Family Matters

Is Quality Pre-Kindergarten the Key to a Better Vocabulary?

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Preschool might seem like nothing more than child’s play — a riot of high-spirited kids engaged in finger painting, blockbuilding and games.

But a new study of Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) free pre-kindergarten program — which relies on a predetermined curriculum and actively coaches teachers — found that participation significantly boosts kindergarten readiness. Children tracked by researchers at Harvard University made moderate to large gains in language, literacy and math over the course of the preschool year, and they showed improvement on emotional development and executive function — skills such as paying attention and memory — even though the curriculum targeted only cognitive skills.

Their gains were “above and beyond the effects of just getting older,” says lead author Christina Weiland, incoming assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Education. She was at Harvard when she led the study, which was published in the journal Child Development. “When you compare Boston’s program to seven other programs that have had an impact on academic evaluations, Boston’s program had the largest effects on vocabulary and math.”

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What made the difference? Everything from teacher instruction to teacher pay. Nationally, preschool teachers are typically paid poorly. But Boston treats its public preschool teachers the same as its kindergarten teachers: they receive the same same pay and are required to meet the same educational criteria as educators.

The curriculum itself is also unique; it followed specific guidelines that taught academic skills through a play-based approach, which most educators agree is the appropriate way to structure preschool. And teachers benefited from the advice of “master” teachers who were available to help them troubleshoot.

Weiland and co-author Hiro Yoshikawa studied two groups of more than 2,000 preschoolers; half attended pre-kindergarten in 2008-2009, the year before they began kindergarten, and the younger, remaining half attended a year later when they reached the required age. In Boston, public preschool is available is open to any child, regardless of income; Massachusetts is one of eight or so states that don’t use income limits when determining eligibility. As a result, the children came from various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, a useful factor in such a study since such programs tends to benefit poorer students, although in Boston’s case, all children showed improvement, regardless of their ethnicity or family’s income level. In the study, Latino students in particular saw especially strong gains. “If you have classmates you have stronger vocabulary skills, research has showed that there is a peer effect,” says Weiland. “Kids with stronger skills can also help motivate teachers.”

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The Boston program could serve as a model for the type of preschool education that President Obama recently called for in the public school system. In the recent Healthland article describing the plan for universal preschool, which would include kids in families making less than 200% of the poverty level — $40,000 for a family of three — people who spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a quality preschool stressed play over rote learning:

Early-childhood experts say that play is the best way for little ones to learn. But, points out Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), comparing play-based preschool to a more academic approach is a “false dichotomy.” Good preschool teachers incorporate both, but in such a way that kids aren’t anchored to a desk. “When you have teachers who understand child development, you find that play is a major component of the day,” says Willer. “But play is very carefully organized so that teachers are very intentional.”

What may look like a play grocery store to the untrained eye can offer children an opportunity to draw up shopping lists and identify letters on the labels of cereal boxes. Teachers can lead the class in constructing graphs (a way to understand numbers) about who likes Raisin Bran and who prefers Cheerios and hone math skills as they classify products by size and shape. “Behind the play is a very careful plan on the part of the teacher in terms of specific curriculum goals,” says Willer.

With such encouraging findings, as well as political interest in the idea, the challenge for universal preschool now becomes one of funding. Boston’s program shows that providing toddlers with a head start on learning, not just academic but social and emotional skills as well, could be an important way to help them succeed — if officials can find a way to pay teachers and invest in the classrooms needed to make the programs available to every child.