- Four-year-olds in state pre-K programs can recognize letters and letter sounds and do simple math calculations, but they’re not acquiring the language skills that contribute to “long-term gains in achievement,” according to a study released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
- The research focuses on state-funded preschool programs in eight states — Arkansas, California, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia. Using common assessments, the researchers compared children who were just entering pre-K with a treatment group of those who attended pre-K the previous year and were just entering kindergarten.
- While there was some variation in results across states, the researchers overall found positive, statistically significant effects in basic literacy skills and some growth in math, but the smallest gains in vocabulary skills. They suggest that state leaders do more to “deepen and enrich preschool education” through the curriculum and professional development.
The increase in the number of young children attending state pre-K programs, combined with stronger study methods, “provide greater generalizability” regarding the overall impact of public pre-K programs, the researchers say. As states have focused on increasing access, however, it’s important that administrators with pre-K programs in their schools also focus on classroom quality.
Oral language — or vocabulary — skills have been found to be a strong predictor of later reading and content knowledge, and researchers suggest that preschool is the best time to focus on expanding students’ language abilities. “Effective vocabulary intervention can ameliorate reading difficulties later on,” Susan B. Neuman, an education professor at New York University, wrote in a 2014 article. “Children with resolved vocabulary delays can go on to achieve grade-level expectations in fourth grade and beyond.”
The researchers at NIEER also note that state leaders should look beyond “narrow literacy skills” to measure whether pre-K programs are having a positive impact. Children develop “constrained” skills, such as knowledge of the alphabet or writing their name, in a relatively short period of time, and these skills are easy to assess. But “unconstrained” skills, such as vocabulary and comprehension, develop over a longer period and are likely to have more influence on cognitive and academic performance.