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Virginia Journal of Education

Getting EVERYONE to the Starting Line

The critical importance of early childhood education.

By Sara Miller
Ask any kindergarten teacher who has worked with disadvantaged children why many of those students aren’t reading on grade level by third grade, and you’ll get a clear and resounding answer. 

The explanation is simple: They never had a chance. 

By the time children from socio-economically struggling families enter formal schooling, they’re so far behind the starting line of their more advantaged peers that the goal of proficient reading by third grade seems unattainable. When children come to elementary school unable to state their name, use a pencil, or know how to hold a book, it takes a tremendous amount of language and literacy exposure to catch up with peers. Many of their classmates enter the same grade speaking in complex sentences, writing lots of words, and surrounded by text at home.

This is not to say that excellent teachers and well-structured programs cannot make a significant impact on students’ literacy development, even with students who are significantly behind, because they can and do. However, it’s shortsighted to ignore the basic fact that many students who end up falling significantly behind in school started out this way. 

To compound the issue, disadvantaged students tend to be congregated in specific areas and schools. This makes it difficult for teachers in these areas and schools to provide each student who is behind with the amount of intervention he or she needs to catch up. A further obstacle: The factors that put children behind from the start often continue well into their school years, working against the efforts of teachers and schools.

I have had the opportunity to work with many disadvantaged students and have seen firsthand how this lack of preparation for school can impact students’ learning. Children have entered my kindergarten classes unsure of the difference between letters and numbers or how to use them. As a reading specialist, I’ve worked with students on oral language development to increase their responses beyond one or two words. As an education professor I have helped my preservice teachers tutor young children who do not have a single book at home. These are the students who aren’t proficiently reading in third grade and beyond.

I think about these students on a daily basis, especially now that I have my own young children. I see my girls making up rhyming words, singing the alphabet song, and pointing out letters and words they know. At such a young age, they can retell parts of a story and recognize basic inferences in text. Those skills were a struggle for some students I’ve worked with well into their second and third year of formal schooling.
My girls are not smarter. They’ve just been immersed in language and literacy from birth.

It’s not an even playing field. For those of us working with disadvantaged students throughout the state, it is painfully clear that children do not start out at the same place. My kids will be ready to learn when they get to elementary school, but so many young children are not. We need to tell their story. We need to be their voice. 
Until the public and our elected officials understand what teachers already know, too much education policy will continue to ignore the issue of school readiness. Until we begin to put faces on all our statistics, those outside of education won’t fully understand the challenges educators face in getting all students reading on grade level by third grade.

As challenging as these issues are, the solution is just as straightforward. We must assist families in the very early years of children’s development, because if we don’t, it’s very likely those children will never catch up. It is enormously difficult to remediate a lack of language and literacy exposure in the first years of life. 

We must make a firm commitment, as the President did in the State of the Union Address, to provide quality preschool for families of young children. This commitment needs to affect more than just children at the margins, but serve students from all economic and social backgrounds.

One reason is that these issues are especially pronounced in Virginia’s rural areas. When people think of disadvantaged children, they most often think of urban centers, but school readiness issues just as heavily affect rural America. In these underserved communities, the differences in the early years can be devastating and pronounced. Often, rural families have limited options for high-quality daycare and preschool, forcing many into incredibly difficult choices and, in too many cases, less-than-ideal childcare settings. 
In some areas, community-based organizations and institutions seem well positioned to fill this gap. For instance, Longwood University, located in the heart of rural Virginia and where I am a faculty member, is working with various early childhood education organizations to help meet some of these needs. Universities with experience teaching and supporting quality educational programs can have a significant impact on students’ readiness for reading and, ultimately, school success.

But we need help to make this happen. We need government agencies to recognize that funding early childhood programs and workforce training can have a significant impact on academic success for at-risk children. We must help them see the connection between students’ school readiness and their future reading ability. We must help them understand it’s not a coincidence that Southside Virginia, where Longwood is located, has one of the highest rates of poverty and the lowest pass rates of any region in Virginia on the third grade reading test for the 2013-2014 school year.

School readiness matters. It’s of paramount importance that federal, state and local governments understand and support access and choices for parents of young children. Quality early childhood education cannot continue to be a luxury for families who live in metropolitan areas and can afford it. All children deserve rich, early educational experiences.

