Picture Books throughout Early Childhood

November 27, 2013

As we approach Thanksgiving our thoughts naturally turn to family. This week, NIEER’s blog is directed more toward parents, grandparents, and others who read with young children, though policy makers will find it helps them understand good early childhood education practice, as well.   Literacy expert Dr. Shannon Riley-Ayers offers advice about picture book reading from infancy through grade school.

Take a moment and think about your experiences with picture books.  I expect that this will invoke warm memories for most, if not all, adults.  Perhaps it is the memory of sitting on a relative’s lap reading, perhaps it is a favorite book that you can still recite by heart, maybe it is a recollection of attending story hour at the local library, or it could be the thought of a favorite teacher reading aloud.

Picture books provide children a visual experience, where the story develops and is supported by rich illustrations. They are a wonderful tool to generate excitement about books and reading and to provide the opportunities for discussions about the story and the illustrations.  The evidence is strong in showing that rich language and literacy experiences early on are related to later learning.  Reading (and re-reading) picture books contributes to these important early experiences. 


Infants and toddlers enjoy books that have bright colors and big pictures.  Consider offering sturdy books that can be handled by their small hands, but don’t make other books off-limits.  Even young toddlers can learn proper book handling and caring for books.   Include books that encourage active participation from the young child such as “touch and feel” books and lift-the-flap books.  Be sure to read books with large pictures to talk about and books that have rhyming and repetition.  Make the experience warm and inviting by holding the child on your lap and looking at the book together.  Allow the child to handle the book and to help turn pages.  Be comfortable in re-reading books and also in veering from the printed words.  Engage in conversation about the book by telling the child more about the pictures or elaborating on the printed words.  Youngsters will come to learn that reading is a pleasurable experience and that books are just as interesting as toys.  Therefore, be sure to have a multitude of books available for them to explore independently as well.


Preschoolers actively construct literacy knowledge through texts such as picture books.  They begin to see that the print holds meaning and they can quickly become adept at print concepts such as holding the book properly, turning the pages, and even tracking the print as they “read.”  Children this age can also begin to engage in meaningful conversations about picture books.  For instance, children can make personal connections to a story or talk about their favorite part and why they like or don’t like a particular story or character.

Kindergarten and Grade 1

Reading picture books aloud at this age offers children the opportunity to enjoy literature and see value and beauty in reading.  Children can actively participate in read-alouds by asking and answering questions about the text and retelling stories.  Comparing and contrasting stories is also a great use of picture books at this age level.  Children can make connections between similar stories, similar characters, and similar genres or authors.  Additionally, picture books can be used as models for generating writing from young children, such as texts with a pattern or a cumulative storyline.

Grades 2 and 3  

Picture books offer a great opportunity for close reading.  This is where the text is read and re-read several times to consider the author’s purpose, the structure, and the flow of the text.  Reading picture books aloud can provide the modeling and scaffolding of this close reading.   Children can recount the stories to determine their central message, lesson, or moral.  Picture books can be used to study characters, and how their motivations and feelings contribute to the story.  They also provide shorter text to practice comparing and contrasting themes, plots, and characters across stories.

Beyond Grade 3

Sometimes we think that as children get older and begin reading on their own that there is little reason to read pictures books with them.  Not so. Beyond the early years, picture books are great vehicles to teach literary elements.  Literary devices such as imagery, voice, theme, satire, and personification can be identified and discussed using carefully selected picture books.    These can be valuable understandings for older children to then apply to reading chapter books, and also to apply to their own narrative writing.

As National Picture Book Month draws to a close, I ask you to use picture books to support literacy skills, enjoying texts, and enhancing motivation to read with children of all ages.  You may choose books that were favorites from your childhood and share the memories you have around the book.  You can look to national award winners such as the Caldecott Medal, awarded annually by the American Library Association to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.  And don’t forget to allow the child some choice by going the local library to select some of his or her favorites. NIEER and CEELO staff members have also compiled a Pinterest board full of picture book recommendations and our personal favorites.

Be sure to include books in your home language, and some that have characters that are just like the child or children you are reading to, and some that show different cultures. Vary the genre you read to include folktales, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction.  Above all, select books that will allow you to enjoy the special moments you are creating with the child or children you are reading with!

