Bite size

A new medium for early literacy tips: Texting

PHOTO: Logan Zabel

Amy Dusin sometimes takes advantage of the quiet time when she nurses her seven-month-old son Hunter to review the parenting tips she got via text message that week. They remind her to play peekaboo with her baby or describe facial expressions to him when they look in the mirror together.

Dusin, who works part time as a convenience store manager in Greeley, said the texts provide nice reminders about learning activities.

After one recent text, she thought to herself, “Oh man, I really haven’t been playing peekaboo with him, I have to step my game up.”

The weekly text messages come from Bright by Three—formerly Colorado Bright Beginnings– a Denver-based non-profit that provides language and literacy resources to parents of children ages 0-3. The BrightByText initiative, which launched November 10, is part of the organization’s effort to bring a new level of technological sophistication to its 20-year-old program. So far, 285 parents or caregivers have enrolled in BrightByText.

What’s in a name Change?
    Colorado Bright Beginnings changed its name to Bright by Three in November to avoid conflicts with an organization that holds a federal trademark on the Bright Beginnings name. Katharine Brenton, Bright by Three’s director of strategic initiatives, said that organization has been known to send cease and desist letters to other groups with the Bright Beginnings name. “It was just out of an abundance of caution,” she said.

“I think that we are the only ones in the state doing this,” said Katharine Brenton, director of strategic initiatives for Bright by Three. “I think it could be really big for us.”

While advice from a cell phone may not have the warm, fuzzy factor of a one-on-one conversation, there’s evidence it works. Studies of text-messaging interventions—with goals ranging from college matriculation to boosting early reading skills, suggest that the practice can help break down complex tasks into manageable bite-sized steps.

A study released in November found that a text messaging program with advice for parents on building early literacy skills increased the number of home literacy activities parents did with their children, upped parental involvement at school, and led to literacy gains among preschoolers.

“We were pleased that our program worked,” said Benjamin N. York, one of the study’s authors. “We’re a little bit surprised that it worked as well as it did.”

BrightByText 

  • What: A weekly text messaging program that provides tips to parents of young children.
  • Open to: Colorado parents and caregivers of children 0-3 years old
  • Sign up: Text “BRIGHT” to 444999

While that study focused on parents of four-year-olds, not parents of younger children as BrightByText does, York believes text messaging interventions are broadly applicable, and if developed carefully can impact families with children of all ages.

“Texting is really fertile ground to communicate with parents,” he said.

Dusin has already recommended the program to a friend who recently gave birth.

“I think it’s a good tool for parents who are interested in helping give their children the best kind of head start,” she said. “If you want it, you use it. If not, you just ignore the text.”

Updating the model

Throughout its two-decade existence, Bright by Three has relied on direct contact with parents, distributing kits containing books and learning games at annual doctor visits or through home visits by community volunteers. Last year, about 24,000 parents were served this way.

Examples of text messages sent to parents through the BrightByText program.
Examples of text messages sent to parents through the BrightByText program.

The intervention is relatively cheap—about $165 per child over three years—but also low-intensity. At most, parents receive about an hour’s worth of in-person advice each year for three years.

From now on, BrightByText will be a component of the traditional visit-based program as well as a stand-alone offering available to any interested parent. Bright by Three leaders hope to sign up 3,000 stand-alone subscribers in 2015. The weekly texts, which are tailored to the child’s age in months, will allow the organization to “up the dosage” of its positive parenting messages, said Brenton.

It helps that ninety percent of adult Americans own cell phones and 58 percent own smartphones, according to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center. The numbers remain surprisingly high for low-income families, with 84 percent of adults with household incomes under $30,000 owning cell phones.

For recipients, text messages are just plain convenient—available at all hours on a device many people keep within arm’s reach.

Dusin, who participates in Bright by Three’s traditional home visiting program as well as BrightByText, said, “I wouldn’t say that the visit is inconvenient, but I had to have someone come to my house and she was there for an hour….With the text, I can read it when I have time.”

She said some texts affirm things she’s already doing with Hunter, but others suggest activities she never thought about. One recent message encouraged parents to help children understand that storybook pictures represent real things.

She started using the concept while reading, “Where is Baby’s Belly Button?” a lift-the-flap book about parts of the body.

“I’ll compare the pictures that we’re reading about to him,” she said. “I’ll grab his feet and say, ‘These are your feet’…I know he doesn’t get it yet, but the more you do with him, the more you interact…the better it is down the road.”

Careful crafting

Firing off text message tips sounds fairly simple, but experts caution that such programs must be developed thoughtfully.

York, who’s planning further research on texting interventions, said his team put lots of time into developing and sequencing the content, and determining the thrice-weekly dosage.

“One of our concerns to be quite candid…is that organizations will just start texting parents in a more casual way not having gone through a process like we went through,” he said. “The devil is in the details.”

While text messaging programs for parents are not exactly common, one national program is Text4Baby, sponsored by the Johnson & Johnson company. The focus however is mostly on health topics, not early learning.

