Examining research on the Big Lift preschool initiative

Celia Gomez and colleagues from the RAND Corporation have released a new research brief that examines Big Lift, a preschool to third-grade initiative designed to boost literacy skills and ensure that children are reading proficiently by third grade (Year 4). The initiative has been implemented in seven US school districts in San Mateo County, California, that have below-average third-grade reading levels. According to the brief, Big Lift seeks to improve third-grade reading through a set of four co-ordinated and integrated “pillars”: High-Quality Preschool, Summer Learning, School Attendance and Family Engagement.

The researchers have examined outcomes for two cohorts of pupils: Cohort 1 includes pupils in four districts who receive Big Lift services, and Cohort 2 an additional three districts. Data sources include early childhood cognitive assessments, kindergarten (Year 1) and first-grade (Year 2) entry forms completed by parents, and the San Mateo County Office of Education’s countywide data system.

The current research brief is part of a multiphase evaluation of Big Lift, and reports on findings after two years of implementation. Key findings are as follows:

  • Big Lift preschool children in the 2017–2018 kindergarten class were better prepared for kindergarten than demographically similar peers who did not attend preschool — but they were less prepared than similar peers who attended non–Big Lift preschool programmes.
  • Children who attended two years of Big Lift preschool were more kindergarten-ready than similar peers who attended only one year.
  • In the 2016–2017 kindergarten class, Big Lift preschool children had reading levels at the end of kindergarten and the start of first grade that were on par with similar peers who attended other preschool programmes and higher than similar peers who attended no preschool at all.

Source: The Big Lift preschool, two years in: What have we learned so far? (2018), RAND Corporation Research Briefs RB-10047-SVCF

Do pupils benefit from longer school days?

A study published in Economics of Education Review looks at the evidence from the extended school day (ESD) programme in Florida to determine whether pupils benefit from longer school days.

In 2012, Florida introduced the ESD programme, increasing the length of the school day by an hour in the lowest-performing elementary (primary) schools in order to provide additional reading lessons. The lessons had to be based on research, adapted for pupil ability, and include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Schools were selected using school-level reading accountability measures. For this study, David Figlio and colleagues looked at reading scores for all pupils in Florida between grades 3 and 10 (Years 4 and 11) using school administrative data from 2005–06 and 2012–13, and employed a regression discontinuity design to estimate the effect of lengthening the school day, looking at the different performance of schools either side of the cut-off point.

Results indicated that the additional one hour of reading lessons had a positive effect on pupils’ reading achievement. ESD schools showed an improvement of +0.05 standard deviations on reading test scores in the first year. The annual cost of the ESD programme was $300,000-$400,000 per school, or $800 per pupil.

Source: Do students benefit from longer school days? Regression discontinuity evidence from Florida’s additional hour of literacy instruction (December 2018), Economics of Education Review, Volume 67

New guidance on preparing for literacy

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published its latest guidance report, Preparing for Literacy, which reviews the best available research to offer early years professionals practical “do’s and don’ts” to make sure all children start school with the foundations they need to read and write well.

The report considers how a wide range of different activities – like singing, storytelling and nursery rhymes – can help to develop children’s early reading. It offers seven recommendations designed to support early years professionals to improve the communication, language and early literacy skills of all their pupils – particularly those from disadvantaged homes. Previous analysis by the EEF found there was already a 4.3 month gap between poorer pupils and their classmates before school starts.

One of the recommendations focuses on parental engagement and the importance of supporting parents to understand how they can help in their child’s learning. It suggests that shared reading should be a central component for helping children to learn new words. The report also highlights the importance of high-quality interactions between adults and children to develop their communication and language skills. For example, early years professionals should make sure they talk with children – not just to them.

Source: Preparing for literacy: improving communication, language and literacy in the early years (June 2018), Education Endowment Foundation

The impact of wearing glasses on early literacy

In the previous issue of Best Evidence in Brief, we reported on a study  that showed how wearing glasses improved children’s reading. A similar study by Alison Bruce and colleagues (including the IEE’s Bette Chambers) looks at the impact of wearing glasses on children’s eyesight and early literacy in the UK.

Born in Bradford is a longitudinal study looking at the progress of a multi-ethnic birth cohort in the city of Bradford. From this cohort, 2,930 children underwent a vision screening test in their Reception year. The 432 children who failed the test were referred for follow-up (usually being prescribed glasses) and comprised the treatment group. A further 512 children who passed the sight test were chosen at random to make up the control group. All the children completed tests of literacy (Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests-Revised) and vocabulary (British Vocabulary Picture Scale) at school entry (Year 1) and after 12 months and 24 months. At the same time, researchers checked that the children were wearing their glasses.

The visual acuity of all children improved during the study, but those children who wore their glasses improved most and almost closed the gap on the control children. Letter identification scores declined by 1.5% for every one line reduction (on the LogMar sight chart) in visual acuity. The effect size of wearing glasses was +0.11. The results suggest that failure to wear glasses has implications for young children’s vision and education. Wearing glasses improves both visual acuity and has the potential to improve literacy.

Source: The effect of adherence to spectacle wear on early developing literacy: a longitudinal study based in a large multiethnic city, Bradford, UK (June 2018), BMJ Open

Family literacy sessions could boost learning

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published findings from a new evaluation report of “Family Skills”, a programme that aims to improve the literacy and language of children learning English as an additional language.

A total of 115 primary schools in England took part in a randomised controlled trial of Family Skills. Over the course of one term, parents of four- and five-year-olds were offered weekly sessions with family learning tutors. The 2.5 hour sessions focused on topics like reading to children, phonics, making the most of bilingualism, learning through play and understanding primary education in England. Families were encouraged to do learning activities at home with their children, and were also given opportunities to visit a local library and take a tour of their child’s school.

The evaluation, conducted by the National Centre for Social Research, found that, overall, children of parents who were offered the Family Skills intervention did not make any more progress in literacy than children of parents who were not offered it (effect size = +0.01). However, the evaluation also suggests that children whose parents actually attended Family Skills sessions made greater progress in literacy than children whose parents did not. While the evaluators are cautious about this, it may indicate some potential if ways can be found to ensure more parents attend. The key challenge the evaluation highlighted is that some schools struggled to get parents to show up – only around one-third of eligible parents attended at least one session.

Source: Family Skills: evaluation report and executive summary (May 2018), Education Endowment Foundation

Getting a read on Ready to Learn media

Ready to Learn (RTL) is an initiative funded by the US Department of Education to promote school readiness among children aged two to eight, and most preschool children in the US are exposed to RTL media. Supporting early literacy has been one of RTL’s primary focus areas, and this meta-analysis published in Child Development examines the effect of RTL media exposure on young children’s literacy skills.

For this meta-analysis, Lisa B Hurwitz collected data from 45 evaluations involving more than 24,000 children. Overall, results indicate positive effects on children’s literacy (effect size = +0.21), equivalent to approximately 1.5 months of extra literacy learning. Effects were varied across literacy outcomes, with larger effect sizes for phonological concepts and vocabulary than for alphabet knowledge and narrative comprehension. Findings were fairly robust across a variety of research designs and across samples of children, although effects were consistently more pronounced in within-subjects designs and for preschool-age children.

Source: Getting a read on Ready to Learn media: a meta-analytic review of effects on literacy (February 2018), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.13043