Archive article #00–04

Early Literacy for Inner-City Children:
The Effects of Reading and Writing Interventions in English and Spanish During the Preschool Years

David B. Yaden, Jr., Ana Tam, Patricia Madrigal, Danny Brassell,
Joan Massa, Susie Altamirano, and Jorge Armendariz
Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California

Selected Background Literature
Selected Findings
Selected References

(To appear in The Reading Teacher)

The following study is a four-year, longitudinal examination of the effectiveness of a preschool emergent literacy intervention in a skid row child-care facility in downtown Los Angeles. The primary purpose of the project has been to provide multiple opportunities for Spanish-speaking four-year-old children to engage in a variety of reading and writing activities within the center, at home and in the surrounding community. The project is now in its third year of operation, and the results of our study have been very encouraging. Not only are preschool children beginning their kindergarten year on or above grade level in understanding concepts about print, but both preschool teachers and parents have established regular habits of shared book reading and numerous ways for children to write and display their work.

Selected Background Literature
As Goldenberg and Gallimore (1995) have pointed out, the Latino population of school children poses some particular problems for American schools (see also August & Hakuta, 1997; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). The most recent projected figures (see Population Projections Program, 2000) indicate that by the year 2005, Hispanics will become the largest minority group in the country, exceeding the number of African Americans (13.3 % vs. 13.0 %, respectively). Further, in another 15 years, the Hispanic population of school-age children will make up the second largest group behind non-Hispanic whites (21.3% vs. 59.2%; Vernez, Krop, & Rydell, 1999). Compounding the pressure on schools due to rapidly increasing numbers of Spanish-speaking children is the additional fact that many of the parents of these children typically have less formal education than those of both native-born or other non-Latin, foreign-born adults. In the case of Mexican immigrants, slightly less than half (49.7%) have a high school diploma, as compared to 87% of non-Hispanic whites and 60% of other foreign-born adults (Ramirez, 1999). One consequence of this difference in educational level is that many immigrant children come to school unfamiliar with many of the printed resources generally associated with parents’ higher levels of schooling.

In a recent review of studies documenting Latino students’ poor achievement in schools relative to other populations, however, Losey (1995) has been critical of investigations claiming a "cultural mismatch" between home and school since many do not, in her words, "collect or analyze data from real-life interactions in actual settings" (p. 288). Taking a Vygotskian perspective, Losey stresses that unless studies examine closely the language interactions taking place at home and in school as well as in the broader social context, conclusions about the success or failure of Mexican-American children will be incomplete and narrow. On the positive side, Losey’ s (1995) review singles out research on classroom environments which provide "collaborative learning, lesson plans designed around student interests, a sense of belonging to the classroom community, flexibility in language usage, and a challenging curriculum" (p. 312) as offering examples of classroom interactions in which improved learning outcomes are most likely to occur.

In designing the the present preschool intervention, we have considered Losey’s suggestions for creating positive classroom environments for English language learners and built upon the work of other researchers (e.g., Delgato-Gaitan, 1990, 1996; Goldenberg, 1989; Goldenberg, Reese, & Gallimore, 1992; Moll, 1994) who have studied various aspects of learning and parent support within Latino populations in high-poverty areas. This intervention is based upon the premise that positive learning outcomes with immigrant Latino/a students are most likely to occur when there is an interaction between (a) challenging, meaningful learning tasks; (b) adults who respect children’s intellectual ability and their cultural capital; and (c) language activities in which all participants have frequent opportunities to share their ideas and opinions in both their native languages and English. Therefore, some of our guiding research questions are:

• What is the influence of exposure to emergent literacy activities in an inner-city, community, child-care setting upon preschool children’s Spanish and English literacy learning abilities?

• What kinds of English language and literacy support can be provided by parents, extended family members, and child-care center employees in a primarily Spanish-speaking community?

• What are the "funds of knowledge" in these communities from which children can draw, and how can this shared communal knowledge be incorporated into a structured preschool emergent literacy program?

