Pre-K to K-3 transitions: what can states do?

Two new reports are out on the role of pre-K programs (pre-kindergarten) and K-3 (kindergarten through grade 3).[1] Not surprisingly, the news is these programs are important to children at both stages of development ─ and there is not a level playing field, depending on which state you live in.

Both pre-K and K-3 programs play a vital role in laying a solid foundation for children’s early development. If children participate in quality pre-K and proceed to a lesser quality K-3, they’re at risk of losing the gains they have made. Likewise, transitioning from quality pre-K benefits children in K-3.

What can a state do to ensure a strong transition process between pre-K and K-3? The new reports from Education Commission of the States (ECS) aim to answer this question. The reports identify 20 factors to consider in determining quality – and they provide a profile of each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia so you can look at the situation in your own locale.

The reports have consolidated the information into four categories they suggest we pay particular attention to:

  1. Transition from pre-K to kindergarten: Some one-third of the states (37% or 18 states plus the District of Columbia) provide guidance in the pre-K to kindergarten transition process. Examples of “guidance” include written transition plans, engaging families in the process, providing teacher/school meetings, and providing assessment data such as readiness for kindergarten.
  2. Preparation of teachers: Some form of teacher preparation and/or professional development in reading is required for educators in K-3 in nearly three-fourths of states (73% or 37 states). Examples include training for the teaching of reading, using reading assessment results, and providing interventions to children based on assessment information.
  3. Involvement of parents: Nearly half of states (43% or 21 states plus D.C.) require some level of parental involvement in the promotion and retention process.[2]
  4. Children’s social-emotional learning:[3] Nearly three-fourths of states (73% or 36 states plus D.C.) focus on social-emotional learning in K-3.Examples of this type of learning are social-emotional assessments conducted when children enter kindergarten, a state’s definition of school readiness, and a state’s requirements for teachers and/or teacher training.

If the data provided in these four categories truly indicate whether we have an effective “trapeze” in place from pre-K to K-3, children residing in many states are likely facing significant challenges in their transitions.

I wanted to get a better sense of the differences among some of the states on the 20 factors to consider in determining quality so randomly selected three to compare ─ Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. Although the information is not 100% complete among the factors since the ECS study relied on the availability of each state’s information, you can begin to draw your own conclusions.

Comparison of Oregon, Tennessee & Washington on 20 Factors

Basic Requirements

Does the state require full-day kindergarten?

  • OR: No, full-day kindergarten is not required.
  • TN: Yes, full-day kindergarten is required.
  • WA: Yes, full-day kindergarten is required to be implemented statewide by 2017-2018.

 How many hours are required for grades K-3?  

  • OR: 450 hours per year for half-day kindergarten (~2.5 hours/day). 900 hours per year for full-day kindergarten and grades 1-8 (~5 hours/day).
  • TN: 4 hours per day for kindergarten (~720 hours/year). 6.5 hours per day for grades 1-12 (~1,170 hours/year).
  • WA: 1000 hours per year for full-day kindergarten and grades 1-3 (~5.5 hours/day).

 What are the teacher-to-student ratio requirements for grades K-3?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: 1:25 maximum for grades K-3 (Goal of 1:20 average).
  • WA: By 2017-2018, average class ratios should be 1:17 for average general education class in K-3 and 1:15 for high poverty K-3 class.

 School Readiness & Transitions

 Are kindergarten entrance assessments required?

  • OR: Statewide kindergarten assessment is required to be administered to all enrolled kindergarten students.
  • TN: Districts must develop/implement comprehensive developmental assessment program for kindergarten children.
  • WA: WA Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WAKIDS) is required at beginning of school year for all state funded all-day kindergarten programs.

 What are states required to do with the results of the kindergarten entrance assessment?

  • OR: Results of the KEA are required to be included in statewide longitudinal data system.
  • TN: The results of the developmental assessment may be used in developing instructional programs.
  • WA: WAKIDS is used to support development of individual children, early learning provider and parental involvement and to inform instruction.

 Are there programs in place to guide pre-kindergarten to kindergarten transition process?

  • OR: Grant program-Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership and Innovation Program: Priority given to those applications that foster kindergarten readiness by forming partnerships between early learning, child care providers and/or elementary schools.
  • TN: In their application for funding, local education agencies are required to include plan for ensuring coordination between pre-kindergarten classrooms and elementary schools to ensure  elementary grade instruction builds upon pre-k classroom experiences.
  • WA: Schools receiving program support for all-day kindergarten must demonstrate connections with early learning community providers and must participate in kindergarten readiness activities with early learning providers and parents.

 Does the state have a statutory definition of school readiness?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.

 What do states use their definition of school readiness to inform?

