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Preschoolers' Prep Courses Help Kids Get Ready For Kindergarten, Which Is Like First Grade Used to Be

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SYCAMORE, Ill. -- On a bright summer day, Hank Barnes settles into a chair across the table from his tutor, a pile of work between them and an hour's lesson ahead.

Hank is four years old, and among the worries that prompted his mother to enroll him for two lessons a week at the Sylvan Learning Center here is this: Hank was behind on his scissor skills.

As the academic pressure grows on the littlest learners -- to recognize their letters in preschool, to read in kindergarten -- so does the idea of toddler tutoring. After a two-year pilot program, Sylvan, owned by Educate Inc. in Baltimore, expects to have all 1,200 of its learning centers tutoring prekindergartners by winter.

Kaplan Inc.'s Score Educational Centers says that about one in five of its 80,000 students is between the ages of four and six. Kumon North America, owned by Japan's KIE Corp., which operates cram schools there, has a junior program that accepts children as young as two. Many of Kumon's parents are Asian immigrants who believe small children are more capable than Americans generally think.

Prices of these programs vary by company and region, but as a representative figure, Sylvan says its tutoring typically costs about $45 an hour.
[Sylvan Learning Center photo]
At Sylvan Learning Center in Sycamore, Ill., 5-year-old Brett Carson, who missed a month of kindergarten, catches up to be ready for first grade.

Sylvan and Kaplan (a unit of Washington Post Co.) say their young clients are about evenly split between those who need remedial help -- with letters, colors or numbers -- and those whose parents want them to get ahead. And many parents seem to be asking: Why not? "We pay for soccer, we pay for karate, we pay for basketball and piano, and we pay for reading," says Kertje Rubenstein, a New York City nurse, who enrolled her 4-year-old son, Evan, in Score last month.

Adrienne Chew, who enrolled her 5-year-old, Marcus, in math and reading lessons at a Score center in Wellesley, Mass., says: "I just want him to feel comfortable when he goes to kindergarten."

Being kindergarten-ready means more than it did even a decade ago. In the 1990s, states began drafting "learning standards" setting out expectations for their schools, including prekindergarten classes. At the same time, new brain research linked children's early exposure to language, books and music to their later success in school. And by levying embarrassing sanctions on schools failing to produce fluent readers by third grade, President Bush's No Child Left Behind program pushed districts to require more from younger pupils.

As a result, in many districts, skills once thought appropriate for first or second graders are being taught in kindergarten, while kindergarten skills have been bumped down to preschool. "It happened pretty much overnight," says Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates preschool education.

Getting the message, parents are less willing to wait for their children to catch up with the rest of the class. Better yet, they want them out ahead. Score customers are "educated about learning and concerned about making sure they help their child navigate school as best they can," says Score vice president Beth Hollenberg.

Sylvan's program uses flash cards, puzzles, workbooks, worksheets and pencils, and it seats youngsters at adult-size tables with a tutor and one or two other students for an hourlong session. The 4-page teaching plan for Lesson 13 in Sylvan's beginning-reading program, for example, includes a section that uses little toys to teach the idea behind the prepositions "over," "under" and "in."

Kaplan offers what it calls "paper- and pencil-based" tutoring at its 167 Score centers, as well as computer-based tutoring. Youngsters work through an online lesson while a "coach" answers their questions and reviews their work.

Those structured, directed lessons appall some early-learning experts, who believe that young children learn best through play and are being pressured to read before they understand the idea of letters as symbols of sounds. "This rote kind of stuff is disgusting," says David Elkind, a Tufts University professor of child development whose books lament that children no longer have time to play. "It's so against all we know is good for young children," he says, suggesting that parents and teachers wait until a child is six or seven before reading lessons.

But most researchers maintain that preschoolers aren't learning enough. About 70% of 4-year-olds are in group care, says Donna Bryant, a University of North Carolina child-development expert. "It's a wasted opportunity not to" teach them, she adds.

Amy Barnes, who is the mother of four-year-old Sylvan pupil Hank and who teaches high-school English here, is all for preschool tutoring. She "panicked" last winter, she says, when Hank's preschool teacher reported that he couldn't write his name, identify his letters, count to 30 or wield his scissors -- skills that the local school district tells parents it would like to see in incoming kindergartners.

"I feel we read all the time, but whatever I was doing at home wasn't working," says Ms. Barnes, who enrolled Hank for two reading lessons a week. Hank fell off his adult-size chair during an early lesson, she says.

On a recent afternoon, his bubbly enthusiasm flagged and he declared his hand "too tired" to go on. Tutor Monica Berryhill, a sixth-grade teacher, next had him sing the alphabet song.

Ms. Barnes, who is paying $4,000 for 10 months of tutoring, says that after six months, Hank is kindergarten-ready. "We're being proactive," she adds. "I don't want my child to be the one who always struggles."

Amanda Spence says that when she moved to Salt Lake City she worried that her daughter Annie's private preschool wasn't teaching reading, and that the public schools offered only half-day kindergarten. "We thought, 'Gosh, that's not enough for her,' " says Ms. Spence, who enrolled 5-year-old Annie in weekly Sylvan tutoring. "I'm not pushy," she insists, "but reading is such a critical skill."

Almost all researchers are critical of lessons that require children to sit at desks, complete worksheets or memorize words. They say hands-on learning and learning through play are the way to go -- for example, play-acting stories, singing rhymes, assembling puzzles.

Sylvan insists it does that. "We don't want to supplant childhood," which is why the company doesn't accept 3-year-olds, says Richard Bavaria, Sylvan's chief academic officer.

Sylvan says its curriculum is based on research by the National Reading Panel, a Bush administration favorite whose phonics-based recommendations underlie the $1.1 billion that the government will pump into public-school reading instruction this year. Sylvan's Lesson 13, for example, promotes "phonemic awareness" -- hearing the sounds that make up a word -- by having children separate compound words like beanbag and eyelid into their parts.

Sylvan says its students typically make a year's academic progress in 36 of its one-hour lessons.

Score says it relies on its own research to develop lesson plans and isn't releasing data on the learning progress of its four-, five- and six-year olds. But "if you don't have a product that delivers academic progress, you don't have a company," says Ms. Hollenberg.

At the Sylvan center in Sycamore, an hour's drive west of Chicago, only 50 students are enrolled this summer, but five of them are four- and five-year olds. Among them is 5-year-old Brett Carson, who contracted pneumonia and missed a month of kindergarten last winter.

Brett's teachers "weren't comfortable" sending him to first grade, says his mother, Amy Carson, and having Brett repeat kindergarten while his playmates advanced a grade "wouldn't have been in his best interests."

So on a recent day, Brett was on lesson 20, which includes blending letters to sound out simple words. Brett stumbled over "can." "You're saying the soft sound; can you say the hard sound for C?" asked Maria Spencer, his tutor. On the second try, he did just that.


— June Kronholz
Wall Street Journal





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