• by Christie L. Goodman, APR • IDRA Newsletter • April 1998 • Christie Goodman, APR

A lot of children cry on their first day of school. “Lynn” was one of them. But instead of sobbing that morning as she watched her mother leave, she cried that night at home.

When the day began, she hiked up the school stairs and through the tall doorways brimming with confidence and expectation. She was armed with the brand new pencils, sweet-smelling crayons and her own Big Chief tablet that had all been carefully laid out the night before. Waving to her mother outside, she disappeared into the hallway. Her father was a high school teacher, so she was familiar with the echoes of long school corridors. And she had perused the books her mother brought home. She could not wait to read the big words that described the pictures. Her parents had promised that she would learn to read in the first grade.

She found her classroom and peeped inside. There was Ms. Bray – it was her first day too. She smiled as she comforted other children. Lynn found an empty chair and climbed onto it.

The bell rang. This is it, Lynn said to herself. She was finally grown up and in school like the older kids. She was Charlie entering Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

By the time the last bell rang, Lynn realized something was terribly wrong. Maybe Ms. Bray forgot. But the whole day had gone by and the class had not learned to read yet.

The other children did not seem to notice. They were bouncing around, thrilled they had survived their first day of school. What had seemed frightening, turned out to be fun. And best of all, the teacher was nice. They looked forward to the adventures that awaited them as they scurried to tell others about their day.

But Lynn’s heart was heavy. Her bottom lip quivered. Not wanting to cause trouble, the disillusioned little girl slipped out of her seat and quietly went home.

Her six-year-old mind had expected to be reading after just one day. She would learn to read in the first grade, they had said. Well, now she had been to the first grade. More than sad, she was angry.

Lynn did not realize it then, but she was learning to read before that big day. Her parents had given her “pre-literacy” things to do for fun. They taught her how to hold a pencil and how to draw lines and circles that would later become letters. She had done some “reading readiness” work in kindergarten and could read a little bit of those children’s books. Yet, she dreamed of reading the newspaper at the breakfast table with her father.

Instead, the next morning she ate her cereal while her parent’s explanations echoed in her head. Reading is not like a light switch. Be patient. Everything will be all right.

She went back to Ms. Bray’s classroom a bit wiser, though still eager.

Children Begin Learning from Birth

That little girl was me. It was the 1970s when the prevailing practice was not to rush children into schoolwork even in areas where they showed interest.

In the years since then, educators have been affirming that, although they may show it in different ways, all children are eager to learn. And researchers are discovering that how we tap into that eagerness in children’s first few years makes a big difference in their later years in school and in life.

Last year, the President and First Lady hosted a White House conference on early education. They convened a panel of experts to spotlight exciting findings on how young children learn and develop. Using the latest imaging technology, neuroscientists have confirmed that brain development is a function of both genes and environment (see “Snapping Synapses in the Early Years” on Page 5).

In a presentation to a group of early childhood educators, Dr. María Robledo Montecel, IDRA executive director, responded, “Findings like these support what [educators] already knew about young children and learning:

  • Children are always ready to learn.
  • Children have a curiosity for learning.
  • Children learn from their environment.
  • Children thrive in an environment of love and respect.
  • Children have a potential for acquiring language.
  • Children can communicate ideas in many different ways.
  • Children can acquire a love and desire for reading.
  • Children learn in different ways” (1997).

Hopefully, such findings will also cause a significant response to the need for early childhood education, which has so far gone largely unnoticed.

  • The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports that only one in seven child care centers and one in 10 family child care homes posses the quality needed to enhance children’s development (1996).
  • In 1993, less than one-fourth of 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families were enrolled in early childhood programs compared to just over half of those from high-income families (CDF, 1996).
  • The average reading proficiency of 12th-grade students declined significantly from 1992 to 1994 across a broad range of subgroups, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 1994 reading report card (NAEP, 1996).