  • OR: While term “school readiness” is not explicitly defined, the concept is used in a number of state programs including: Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership and Innovation Program, the Oregon Early Reading Program, and the Statewide Education plan for “plan” students.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.

 What are the re-classification procedures for English Language Learner students?

  • OR: Students are reclassified based on English proficiency assessment scores and consistent progress.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Students are reclassified after meeting superintendent-established exit criteria on state language proficiency exam.

Assessment, Intervention & Retention

 Are assessments required in grades K-3?

  • OR: The Early Success Reading Initiative includes screening and continuously monitoring reading progress of all children K-3 with research-based assessment systems.
  • TN: Assessments in reading/language arts, math, science and social studies are required in grade three.
  • WA: Second grade reading assessments are required.

 What do the results of K-3 assessments inform?

  • OR: Administrators and teachers are able to collect, interpret and use student data to guide instructional decisions, implement a school wide reading action plan, and provide strategies for student groups and structured interaction with parents. The results of the KEA are required to be included in the statewide longitudinal data system.
  • TN: State-mandated tests are prohibited earlier than grade three.
  • WA: Assessment results are used to provide information to parents, teachers, and school administrators. Assessments and diagnostic tools are made available at each grade level to inform instructional strategies and interventions.

 Are there interventions available beginning in kindergarten?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Interventions are available in third grade.
  • WA: K-4 interventions are available in any school where more than 40% of tested students are not proficient. For all other schools, third grade and fourth grade interventions are available.

 What are the interventions available for students in grades K-3?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Interventions include summer programs and before and after school programs.

 Is there a third grade retention policy?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Third grade retention is required, with good cause exemptions.
  • WA: Third grade retention is required with good cause exemptions

 Instructional Quality

 What are the requirements for teacher training or professional development in reading?

  • OR: Teacher Preparation: The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission must adopt rules that require approved educator preparation programs to demonstrate that candidates receive training in how to provide instruction that enables student to meet or exceed third-grade reading standards.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Professional development: opportunities in reading instruction and early literacy for teachers of kindergarten through fourth grade students made available, subject to funds appropriated. Grant Program: Primary grade reading grant program exists to enhance teachers’ skills in assisting students in beginning reading.

What ELL training or professional development is required of general classroom teachers?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Teacher preparation programs in Washington must ensure that pre-service teachers develop the following competencies to support English language development: theories of language acquisition, including academic language development; using multiple instruction strategies, including the principles of second language acquisition, to address student academic language ability levels and cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and student cultural identity.

Family Engagement

What are the requirements for teacher training or professional development in reading?

  • OR: Teacher Preparation: The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission must adopt rules that require approved educator preparation programs to demonstrate that candidates receive training in how to provide instruction that enables student to meet or exceed third-grade reading standards.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Professional development: opportunities in reading instruction and early literacy for teachers of kindergarten through fourth grade students made available, subject to funds appropriated. Grant Program: Primary grade reading grant program exists to enhance teachers’ skills in assisting students in beginning reading.

What ELL training or professional development is required of general classroom teachers?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Teacher preparation programs in WA must ensure  pre-service teachers develop following competencies to support English language development: theories of language acquisition, including academic language development; using multiple instruction strategies, including the principles of second language acquisition, to address student academic language ability levels and cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and student cultural identity.

Social-Emotional Learning

Where is social-emotional development emphasized in the state’s statute or rules and regulations?

  • OR: Social-emotional development is included as area of school readiness measured in kindergarten entrance assessment
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations
  • WA: Social-emotional growth is supported by use of Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills.

Here’s what I’d like to see the schools in my state ─ and the state policies to support these ─ have in place after studying this information:

  • Full-day kindergarten
  • High number of hours required for K-3 instruction
  • Low teacher-to student ratio in the early grades so children have more attention from the teacher
  • Assess children’s readiness to enter kindergarten, including social-emotional factors related to school readiness and progress ─ to identify where early intervention can help children catch up
  • Linked K-3 to pre-K programs so they can align what they’re providing to children and work together on smooth transition processes
  • Schools have a definition of school readiness and these do not differ substantially within the state (there should be an equal playing field)
  • Assess progress early (grade 2 rather than 3) to identify needed interventions earlier
  • Decision whether to promote a child to the next grade based on best assessment data
  • Teachers in early grades trained in reading
  • Schools engage families in the education of their children

To learn more about your own state, check out the K-3 Quality State Profiles at and  think about what you would like to see in place to help children transition well from pre-K to K-3.


[1] 50-State Comparison: K-3 Quality and Companion Report by Alyssa Auck, Education Commission of the States, July 18, 2016:

[2] Promotion is moving up a grade; retention is staying at same grade level.