Every one of us must advocate for other people's children as if they were our own—it’s the only way to make the American dream truly an option for all Americans. No one understands this better than public school teachers. We must share our experiences and advocate for the needs of the youngest children, helping ensure they’re prepared to learn when they reach us at any grade. If we want to leave no child behind, we must help all children get to the starting line.

Dr. Miller is an assistant professor at Longwood University in Farmville, and the Co-Coordinator of the Elementary and Middle School Education Programs in the Education and Special Education Department. She can be contacted at


It’s Happening in ‘Merzville’

How one Smyth County teacher is moving children toward the starting line.

By Mark Merz

Welcome to my preschool classroom for at-risk four-year-olds. It’s kind of like a small town within the educational county of our southwest Virginia elementary school. I jokingly think of my room as Merzville, population 20 (18 children, an instructional aide and me). Perhaps it has this in common with a few real Appalachian small towns: Due to isolation, small size or some other bureaucratic quirk, it doesn’t attract a lot of attention and I, like certain small town mayors, have a lot of freedom in my domain.

Merzville is the place where I can test my ideas and ideals regarding the linkage of nurture and instruction in the education of small children. It’s my chance to cultivate a microenvironment like the world in which I wish to live—literate, sensitive, safe, creative, and productive. 

Ideally, preschool is child’s play for my students, but I have important work to do! “At-risk” means, for the four-year-olds in my class, to be at risk of failing to read on grade level by third grade. They possess family or individual characteristics correlated with reading failure: low socio-economic status, low percentile scores on a standardized entrance assessment, speech or other developmental delays, low parental education, or family disruptions. They’re the kids for whom the “achievement gap” will likely become a reality, if public preschool interventions are unsuccessful at overcoming literacy deficits by the time they begin kindergarten.

I am the public preschool interventionist in Merzville. 

Enhancing literacy through connecting learning to read and learning to write is an important goal in preschool, and it’s the one I’ll focus on here, though I work hard to address all of Virginia’s Foundation Blocks for Early Learning. These outline my curricular goals in much the same way Virginia’s Standards of Learning do for K-12 education. Here’s just a sample of what we do to build literacy skills:
Linking Print to Oral Language
Pictographic precursors to print. I borrow the use of “letter links” from The Perry Preschool Project’s High/Scope curriculum. Children select simple, stylized line drawings of animals or objects whose names begin with the same sounds as their names. The pictures include upper-case forms of the beginning letters in the corners. Then I create sets of letter links—the student-selected pictures linked to printed names—in different sizes and forms. We use them for everything: labeling, prompting, turn-taking, selecting centers, etc. Children learn to recognize not only their own names but the names of their classmates. They learn them so well that, by February, they’re able to distribute their own Valentines. 

Dictation. This is another way to show the connection between spoken language and print. Students, in response to various kinds of prompts, supply verbal responses which adults in the classroom—teacher, teaching assistant, parent volunteer—translate into written form.  Immediately upon writing a child’s words, the adult will co-read the words back while assisting him or her track the text.

Print Conventions
Some of the most important print conventions in emergent literacy include the left-to-right and top-to-bottom orientations of text, as well as understanding that words in print are separated by spaces. These print conventions are important whether producing or decoding text, so applying them during one process reinforces their application to the other.

Name Writing
A child’s name is the “presto” or “abracadabra” of emergent literacy, the magic word that opens many of the secrets of print to a young child. High/Scope letter links help teach recognition, but name writing is the production side of the formula. I create a single dry-erase name slate for each child by laminating: 1) a large-font version for tracing over, 2) a hollow-font version for tracing inside, and 3) a line for practicing unsupported name writing. Children have daily access to both their own name slates as well as those of their classmates in an area also including a large dry-erase easel.

Phonemes, Graphemes and Letter-Sound Correspondence
Beginning sounds. Apart from name writing, before I introduce children to letters of the alphabet, I teach them to isolate the beginning sounds of words. I begin with their names in small groups and teach them to say their own and each others’ names, elongating the beginning sounds for names that begin with continuously sounding consonants (e.g. Lllllllll-uke and Rrrrrrrr-aygan) or vowels (Aaaaa-ndrew) and repeating the sounds for discontinuous sounding consonants (B-b-b-b-brady and T-t-t-t-tim). I introduce the idea of “sound choppers.”  Holding pointer and ring fingers in an open scissor shape, we say the names with elongated beginning sounds and close the sound choppers during each name’s elongated onset. The students’ tasks are to cease vocalizing when the scissors close and to reproduce the sound they were making before they closed them. 