But bringing more students into early childhood classrooms will not be sufficient. There is also a need for more effective reading instruction at all levels. A positive sign is a new report from a committee of the National Research Council (NRC) that calls for widespread reforms to ensure all children are equipped with the skills and instruction they need to learn to read and comprehend.

Children Learn in Diverse and Complex Ways

The majority of reading problems faced by today’s adolescents and adults could have been avoided or resolved in the early years of childhood, says the report, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services. The NRC is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

The report suggests that the ongoing debate over which teaching method is best has diverted attention from the most important factors affecting how a child learns to read (Snow, Burns and Griffin, 1998).

For example, the debate that has engaged generations of philosophers – whether nature or nurture calls the shots – focuses on the wrong question. Discovering how genes and the environment interact is more realistic.

“It’s not a competition,” says Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a psychiatrist at George Washington University. “It’s a dance” (Nash, 1997).

In another example, educators have long debated whether phonics or whole language is the best method to teach reading. Phonics stresses teaching the relationship between letters and their sounds, and decoding words using letter sounds. Whole language prompts students to infer the meaning of words from the context or pictures within a story. The NRC report suggests a mix of early phonics training and whole language instruction.

“It’s clear that perpetuating the pendulum swings from phonics to whole language isn’t helping kids…Because reading is such a complex and multifaceted activity, no single method is the answer,” said committee chair Catherine Snow, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. “What we need to do is get beyond that and just simply try to conceptualize what is good reading instruction, what do readers need to know and what do good readers do” (Colvin, 1998).

Success in reading builds on the same complex set of skills for all children. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children outlines critical components of a child’s education from birth through third grade. Children who have successfully learned to read by elementary school have mastered three skills: they understand that letters of the alphabet represent word sounds, they are able to read for meaning, and they read fluently. Disruption of any of these components can throw off a child’s development and could lead to difficulties that ultimately will reduce the chances that the child will finish high school, get a job or become an informed citizen (Snow, Burns and Griffin, 1998).

Prepared by a panel that included psychologists and neurobiologists as well as educators, the 344-page NRC report describes that reading problems are disproportionately high among minority students, non-English-speaking children and those who grow up in poor or urban environments.

A particularly thorny concern has centered on how to educate children whose first language is not English. In addition to considering the reading implications of using two languages, teachers must adjust the language of instruction accordingly to ensure that reading occurs in the student’s stronger language.

The NRC report attests that children should first learn the skills of reading in their initial language – the language in which they will best be able to discern the meaning of words and of sentences. If such instruction is not feasible in a given school system, the child should not be rushed prematurely into English reading instruction, but should be given an opportunity to develop a reasonable level of oral proficiency in English before learning to read (Snow, Burns and Griffin, 1998).

Because major responsibility for preventing reading difficulties is borne by early childhood educators and elementary school teachers, it is critical that they are sufficiently trained for the task. The report states, “Children need language-rich preschool opportunities, and teachers need better preparation and support to be able to guide students through the complex mix of skills that go into learning to read” (NRC, 1998).

However, many teachers are not adequately prepared, the report says. Many practitioners dealing with children under the age of eight need better training in reading development. Primary school teachers need ongoing professional development and continuing opportunities for mentoring and collaborating with reading specialists. Local school officials need to improve their staff development opportunities, which are often weakened by a lack of substantive, research-based content and systematic follow-up (NRC, 1998).

Teachers know that children learn to read in diverse and complex ways. Consequently, teachers must make informed decisions based on current reading research and design methods that best serve their students. Thus, they must have access to the latest research and methodology.

In a statement responding to the NRC report, Secretary of Education Richard Riley said:

The council’s findings send the nation’s parents and educators a clear signal that we need to move beyond the contentious reading debate in some communities and focus on how children learn to read. I hope this report will help end the reading wars and focus America’s schools on what works in teaching reading (1998).

Such a focus will involve restructuring the way many schools operate.

Keys to Success

Children come to school with diverse experiences where reading and writing are “normal” extensions of the language development process. Teachers must adjust instruction accordingly without leaving anyone behind. School structures must provide supportive environments for this to occur.