[3]Committee for Children (, the attributes of social-emotional learning are: 1) recognizing emotions in oneself and others; 2) managing strong emotions; 3) having empathy for others; 4) controlling impulses; 5) communicating clearly and assertively; 6) maintaining cooperative relationships; 7) making responsible decisions; 8) solving problems effectively. Social-emotional learning is increasingly a component in the school curricula, schools are helping young learners harness their energy and potential by teaching them to listen, pay attention, control their behavior, and get along with others..

Behind doors 1, 2 or 3──which toys promote infants’ literacy development?

Behind doors #1, 2 and 3, you can select three types of toys for your infant. Which door do you select to promote literacy development ── and why? Findings of a Northern Arizona University study examining the type of toys used by infants during play and the quantity and quality of parent-child communication using the toys provides some surprising answers.[1]

In the study, 26 parents and their 10-16 month old infants were given three sets of toys to play with:

  1. Books── five different board books[2].
  2. Traditional toys ── farm animal puzzle, shape-sorter, set of blocks.
  3. Electronic toys ── baby laptop, talking farm, baby cell phone.

Audio recording equipment in the families’ homes recorded the language between parent and infant as they interacted with the toys over a three-day period ──during two 15-minute play sessions for each toy set. This scenario enabled families to play with all of the toys in each set.

What were the researchers looking at during these interactions? Throughout each minute of the play sessions, researchers measured the number of adult words used, the child’s vocalizations, the conversational turns[3], the parent’s verbal responses to the child’s utterances, and the types of words produced by parents.

Why would a study like this be important? We know from a growing body of research that early language development creates the foundation to support a child’s success through school, children who know more words at age two enter kindergarten better prepared than others, and infants develop larger vocabularies by the types of interaction with their caregivers. We know too that “size matters” ── the size of a child’s vocabulary. More than a decade ago, Hart and Risley[4] studied families from various socio-economic backgrounds to assess the ways in which daily exchanges between parents and their child shape language and vocabulary development. The findings revealed major disparities between the number of words spoken and the types of messages conveyed. After four years, these differences in parent-child interactions added up to significant discrepancies. Children from high-income families were being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. And follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life. This has become known as the 30 million word gap.

This knowledge informed the study to determine if the type of toys used during play affects a child’s language development?

What then did the researchers find when they analyzed the data collected by the recording devices?

The researchers found that there were indeed significant differences in the language interactions between parent and infant playing with books versus traditional toys versus electronic toys. During play with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words, fewer conversational turns, fewer parental responses, and fewer productions of content-specific words than during play with books or traditional toys. Children vocalized less during play with electronic toys than play with books. Parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys than play with books and use of content-specific words was lower during play with traditional toys.[5]

  • Book play averaged 66.89 words per minute.
  • Traditional toy play averaged 55.5 words per minute.
  • Electronic toy play averaged 39.62 words per minute.

The researchers conclude that “to promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.”[6]

Many folks are looking at this study now and adding their perspectives – see two recent blogs: When It Comes to Infant Language Development, Not All Toys Are Created Equal (Aaron Loewenbeg) and Electronic versus Traditional Toys: What They Mean for Infant Playtime (Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent”).[7]

Loewenberg notes, “When children are engaged with electronic toys, such as a baby laptop or talking farm, parents may get the mistaken impression that the toy is helping the child more than their parents can. Or, given the demands and stress of juggling work and household duties, parents may feel no choice but to leave their infants and toddlers alone with these toys for periods of time. But there’s no evidence that children in the 10-16 month age range are able to learn vocabulary by using media without a parent or other adult talking with them about what they are seeing and playing with.”[8] Loewenberg also points out that the study size was small and not very diverse. “The study had a small sample size of just 26 parents and almost all of them were white and college-educated. Hopefully, similar research will be done in the future with a more demographically diverse set of participants.”[9] But these limitations aside, he concludes, “… it’s hard to dismiss research that shows such clear benefits of traditional toys over fancier (and more expensive) electronic items. So my advice to parents of very young children looking to purchase a toy to help their infant’s language development would be this: Be skeptical of a toy company’s grand claims about the educational benefits of their high-tech product since they rarely have research to back it up. Instead, opt for a low-tech toy or book that both parent and child can engage with together.”[10]

Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent” reminds us that, “Electronic toys …are pretty much ubiquitous. Young children are very attracted to them. So what is a parent to do? Electronic toys can be helpful if used sparingly. We all need a few minutes to do dishes or cook a meal and these toys can be good distractions for a few minutes. It’s good, however, to keep in mind that you as a parent are the best “toy” for your infant. Talking to him/her over toys and books is the best way for her/him to learn language and interaction skills … and narrating to your child what you are doing as you go about your daily routine.” [11]

My takeaway: when the “game show of life” has us standing before door #1 (books), #2 (traditional toys) and #3 (electronic toys), I’m selecting door #1 first for the infant in my care because vocabulary development matters and engaging infants through effective communication is a high-stakes ── 30 million word ──pay-off.


