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Preschool quality enhances first-graders’ reading acquisition

Preschool is meant to prepare children for a smooth transition to the first grade and enhance children’s learning in the first grade. However, a fresh study from the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä Finland indicates that not only the fact of attending preschool but also the quality of preschool matters for children’s reading acquisition in the first grade.

Moreover, such high quality preschool environment was found to be crucially important for reading acquisition of children with risk of reading difficulties, so that they do not fall behind their peers once formal reading instruction in the first grade starts.

What characterizes high quality preschool for reading acquisition? From psychological perspective, high quality preschool can be characterized by the quality of teacher-child interaction as well as the amount of literacy-related activities, says docent Gintautas Silinskas.

Teacher–child interaction manifest through emotional support and classroom organization. Emotional support means that teachers foster positive classroom climate for learning and attend to children’s needs and interests in a responsive and sensitive manner. Such emotional support by the preschool teacher can affect reading skills by affecting children’s engagement to preschool activities, establishing the connectedness to school and teachers, and enhancing motivation to learn.

Classroom organization includes teachers’ activities such as managing children’s behavior in class, and fostering their interest in learning. Good classroom organization provides children with self-regulatory skills that later help them to focus better on learning tasks in the classroom.

Another important preschool factor to contribute to reading acquisition in the first grade is the frequency of literacy-related activities for children who are at risk of difficulties of reading. Such activities may include rhymes, initial phoneme identification, games with syllables, identifying and naming letter, identifying letter-sound correspondences, and word recognition. While these literacy activities might be too easy for the preschoolers who are already able to read, they are crucially important in giving a good start at the very beginning of the first grade for the children who are at risk of reading acquisition.

The study is a part of the longitudinal the First Steps study. In the present study, published in 2017, 515 Finnish children from 49 preschool classes were followed across the transition from preschool to the first grade. Trained investigators observed the quality of the classroom interactions. The study included 428 typically developing children and 87 children who performed less well in identifying sounds, letters, slower in performing tasks and/or had genetic risk for difficulties in reading.

Silinskas’ et al. results have clear implications for early years practitioners and teacher educators by emphasizing the importance of preschool quality in preparing children to learn in the first grade. In particular, frequent engagement in literacy activities such as rhyming, playing games with syllables, phonemes, and letters should be encouraged in preschool, especially for children who have difficulties in naming letters and identifying sounds. This is important, because frequent literacy activities improve reading acquisition especially at the start of the first grade. Furthermore, preschool teachers should also be encouraged to form warm, sensitive, and respectful relations with children, to manage children’s behavior, and to encourage learning, especially among those children who have difficulties in pre-reading skills like naming letters or identifying sounds.

Further information:
Docent Gintautas Silinskas, +358408054215, gintautas.silinskas@jyu.fi
Professor Marja-Kristiina Lerkkanen, marja-kristiina.lerkkanen@jyu.fi, tel. +358408053347 

Silinskas, G., Pakarinen, E., Lerkkanen, M. K., Poikkeus, A. M., & Nurmi, J. E. (2017). Classroom interaction and literacy activities in kindergarten: Longitudinal links to Grade 1 readers at risk and not at risk of reading difficulties. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 51, 321-335. doi:10.1016/j.cedpsych.2017.09.002