Campus Currents

Look, Mom, I Can Journal!

Walk into one of several preschools around Manchester, Nashua and surrounding rural towns in New Hampshire these days, and you might be surprised at what you see: 3, 4 and 5-year-olds writing their names and sounding out words. Young children keeping journals, writing stories and creating their own nursery rhyme books.

You might think you've stumbled into the first grade by accident, when in reality, you've simply entered one of several experimental classrooms participating in UNH's Granite Ladders program, a research project exploring the effects of an early literacy curriculum on children living in poverty.

Launched in 2002 by the Institute on Disability, Granite Ladders is made possible by a $1.4 million grant over four years from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. UNH is one of 12 teams around the country and the only one in New England to receive funds as part of the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Grants Program.

"We're addressing a serious national problem," says Jeff Priest, project director for Granite Ladders. "As early as kindergarten, kids living in poverty are already at risk for not developing the same level of reading fluency as their middle-class peers, and it often doesn't get better from there."

According to the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress, surveys conducted over the past 10 years to track academic achievement by income levels show an average 26-point gap in reading and math skill levels between students living in poverty and higher-income students. And experts believe this gap begins early.

Working in partnership with Southern New Hampshire Services' Head Start program, Granite Ladders helps teachers implement an activity-based, early literacy preschool curriculum called Ladders to Literacy into their lesson plans.

"It's a great program," says teacher Amy Caron, who has used the Ladders curriculum with her students at Brookside Center in Manchester, N.H., for the past two years. "Not only are the children learning, but their self-esteem is growing. And parents are impressed-they say their children are writing more at home and clapping out syllables," she says.

The program also provides hands-on learning opportunities for UNH graduate students. So far, seven students with majors ranging from counseling to Spanish to communications disorders have contributed to the program, testing children and observing classrooms in order to collect data. "I've learned a lot about teaching methods and how children learn," explains Michelle Luteman '99, a master's candidate in special education.

Last year was considered a pilot year, and children exposed to Ladders in 2003-04 will be followed through kindergarten and first grade to assess the program's effectiveness. Some of the variables that will be considered are the effect of disabilities and half-day vs. full-day classes. Although the hard data still isn't in, Caron is an early convert. "Before, we focused only on social skills development. Now we emphasize activities such as writing in journals, name writing and rhyming that build reading and writing skills along with self-esteem."

(To learn more about Granite Ladders, visit Early Childhood & Inclusive Education Projects.)

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