[1] Sosa AV. Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play with the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015. Dec 23

[2] Board books: designed to survive the wear and tear of infants’ mouths and hands and offer opportunity to share with a child on a caregiver’s lap. The best ones tell a simple story with few or no words, allowing readers to invent their own. Illustrations are crisp and clear, with limited images on each page.

[3] In conversation, turns include the pauses, silences, moments of potential transition when the momentum may be taken up by either party.

[4] “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. (2003). American Educator. Spring.

[5] Sosa study

[6] Sosa study.

[7] and






Should your child enroll in a dual language program?

Your child has the option to enroll in a dual language program in your school district. Will this option be beneficial for your child’s literacy development? And why has this question become part of a national and local policy debate?

My son was five years old when we moved to a community piloting a dual language immersion program in the local public school district. The option was for first graders to voluntarily enroll in the French or Spanish program (programs in Japanese and Chinese would be added in subsequent years). Students would be learning in both English and a second language throughout the school day; the curriculum would be the same as in other classrooms, but students would have the opportunity to learn how to read, write, listen, and speak in two languages.

I liked the idea that my son could begin Spanish in the first grade, and stay with it through elementary, middle and high school (International High School was on the drawing board). When families signed up, the school let us know it might be confusing in the early years for our children to be learning in a second language, but we should not pull out of the program if this occurred. So we signed up for Spanish and my son stayed with it throughout the International High School. By third grade, the teachers told us if our children were dropped into a Spanish-speaking country, they would understand the local language even though they might not be able to speak it well. Over the years, as more native Spanish-speaking children (English Language Learners or ELLs[1]) moved to our town, the school district put them in the dual language program so they could further develop their Spanish skills and learn English. This is how my son learned a lot of his “street” Spanish —the kids happily taught one another the slang and swear words they were not learning in class from the teachers.

I have long wondered if my view that my son’s education was greatly enhanced because he participated in the 12 year language program is supported by research. So it was with great interest that I recently read several papers[2] produced by Ed Central at the New America Foundation on research, policies, and practices of dual language programs in U.S. public schools —and learned about efforts underway to inform a growing national and local debate— should school districts (and communities) continue dual language learning programs and grow more of them—or close them down?

Like so many public policy debates, there’s typically a “good” and “bad news” story. In this debate, the good news is that dual language programs are increasingly prevalent in school districts throughout the U.S. The bad news is, despite the trend toward expansion based on research showing significant, multiple benefits of these programs, many school districts are looking at these programs as “luxuries” that can be eliminated as schools face budget shortfalls.

Who wins and who loses in this situation? Consider the following three points.

First, the context. Dual language learners[3] are the fastest-growing group of U.S. school children—an estimated 7- 9 million are now under the age of eight. The 2015 Census data projections tell us that these numbers nearly double the most recent count of K-12 English language learners in the 2011-2012 school year (4.4 million). About 90 percent of the dual language learners are U.S. citizens who will be entering the nation’s workforce in the coming decade. School systems, therefore, play the key role in providing the educational supports for this group, and their literacy development and biculturalism is both a local and national priority. “Overall, 40 percent of immigrant families in the U.S. come from Mexico, but the remaining 60 percent come from all over the globe—including the Caribbean (7 percent), Latin America (13 percent), and Asia (19 percent).” While nearly three-fourths of the English language learners speak Spanish, another 149 languages are spoken among these groups. This tremendous diversity creates significant challenges for schools whose role is to instruct and assess dual language learners in languages other than English. And while schools in many states (e.g., California, New York, Texas) have long been supporting these students’ development, multilingual students have been arriving in large numbers to many more schools throughout the U.S. For example, the number of English language learners grew by over 600 percent in South Carolina and 306 percent in Kentucky during the first decade of the century.[4]

The demographic facts are compelling.

It’s not a choice ─ whether to educate dual language learners;

rather, the choice is how best to educate this diverse group of learners.

That said, do dual language programs in fact help children learn? There is substantial research showing multiple benefits for children who acquire a second language. The Springfield Public Schools (Oregon)[5] describes the following seven benefits as the district institutes a new dual language immersion program in Spanish:

  1. Children more easily learn a foreign language than adults and typically end up with a better understanding of their native language.
  2. English learners have an opportunity to make more progress on grade-level instruction — reducing the number who fall behind.
  3. Early foreign language learning increases achievement as measured by standardized testing.
  4. Young bilingual children show more critical thinking skills, greater sensitivity to language, and stronger communication and listening skills.
  5. Children develop a sense of appreciation for other cultures.
  6. Proficiency in a second language gives students a head start in language requirements for college.
  7. Proficiency in a second language gives students a head start for many jobs.