– Shannon Riley-Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER

Love for Learning in Children Experiencing Homelessness

November 21, 2013

Today, like every Thursday, is my play day – I spend an enriching two hours at a shelter for families who are experiencing homelessness through the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. As an early childhood enthusiast and former preschool teacher, I was already familiar with the benefits of learning through play.  What I wasn’t familiar with was the effects of homelessness on young children.   The more I’ve interacted with children and families in my local community, the more curious I’ve become about the national landscape.  How many young children in the US experiences homelessness? How does homelessness affect young children?  What role could early childhood education programs (and policies around them) play in mitigating the effects of homelessness?

kids playing with play dohEstimating the exact number of children experiencing homelessness is difficult – not all families live in shelters and families can experience multiple episodes of homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act defines homeless children and youth as those who do not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” and includes children living in shelters, cars, public spaces, or doubled up (living with family, friends, or non-relatives). Data from homeless shelters are generally the only source of data for very young children. In 2010, 183,375 children under age six lived in a shelter (over half of the child-age population in shelters). Sadly, this number reflects just a portion of young children experiencing homelessness – many more have no permanent home, moving from housing to housing. Families constitute the fastest growing segment of those experiencing homelessness.

Does it matter where children are so long as they have a roof over their head?  Research shows us that it in fact does. Continuity is a critical piece of health child development – one that children without inconsistent housing lack.  Episodes of homelessness pose a number of issues for young children:

  • Poorer health–access to health care, in particular vital immunizations and checkups, is often difficult to get to for families with insecure housing. Homeless children are more likely to experience health problems such as asthma and ear infections.
  • Developmental delays–“homeless children are four times more likely to exhibit developmental delays and are twice as likely to experience learning disabilities than their housed peers.”
  • Stressed relationships with parents–parents, too, suffer from the effects of not having consistent housing, such as depression, stress, and anxiety.   This, in turn, can affect their relationships with their children.
  • Toxic stress–continuous homelessness or frequent episodes of homelessness can contribute to toxic stress, which can lead to long-term negative effects on a child’s development, health, and learning.

The effects are apparent in even the youngest of children, a recent analysis “shows that children experiencing homelessness or high mobility begin Head Start at age three with poorer socio-emotional, cognitive, and health-related outcomes on average than their low-income, stably housed peers.”

Early childhood education (ECE) programs provide a proven way to support both children and their families.   They facilitate access to health care, foster children’s development across multiple domains, and provide parenting supports.  An ECE program can serve as a consistent and safe place for children to grow and learn.

Yet fewer homeless children (15 percent) than low-income children (57 percent) are enrolled in preschool programs. While Head Start is available to all homeless childrenand the federal McKinney-Vento Act mandates states to provide equal access to pre-k education to homeless children, actually obtaining a spot in one of these programs is a challenge. Not all states provide pre-k and both state pre-k and Head Start programs often have wait lists.  Another barrier is a lack of information: homeless parents may not be aware of the programs available to them and their children.  Increasing access to, and awareness of, home visiting programs, Head Start, pre-k programs, and other early learning programs are policy solutions that would mitigate the detrimental effects of living in homelessness.

In addition to children and families benefiting from expanded access to ECE programs, society would also see a return on investment.  On a personal level, I know I benefit from my interactions with the children I visit with, because I am affected and inspired every week by their innate love of learning– their curiosity, their desire to explore their environment, their unwavering desire to master new skills.   Ensuring access to early childhood education for young children experiencing homelessness is the strongest tool we have to cultivate that love for learning and let it flourish.

– Melissa Dahlin, CEELO Research Associate

Equity and Excellence: African-American Children’s Access to Quality Preschool

November 18, 2013

A new paper, Equity and Excellence: African-American Children’s Access to Quality Preschool, by Steve Barnett and Megan Carolan at NIEER and David Johns of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans (WHIEEAA), examines the critical issue of providing access to quality early childhood programs to African American children. In a collaboration with the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes and the WHIEEAA, their brief addresses the inequities in access for African American children before they even start public school, and how “equitable access to good early childhood education offers great potential for reducing the achievement gap for African-American children.”

That brief is under discussion today in a panel at the U.S. Department of Education discussing creating and expanding early learning opportunities in the African American community. Children eating lunch

The panel discussion will highlight findings from this report, and “Being Black is Not a Risk Factor,” a report released by the National Black Child Development Institute. Both reports “support the President’s investments in high quality early learning opportunities and highlight specific opportunities for African American children and families.”

“The “achievement gap” between students of different social and economic backgrounds can be directly linked to opportunity gaps, including lower access to high-quality education opportunities, “ note Barnett and Carolan. This is measured often in the K-12 years, but, say the authors, “African-American children, and others whose educational needs are poorly met in the first five years of life, fall behind before they even start Kindergarten.”

They found that African American children are disproportionately enrolled in low quality programs, compared to their White and Hispanic peers, in both center- and home-based care. In Head Start programs, serving children from low-income families “only about 1 in 4 African-American students received services in [high quality] centers,” compared to about 1 in 4 White or Hispanic children. The report examines primary care arrangements for children and enrollment in state prekindergarten programs. Several states serving large populations of African American children do have state pre-K programs, but quality, funding, and policies affecting programs do vary among those states.

