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Scaling Up a Language and Literacy Development Program at the Pre-kindergarten Level

Susan Landry


Background: Despite accumulated research that has identified the components and nature of superior prekindergarten instruction, scaling of research-based practices in early childhood settings has been met with much opposition and it faces major challenges like disbelief that research-based practices can be implemented effectively by typical teachers in typical child care settings or classrooms composed of at-risk children who need high quality instruction the most. The present study exemplifies an effort to scale research-based practices through four overlapping professional development (PD) programs. These programs included all three essential elements of high quality PD as described by Showers, Joyce, & Bennett (1987): (1) presentation of content knowledge and theory behind recommended practices, (2) opportunities for demonstration and hands-on practice, and (3) prompt feedback to teachers as they engage in new practices.

Purpose: The purpose of this study was to experimentally compare the effectiveness of four similar professional development (PD) programs for teachers of at-risk prekindergarten children.

Intervention: All four PD programs evaluated in this study included the same core components of a year-long online course targeting language and literacy instruction, practice of learned material in one's classroom, and participation in online message boards with fellow teachers. In addition, teachers in two PD programs were provided with weekly mentoring, and teachers in two PD programs received detailed, instructionally linked feedback on children's progress in language and literacy acquisition.

Setting: Participants include 253 teachers from Head Start centers, child care centers, and public school-based prekindergarten classrooms in Texas, Maryland, Ohio, and Florida. Additionally, eight children from each classroom were randomly selected for assessment, totaling nearly 2,000 children. Children ranged in age from 3- to 5-years. The sample was 17% Caucasian, 30% African American, 21% Hispanic, and 32% other. Seventy-three percent of children spoke English in their home, 27% spoke Spanish in their home, and 10% spoke a language other than English or Spanish in their home. Teachers in the first cohort have completed two years of PD to date, and teachers in the second cohort have completed one year of PD to date. August of 2007 is the project end date.

Research Design: A randomized experimental design was used to compare the effectiveness of the four professional development programs relative to "business as usual" control group. Specifically, 150 schools containing 253 classrooms were randomly assigned to one of the five experimental conditions. A 2x2 (Mentoring x Feedback) design yielded four treatment conditions: (1) mentored with detailed feedback, (2) nonmentored with detailed feedback, (3) mentored with limited feedback, and (4) nonmentored with limited feedback.

The outcomes on which professional development programs were compared were changes in children's achievement, changes in teachers' behavior, and changes in the instructional environment. Children's achievement outcomes included scores on the following tests of:

  • Oral language. English and Spanish versions of the Preschool Language Scales Fourth Edition (PLS)
  • Vocabulary. English and Spanish versions of the Preschool Language Scales Fourth Edition (PLS)
  • Phonological awareness. Developmental Skills Checklist (DSC; English) or La Lista (Spanish)
  • Letter knowledge & print awareness. English and Spanish versions of Preschool Comprehensive Test of Phonological and Print Processing (PCTOPPP)

    Achievement data was gathered from eight children in each participating classroom at the beginning and end of an academic school year.

    Teacher outcomes included indices of frequency and quality of each of the following: Shared reading, lesson planning, oral language instruction, print & letter knowledge instruction, phonological awareness instruction, writing instruction, center-based instruction, team teaching, and use of assessment. The 21 indicators of teaching quality were based on ratings of trained observers who were blind to teachers' experimental condition. Raters observed randomly selected 30% of teachers from each condition at the beginning and end of a given school year.

    Preliminary analyses have been conducted of data from children and teachers who comprised the first cohort and who completed one full year of PD. Mixed modeling ANCOVA analyses controlled for children's chronological age, pretest achievement scores, and site differences, when predicting children's end-of-year achievement.

    Findings: Ongoing implementation and preliminary analyses demonstrate that research-based practices can be successfully scaled in typical child care and early childhood education settings via high quality, sustained professional development (PD). The most powerful of the four PD programs evaluated by the present study was the most comprehensive and well integrated program that involved having teachers participate in a year-long online PD course, practice what they learned in their classrooms, communicate regularly with other participating teachers via online message boards, receive weekly mentoring over the course of a year, and be provided with detailed feedback on individual children's academic progress along with recommended instructional activities. Teachers who received this comprehensive PD package became better teachers. That is, they improved the quality of their writing instruction, phonological awareness instruction, letter knowledge instruction, shared reading instruction, and center-based instruction, and they kept more detailed and more useful portfolios on children. The effectiveness of the most comprehensive PD package was also evident in how much children learned. Specifically, teachers who received the most comprehensive PD package graduated children who had larger vocabularies, more highly developed phonological awareness, and more knowledge of letters and print concepts at the end of the year than teachers who received no supplemental PD. Although regular mentoring and detailed, instructionally relevant feedback on children's progress led to some improvements in teaching and children's outcomes, it was the combination of year-long coursework, hands-on practice in classrooms, communication and accountability among peer teachers and mentors, and linking children's progress monitoring results with instruction that yielded the most impressive changes in the quality of teachers' instruction and the amount of children's learning.

    Landry, S., Swank, P., Anthony, J. L., & Monsegue-Bailey, P. (2005, August). Preliminary findings supporting the effectiveness of comprehensive professional development programs for prekindergarten teachers of at-risk children!. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Interagency Education Research Initiative. Washington, DC.

    Landry, S. & Anthony, J. L. (2006, February). Scaling-up effective, comprehensive professional development programs for teachers of at-risk prekindergarten children. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Research Conference. San Diego, CA.

    Anthony, J. L., Gunnewig, S., Landry, S., & Swank, P. (2006, June). Effectiveness of comprehensive professional development for teachers of at-risk preschoolers. Paper presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading. Vancouver, Canada.

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