One alphabet letter at a time, Head Start is doing a better job of helping low-income children get ready for school--by placing a stronger emphasis on building the foundations of reading--psychologists and other researchers said at the Head Start Research Conference held in Washington, D.C., in June.

Presenters showcased preliminary findings from several studies tracking the progress of children enrolled in Head Start, a preschool-based program for 3- and 4-year-olds, and Early Head Start, a home visit- and center-based program for children birth to age 3 and their families.

Encouraging findings from the studies fly in the face of other researchers' claims that Head Start doesn't make a difference in helping poorer children catch up in the first few years of school. Instead, the studies' findings suggest that the federally funded preschool program better prepares children to start reading.

Those studies include the:

  • Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES). The survey is tracking the progress of children from the time they enrolled in Head Start at ages 3 and 4 in 1997, 2000 and 2003 through kindergarten, with a new group of children slated to be tracked when they enter Head Start later this year.

In 1997, the survey found that most of the children in the study group knew seven letters of the alphabet by the end of the year. By 2003, that had improved to 10 letters, said psychologist Nicholas Zill, PhD, of the research corporation Westat.

It might not sound like much of a difference, but, said Zill, Head Start teachers' greater emphasis on familiarizing children with the alphabet is paying off.

"Clearly, there has been some change in this area of letter knowledge, which is an important stepping-stone on the way to reading," he said.

The survey also found that teachers are spending more time on reading activities in Head Start classrooms, Zill said.

Despite those positive results, Zill said his personal interpretation of the survey's findings is that Head Start needs to do more to improve vocabulary and math knowledge, adding that knowledge in those areas did not improve across the study cohorts in the same way letter knowledge did from 1997 to 2003. Those improvements are needed to help Head Start children fully catch up with children from more privileged backgrounds, he said.

  • The Head Start Impact Study. Along with the FACES survey, Westat researcher Camilla Heid, EdD, discussed first-year findings from the Head Start Impact study, in which 3- and 4-year olds in the fall of 2002 were randomly assigned to Head Start or to a control group followed through first grade. Control group children could enroll in a non-Head Start program selected by their parents, or remain in parent care. The study found positive impacts on prewriting and prereading skills, and parents of children with access to Head Start were more likely to participate in "enrichment activities"--taking children to plays, concerts and museums, said Heid, adding that parents of children in Head Start read more often to their children than did parents of control group children.

But the study found no significant impact on oral comprehension, phonological awareness or early math skills, she said.

"Head Start is helping to bolster the school-readiness skills for children from low-income families, particularly in areas of letter and word identification, where children showed gains toward the national norm," she said.

The three-day biennial conference gave child development and educational psychology researchers a chance to discuss the latest research with Head Start administrators and teachers and talk about ways to apply it. Started as a federally funded program in 1965 by renowned Yale University psychologist Edward Zigler, PhD, Head Start has an enrollment of almost 907,000 children nationwide this school year.