Enhancing kindergarten literacy development

Children enter school with wide differences in their experience with stories, print and books. These differences in literacy development are relevant to later achievement, yet schools have limited success in narrowing those differences during the kindergarten year. There has been some research indicating that increasing children’s access to books enhances literacy development. But these effects are small and highly variable from classroom to classroom and from child to child.

In a recent study, however, researchers found large achievement differences in children’s literacy development when students were given greater access to books and their teachers received training in creating language- and print-rich classroom instruction. Anne McGill-Franzen and Richard L. Allington, University of Florida; Linda Yokoi, University of Maryland; and Gregory Brooks, Nazareth College, found that students who were taught by teachers who had a well-stocked classroom library and who were trained in the display and use of books in kindergarten classroom lessons achieved significantly higher scores on every measure of literacy development when compared with children whose teachers had well-stocked libraries but no professional-development support. Simply providing teachers with a generous supply of children’s books had little effect on students’ literacy development.

Project Schools

Six elementary schools in a large, urban school district participated in this project. All offered a full-day kindergarten program. In three of the schools, over half the students were from low-income families. Three teachers within each school were randomly selected to participate in the study. Two schools (one low-income and one higher-income) were assigned each of three types of intervention: Two schools received training plus books, two received books only, and the other two served as controls, receiving no books or training.

In the “training” schools, teachers received 250 new books for their classroom libraries as well as 130 books for a parents’ lending library. In addition, children in training classrooms were given personal copies of three books during the year, and the parents who attended a one-hour training session received five children’s books. Each teacher in these classrooms participated in 30 hours of training. This began with three whole-day sessions in the summer before school opened, and continued with seven two-hour sessions during the fall.

Training focused on “putting books in children’s hands.” Topics covered included physical design of the classroom; effective book displays; importance of reading aloud to children; interactive techniques for reading aloud; environmental print; author, genre, and content themes created with the book collection; small-group lessons using teacher-made materials based on books read; integrated beginning writing and reading; and literacy activity during play.

In the “book” schools, teachers received the same supply of children’s books for their class and lending libraries, but no training. In the “control” schools, no books or training were provided.

Student Assessment

Pretest and post-test data were collected for 377 kindergarten students in the study. At entry into kindergarten, the children ranged in age from four to almost six. There was wide variation in literacy skills as well. All assessments were conducted individually by
trained examiners.

Students were assessed at the beginning and end of the year on receptive vocabulary (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test), concepts about print (Concepts About Print and Diagnostic Survey), letter identification (all 52 upper- and lower-case letters), writing vocabulary (asked to write all the words they know within 10-minute time limit), word recognition (Ohio Word Test), and phonemic awareness (hearing sounds in words). In addition, teachers kept logs of the books they read aloud to students, and researchers
evaluated classroom literacy environments (Classroom Literacy Environment Profile). Researchers recorded the number of books, adequacy of the book displays, richness of the classroom print environment and level of integration of reading and writing activities.

Children in training classrooms show big gains

McGill-Franzen et al. focused primarily on the comparison of literacy test scores of students enrolled in the three types of classrooms. No significant differences between groups were found on any of the pretests. However, the post-test achievement of children
in the training classrooms was higher than those in either book or control classes. Even after controlling for the age of the students, the gains were significantly larger for students in training classrooms. These differences were statistically significant on all tests except
the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test.

The post-test scores were only marginally significant on the PPVT. However, the average difference of 16 percentile points
between the training classrooms and other classrooms is an educationally significant difference in these researchers’ opinion. There were no significant differences in post-test scores between students in the book and control classes. Just adding a substantial supply of children’s books to classrooms had little measurable positive effect.

These results indicate reliable and positive achievement effects for the training intervention. The effects were most clearly seen on those tests linked directly to literacy growth — children’s concepts about print, reading and writing vocabularies, and phonemic awareness. Although the impact on receptive vocabulary as measured by the PPVT was smaller, it was educationally significant. (The PPVT is not as sensitive to short-term intervention because it was designed primarily to measure the cumulative effects of a child’s exposure to rich language environment throughout the early childhood period.)

Students in training classrooms also produced the highest scores on letter naming, but children in all the classrooms tended to learn many letter names during their kindergarten year. The teacher training had a significant effect on the classroom environment. Training produced significant effects on the number of books teachers read aloud to their students. Trained teachers read nearly twice as many books aloud as did teachers in control classrooms. Teachers who received books but no training read aloud more than the control-class teachers, but they read 50 percent fewer books than the trained teachers.

This is important because the number of books read aloud significantly predicted performance on four of the six literacy tests. In addition to the number of books read aloud, there were other differences in the instructional environments of these classrooms.
The trained teachers were far more likely to have created interesting displays of books, to display a variety of print materials including students’ written work, and to link reading and writing activities.

These researchers conclude that, by itself, providing rich curriculum materials such as a large children’s library has little effect on student achievement. Simple access to books is insufficient to produce educational gains in kindergarten classrooms. They suggest that if school systems hope to achieve large-scale improvement of instruction, a significant amount of teacher development is necessary.

“Putting Books in the Classroom Seems Necessary but Not Sufficient” Journal of Educational Research Volume 93, Number 2, December 1999 pp. 67-74.

Published in ERN March 2000 Volume 13 Number 3

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