The authors examine child outcomes too, and report ample evidence that access to high quality preschool programs can make a positive difference for African American children of all income levels in terms of child development outcomes and achievement.

Barnett, Carolan, and Johns recommend:

  • Increasing public support for high-quality preschool to expand access to African-American children and to ensure that the programs they attend are, in fact, of high quality.
  • As 45 percent of young African-American children live in poverty and 70 percent live in low income families, programs limited to children in poverty will still leave many of them without access to quality preschool education, even if perfectly targeted, which is improbable.  Offering high-quality preschool to children living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level would reach most, but the most effective way to ensure that African-American children have access to effective early education prior to kindergarten would be to offer quality pre-K to all children.
  • Some states with large African-American populations seem unlikely to set high standards or expand access significantly unless something changes.  Federal incentives for states to expand access to state pre-K, and to ensure that these programs are highly effective, would provide impetus for state policy changes that would greatly benefit African-American children.
  • Ensure that data are routinely collected and reported on access to pre-K programs by income and ethnicity and that data on quality is collected periodically.  Many states cannot report enrollment in pre-K by family background, so that access to programs by African-American children is not routinely measured.  The most recent national data with information on quality are from 2005.  Another round of quality data should be collected to track change; ideally this would be done every five years to inform policy makers and the public. If this is planned for 2015, it will be ten years since the last collection of nationwide quality data.
– Dorothy StricklandProfessor Emeritus, Distinguished Research Fellow, NIEER

Pre-K Returns to Capitol Hill

November 13, 2013

Today, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY), Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and actress Jennifer Garner discussed a bipartisan proposal to expand access to quality, early childhood education programs for children from birth to age 5.snack time 2

The Harkin-Miller-Hanna proposal, the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, is intended to strengthen and add to the existing state-funded programs currently provided by 40 states and the District of Columbia, using the foundation of the framework outlined by President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union Address.

“The bill recognizes that every child needs a good early education and calls for quality by offering states incentives to take the lead rather than imposing mandates,” says Steve Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “The bill seeks to enable every state to do what the best state programs already do for their children.”

The 10-year implementation bill would  “fund preschool for 4-year old children from families earning below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), and encourage states to spend their own funds to support preschool for young children with family incomes above that income level.”

It includes “a new federal-state partnership with formula funding for 4-year old preschool, with a state match, to all eligible states, based on each state’s proportion of 4-year olds under 200% of the FPL. States would provide subgrants to high-quality, local providers, including local educational agencies (LEAs) and community-based providers (such as child care and Head Start programs) that have partnerships with LEAs.”

There is an Early Head Start partnership proposed as well, to focus on providing services to infants and toddlers.

The proposal highlights critical elements of quality for birth-to-five programs, including several that NIEER has highlighted as essential for a federal program, requiring, among other things:

  • strong staff qualifications, including a bachelor’s degree for teachers;
  • developmentally appropriate, evidence-based curricular and learning environments aligned with the state’s early learning standards;
  • adequate salaries for well-trained staff, comparable with K-12 teacher salaries;
  • access to high-quality professional development;
  • accessible comprehensive serves, including health, mental health, dental, vision screening, referrals and assistance in obtaining services (when appropriate), family engagement, nutrition and other support services as determined in a local needs analysis; and
  • ongoing program evaluation.

The proposal is comprehensive, in encouraging alignment of early learning standards with K-12 standards and ensuring that standards cover all domains of readiness; that data from preschool are linked to K-12 data; and that state-funded kindergarten is provided. Links to encourage seamless provision of services to children from birth through five are also included.

Programs are asked to address the needs of children who are homeless, migrant, in foster care, needing reduced-price or free lunch, English language learners, or with disabilities.

In a recent column, Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times highlighted Oklahoma’s preschool program as an example of how states could provide quality preschool, along the lines of what’s included in the Harkin-Miller-Hannah proposal. He cites bipartisan support for that program:

It’s promising that here in Oklahoma, early education isn’t seen as a Republican or Democratic initiative. It is simply considered an experiment that works. After all, why should we squander human capacity and perpetuate social problems as happens when we don’t reach these kids in time?

“This isn’t a liberal issue,” said Skip Steele, a Republican who is a Tulsa City Council member and strong supporter of early education. “This is investing in our kids, in our future. It’s a no-brainer.”