Letters and letter-sound correspondence. To teach letters and the sounds associated with them, I work with my class to create music videos incorporating songs, dances and other movements. I film students performing the songs and working on letter-related projects (creating posters, assembling letters from foam shapes, writing the letters with dry-erase materials, etc.) and interweave clips of them with clips of myself performing the song and with graphic letter art downloaded from online sources. Children love to watch themselves interacting with the letters, and they enjoy learning the songs to sing along with the videos. I reproduce DVDs for families to have at home at the end of the year.

We use puppets to help introduce letters, who model letter formation and guide children in their first attempts at writing each letter. The puppets also tell folk-style stories with alliterative choral response lines to teach and reinforce letter-sound correspondence. 

An Introduction to Process Writing
Toward the end of each year, I read aloud picture books by two authors whose treatment of animals is very different. William Steig’s books use animals as stand-ins for human characters in dramatic stories; Jim Arnosky treats animals realistically in gentle stories that accurately depict habitats, feeding habits, maternal care and life-cycle features. We begin with whole-group experiences, reading the books and comparing how animals behave in the stories. Next, children choose animals for their own stories and whether those animals will “act like people” or “act like animals.” In small groups, students then draw and dictate the scenes in their artwork to develop ideas about what the animals will do in the stories (plot), where the stories take place (setting), and who else besides the animals will be in the story (characters). Children experience peer reactions as the teacher shares student work with the class, and they’re encouraged to respond to each other’s work through clapping, comments and questions. Then, they create their illustrations using a combination of watercolors, pencil, crayon and collage. Their final books are published (laminated and provided with covers) and shared with families and friends during our end-of-year program.

Invented Spellings
By the end of the year, many children are ready to write with invented spellings, so I help them listen for the sounds in short target words. They can apply their invented spellings by writing in homemade books, ones in which they label objects depicted in clip art illustrations.

Writing Workshops
The version of this we use involves five steps, beginning with a meaningful gathering experience—a read-aloud, an outdoor experience, a field trip, a classroom conversation, or anything else with the potential for stimulating writing. This leads into a writing demonstration, during which I model the kind of thinking, drawing, and writing expected from children. Before students begin composing, they share their ideas, allowing them to rehearse their writing and to identify peers with similar ideas. The next-to-last step is writing and conferring, with free choice of writing subject and genre, writing partners, and materials and location for composing. A few students share their work after each writing workshop. 

Merzville is, as it should be, child’s play for its 18 youngest residents. But those 18, because its two oldest are very serious and deliberate about how they guide that play, finish their nine months there with the same or higher literacy skills as their more fortunate peers from more advantaged homes. And I’m proud of the excitement about school and the self-confidence they’ve earned and take with them to kindergarten.

Merz, a member of the Smyth County Education Association, was Virginia’s 2014-15 Region 7 Teacher of the Year. 



The Business Community Takes Notice

Speaking to the recent Virginia Workforce Conference, Mike Petters, president and CEO of Newport News Shipbuilding, one of the state’s largest employers, had this to say:

”One of the greatest advantages to living in this country is that people can change their trajectory. Yet it’s often hard to do on your own, and it’s just about impossible if you’re only 3 or 4 or 5 years old…

In my business, engineers know if a problem isn’t solved at the design stage, it will persist in the finished product. In education, the design stage is pre-K…

The fact that some kids go to pre-K because their families can afford it and other kids don’t go because their families cannot creates a rift between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ before formal public education even begins...

I believe early childhood education in America is a national security issue and one that we, as Americans, need to be concerned with. Part of what enables us to build these ships and have them crewed by our nation’s finest is the investment we make in education. For us to keep our economy strong and to remain competitive on this global stage, we must invest in education at the very beginning. We have to start thinking of 3- and 4-year-old children as a future asset to our society. Even at 3 years old, we can help them unlock their love for learning.”


Early Childhood Education Needs Backing

Closing school readiness and achievement gaps will take more attention to early childhood programs such as Early Head Start, the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, according to a 2015 report by the Center for American Progress.

 The report, at, says almost half of infants and toddlers in the U.S. now live in low-income households.



Some Figures from the Bottom Line

According to the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation:

• The average cost of repeating a grade is $10,793 per child.

• Virginia spends more than $78 million each year to retain children in grades K-3, who were ill-prepared.

• The average cost of additional instruction required for students failing to meet literacy benchmarks is$643 per child.





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