even encourage students to think about other animals that are similarly covered in fur.

The idea is not only to teach children, but also to encourage them to think about new ways to process the information they have just learned. “We found that the relative extent to which the teacher engaged children in analytic conversations — talking about what words meant, why things were happening, and what was going on in the story — instead of just labeling and counting things, was related to the size of the vocabulary the children developed in kindergarten. And that vocabulary is also related to their reading comprehensive and later vocabulary in fourth grade,” says Dickinson.

The findings aren’t a surprise, but do hint at important features that parents should look for in a good preschool. First, says Dickinson, a high-quality preschool should have an engaging classroom setting; the richer the environment, in terms of information, objects and stories that trigger youngsters’ questions and curiosity, the more likely teachers and students will have interesting conversations about their surroundings.

Next, parents should sit in on a typical day to determine how much teachers interact with their students. And by interaction, Dickinson stresses that teachers should not be doing most of the talking; they should instead ensure that children are able to express themselves freely and ask questions so they can start to think critically and creatively about their world.

“If you see a classroom where the kids are told to be quiet and are handed worksheets, walk out the door,” he says. “That’s not the environment that is conducive to language learning. We need to talk to children, engage them in play and with extended interactions, so they can think, talk and be good readers by the end of fourth grade.” It’s never too early to start.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.