Conference Coverage

Early literacy assessment tool shows promise for screening preschool children


AT PAS 2017

– The 10-item Early Literary Assessment Tool (ELSAT) used during regular pediatrician appointments in the first 4 years of life has shown promise in screening preschool children for delayed literacy skills that could result in later reading problems, based on a pilot study conducted in the preschool setting.

ELSAT “can be completed by a clinician [in the primary care setting] in less than a minute and can be incorporated into the Reach Out and Read intervention. An important next step in our research is to study the feasibility of the ELSAT within primary care visits and obtain feedback from clinicians about the ease of administration and value to their practice,” said Sai N. Iyer, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatric fellow at the University of California, San Diego.

Sai N. Iyer, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatric fellow at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine.

Dr. Sai N. Iyer

A “striking and surprising” finding was the marked difference in early literacy skills between children in a Head Start public preschool program and children from private schools. Public preschoolers had significantly poorer scores in the established language measurement tools than did their private preschool counterparts (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test: 98 vs. 116; Get Ready to Read–Revised: 91 vs. 107; Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing–2: 92 vs. 106; all P less than .01).

The initial 40-item ELSAT addressed three key domains of early literacy skills: knowledge and awareness of printed words, knowledge of letters, and recognition of word sounds. The observational study had two phases. ELSAT was developed and refined in the pilot phase, with validation against three aforementioned reference measures in the validation phase. The process whittled the test down to 10 items, with the same three domains represented. Comparisons were between the individual measures and a composite of the three.

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The study involved children aged 4.5-years-old in five public preschools in the Head Start program administered by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (n = 61) and two private preschools (n = 35) in San Diego. Differences between the public and private settings included race (white, 25% vs. 68%), ethnicity (Hispanic/Latino, 41% vs. 7%), and use of languages other than English in the home (32% vs. 20%).

The 10-item ELSAT correlated with each of the reference measures and with the composite of the three measures of early literacy (Pearson’s correlation, 810; P less than .01; Cronbach’s alpha [a measure of internal consistency] of .852). A cut-off ELSAT score of less than or equal to 5 predicted a “below average” score in any of the three reference measures and identified delayed literacy with a sensitivity of 92% and an acceptable specificity of 64%, Dr. Iyer explained during her presentation at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting.

Language skills acquired during the first few years of life in the home and preschool settings lay the path for the development of more sophisticated reading skills, including decoding and comprehension beginning in grade 1. “Research has shown that about 40% of children enter kindergarten behind their peers in important early literacy skills. This gap widens with time, and the cost of catching them up far exceeds the cost of screening and early intervention. Many studies have demonstrated that effective early interventions improve the long-term outcomes for children who are at risk for later reading failure. Children who are reading at a below grade level by 4th grade are unlikely to catch up. Low levels of literacy have an impact on later educational and employment opportunities and set up a cycle of social and economic disadvantage that can have transgenerational effects,” Dr. Iyer said.

While parent-completed questionnaires are a convenient way to perform developmental screening, they are limited by the health literacy of the parents and other factors. Furthermore, while some preschools perform assessments, not all children attend preschools. This prompted Dr. Iyer and colleagues to think about developing a more objective screening strategy, with which a clinician could do the brief assessment. “All preschool children do see their pediatrician/primary care provider for vaccinations that are required before kindergarten. This makes the primary care setting an ideal opportunity to screen these children,” said Dr. Iyer.

During the question-and-answer session, an attendee described the data concerning the dichotomy in the test results between the public and private preschools as “some of the most impressive and depressing I’ve seen in this area.”

In a later interview, Dr. Iyer commented that, while the results in the study were not entirely new or surprising, “it was remarkable that we were able to demonstrate such significant differences in a sample of children enrolled in a high-quality preschool. Without specific screening and intervention, these early literacy delays would go unrecognized and increase the risk of poor academic outcomes for these high-risk children. The children were all in some type of preschool environment. Throughout the country, there are many children from low-income families who are not able to access preschool education. Although we did not test these children in our study, it is likely that the gaps between these children and their more advantaged peers are even higher. The pediatrician’s office may be the only place for these children to receive early literacy screening and anticipatory guidance on reading readiness.”

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