October 1, 2008

VCU Literary Institute Wins $4.5 Million Grant / 235-Plus Richmond Children Ages 3 to 5 to Be in New Program

When he was chairman of the Richmond School Board, Mark Emblidge visited kindergarten classrooms and heard teachers express a common concern over and over again, he recalled. The teachers could predict which children would have trouble learning to read by the skills they lacked when they started kindergarten.

Now director of the Literacy Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University, Emblidge is working with Christopher E. Chin on a project to make sure children learn those skills before they get to kindergarten.

The institute this month won a $4.49 million Early Reading First grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The award was among more than $106 million in federal grants to improve the language and early literacy skills of low-income children.

VCU is the only Virginia recipient of an Early Reading First grant, and this is the third it has received in the past four years.

The three grants totaling $12.3 million are being used for programs that help make sure children are "primed and ready for formal reading instruction," said Chin, the institute's assistant director for research.

More than 235 Richmond children ages 3 to 5 will be served at five Head Start sites in the new three-year project called SEELLS - Supporting and Ensuring Early Language and Literacy Success.

Chin will lead the project. Evelyn Reed-Victor, an associate professor in the VCU School of Education, and Emblidge will serve as co-principal investigators.

The institute will work with the Richmond school system to provide training workshops and classroom coaching for Head Start teachers. Training sessions also will be held for kindergarten and pre-K teachers so that they can work together in transitional five- week summer programs for the children.

Chin said the techniques are based on research on cognitive development that shows certain precursor skills predict how well a child will learn to read.

These emergent literary skills include recognizing the alphabet and understanding the difference between a picture and a word, for example.

The SEELLS project also will work with children on auditory skills - the awareness that language has a sound structure and that a word as simple as "cat" can be broken into individual sounds.

"Intuitively, some of us were taught that," Emblidge said. But many parents are not able to help their children with early readiness skills such as sounding out words.

"Parents who have a hard time reading have children who follow in their footsteps," he said. "Illiteracy is an intergenerational problem."

Emblidge, who is also president of the state Board of Education, said the lessons learned through the SEELLS project will be shared statewide.

Over the course of the three grants from 2004 to 2011, institute programs will have reached 2,000 to 2,500 children, Chin said.

The programs also include parents, offering literacy-themed family activities and resources they can use at home.

Success has been measured by how the children fare on end-of- year benchmark testing. Passing rates have increased by up to 26 percent in targeted classrooms.

Emblidge said the program's success is the result of cooperation from Richmond school officials.

"We're laying one more thing on top of already very busy people," he said. "We're fortunate they understand the value of this."

That value lies in the long-term benefits that come from a quality pre-kindergarten program, Emblidge said.

"Reading is the foundation for all the subject areas," he said.

"If we get it right at the beginning, every teacher is not playing catch-up."

Contact Karin Kapsidelis at (804) 649-6119 or [email protected]


Originally published by KAPSIDELIS; Times-Dispatch Staff Writer.

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