Ed Central’s summary of the research[6] informs us that “the benefits of bilingualism are countless and lifelong. Students who speak two languages have a longer attention span and stronger executive functioning. Increasing evidence suggests that bilingualism permanently alters neurological structures and slows down the decline in cognitive functioning, memory, and executive functioning as we age. Dual immersion programs also offer a host of non-academic benefits to all students. Finally, learning another language can increase tolerance, respect, and appreciation for other people and cultures.”

The research further informs us that “dual immersion programs, when designed and implemented correctly, are also the most effective way to teach English language learners. Multiple studies have confirmed . . . that dual immersion programs were most effective at closing the achievement gap between native English speakers and non-native speakers by eighth grade. Building home language proficiency in the early grades while simultaneously learning English can lead to higher academic success, especially when it comes to literacy. In immersion programs, English language learners’ native language is treated as a strength, not a deficit to overcome, which can positively affect student confidence and long-term socioemotional well-being.”[7]

“In Portland, Oregon, where dual immersion programs now reach almost ten percent of the student population, a new study just found that students enrolled in dual immersion outscored their peers in reading by an entire school year in eighth grade. In California, where Proposition 227 eliminated bilingual instruction options for most schools, there is continuing growth in dual immersion programs under a waiver program. Cities like San Francisco are now educating over 5,000 students in Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, and Korean, and demand exceeds the number of seats in the programs. In New York City, council members . . . are teaming up to rapidly expand dual immersion programs, with 39 new programs this school year. They hope to eventually provide second-language instruction to all NYC students, and use dual immersion programs as an integration tool.”[8]

Research shows that dual language immersion programs serve children for whom English

is their native language + children whose native language is not English, 

giving both groups the opportunity to become fluent in a second language.

It also helps students better understand their native language and strengthens literacy,

communication and critical thinking — key skills for their academic and lifelong success.

Who wouldn’t want this for all our children?

What then is the public debate about? Communities throughout the U.S. are expanding their dual language immersion programs in response to the research showing multiple benefits for children who acquire a second language. Yet the case for starting and continuing these programs bolstered by this compelling research is not “always enough to sustain them in tough budget fights.”[9] There is still the widespread perception that dual language immersion programs are “luxuries” schools can afford to cut.

Ed Central offers us a case in point — the public debate in the Fairfax County Schools (Virginia) where a budget task force has recommended that all the dual immersion programs be eliminated next year in order to save an estimated $1.9 million. The debate is pitting needed budget cuts against preferred educational services needed by many students.

The Fairfax County School’s English language learner population is now the eighth-largest among school districts in the nation; and there are large numbers of students speaking various languages at home (e.g., Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Urdu, Amharic, Telugu, and Farsi or Persian). The County Schools has addressed this diversity by implementing 16 dual language immersion programs at the elementary school level, where students spend half of their day learning science and math in one of five target languages: Spanish, French, Japanese, Korean, and German.[10]

“With its growing ethnic and linguistic diversity — and considerable local resources — Fairfax County should be a model for dual immersion education. These programs provide the best education possible for ELLs, can attract upper- and middle-class parents in order to support socioeconomic diversity in the schools, and provide all students the cognitive and socioemotional benefits inherent in the ‘bilingual advantage’. Instead, there is a very real possibility that students will see their access to multilingualism cut short in June 2016.” Advocates for dual language programs can only conclude that “As districts across the country embrace dual immersion to promote academic achievement and equity, it’s an embarrassment that a county as diverse as Fairfax would even consider eliminating them. Dual immersion programs should not be considered luxury programs we can afford to lose, but the ideal way to educate children for the challenges of the twenty-first century.”[11]

The policy debate is both a local and national issue:

competing demands for scarce educational resources — 

who gets the preferred educational programs and why/why not?  

With these three factors in mind — our nation’s rapidly changing demography, findings from research, and policy considerations — let me return to the original question. Your child has the option to enroll in a dual language program in your school district. Will this option be beneficial for your child’s literacy development?

Answer this question for your own child and perhaps in doing so you will help to answer the questions of the national and local policy debate.

[1]As defined by the U.S. Department of Education, English Language Learners (ELLs) are individuals who, due to any of the following reasons has sufficient difficulty speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language to be denied the opportunity to learn successfully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in the larger U.S. society: (a) was not born in the U.S. or has a native language other than English; (b) comes from environments where a language other than English is dominant; or (c) is an American Indian or Alaska Native and comes from environments where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual’s level of English language proficiency.

