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
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
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. …