Results of the Oklahoma program have been evaluated by NIEER and others, providing encouraging reasons to support this proposal. Preschool has increasingly taken a place in the national political spotlight, factoring in several major elections earlier this month. The introduction of this bill has the potential to spur major conversations and move pre-K further up the education agenda. Assisting states in providing universal access to comprehensive programs for children from birth to 5, can provide a powerful opportunity for positive outcomes and success for children throughout their school years.

-Kirsty Clarke Brown, Policy and Communications Advisor

Early Education in the Voting Booth

November 4, 2013

Education policy is often a campaign issue for politicians and very heavily debated in both major political parties. Lately, preschool has made its way to the forefront of political debate for both sides since the President proposed his “Preschool for All” plan, proposing incentives for states to offer high quality universal preschool to all children during his 2013 State of the Union address. On both sides of the political aisle many agree early education is fundamentally important for a child’s development and economic productivity, but there is more disagreement about the role of government and eligibility for government assistance with pre-K. Keeping up with where different candidates stand on these issues is important for the voter interested in education policy issues.  child raising hand in class

In New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, Democratic Senator Barbara Buono recently proposed an education initiative that would include expanding preschool and full day kindergarten. While Buono has not released a budget breakdown for this somewhat vague proposal, the campaign for Republican Governor Chris Christie has said this initiative would add an extra $3 billion to New Jersey’s education budget, currently standing at about $33 billion. New Jersey’s education budget is already one of the largest in the country, spending over $19,000 per child on education (in the 2011-2012 school year). Christie has expressed his concern with funding such an extensive early childhood program and has largely criticized Buono’s education plan and dismissed it due to its high cost. Senator Buono is prepared to increase New Jersey income tax and plans to use the millionaire’s tax to fund this large-scale program. According to NIEER’s calculations, roughly $300 to $600 million would be required if all 4-year-olds not already in a public program were offered pre-K for a half or full day, respectively. Given the discrepancy, it is unclear where the Christie campaign is acquiring its numbers, and additionally not all funding would necessarily come from the state. It is worth noting that in 2008, the New Jersey legislature passed the School Funding Reform Act which would incorporate Abbott preschool program funding into the formula and eventually expand the program to all 3- and 4-year-olds in 82 high poverty districts, eventually reaching an additional 30,000 children statewide. However, the expansion has stalled in the wake of budget difficulties. We would like to see a debate over the benefits and costs of pre-K expansion in New Jersey with hard, reliable numbers, and see this continue beyond the campaign regardless of who is in the governor’s offices, focusing particularly on the SFRA expansion which is already on the books. To date, New Jersey has done quite well with its investment in pre-K and there are several programs with a wide range of costs, all of them relative bargains.

Virginia’s gubernatorial race has raised attention around preschool as well. Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli has criticized his Democrat opponent Terry McAuliffe’s education plans, which include expanding preschool, boosting teacher salaries, and making college more affordable. McAuliffe proposes expanding Medicaid coverage to save Virginia about $500 million dollars to use for education. Cuccinelli predicts that the pre-K spending will be far higher than this, estimating a $3.8 billion dollar price tag.  Virginia spends less than $4,000 per preschooler currently and has only about 75,000 4-year-olds not already in a public program.   NIEER’s estimate this to be $300 million, which assumes full enrollment although some families will choose private or homeschooling. Virginia could be spending more per pupil to raise program quality, but state costs are still unlikely to exceed $500 million even if the state paid the local share. Cuccinelli has proposed a voucher-like scholarship plan for preschoolers to expand options for children in low-performing schools.

New York City’s mayoral race has also included preschool in the debates. Democratic candidate and current Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio’s education plan involves creating a universal preschool program by increasing taxes on those who earn over $500,000. This would raise revenue for a universal preschool amounting to $580 million. Republican mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota is also a supporter of universal preschool and all day pre-kindergarten, though he disagrees with the funding plan for the program. Lhota says the money to fund universal preschool is already within the budget and government needs to “find more efficiencies to pay for programs just like this.” In New York, there seems to be agreement that a lack of preschool results in an achievement gap initiated by the large income gap that the city holds. As DeBlasio calls it, it is a “Tale of Two Cities,” with New York having such a large income gap. Research has demonstrated that universal preschool can equalize the playing field for students by increasing test score percentiles in all income groups in children. Providing universal preschool also will minimize income inequalities over time, and could increase future earnings for disadvantaged children by 7 percent to 15 percent. New York state is already discussing expanding its preschool program. By minimizing the income gap in education, the achievement gap will in turn shrink over time.

Several other elections have early education implications, including Boston, Colorado, Memphis, and Maryland. On November 5th, many citizens will vote for their choice candidates. Education, especially early education, is a critical topic that not only affects us today, but also affects our future; something to keep in mind as you head for the ballot box.

– Michelle Horowitz, Policy Research Assistant

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