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In findings on reading, some surprises

A look at skills among the youngest could change how preschools teach children.

Preschoolers: Daylen Wright (l.) and Juan Martin (r.) play at a child-care center in Glendale, Ariz. Many places like this are trying for the right balance between fun and learning.

MICHAEL SCHENNUM/THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC/AP/FILE

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If a 3-year-old asks you, "What's that?" when you're holding a rake, tell her more than just its name. Say it gathers up the fallen leaves, that it's made of metal, that it's blue. Tell her it starts with the letter "R" and show her the word. Expounding on a simple lawn tool will be a better springboard for her to eventually start reading and writing.

That's one takeaway from the first comprehensive look at preparing children from birth to age 5 for literacy. In this report, some of the findings reinforce the value of common practices, such as teaching young children the alphabet. But "some of the patterns are different from what people predicted, and that's going to change practice," says Timothy Shanahan, chairman of the National Early Literacy Panel, which released the report Thursday.

One indicator of the need for stronger early literacy is the fact that by fourth grade, one-third of students haven't reached a basic level of reading achievement, according to the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The picture is even more stark for students from non-English-speaking homes or low socioeconomic status, who tend to start kindergarten behind in preliteracy skills.

Early-childhood education has been expanding in many states, and during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama proposed $10 billion a year in additional investment. The report is well-timed, panelists say, to guide such investments.

Training for preschool teachers in Little Rock, Ark., has already shifted based on an early glimpse that district leaders had of the panel's findings. "When a child gives a one-word answer, the teacher will ... encourage the child to explain further," says Glenda Nugent, director of early childhood education.

Another practice doesn't fare so well against the report's findings. Having kids memorize lists of words is "creeping into a lot of preschools," says Mr. Shanahan, who is also director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But it turns out that it's much better to also know word meanings and exhibit skills such as listening comprehension.

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