[2] See Ed Central, New America Foundation at <>. New America Foundation is a public policy institute that addresses the next generation of challenges facing the U.S. Ed Central is written by staffers on New America’s Education Policy Program. DLL (dual language learners) is one area of focus.

[3] See The Office of Head Start defines dual language learners (DLL) as children who acquire two or more languages simultaneously, and learn a second language while continuing to develop their first language. The term “dual language learners” encompasses other terms frequently used, such as Limited English Proficient (LEP), bilingual, English language learners (ELL), English learners, and children who speak a Language Other Than English (LOTE)” (OHS 2009).

[4] Data from Dual Language Learners Reader Post #2: Who are Dual Language Learners? at and Investing in What Works: San Antonio’s Success With English Language Learners at


[6] Dual Immersion Programs: Expanding and Endangered at

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


Blog for mom on her 99th birthday ─ why I wrote a “how-to” book for children

My fifth children’s picture book (How 7 Fish & 2 Ponds Landed in the Z House Backyard) came out a few weeks ago. Shortly after, the book landed gift-wrapped in a big box of gifts headed to mom for her ninety-ninth birthday. Yep, 99! After she read the new book, she remarked on the phone with surprise, “It’s a how-to book.” I agreed.

I’ve been mulling over her comment for the last few days. With full intention, I did write a how-to book, hoping a child would get the gist of how a pond can be built. And hoping too that a child would get ideas like ─ ‘o look, the boy really likes fish and he wants to learn how to build a pond.’ And ‘look at all that dirt they had to dig up.’ And ‘look at the different colors fish come in.’ And ‘wow, fish can grow big just like children do and what happens when they get so big that they don’t fit in their home anymore?’ In that sense, I was also writing an “informational storybook”─ a book that uses a story to convey information.[1]

And I hoped too that children would get that they can dream up an idea and then try to realize it like Noah did in the book. All of this dreaming things up – creativity, thinking and planning ─ can start early. It must start early.

Reading for information is a critically important tool in the child’s literacy development toolbox. Children need to learn early that asking questions is great ─ and learning by watching others do something is great─ and that reading is a main way they are going to acquire information vital to their lives.

21st century children are facing huge challenges in literacy – not only learning to read and how to apply reading in many formats ─but how to retrieve information from rapidly changing technology tools to access knowledge. How to question computers and pull out credible information are “survival skills” in their lives. “The amount of information available doubles every couple of years; some futurists predict that in two decades, available information will double every two to three months. It is no surprise that instructional books constitute approximately one-half of the books in most libraries’ juvenile collections. Instructional books help satisfy natural inquisitiveness and spark new curiosity.”[2]

Nonfiction informational books are central to literacy development. These types of books include the “how-to” books ─ as well as the related “how does this work” books.[3] “A child uses informational and non-fiction books to assemble what he knows, what he feels, what he sees, as well as to collect new facts.” [4]

Here’s what distinguishes information books from other types of books (or “genres”) out there.[5]

Info books for children …

  • Have a main purpose to provide in-depth explanation of fact-based material.
  • Are literature and considered trade books.
  • Are nonfiction but not textbooks or reference books.
  • Inform by attention to facts and capitalizing on children’s wonder at all that is out there.
  • When most effective, suggest a wealth of information, stimulating a wish to know more.

Info books for children …

  • Include the “how-to” books.
  • Contain interesting details and lesser-known facts.
  • Use expository language (writing that explains, describes, informs).
  • Are organized using a logical presentation of information.
  • Include photographs or illustrations to provide authenticity.
  • When the main purpose is to inform but contain entertaining elements of fiction are called informational stories ─ informational storybooks use a storyline to convey information.

Children benefit from info books in many ways …

  • Experience “authentic learning” as they investigate their own questions/topics of interest.
  • Inquire and solve problems ─ and foster critical thinking skills.
  • See connections and interrelationships among content and concepts.
  • Learn about faraway places, past times, and new ideas and concepts.
  • Begin to view the world as changing and evolving.
  • Acquire new vocabulary and broader background knowledge.

It’s not too early for young readers to know that there are many categories of books out there to provide different types of information. Trips to the library, for example, should underscore the many categories of books including story books and informational books available to them. The latter will include categories such as history; understanding peoples and cultures; nature; the arts; discovering how things work; and the how-to books.

Schools, of course, play the major role in guiding children to develop their reading and information retrieval skills using reading and critical thinking. Children begin the earliest grades now (including pre-school) using an array of technology tools because they must become familiar with them early to master their uses. They will have to know what “information retrieval” processes are and how and when to use them. Their vocabulary will need to include terms such as key word search, queries, web search engines, FAQ (frequently asked questions), tutorial, user guide, database, and apps. Without this level of literacy (reading and information literacy), they’re not going to be able to fill in words within a search box to access online applications for school, employment, and do their taxes someday.

