The Importance of Pre-K
By: Penny Thompson, PhD, Pre-K Director of the Lebanon Special School District
I have always taught in the early grades, and my PhD is in literacy. After being introduced to the research behind the importance of language and phonemic awareness, especially in the early years, I made it my mission to institute sounds-first instruction in myour district.
What is this research that has so driven my passion? It couldn’t be more clear: 90 percent of brain development occurs before kKindergarten. This is why access to quality Pre-K is so important -- it builds the necessary language exposure to ensure that all students begin kKindergarten with the foundation they need for success in literacy. Doing this can help close achievement gaps and prevent the need for intervention in later grades.
Laying the Foundation
In strong, language-rich Pre-K classrooms, teachers are constantly facilitating conversation -- talking with students, asking them questions, and assessing and advancing their learning. They schedule purposeful play and language-building learning opportunities throughout the entire day. They read aloud to students, create opportunities for interactive reading time, and encourage social conversations with academic prompts. Even during mealtimes, students are invited to interact with one another and make connections. No opportunity is wasted to intentionally engage a child in language.
The result is an environment where students are always listening and learning. Their entire day is filled with sounds, with talking and learning from one another and making language connections. When their language buckets are filled, and when they’re able to start to hear and distinguish sounds in words, then the foundation is laid for them to begin to manipulate and decode those sounds.
For our district, it was not enough to simply adopt a high-quality sounds-first curriculum in the Pre-K classroom; we also had to give teachers the necessary support to execute the curriculum. This meant arming them with high-quality instructional materials and providing them with individual coaching to help them execute activities and reflect on how they could grow.
It also took me personally walking into classrooms and sharing my feedback. From the very beginning, I made sure our teachers knew I wouldn't ask them to do anything I wouldn't do myself. It was that trust that allowed us to adopt the sounds-first foundational skills supplement last year and to see its immediate impact.
After a year of trusting the process and the research, my teachers are already seeing the difference in our students. We have barely started the school year and yet kKindergarten teachers are struck by our students’ phonemic and phonological awareness.
My teachers report that our students are much more comfortable and confident in identifying, pulling out, and manipulating sounds. In past years, my teachers would hope that their kids could identify a rhyme by the end of Pre-K. But after just one year of sounds-first instruction, our students not only recognized rhymes but produced them as well. Their ability to sound out words early on will allow them to write earlier in the kKindergarten year as well.
Our first grade teachers are seeing kids coming into this year with advanced skills they have never seen before. And kKindergarten teachers are receiving the validation that the effort they poured into last year worked. What's more: In recent years, the district EL Director has stated that while some English Language learners in Pre-K have needed intervention going into kKindergarten, most all have not needed intervention in kKindergarten.
These results are especially outstanding considering the challenging school year we had last year - with hybrid learning, remote learning, etc. The sounds-first foundational skills program was definitely the missing puzzle piece we needed.
Building a Pre-K Program
My district is proof that if administrators and supervisors invest in early grades, they will ensure better outcomes for all students.
How can leaders successfully support a strong Pre-K program?
At the district level, it begins with outlining a literacy vision focused on student outcomes and identifying district-wide goals, which are clearly communicated with stakeholders. It then requires adopting a strong foundational skills curriculum in Pre-K alongside access to universal high-quality materials and high-quality instruction in grades K-2.
At the school and administrative level, support comes in the form of professional learning and teacher empowerment. If you put the materials in teachers' hands and offer them ongoing professional learning opportunities, individualized and grade-level coaching, lesson planning support systems, consistent access to resources and tools, and training such as the Reading 360 Early Reading Training, you are setting them up for success.
Finally, it takes all stakeholders being committed to building the program. Directors, administrators, and leaders must all be learners: asking teachers about their materials, asking teachers what they're doing and why they're doing it, and ensuring teachers know they are going to be supported every step of the way.
Once all of this is in place, only then will we see our youngest students finding success. Only then will we have laid the early literacy foundation to ensure all students are reading on grade level by third grade.