"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Early Childhood Education and Reading Comprehension


Now, these initiatives in manufacturing, energy, infrastructure, housing, all these things will help entrepreneurs and small-business owners expand and create new jobs. But none of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs. And that has to start at the earliest possible age. You know, study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So, tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That’s something we should be able to do.Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children -- like Georgia or Oklahoma -- studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.
-US President Barack H. Obama - State of the Union Address , 2013


President Obama reiterated in his address the importance of early childhood education. It is at this stage of basic education that a child learns the basics of social interactions, reading, writing and counting. The early years set the stage for lifelong learning. Children are taught to read in the early grades so that by grade 4, they are ready to read to learn. Reading comprehension is the next step and it is hoped that the later years produce citizens who can read critically. In the reading dimension alone of the human mind, there are levels and basic education helps bring a child from one level to the next.

Reading comprehension requires more than recognition of letters in the alphabet. To make sense of a text, understanding how sentences are structured is important. Stories and ideas are expressed in writing but these can only be extracted by reading with familiarity and knowledge of the words used. There is no doubt that vocabulary plays a crucial role in reading comprehension. Without the knowledge of what words mean, reading comprehension becomes a daunting task.

When children are introduced to a language, vocabulary instruction is necessary. This is one of the reasons behind the need to provide high quality preschool education especially to poor children. As noted in a previous post in this blog, "Vocabulary and Learning", one major root of the achievement gap is the fact that children in poor households have been exposed to a very limited number of words. Children whose parents are professionals have already developed a vocabulary twice as big as those of children from poor families. Without knowing what words mean, reading comprehension, a key to learning content, becomes impossible. Enriching the vocabulary of children is therefore an important objective of early childhood education. How effective these early years of schooling in developing a child's vocabulary can be measured. One example has been recently published in the Elementary School Journal of the University of Chicago, "Vocabulary Instruction in Commonly Used Kindergarten Core Reading Curricula" by Tanya S. Wright and Susan B. Neuman. In this paper, the four popular kindergarten curricula were examined:
"...Using market research data, we selected the four most commonly used core reading curricula in kindergarten classrooms. Together, these four programs accounted for 52.3% of the market penetration in 2009–2010: Houghton Mifflin Reading (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) (18.3% market penetration), Scott Foresman Reading Street (Pearson Education, 2008) (13.7%), Harcourt Trophies (Harcourt, 2007) (10.8%), and Treasures (Macmillan/McGraw Hill, 2009) (9.5%). Because our goal was to understand curricular supports for vocabulary instruction, each curriculum was assigned a letter name to maintain its anonymity...."
These curricula were evaluated in terms of weekly scope and sequence, word selection and difficulty, frequency of instructional practice, review and progress monitoring, and instructional structure. With the first criterion, scope, as measured by the number of target vocabulary words per week, the four curricula were found to vary widely. One curriculum averages 21 words per week, a second one does 14 per week, while the other two average 3 words or less per week. Noting that children whose parents are professionals already have 1,100 words in their vocabulary by the age of 4, while those in welfare only know 500. The rate of 3 words per week leads to only 150 words per year. Clearly, to close the gap, at least a dozen target vocabulary words per week must be covered. Two of the four most popular kindergarten reading curricula do not meet this need.

The above concerns vocabulary breadth which depends solely on the number of words that are familiar to a student. There is also vocabulary depth. Proctor and co-workers outline three means by which a student can develop vocabulary depth in a 2011 paper in the journal Reading and Writing, "The role of vocabulary depth in predicting reading comprehension among English monolingual and Spanish–English bilingual children in elementary school". The first one is morphology, by knowing the root of a word, a child can have a clue of what the word means. It begins with inflectional morphology (e.g. boy + s = boys) to compound morphology (e.g. man + power = manpower), to derivational morphology (e.g. magic + ian = magician). A second means  is semantics, which highlights relationships between words. Words are related to concepts which sometimes bind such words into a family. Consider, for example, this set of words: cell, row, column, table. These words are related to each other within the context of presenting data in a particular fashion. Used separately and in a different context, a cell can mean a unit of a living organism, or a table can correspond to a furniture in a house. The last one is syntax. A language has a structure. There are subjects, verbs, objects, adjectives and adverbs. With syntax, a child maybe able to decipher the meaning of a word when one sees how such word is used in a sentence. A word that is appropriately and precisely used lends clues to what it means. It is one reason why James Paul Gee highlights the role of language in science:

Downloaded from  http://www.jamespaulgee.com/sites/default/files/pub/TeachingSciencetoELL-Ch07.pdf
The question in hand now is: How does this relate to Mother Tongue Based - Multi Lingual Education? How does a child taught in his or her native language develop both vocabulary breadth and depth in that language?  How many words in the native tongue does a child know before enrolling in kindergarten? These are important numbers for these provide an idea of what the starting point is. How many words in the native tongue does a child learn to read after kindergarten? How does the curriculum in the mother tongue achieve the objective of increasing vocabulary in the mother tongue? Can we quantify the number of words a child learns (breadth) and does a child develop skills necessary to navigate and discover new words (depth)?

Lastly, how does the transition to English instruction really occur? Are any of the vocabulary schemes transferable? Both breadth and depth in vocabulary allow for greater reading comprehension. In this aspect, reading is not solely seen as an objective of basic education. More importantly, reading is seen as a means for learning. The above studies concern the early years of education since vocabulary is seen as a foundation for the later years. Neglecting the foundation precludes building.






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