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Study Finds Extensive Variations In First-Grade Classrooms

May 13, 2002-- What type of learning environment best starts young pupils down the path of learning?

Educators in one of the largest studies ever to observe elementary school classroom instruction say teachers offer a wide range of possible answers to that question.

The researchers visited 827 first-grade classrooms in more than 32 states as part of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. At each stop, they spent three hours watching teachers start the day with their pupils.

The observers concluded that the extensive variety of experiences in classroom instruction suggests there is a lack of agreement about a proper first-grade program.

"The experiences offered to children in first-grade classrooms are so variable that they may not, across all classrooms, help address the wide-ranging needs of children," said Robert C. Pianta, William Clay Parrish Professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

"If there is a ‘typical’ first-grade classroom, then for most of the morning children are exposed to the teacher leading a large-group, literacy-related activity, and the social environment is fairly positive," he said.

Pianta was among about 30 researchers who participated in the study, which is published in the current issue of The Elementary School Journal. They observed wide variations in everything from emotional support to academic content.

"For example, during almost two hours some teachers were observed to be directly teaching an academic skill during only 10 percent of the observed minutes while others were teaching an academic skill during the majority of the period," Pianta said.

The report, the first in a series on the nature of children’s experiences in school and the influences on their development, was conducted as part of the institute’s Study of Early Child Care. The study follows 1,364 children in a comprehensive effort to determine how variations in child care are related to children’s development, including being ready for school. The study of first-grade classrooms attempted to look at the "other side of school readiness" — the nature of experiences children have in early elementary classrooms.

Generally, the researchers formed positive impressions about the classroom environments they observed.

"However, more than 15 percent of classrooms were rated as lacking in literacy instruction or positive emotional climate," Pianta said. "And more than 35 percent provide little instructional feedback to students during lessons."

Most often, activities were structured, directed by the teacher and involved whole-class instruction. The largest portion of time was spent on literacy-related activities.

The study also looked at student-teacher ratios, teachers’ experience and training, how teachers interacted with the children and the classroom environment.

"Children’s engagement in academic activities and positive behaviors with peers were higher, and negative behaviors with peers and teachers were lower, when classrooms provided more instructional support for learning and more emotional support," the report says.

The amount and degree of variation suggest a need for further research on how to improve the quality of children’s early schooling, Pianta said.

Contact: Lee Graves, (434) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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