The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently announced the first-ever Early Reading First (ERF) grants to support local efforts to improve the language and pre-reading skills of young children. The 30 ERF grants—totaling more than $72 million and going to organizations in 22 states—are authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Among the 30 grant recipients, speech-language pathologists in Arizona, Missouri, and New Mexico were awarded a total of $5.7 million in funding for early reading programs.
The ERF grants are funded by the ED for up to three years, and the projects incorporate strategies, curricula, materials, and professional development for teachers to prepare young children to enter kindergarten with the necessary language, cognitive, and early reading skills.
Early Reading First is President Bush's initiative to transform existing early education programs into centers of excellence that provide high-quality early education to young children. It enhances reading readiness for preschool children in high-poverty areas and where there are high numbers of students who are not reading at grade level.
Recognizing the role of SLPs in reading and literacy, the ED's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education—the agency administering Early Reading First—and ASHA have forged a strong collaboration on the ERF grant program. ASHA members served on the program's advisory panel that helped to set up the grant criteria and also served as grant reviewers.
The 2002 ERF grant competition consisted of two phases, in which almost 800 organizations submitted preliminary proposals, and 250 organizations were invited to submit full applications.
A Proven Model
The curriculum for the Emerging Language and Literacy classroom at the Children's Therapeutic Learning Center (TLC) in Kansas City, MO, was recommended to the ED by ASHA as one of six potential ERF models. The classroom was launched in 1999 to meet the needs of children ages 3–5 with language disabilities who were at risk for reading difficulties. Data collected demonstrated significant gains in language and early literacy for both the children with language impairment and peers in the classroom.
"Although the initial focus was on children with language impairment, it became clear that the curriculum was of great benefit to at-risk children," said Shirley Patterson, an SLP who developed the ERF grant upon retirement after serving as the TLC executive director.
The $2.6 million ERF grant will help the TLC expand its reach to other preschools in Kansas City. As part of the grant, an advisory council will keep project staff abreast of current research, and a professional development team will create training modules for teaching staff.
SLPs will play a key role at every level in the project, Patterson noted. At each preschool, an SLP will participate in each classroom through demonstrating speech/language facilitation techniques, conducting phonological awareness groups, and identifying children at risk.
The goal for the project is to help children develop the language skills needed for kindergarten, Patterson said. "Early childhood is a critical time for children to get prepared with pre-reading skills so they can succeed in school. Waiting until children fail and then providing intervention is no longer acceptable."
Partnerships for Success
The University of New Mexico's (UNM) Center for Family and Community Partnerships was awarded a $2.3 million ERF grant for Project LEER—Spanish for "to read"—which is an acronym for Learners Eager for Early Reading. The project was developed by Carol Westby, an SLP and senior research scientist, along with Polly Turner, director of the Family and Community Partnerships, and Mary Dudley, director of the UNM Family Development Program.
Project LEER is a partnership between the Albuquerque Public School's Even Start and Child Find Programs; child care and preschool classrooms operated by the city of Albuquerque; and Baby Amigo, a home-visiting project of the UNM Family Development Program.
SLPs will serve as the project director, mentors, and graduate student assistants. Teachers and teaching assistants will use instructional strategies designed to facilitate children's development of oral language, vocabulary, print awareness, phonological sensitivity, and alphabet/letter knowledge. The project also includes a family component to improve parents' literacy skills while engaging them in improving their children's skills.
Program staff will participate in intensive summer institutes during 2003 and 2004 led by national literacy experts from Rutgers University.
Expanding Preschool Opportunities
The Santa Cruz (AZ) Unified School District #35, a rural district 12 miles north of the Mexican border, will use its $782,000 ERF grant to expand preschool opportunities for students at risk of entering third grade without reading skills. The district currently serves about 80 students, and the ERF grant will provide the opportunity for another 80 students to develop skills for reading proficiency.
"Our community was in great need of these opportunities. We have a high percentage of low income as well as English-language learners," said SLP Kristine Cleary Fontes, the project director. The school population is predominately Hispanic (86%), with approximately 66% being second-language learners. "Many of our kindergarten students enter school for the first-time with limitations in vocabulary and verbal-reasoning skills in any language."
In partnership with a Head Start program, the project will adopt a research-proven curriculum targeting oral language and cognitive and early reading skills. "Speech-language pathologists will play a strong role in contributing to the professional development phase of the grant," Fontes said.
For more on the grants and the 2003 competition, visit www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2003/01/01232003.html , or contact Catherine D. Clarke by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 800-498-2071, ext. 4159.