Population Description and Setting
Located east of downtown Los Angeles in an area known as "skid row" (Rivera, 1999), Para Los Niños (PLN) is a comprehensive child care center and family services support center whose stated mission is "raising children out of poverty into a brighter future." The child-care center itself houses approximately 136 children, from infants to four-year-olds. For the most part, the parents of these children work in the nearby garment and toy wholesale districts where the normal working day is about nine hours. In addition, approximately two thirds of the families live in areas of the city where there is a high concentration of gang activity. According to agency figures, over 60% of the families served are single mothers with two to three children with monthly incomes ranging between $584 to approximately $1,050. Further, over 98.7% of families have incomes below federal poverty guidelines, with 35% of the children prenatally exposed to drugs or alcohol. A substantial number are also considered to be at risk for abuse or neglect. Finally, the great majority of the children in the program are Latino, with usually only one or two African-American or Anglo students enrolled per year. Although Spanish is the primary language of communication in the classroom, teachers and paraprofessionals do regularly code-switch into English for the few children who are bilingual or English-speaking only.

The Emergent Literacy Intervention and Procedures
We have drawn upon the research base of best practices for young children (e.g., Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Hammond & Raphael, 1999; Hiebert & Raphael, 1998) in establishing the principal strategies of the study. Our first goal was to create a two- to three-hour morning language and literacy program at the center for approximately 50 four-year-old preschool children each year by instituting a big-book shared reading program, installing writing centers, and purchasing over 1,000 children’s books. Second, we aimed to provide in-classroom support and ongoing inservices regarding emergent literacy theory, activities, and developmental growth in reading and writing for child care agency teachers and paraprofessionals. Last, we established a parent book lending library for center parents and have offered periodic parental workshops on reading at home and other ways to encourage their children’s awareness and knowledge of literacy materials and activities. Although the emergent literacy program is primarily being implemented in the two classes of four-year-olds (55 children), both classes of three-year-olds (52 children) and the one toddler class (14 children) are allowed to check out books from the parent book-lending library.

Design, Data Collection, and Analysis
The study is quasi-experimental with longitudinal, cross-sectional, and single-subject components as subsequent cohorts of children are being followed into the nearby elementary school for observation and comparison. In addition, various questionnaires have been distributed to both parents and teachers, and interviews are regularly conducted to ascertain teachers’, parents’, and administrators’ ongoing perspectives and feelings about the progress of the program. Further, during the last year, the research team has conducted home visits to capture the literacy activities in which parents engage with their children. In the classroom, data sources include children’s writing products, field notes of individual and group literacy behaviors, photographs, and video.

Finally, documentation of growth in concepts about literacy is being measured in at least four ways. First, weekly classroom observations of the children have been described in detailed field notes. Second, pre- and posttesting of all cohorts has been carried out with a Spanish Concepts About Print test (Escamilla, Andrade, Basurto, Ruiz, & Clay, 1996). Third, we are currently using versions of the Piagetian clinical interviews employed by Ferreiro and Teberosky (1982) as measures to capture children’s developmental growth in acquiring written language concepts. Finally, archival records and test scores from the children’s elementary experiences are being collected.

Selected Findings Over the First Two Years
The Family Book Loan Program
Since its inception in July 1998, participation in the book loan program has grown steadily (see Madrigal, Cubillas, Yaden, Tam, & Brassell, 1999, for complete details). Currently, of the 126 children in the two-, three-, and four-year-old classes eligible to participate, 79% of the two-year-olds, 44% of the three-year-olds, and 93% of the four-year-olds are involved in the program, for an overall percentage of 72%. Even though the book-lending program is open only two days per week, the average number of books checked out per day has risen dramatically from approximately 2 to 24 books over a 20-month period.

Questionnaires distributed to the families and field notes of conversations with parents at the loan program further underscore both the parents’ positive perceptions about the loan program and the ways their children’s behavior toward books has changed. For example, in a conversation about her son with one member of the research team, one mother recently said, "Well, now that he is with your program, he has learned a lot . . . before he didn’t even know what to do with a book, he wasn’t interested, but now he enjoys taking books home." In addition, over 150 parents have attended the project’s three book loan receptions and literacy workshops on various aspects of book-handling and home reading and writing activities. Their appreciation and support of the program has been a constant encouragement to the USC research team. In the words of another mother, "Es muy importante que hayan programas como este, porque nos enseña a nosotros como padres a tener ideas de como comportarnos con nuestros hijos y poder ayudarlos a ellos. Gracias por todo. La comida estuvo muy rica." (It is very important to have programs such as this one because it shows us as parents ideas of how we can interact with our children and how we can help them. Thanks for everything. The food was delicious.)

Concepts About Print
Although the program officially started in January of 1998 due to major renovations in the center that spring, the first cohort of four-year-old preschool children (1997–98) experienced only a small portion of the intervention before they left the center at the end of June 1998. They have therefore been designated as one of the comparison groups. At this writing, the second cohort of four-year-olds (1998–99) has finished its preschool year and the children are now in kindergarten, while the current cohort of preschoolers is now nearly three-quarters of the way through their preschool program. It is the performance of the second cohort that we will discuss here.