In the case of BrightByText, messages are based on the well-respected “LearningGames: The Abecedarian Curriculum,” which is also used for Bright by Three’s printed parent kits. In addition to one- or two-sentence tips about singing, playing or reading with children, each text includes links to “landing pages” that provide more information about each activity.

Bright by Three officials hope to offer Spanish-language texts sometime this spring, and eventually links to 100 videos modeling the activities and resources such as local library story times. All that development will be resource-intensive at first, but once everything’s in place it’ll cost almost nothing to run, said Brenton.

She said the organization’s robust in-house data system will help determine whether text message outreach is making a difference.

“Over the last couple years, we’ve made database to measure every single interaction and engagement we have with parents…a system capable of looking at what moves the needle.”

 

3-K for All

New York City’s 3-K For All preschool program starts this fall. Here are five things we know so far

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

When classes begin this fall, some schools will welcome their youngest students ever.

New York City is starting to make good on a pledge to provide free, full-day pre-K to children who are 3 years old, an effort announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio this spring. Dubbed 3-K for All, the initiative is an expansion of the city’s popular Pre-K for All program, which now serves 70,000 4-year-olds across the city. While the effort for younger students is starting in just two school districts, the city plans to offer it citywide by 2021.

The initial application period for 3-K wrapped up last week. There are still many questions about the city’s plan — including whether state and federal officials will help pay the more than $1 billion price tag required to make 3-K universal. But here are five things we already know about the city’s pilot program.

It’s starting small.

Compared with the breakneck roll-out of Pre-K for All, the education department is moving more slowly this time around. The initiative is starting with an expansion in two high-need school districts: District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23, which covers East New York, Brownsville and Ocean Hill. There are about 650 new seats available across 28 different sites in those districts, and more could be added by the time the school year starts.

Those will build on 11,000 slots that already exist for 3-year-olds across the city. The previously existing seats are offered through the Administration for Children’s Services, which administers child care programs for low-income families.

The education department has begun offering training and services to those programs — and will take official responsibility for ACS programs starting next summer — in an attempt to streamline early education systems and ensure quality across the board.

“It really is a comprehensive effort,” said Josh Wallack, the deputy chancellor in charge of early education at the city’s education department. “They’re going to be part of the same unified system.

City officials expect to have enough room for all children in the pilot districts by fall 2018. To make the program truly universal across all school districts, New York City wants to raise funding to serve 62,000 children by 2021.

Charter schools aren’t participating — because they can’t.

Charter schools aren’t permitted by state law to provide pre-K to 3-year-olds, according to the New York City Charter School Center. For now, the city is relying on community organizations, district schools and district-run pre-K centers to serve students.

Charter schools have been slow to join the city’s pre-K program for four-year-olds, though at least 14 charter schools now participate.

When Pre-K For All launched, the city’s largest charter chain, Success Academy, refused to sign the city’s required contract, arguing the city could not legally regulate charters.

Success Academy took the issue to the state, and after earlier defeats, an appeals court in June sided with the charter operator. Now it’s up to the state education commissioner to decide how to move forward on the matter.

What about quality?

The city’s pre-K efforts are often praised for focusing on access without compromising quality. Teacher training is an integral part of the program and the city also evaluates centers based on factors such as teachers’ interactions with students and the physical classroom.

About a third of the 28 new sites participating in 3-K do not yet have ratings. Of those sites that do have ratings, about 67 percent earned a score of “good.” Only one — the city-run Learning Through Play Center on Union Avenue in the Bronx — scored “excellent.” Likewise, only one center — Sunshine Day Care in the Bronx — earned a rating of “poor.”

Those reviews are based on existing programs for 4-year-olds. Lydie Raschka, who reviews pre-K centers for the website InsideSchools, said the best way to judge a program is by seeing it for yourself.

“Most of all, trust your instincts. There is nothing better than a visit,” she wrote in a recent post.

Immigration status doesn’t matter.

Some child care programs run through ACS have restrictions based on a child’s immigration status because of federal funding rules. That will not be the case for the new 3-K for All seats — nor is it with Pre-K For All — and the city is providing information in more than 200 languages.

The only requirements for 3-K are that families live in New York City and children were born in 2014.

Options are limited for families looking for accessible buildings or English language support.

Most of the new sites do not appear to be accessible to students who have physical disabilities and who may, for example, require a wheelchair to get around. Of those programs with accessibility information readily available, about a quarter of the centers — about 150 seats out of the 650 in total — are located in buildings that are at least partially accessible.

Even fewer seats are available in programs that provide language support. Only two of the new sites provide “dual language” or “enhanced language” programs, and both are in Spanish. Those sites represent fewer than 10 percent of the new 3-K slots available, though many of the previously existing programs offer language support.

