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Preschool literacy promoted with $3.4 million grant

Sept. 18, 2006

KALAMAZOO--Researchers at Western Michigan University have been awarded a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to promote literacy among preschool children in the Battle Creek area.

WMU will use the grant to partner with the Battle Creek Head Start program to develop five Early Reading First preschool "centers of excellence" to serve 380 Battle Creek 3- and 4-year-olds per year, ensuring that children learn the literacy skills they need before they enter grade school. Of children in the program, one-fourth have special needs or are English language learners and 91 percent come from low-income backgrounds.

"The goal is to give children of poverty a better start in learning how to read, because reading is everything," says Dr. Esther Newlin-Haus, director of the reading project. "If you get to third grade and can't read, you don't succeed in school. We want our children to experience early success in literacy so that they will succeed academically when they enter school."

The three-year grant is through the Department of Education's Early Reading First program.

"We want to make sure children enter elementary school ready to learn how to read," says Margaret Spellings, U.S. secretary of education, in announcing the grant. "Early Reading First uses research-based strategies to introduce young children to books and concepts like letters, sounds and vocabulary. These first years of life are critical for a child's development, and Early Reading First helps ensure children start life on the right track."

The WMU-led effort involves a partnership between the WMU departments of Family and Consumer Sciences and Special Education and Literacy Studies, both units within the University's College of Education. In addition to Newlin-Haus, co-principal investigators Drs. Karen Thomas, Shaila Rao and Kristal Ehrhardt from the Department of Special Education and Literacy Studies will provide professional development for teachers. Lori Farrer, an instructor in family and consumer sciences, will act as literacy coach. In addition, an outside consultant will provide professional development to help teachers better serve English language learners.

The program will help Head Start centers develop a literacy-rich environment that introduces children to phonological, book and print awareness and the importance of reading and writing. Workshops and weekly coaching will be provided to Head Start teachers to integrate an intense literacy focus into their curriculum, and the grant will help centers build classroom libraries.

Families also will benefit from monthly family literacy nights and home visits in which family literacy specialists will work with parents to help teach reading and vocabulary skills to their children. Children will be given a book to take home each week to add to their own home library, and a "lending library" of home literacy kits will be developed. The grant will also provide a five-week summer school for approximately 300 children.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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