A sample lesson plan from two teachers posted at Scholastic[6] underscores the types of lesson plans teachers are encouraged to incorporate in the early grades.[7] The lesson is aimed at pre-kindergarten through grades 1 and 2. The aim for the lesson is that “students will be able to identify nonfiction how-to books, discuss the ways how-to books are used, apply their knowledge and create a how-to book of their own.” One of the recommended activities is that the teacher will “ask parents to place focus on nonfiction procedural books that they use and will be using at home.” Scholastic offers some wonderful titles of books in the how-to category for teachers putting together these lesson plans.[8] Of course, parents can pick up these books and many other books in the nonfiction informational category too in order to help their children learn about the ways of acquiring new information.

Here’s the bottom line. Living in the 21st century is a journey increasingly in acquiring and processing new knowledge as things change around us. Reading early to develop these skills is key. So let’s help all our children develop their reading skills; teach them that there are many types of books out there and that they represent how knowledge is divided up ─ and that one of their important missions in life is to acquire knowledge. When young learners acquire the tools of reading and information retrieval ─ and understand that the knowledge they need is shaped into categories accessible through these tools – they can advance their journey as a learner, learning from autobiographies, poetry and how-to books alike. At an early age, children can and should do key word searches ─ type them in a box or speak them into a voice recognition system in their smart phone, tablet or computer; or tell the librarian at the library what the topic is they’re interested in – even if they don’t have technology tools right now ─ so they can watch the librarian start the information retrieval process and know that they soon will be doing this for themselves …

Pond.Front cover.21764715_High Resolution Front Cover_4728367_1 (2)


[1] Another Z House book that falls somewhere between informational storybook and how-to is How the Dog Came to Live at the Z House. It tells the story of a boy’s getting his first dog but also describes the many steps to adopting a dog through the local animal shelter.

[2] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[3] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[4] Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[5] Drawn from: Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[6] Scholastic (NASDAQ: SCHL) was founded in 1920 as a single classroom magazine. Today, Scholastic books and educational materials are in tens of thousands of schools and tens of millions of homes worldwide.

[7] Lesson Plan How-To Books by Alexandra Savvas, Naomi Randolph

[8] Scholastic publishes several books that fit into a lesson plan where the teacher (or parent) could follow up to make these items in class as follow-up activity. Examples: Tomatoes to Ketchup by Inez Snyder; Milk to Ice Cream by Inez Snyder; Wax to Crayons by Inez Snyder; Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie De Paola; Benny Bakes A Cake by Eve Rice; Building A House by Byron Barton; Bruno, The Tailor by Lars Klinting; Beans to Chocolate by Inez Snyder.

How should reading literacy be measured? PISA thinks globally …

especially Most of us think that reading is looking at written words and de-coding them ─ and understanding what the words are saying. And, to test students’ skills at reading, that’s what you focus on ─ how well did students de-code and how well did they comprehend what they read.

But there’s so much more to reading, especially after students master the basics. What comes next then?

Think globally and check out PISA’s definition of reading literacy: ‘the capacity to understand, use, reflect on and engage with written texts, in order to achieve goals and develop knowledge and potential ─ and participate in society.’[1]

The PISA view is ─ you can’t really participate in society without reading literacy ….

Who is PISA and why should we care about this definition of reading literacy?

PISA stands for The Programme for International Student Assessment.[2] PISA is an international test conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 15-year-old school students’ performance on math, science, and reading. The purpose of these assessments is to try to improve education by delivering information to policymakers and educators about how students are doing.

Every three years since the year 2000, 15-year-old students from randomly selected schools throughout the world take PISA assessments in the core subjects of reading, math, and science ─ and beginning in 2012, some nations also elected to participate in an optional assessment for problem solving and financial literacy. In each year of the assessment, PISA especially focuses on one of the core subjects.

What are the PISA assessments like?

The two-hour long PISA assessments are a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that present reading passages in real-life situations. A total of about 390 minutes of test items are covered. The students and their school principals also answer questionnaires to provide information about the students’ backgrounds, their schools and learning experiences ─ and about the broader school system. This background information is important for understanding how to interpret information collected from schools in many different systems and nations.

Why should we care how 15-year-olds in the U.S. stack up to 15-year olds in other nations?

Consider how reading literacy is assessed and then you decide …

In PISA, reading literacy is assessed in three ways: (1) the format of the text, (2) the processes of reading, and (3) situations for reading.

