For instance, in a study published last year, University of Texas psychologist Elliot Tucker-Drob assessed a number of different characteristics in a group of more than 600 pairs of twins.
A hell of a lot of math later, Tucker-Drob reported that the home environments of children who do not attend preschool have a much larger influence on kindergarten academic ability than do the home environments of preschoolers. This is not to say that parents who have money can do anything they want and their kids will be fine.
So if preschool doesn’t really matter for advantaged kids, then the type of preschool matters even less.
Some new research does suggest that certain Montessori schools could provide an academic edge over conventional preschools, even among advantaged children. When Lillard compared the test scores of children from advantaged families who spent a school year in conventional preschools with those who spent a year in the two types of Montessori schools, she found that children in the classical Montessori programs fared much better than both the other groups. Preschoolers and kindergartners thrive in environments in which teachers engage in frequent conversations about topics that interest children.
Look for environments in which children and teachers talk together about new words and ideas.
Ideal preschools and kindergartens offer at least one daily read-aloud time in which the teacher not only reads to children, but also encourages response and discussion about the book. Phonemic awareness, or the ability to hear fine distinctions between sounds, blend sounds together to form words, and break words into individual sounds, is essential for learning to read. Quality preschool and kindergarten classrooms weave letters into a wide variety of activities, including reading Big Books (very large size, large print books designed for group reading), doing ABC coloring pages, making cookies with letter cookie cutters and doing ABC puzzles.
For preschoolers and kindergartners, picture storybooks and colorful informational books on topics that interest children, such as animals, transportation and dinosaurs, are a must. Ideal classrooms for preschoolers and kindergartners provide children with many, many opportunities to write throughout the day. All children should have the opportunity to see books with characters who look and speak like them.
Part of the problem is self-selection: Compared with kids who skip preschool, kids who attend usually have more well-to-do, encouraging parents who read and do puzzles with them at home.


But research suggests that parents who are financially comfortable tend to devote more resources and time to their kids, in part because they can. Research suggests that preschool only benefits children from these disadvantaged families (in particular, families that are below the poverty line, whose mothers are uneducated, or who are racial minorities). Research on Montessori is overall a mixed bag—some research suggests kids do better in them, while other research suggests the opposite. At the end of the school year, they exhibited better working memory, planning, reading, and vocabulary skills, and they displayed a better understanding of fairness and willingness to share. In addition, they are learning about letters and the printed word, so they benefit from lots of exposure to letters and print as well as many opportunities to write each day.
Environments in which teachers listen to children and ask them questions are best for language development. Many teachers even provide art activities or projects that extend children’s understanding of a book after reading it together. Quality preschool and kindergarten programs build in a variety of activities that promote phonemic awareness, from rhyming games to sorting objects beginning with the same sounds, to reading books involving language play. For example, knowing that print goes from left to right, that one spoken word corresponds to one written word, and that we use periods and other marks of punctuation to separate sentences are important concepts for young children to understand. Make sure that your child will see evidence of her background in the classroom, either through diversity of teachers and students, or through books and other materials.
Look for environments in which teachers have ways of communicating with parents regularly, such as newsletters or notes about children’s days. Children who don’t go to preschool are usually from more disadvantaged families, which means they watch lots of TV and are yelled at more than they are praised, which some researchers believe can stunt cognitive development. In work they conducted at the University of Kansas and chronicled in their book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Betty Hart and Todd Risley recorded, for two-and-a-half years, a full hour of conversation every day between parents and children from 42 American families of differing social classes.
Because he was comparing what happened to identical twins, who share all of their genes, and fraternal twins, who on average share half (yet both sets typically grow up together), Tucker-Drob could home in on the effects of environment and genetics on the kids’ outcomes. So last year, Angeline Lillard, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia, conducted a study to try to tease out the truth.


Past studies of Montessori programs have not distinguished between classical and supplemented approaches, which could explain why results from them have been so mixed. Consider these 10 simple tips for finding or evaluating an environment that will foster your young child or kindergartner’s language and literacy development. These concepts can be taught through reading Big Books together and talking explicitly about the way print works. Books should be placed so that children can get them easily and sorted by level, genre or topic so that children can begin to practice selecting appropriate books themselves. They can also draw pictures and write labels, make lists, write stories, use writing in pretend play, and write cards and letters. Some schools even offer evening workshops or have lending libraries of parenting resources. Children with professional parents heard about 30 million words by the time they turned 3, compared with 20 million in working-class families and 10 million in welfare families. Eventually, my husband was invited inside, where he handed a stranger an application and a check for $50 and promptly left.
In addition, the ratio of parental encouragements to reprimands was about 6-to-1 among professional families, 2-to-1 among the working class and 1-to-2 in welfare homes.
The classical approach strictly abides by the founder’s rules, only allowing certain types of materials in the classroom and grouping kids of different ages together. Instead, take to heart the blunt, reassuring words of social psychologist Richard Nisbett, co-director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan.
These different experiences closely tracked with the children’s later academic and intellectual performance, and other studies have since supported these findings.
Supplemented Montessori, which is far more common in the United States, typically separates children according to age and augments traditional tool-based Montessori learning with activities like pretend play and direct instruction.



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