This is no small task, but there are great models of child-centered programs that are working. Participants in the Fifth Annual IDRA La Semana del Niño Early Childhood Educators’ Institute this month will see some of them in practice. They will travel to high-performing, high-minority sites in the San Antonio area that are effectively working with diverse learners. These include Head Start classrooms, a bilingual cluster school, a dual language bilingual program and technology-integrated classrooms.

Through IDRA’s La Semana del Niño Early Childhood Educators’ Institutes during the last five years, hundreds of early childhood teachers, administrators and parents have learned about developments in research, reading theory and practice, restructuring early childhood education classrooms (such as multi-age settings and dual language programs) and have gathered classroom activities in reading, math, science, fine arts and play. These educators have returned to their schools garnered with new information, new resources and renewed support systems to improve how they help thousands of diverse young children learn.

The institute is sponsored by the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) and this year is held in collaboration with the University of Texas at San Antonio – Downtown. Supporting IDRA projects include the Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative for Equity and the STAR Center (the comprehensive regional assistance center that serves Texas via a collaboration of IDRA, the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and RMC Research Corporation)*.

Recognizing the need for effective school models and professional development opportunities for early childhood educators that have substantial, research-based content, IDRA designed this year’s institute around the theme, “The Key to Success: Developing the Love for Reading.” Sessions led by practitioners who have tested strategies in the classroom will provide the latest information on language and literacy development, particularly in each of the “key” areas: classroom organization, oral language development, motor development (play and dance), parental involvement, core curriculum and assessment.

In addition, IDRA is hosting a pre-institute on literacy entitled, “Critical Issues in Reading Development.” It will give teachers and administrators an in-depth view of how reading develops in young learners. Participants will analyze critical issues in reading development in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten: emergent literacy, oral language development related to reading development, appropriate literature for young readers, shared reading, how young children become readers and writers, the role of the native language, the role of parental engagement in the teaching process, and biliteracy as an attainable goal.

Such issues exemplify a teacher’s complex task in providing the “right” opportunities for young children to develop literacy. As the research indicates, different methods work for different children at different stages in their development. Using appropriate practices results in young readers who are much better prepared for the rest of their school years and whatever they pursue afterwards.

The demands for higher literacy are increasing in our technological society. US leaders including President Clinton, Secretary Riley and several governors have announced campaigns to improve reading and literacy skills among the nation’s children. Foundations and agencies are sponsoring various initiatives to develop model programs and expand the body of knowledge on effective instructional strategies. Science is exploring how the brain develops literacy and how reading sharpens the mind. Educators and parents are stimulating the curiosity and imaginations of young minds.

At the same time, young children everywhere are eager to learn. And they are learning actively every day – during playtime, mealtime and class time. They are learning to read.


Children’s Defense Fund. The State of America’s Children Yearbook 1996 (Washington, D.C.: CDF, 1996).

Colvin, R.L. “Reading Report Suggests Mix of Teaching Methods,” Los Angeles Times (March 19, 1998).

NAEP. NAEP 1994 Reading Report Card: Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Internet posting (March 1996).

Nash, J.M. “Fertile Minds,” Time (February 3, 1997).

NRC. “Reforms Needed to Improve Children’s Reading Skills,” news release (Washington, DC: National Research Council, March 1998).

Riley, R.W. Statement Regarding National Research Council Report on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, March 18, 1998).

Robledo Montecel, M. “Opening Windows: The Importance of Educating Young Children,” presentation at the Fourth Annual IDRA La Semana del Niño Early Childhood Educators’ Institute (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1997).

Snow, C., M.S. Burns and P. Griffin (Eds.). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998).

* Each of these IDRA projects provides specialized training and technical assistance to public schools. Information on how your campus can use these resources to improve instruction and assessment will be available at the institute and may also be obtained by calling IDRA at 210/444-1710 or by visiting IDRA’s web site (www.idra.org).

Christie L. Goodman, APR, is the IDRA communications manager. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]