The format of the text: In typical tests of reading in the U.S, students are asked to read text presented in a series of sentences and paragraphs; and they’re tested on ability to read and comprehend from that format. But PISA tests additional types of reading formats such as information contained in lists, graphs, and diagrams; and reading that occurs in varied formats ─ story-telling, application forms, and advertisements. The thinking behind this is that individuals will encounter all types of written materials in their life and we should know how prepared they are to read these varied materials. In my early career, I worked as a K-12 resource teacher in a big public school district and recall so clearly the Superintendent of Schools remarking that a good teacher could teach reading from “the Yellow Pages.” Back then, that was the book that contained alphabetical lists of businesses and non-profits in the city; and it did contain the names of businesses and their addresses, phone numbers, ads, pictures, and charts about who they served. His words ring ever more true about our need to be sure our students can indeed interpret the world around them – through reading all kinds of materials, though the Yellow Pages have by and large given way to the world of websites now for this information.

The processes of reading: The PISA test does not assess 15-year olds on basic reading skills because it assumes that most students by this age will have these skills. What PSA does focus on is how well students can access and retrieve information; and whether they can form a general understanding of the text─ and interpret it and reflect on its contents and its form and features.

Situations: The PISA test wants to know how well a student reads for four different “situational” uses ─ reading for private use (personal); reading for public use; reading for work (occupational); and reading for education. For example, reading a novel, personal letter or biography is for private use; reading official documents or announcements are for public use; reading a manual or report is for occupational use; and reading a textbook or worksheet is for educational use. Some groups may perform better in one reading situation than another, so the assessment includes a range of reading situations among the test items.

Who among us could argue persuasively that our students need only to read well in one or two of these four situations?

In the most recent PISA assessments, some 70 nations participated. The PISA results are tabulated by country ─ and recent testing cycles have separate provincial or regional results for some countries. The public attention, as you would expect, focuses on rankings: the average scores of countries and how they stack up next to one another. PISA never combines math, science and reading scores into an overall score to create a “best of show.” However, some folks have combined test results from all three areas (math, science, reading) to create such a ranking system. OECD does not endorse this type of summarizing of the outcomes of these assessments, however.

How does the U.S. stack up in the most recent reading assessment for our 15 year-olds?

PISA 2012 testing results were announced on December 3, 2013, based on tests of some half a million (510,000) participating students in all 34 OECD member countries plus 31 partner countries. Here are the rankings by country for reading. You have to scan pretty far down the list to find the U.S. at 24th on the list among 65 nations!

Reading scores PISA 2012 (reported 2013)

Rank            Country                         Score

1 Shanghai, China 570
2  Hong Kong, China 545
3  Singapore 542
4  Japan 538
5  South Korea 536
6  Finland 524
7=  Taiwan 523
7=  Canada 523
7=  Ireland 523
10  Poland 518
11=  Liechtenstein 516
11=  Estonia 516
13=  Australia 512
13=  New Zealand 512
15  Netherlands 511
16=  Macau, China 509
16=   Switzerland 509
16=  Belgium 509
19=  Germany 508
19=  Vietnam 508
21  France 505
22  Norway 504
23  United Kingdom 499
24  United States 498
25  Denmark 496
26  Czech Republic 493
27=  Austria 490
27=  Italy 490
29  Latvia 489
30=  Luxembourg 488
30=  Portugal 488
30=  Spain 488
30=  Hungary 488
34  Israel 486
35  Croatia 485
36=  Iceland 483
36=  Sweden 483
38  Slovenia 481
39=  Lithuania 477
39=  Greece 477
41=  Russia 475
41=  Turkey 475
43  Slovakia 463
44  Cyprus 449
45  Serbia 446
46  United Arab Emirates 442
47=  Thailand 441
47=  Chile 441
47=  Costa Rica 441
50  Romania 438
51  Bulgaria 436
52  Mexico 424
53  Montenegro 422
54  Uruguay 411
55  Brazil 410
56  Tunisia 404
57  Colombia 403
58  Jordan 399
59  Malaysia 398
60=  Argentina 396
60=  Indonesia 396
62  Albania 394
63  Kazakhstan 393
64  Qatar 388
65  Peru 327


The press reports on PISA going back to its origins in 2000, and more recently, have stirred up considerable debate about how our school systems should be changed in light of what many folks think has been a lukewarm performance by U.S. 15-year olds.

Regardless of what our ranking is among nations, we should be asking ourselves: do we want our children to achieve a use-able level of reading literacy in the four situations we know reading is vital for ─ to read for private use; to read documents for public uses; to read for work/occupational uses; and to read for education uses?

I’m a fan of thinking globally when it comes to assessing the real-life reading literacy skills of our students. I can hear my former Superintendent of Schools calling for us to teach reading from the Yellow Pages ─ he understood decades ago that reading was indeed a skill our students would need to apply in multiple situations.


[1] OECD, 2009:

[2] The U.S. rendition of their name is, The Program for International Student Assessment.