Youngsters Learn to Read and Empathize

School Psychology graduate student Rachael Koppel reads to students in the Next Door Head Start program.

Learning that reading can be fun is a good lesson for toddlers. How can a little lesson on recognizing one’s feelings or on empathy add value to the experience?

That’s the question that Karen Stoiber, professor of educational psychology, and group of her graduate students in school psychology are exploring with youngsters in the Next Door Head Start program.

Project BRIGHT (Book Reading to Improve Growth and High Quality Teaching) started during Head Start’s summer session in 2017, and is continuing this academic year. One or two graduate students come to a Next Door classroom for 60 to 75 minutes each day – at a time convenient to the teacher — to read to the children in small groups of one to four children. The graduate students act as early literacy facilitators with preschool children ages 3 to 5 years.

One of the key goals of the project is to promote children’s learning of key early literacy concepts like letter naming, vocabulary words, and awareness of phonics. With only 10 percent of children in urban areas such as Milwaukee reading proficiently by third grade, building a strong foundation in these skills is vital, according to Stoiber.

But Project BRIGHT goes one step farther, developing ways teachers can include other types of learning in the lessons. During last summer’s initial project, the youngsters were read the same stories, which included social emotional learning (SEL) content.

The children were divided into three groups. One group listened to the book being read aloud to them in a typical way without giving particular attention to letters, words, or social emotional concepts in the stories.

A second group participated in a more interactive approach to book reading with the graduate student explicitly pointing out letters or letter sounds and vocabulary words.

In the third approach the graduate students focused on both early literacy skills and on SEL by asking questions and talking to the children about feelings, ways to be a good friend, and strategies for calming down when angry or frustrated, such as taking a deep breath, singing a quiet song, or cuddling a stuffed animal or blanket.

For example, in reading a book called “Llama Llama and the Bully Goat,” facilitators in the early reading only groups focused on such skills as differentiating the sounds or letters associated with “L” and “B,” and recognizing rhyming words. In the combined SEL and literacy-focused group, the facilitators encouraged those same skills, but also spent time talking to the children about bullying behavior. They asked questions about whether or not a bully is a good friend, and how would the children react if someone starts to yell or be mean. They also talked about ways to control themselves if they don’t get their way or are upset with a situation.

Initial results were encouraging, according to Stoiber, with the children showing literacy gains in literacy-only group and gains in both early literacy skills and feeling recognition and self-management in the combined focus group.

Stoiber and graduate students in the school psychology program are continuing to work with the Next Door Head Start program. They are looking for funding to expand the program into other schools or work with existing after-school programs such as ones provided by the Boys & Girls Clubs.