About 17 percent of all students in District 7 are English learners, but only 5 percent in District 23 are, according to city data. It’s estimated that 30 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in New York State are dual language learners, according to a 2016 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“We’re going to be talking to families as we go to make sure they have the services they need to make this a successful year,” Wallack said.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct title for Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack. 

building blocks

Why a Colorado researcher believes preschool students should learn — and play — with math

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

What do preschoolers need math for? Doug Clements argues preschoolers use math everywhere from reading to play — and engaging early mathematics instruction can help better prepare young students for later learning.

Clements, the executive director of the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, has spent nearly his entire career studying and advocating for introducing math concepts in early childhood education. He and his wife Julie Sarama, Marsico’s co-executive director, developed preschool lessons and tests for teaching mathematics to early learners. Their hallmark program, Building Blocks, has taken hold in cities such as Boston and Buffalo, N.Y., where both Clements and Sarama have conducted research.

Clements took the helm at Marsico in 2013, where he and Sarama have worked on a new iteration of their math-focused early childhood curriculum that incorporates literacy, social-emotional learning and science.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Clements shared memories from the classroom and the benefits — and fun — of teaching math concepts to preschoolers. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you become fascinated with early math education?

I served as a graduate assistant to a math (education) professor because I liked math as a student myself. We drove a big van around with 1960s curriculum from National Science Foundation and showed teachers this stuff.

When I started teaching kindergarten I was very sensitive to the fact that I wanted to do mathematics better, so I was always casting about for curriculum or ideas to teach mathematics. I was just skeptical these kids could do it, so I was hesitant many times to ask them to do these kinds of things. But lo and behold, they took to it. It surprised me. If you talk to (kids) about their strategies and what they’re thinking about the mathematics, it just reveals so much more competence than you’d normally think that really young kids had.

I just became more and more interested in pushing the  envelope of these kind of abilities kids had mathematically. Teachers often will say, “I got into preschool so I didn’t have to teach mathematics.” And instead we tell them, “We don’t want you to give kids the kind of experiences that led you to dislike mathematics.”

Do you have a specific examples or story of a time where you saw the benefits of early math instruction in action?

We were reading a book and the (students) noticed the hexagons in a beehive, and they came up with all these different reasons that bees would make hexagons. The kids had a delightful time thinking of different reasons. For example, one of the reasons was the bees saw the hexagons in the school and thought, “That’s a great shape. We should use that in our beehive.” And this boy happened to say, “I think they chose hexagons because they fit together real well.”

The kind of natural interest and competence they have in mathematics — if given the opportunities, the interactions with the teachers, the intentional teaching that the teacher does — leads to spontaneous use of mathematics throughout their lives.

We know from research kids who come from lower-resource communities don’t have a heck of a lot of those experiences so it’s really important that those schools we are working with, with kids with huge percentages of free and reduced lunch. All kids need better and more mathematics. It’s especially important for equity reasons, for those kids who have fewer resources in their homes and communities, to be able to go to a preschool where their kind of fire of interest in mathematics is provided by the teacher and the curriculum.

What are some of the key findings you have drawn from your research on the link between early math and early literacy?

Doing math with kids actually helps them build the ability to learn and use new vocabulary words even if those vocabulary words were not mathematical in content. They have to dig down deep to explain their own thinking and that really helped them build more complex grammatical structures, and that’s an outcome of the mathematics. And then they were more able to answer inferential questions.

Well-done mathematics doesn’t just teach mathematics, it’s cognitively fundamental and helps kids learn a variety of abilities.

How are these concepts integrated in the classroom?

What’s most effective is to combine methodologies. We don’t just do whole group, we don’t just do small group, we don’t just do learning centers, we don’t just do computer — we do all four of those. We keep it short, interesting. So, for example, kids will stomp around classroom marching and (counting alternately quietly and loudly).

What does it do? It builds, of course, the verbal counting strength. But look at what else — it builds the knowledge of one-to-one correspondence because they’re stamping per each count. Not only that, it builds intuition about pattern because we’re saying one quietly, two loudly. And then lastly they’re building intuition about even and odd numbers, because all the odd numbers are said quietly, all the even numbers are said loudly.

So you don’t have to do, sit down, look at the paper, write the number two, to be doing fundamentally interesting mathematics.

How many preschools are actually integrating early math concepts into their programs the way you think it should be done? Is there anything holding back programs from doing so?

Most people understand that the goal of literacy is to be able to read and write and think, but often people think the goal of math is to be able to compute accurately. That’s such a limited view of mathematical thinking writ large. So we have a lot of work to do to change people’s conception of mathematics as well as their skills in understanding the math, understanding the kid’s thinking and understanding how to teach to develop that kid’s thinking.

But it is coming along — there is more general knowledge and awareness at least, interest in it, and — this is important in early childhood the youngest years, the preschool years — less resistance to doing mathematics (because of the perception) that it’s developmentally inappropriate which it’s not. But still, in some circles (they say), “Kids should play, kids should be kids. Why would they do math? That should wait until later. Math is just school, boring stuff, and kids should be kids and play.”