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Utah’s early literacy program works–here’s why

Latest evaluation of statewide early literacy program shows high correlation with kindergarten readiness compared to control group

A statewide kindergarten readiness initiative in Utah is helping children develop early literacy skills before they enter kindergarten, and is doing so at a higher rate than among children who are not in the program.

The state’s UPSTART program, developed by the nonprofit Waterford Institute, uses an early literacy curriculum delivered digitally in the home.

A report analyzing the program’s fifth year suggests that technology has considerable merit for delivering curriculum, teaching critical early reading skills that are known predictors of later school performance, and closing early learning gaps that disproportionately affect disadvantaged children.

According to the report, when compared to similar nonparticipants, UPSTART produced:

  • Large effects in helping children learn how to read basic vocabulary words found in pre-primer reading programs.
  • An average of nearly 12 points higher on tests measuring children’s ability to hear and see differences in words and in the letters of the alphabet, as measured by the Brigance assessment.
  • An average of six points higher in learning how to pronounce letter sounds, learning how to tell the difference between letter sounds and in developing their vocabulary, as measured by the Bader assessment (Brigance Inventory of Early Development. Bader Reading and Language Assessment.).

This evaluation of Utah’s UPSTART program is based on the 2013-2014 school year and closely resembles results shown from previous years that UPSTART prepares children to enter kindergarten at or above grade level. Previous evaluations found UPSTART children had early literacy learning rates on two well-known reading assessments two to three times higher than children in a control group.

Most of this year’s program participants (74 percent) received a computer drive with the UPSTART curriculum loaded on it. About 8 percent received a computer loan and a free internet subscription to help them access the UPSTART curriculum. Another 7 percent were loaned a personal computer to use at home while participating in UPSTART.

The report was released by Evaluation and Training Institute, the external evaluator hired by the Utah State Office of Education to assess the program’s effectiveness.

“We’re extremely pleased with UPSTART’s Year 5 results and grateful for the opportunity to continue preparing many of Utah’s early learners for kindergarten,” said Benjamin Heuston, president of Waterford Institute. “Closing learning gaps early is crucial for a child’s development and for their future success both academically and as adults.”

The Waterford Institute launched UPSTART in 2009 in partnership with the Utah State Legislature to develop the school readiness skills of preschool-aged children. The legislature has expanded the program several times, and it is now in its seventh year and is serving more than 6,600 children or 16.5 percent of Utah’s four-year-olds.

“UPSTART has been a great program and has been a very beneficial option for many families in our state,” said Utah State Senator J. Stuart Adams. “Those children go on to perform at significantly higher levels on their pre-kindergarten assessments and avoid the remedial work necessary to get the children on track when they do enter kindergarten the next year. From the State’s point of view and the participating parents’ viewpoint, UPSTART is a classic win-win.”

UPSTART is designed to work in the home. Each family has an assigned learning coach to support the child’s progress, and support is offered in English and Spanish. UPSTART’s Parent Manager lets parents monitor their child’s overall usage, progress and scores. Students use it for 15 minutes a day, five days a week.

This year, 1,577 preschool children were enrolled in UPSTART and participated from September 2013 through June 2014. A majority (70 percent) of the preschool children enrolled this year were from low-income families.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

Laura Ascione

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