Levelling the Playing Field for Kindergarten Entry: Research Implications for Preschool Early Literacy Instruction
Callaghan, Georgia, Madelaine, Alison, Australasian Journal of Early Childhood
Many preschoolers begin their first year of formal schooling (usually kindergarten) with varying levels of emergent literacy skills, and this variability is largely affected by prior home environments (Adams, 1990; Lonigan, Burgess, Anthony & Barker, 1998), level of oral language (Walker, Greenwood, Hart & Carta, 1994), and provision of good early intervention programs (Adams, 1990; Byrne & Fielding-Barnsley, 1993; McIntosh, Crosbie, Holm, Dodd & Thomas, 2007) For the purpose of this paper, preschool refers to early learning educational programs where children between the ages of three and five years attend in a regular setting or daycare setting before they commence formal schooling. In 2009, 927 per cent of all Australian children attended non-parental care or educational programs the year before formal schooling began (CCCH & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2009). Kindergarten in this paper refers to the first year of formal schooling, typically following preschool, for children aged five to six years. It has been well-documented in the United States that children from lower socioeconomic groups and minority groups tend to be further behind their peers in early literacy skills on kindergarten entry and that this gap increases over time (Chatterji, 2006). More recently, this achievement gap has been found with four-year-old children in preschool, prior to the commencement of kindergarten (Wang, 2008).
A longitudinal study by Chatterji (2006) with a large sample of children (n = 2,296) demonstrated that the gap in reading between students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and their more affluent peers increased from the beginning of kindergarten to the end of kindergarten by about half a standard deviation (SD) and increased again by the end of first grade (to -0.608 SD units). There was also overwhelming evidence that kindergarten entry literacy skills significantly predicted first grade reading scores, when all other variables, including poverty, were controlled for. Regardless of race or socioeconomic status, poor literacy skills at kindergarten entry are more likely to lead to poor reading skills in first grade. This highlights the need for targeted and explicit literacy intervention at the preschool level. In 2009, 22.9 per cent of the estimated five-year-old population in Australia were considered either 'developmentally vulnerable' or 'developmentally at risk' in the language and cognitive domain, which partially comprised a basic Literacy measure including letter identification, phonological awareness, and being able to write one's name (CCCH & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2009).
Many preschools utilise a play-based curriculum where child-initiated learning is the basis for children to learn important developmental skills. The impact of play on acquiring such skills cannot be overestimated (Hanline, 1999). A play-based approach is important in teaching the cognitive, communication and social skills essential to school success (CCCH, 2008). Of particular concern is not the play-based curriculum itself, but the fact that many preschools and childcare centres may not include more explicit emergent literacy instruction (teacher-directed) as a part of their curriculum. A focus on systematic explicit instruction in early literacy skills is likely to lead to improved literacy skills overall.
The gap present in literacy skills on school entry is particularly significant, given that early reading failure is linked to long-term reading failure (Juel, 1988) and we are able to identify students in the preschool who are 'at-risk' of reading failure (Missal et al., 2007). Preschool children identified as having a family risk factor for reading failure (that is one or both parents classified as reading disabled), show profiles (for example, deficits in phonological awareness and vocabulary) on preschool assessments comparable to that of older children experiencing reading failure (Hindson et al. …