During their preschool year, this group of 55 children showed a statistically significant average gain of 4.5 points (from 4.2–8.7) on the Spanish Concepts About Print test. This gain reflected increasing knowledge about the directionality of print, awareness that printed words are read instead of pictures, and ability to identify capital and lower-case letters as well as some marks of punctuation. Also, 30% of these children could demonstrate early knowledge of word awareness by being able to track printed words in a sentence while it was being read aloud to them and by isolating written words using space as a boundary. Even more notable is that, at the beginning of their kindergarten year, these children have outscored children from other preschool programs on tests of English in upper- and lower-case letter identification and in vowel and consonant recognition.

The early results of this study show that preschool-age English language learners from high-poverty environments are gaining in their book-handling awareness, letter and word concepts, and understandings of print directionality during an emergent literacy intervention prior to their kindergarten year. In addition, many of the families have established read-aloud routines at home despite the frequent finding that storybook reading is not a normal practice among Latino families (see Goldenberg et al., 1992). Finally, our study also substantiates the transfer of early language awareness in Spanish to English (cf. Goldenberg, 1994). We anticipate that our longitudinal data for these children as they move through first to third grades will show that emergent literacy activities in either English or Spanish aid in the acquisition of advanced reading and writing skills later in school.

Selected References
August, D., & Hakuta, K. (1997). Improving schooling for language-minority children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs
(Rev. ed). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Delgato-Gaitan, C. (1990). Literacy for empowerment: The role of parents in children’s education. London: Falmer Press.

Delgato-Gaitan, C. (1996). Protean literacy: Extending the discourse of empowerment. London: Falmer Press.

Escamilla, K., Andrade, A. M., Basurto, A. G. M., Ruiz, O. A., & Clay, M. M. (1996). Instrumento de observacion: De los logros de la lecto-escritura inicial. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ferreiro, E., & Teberosky, A. (1982). Literacy before schooling. Exeter, NH: Heinemann.

Goldenberg, C. N. (1989). Parent’s effects on academic grouping for reading: Three case studies. American Educational Research Journal, 26 (3), 329–352.

Goldenberg, C. N. (1994). Promoting early literacy achievement among Spanish-speaking children: Lessons from two studies. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Getting reading right from the start: Effective early literacy interventions (pp. 171–199). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Goldenberg, C. N., & Gallimore, R. (1995). Immigrant Latino parents’ values and beliefs about their children’s education: Continuities and discontinuities across cultures and generations. In P. Pintrich & M. Maehr (Eds.), Culture, motivation, and achievement (pp. 183–277). Greenwich, CT: Jai Press.

Goldenberg, C. N., Reese, L., & Gallimore, R. (1992). Effects of literacy materials from school on Latino children’s home experiences and early reading achievement. American Journal of Education, 100, 497–536.

Hammond, W. D., & Raphael, T. E. (Eds.). (1999). Early literacy instruction for the new millennium. Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Reading Association and the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement.

Hiebert, E. H., & Raphael, T. E. (1998). Early literacy instruction. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

Losey, K. M. (1995). Mexican American students and classroom interaction: An overview and critique. Review of Educational Research, 65 (3), 283–318.

Madrigal, P., Cubillas, C., Yaden, D. B., Tam, A., & Brassell, D. (1999). Creating a book loan program for inner-city Latino families (CIERA Report #2-003). Ann Arbor, MI: Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement.

Moll, L. C. (1994). Literacy research in community and classrooms: A sociocultural approach. In R. Ruddell, M. Ruddell, & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Population Projections Program, Population Division. (2000). Projections of the resident population by race, Hispanic origin, and nativity: Middle series, 1999 and 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

Ramirez, R. R. (1999). Current population reports: The Hispanic population in the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.

Rivera, C. (1999, May 26). Zoning chief vows action on skid row "crime magnets." Los Angeles Times, B1 & B3.

Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Vernez, G., Krop, R. A., & Rydell, P. (1999). Closing the education gap: Benefits and costs. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.

This research was conducted as part of CIERA, the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, and supported under the Educational Research and Development Centers Program, PR/Award Number R305R70004, as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents of the described report do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment or the National Institute on Early Childhood development, or the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

© 2001 CIERA. All rights reserved.