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Getting an Early Start

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At Para Los Ninos Child Care Center, staff and volunteers strive to teach youngsters far more than how to avoid fights and stack blocks.

The center, nestled in downtown Los Angeles’ garment district, wants its 4-year-olds to be prepared to read when they enter the next pressure-packed level: kindergarten.

“It’s so important to introduce the children to reading early on,” said Kate Ra, a teacher at the center. “It helps them learn how to share different ideas and see that books can be fun.”

For more than a year, the center has been assisted by a USC professor and graduate students who created the Emergent Literacy Project. Professor David Yaden, who oversees the program, received a five-year, $250,000 federal grant to measure reading preparation skills among preschoolers.

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The project this year includes nearly 50 children who will be monitored throughout the grant period. By the end of the five years, the project is expected to involve about 250 youngsters.

With Yaden’s help, the center has worked to raise the children’s literacy and to help the day care teachers incorporate more reading into their activities.

The USC group created a 500-book library, donated a writing center and dedicated scores of hours to read to the children and help teachers adapt their lessons.

The effort is among those generally recommended by educators eager to encourage reading at early ages. Several early literacy researchers said they were aware of only a few similar projects--in the East and Midwest.

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“I’m really glad to know somebody’s bringing these practices out here,” said Betsy Hiteshew, president of the California Assn. for the Education of Young Children, an organization of more than 10,000 early childhood educators. “It’s such a great and relatively simple concept, but many centers treating families at greatest risk don’t even have [such programs].”

California has consistently been ranked among the country’s top 10 states for child care quality. But a 1995 University of Colorado study found that only one in seven centers nationwide provided a level of quality that “promotes healthy development and learning.”

Para Los Ninos, like many of the other 7,000 licensed child care centers in Los Angeles County, receives most of the funding for its downtown location, about $770,000 for fiscal year 1998-99, from the state. The addition of the USC program allows for extras that other state-funded centers can’t provide, such as the library and writing center.

Yaden said USC students are expected to familiarize themselves with the conditions faced by families enrolled in the program. Many of the parents are immigrants struggling to learn English and a new culture while working long hours at low-wage jobs.

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When parents hesitated to check out books from the center’s library, some USC students learned that many were afraid of damaging the books and being fined. The USC group reassured them that they would not be penalized for lost books and bought plastic bags to carry them in. Now, eight months later, there are 68 families borrowing books.

Alma Hernandez, 32, said she doesn’t have time to go to the public library but checks out two books a week from the center to read with her daughter.

“It’s helped very much,” Hernandez said. “She already knows all the books she has at home.”

The USC group also organized a parent appreciation reception to affirm the merits of reading to the children.

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Since the program began, the researchers have changed their techniques for reading aloud, in part to address cultural differences.

Parents and teachers initially would read the story to themselves in English then tell it to the children in Spanish, said project director Camille Cubillas, one of the USC graduate students. But that way, the children never identified the written words; many simply thought the adults were describing the pictures.

“Traditionally, [Latinos] have a rich oral storytelling style,” Cubillas said. “That works when you’re telling a story, but it doesn’t necessarily work when you’re teaching reading.”

So the researchers taught teachers to point to the words while reading in English and brought in more “big books” with large text so more children could look at them and be read to together.

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Research on similar projects has produced promising results. Temple University professor Susan Neuman independently tested preschoolers in Philadelphia in a comparable program last year and found that their skills improved in four of six areas, most significantly in rhyming and alliteration.

Yaden found that last year’s Para Los Ninos children improved in book handling, or knowing which direction to flip pages and which way to follow the text. Several parents and instructors said more children are now voluntarily picking up books.

During a recent reading hour, the children gathered in clusters, with one playing teacher and two others looking on. At the writing center, children drew letters, modeling a teacher. It was a change from the usual playful drawings of suns and stick figures.

“A lot of the children didn’t know how to recognize their names,” said Ra, who teaches half the children in the program. “Now they’re writing them.”

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Four-year-old Bernard Hinson said reading is among his favorite activities at Para Los Ninos.

“I like to read about bears, because they’re scary,” he said recently while fumbling through a set of books. “They have teeth.”


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