White House Plan to Teach Children to Read ; Administration Focuses on Accountability and Science in Promoting Early Literacy

Article excerpt

Americans have long heard about the difficulties of learning to read. Now they're discovering more about the causes and solutions - which seem to lie in preschool years.

A typical child, for instance, enters Head Start knowing only one letter of the alphabet. At the end of one year, he or she still knows only one letter. In some poor school districts, kids begin kindergarten not knowing basic words such as "chicken," "leaf," or "triangle." One study shows that three-year-olds from affluent families have larger vocabularies than some welfare parents.

Now the Bush administration wants to make early childhood reading a national priority - but with a twist.

It wants to promote only programs that are "proven" to be effective with scientific results. While lauding the new emphasis on accountability, critics worry about a lack of funding, a lack of teachers - and what the definition of "proven" might turn out to be.

"Launching a child into and across their life is as important as launching the next space shuttle, and we certainly did use science in that regard," says Reid Lyon, director of child development research at the National Institutes of Health and a key player in the administration's new approach.

How to teach reading has been the subject of pitched battles and competing fads for decades. What the administration is proposing is refocusing research and federal funding on methods with a scientific basis.

The increased emphasis on scientific research as the basis for all further action was a key theme at a two-day summit last week on early childhood cognitive development, sponsored by first lady and former teacher Laura Bush.

The administration also announced two new initiatives:

* A joint task force between the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. The task force is to take the research and findings from the summit and translate them into "practical" programs for young people - including a likely overhaul of Head Start, a preschool program which serves 880,000 poor children but has never emphasized literacy. The move was welcomed by the House subcommittee on Education Reform, which plans to hold a hearing on early childhood education on Tuesday.

* A massive research project to last at least five years to the tune of $10 million a year. Conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the project will try to identify interactions that help young children from all backgrounds develop learning skills, says Mr. Lyon. It will include everything from the influence of health and nutrition on learning, to specific interaction with reading materials.

Following the research

"We're really pleased that the administration is talking this way, but the question is: Will they have the backbone to follow science in terms of wherever it goes?" says Amy Wilkins, an analyst at the Education Trust.

In Texas, where the Bushes developed their educational roots, scientific research led to a pilot program that helped Head Start use proven methods of teaching early literacy. …